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Area History

Recorded history begins in 1519, when Alonso Alvarez de Pineda sailed past the Isla Blanca (White Island) while charting the Gulf of Mexico for Spain. Pineda claims giants inhabited the coast, and may have been referring to the Karankawa Indians, a tall people as feisty as longhorn steers. The "Kronks", as they were nicknamed, wintered on the mainland and spent the summer on the island, living on fish and clams. Early stories portray them as cannibals who ate flesh of still-living victims or roasted their foes over campfire. This may be a myth, or cannibalism may have been a practice they learned from Spanish shipwreck victims who devoured their brethren in order to survive. We will never know since the Karankawas are extinct.

By 1521, Hernan Cortez had conquered the Aztecs, and gold and silver were being mined in Mexico and shipped to Spain. Numerous galleons laden with treasure and immigrants were blown off course to Padre Island, where they foundered on sand bars and the surf smashed their hulls.

In 1553, three ships suffered this fate and were abandoned by 300 passengers who swam to shore. After being stranded for 6 days, they were surrounded by over 100 Indians (presumably Kronks), who showered them with arrows. The castaways fled south to Mexico, but only 2 men of the 300 passengers survived the trip. Ironically, Spanish divers recovered half of the cargo of silver reales. Over the centuries, treasure hunters have found some of the gray coins that now, by law, belong to the state.

Such wealth afloat offered irresistible temptation to buccaneers who preyed chiefly on Spanish ships. Around 1800, the pirate, Jean Lafitte, who became an American hero of the War of 1812, ranged around Padre Island. Legend has it that he filled his casks with fresh water from a well dug just west of Laguna Madre. Today, the marked well lies in the quiet village of Laguna Vista, a short drive west of Port Isabel. (From Texas 100, turn right on Santa Isabel Blvd. in Laguna Vista, left on Taylor Ave., left on Fernandez and go to the end of the street).

In 1804, Padre Jose Nicolas Balli, a Catholic Missionary Priest, founded a settlement on South Padre Island called Rancho Santa Cruz where he raised cattle and horses. At the eastern foot of the Queen Isabella Causeway stands a bronze statue of Padre Jose Nicolas Balli clad in a cassock and clasping a crucifix in his right hand. In 1829, the year he died, Balli was awarded title to the Island by the Mexican government. His nephew, Juan Jose Balli, lived on the Island until 1853. Rediscovered in 1931, the site of Rancho Santa Cruz is known as the Lost City of Padre Island. Numerous Balli descendants still live in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

After Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821, the Anglo settlers of Texas began wanting independence for themselves. Soon revolution swept into the Valley and Mexican troops massed at Matamoros. On April 21, 1836, Sam Houston's forces annihilated the Mexican army led by General Santa Ana in the Battle of San Jacinto, and the Republic of Texas was born.

Two residents of the new republic were notable castaways whose schooner ran aground on Padre Island. John Singer, brother of the sewing machine magnate, and his wife, Johanna, built a home of driftwood on the site of Rancho Santa Cruz in 1847. When the Civil War engulfed the Island in 1861, the pro-Union Singers buried approximately $62,000 in coins and jewelry before leaving. At the end of the war in 1865, they returned to find that shifting sand had concealed their hiding spot. The coins and jewelry still lie buried in an unmarked sand dune known as Money Hill.

Friction between Mexico and Texas did not end when the United States annexed the republic in 1845. President James Polk sent troops to Texas under the command of General Zachary Taylor. In 1846, fighting broke out around Point Isabel (now Port Isabel), but the Americans prevailed there and later at Palo Alto, Matamoros, Reynosa and Monterrey. The Mexican War success propelled Taylor to the office of President of the United States.

In 1861, when Texas seceded from the Union, the federal Navy moved to blockade the Padre Island coast, hoping to stop the flow of Confederate cotton and European guns. Fighting continued on both land and sea throughout the war. The last battle took place in May 1865, a full month after Robert E. Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, within earshot of South Padre Island at Palmito Hill. Ironically, the Confederates beat the Yankees in the final battle of the Civil War, sending them back to nearby Brazos Island.

Many changes have occurred since the last battle was fought. In 1964, the Port Mansfield Gulf Channel was completed, which separated South Padre Island from Padre Island forever. In 1974, the 2.5 mile long Queen Isabella Causeway, the longest bridge in Texas, was completed, and paved the way for the development that you see today. When you cross the Causeway as a tourist, you may, like the Singers and Padre Balli, decide to stay. It is said, that once you drink water from the Rio Grande, you will always come back, whether for a visit, or a lifetime.



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