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Galveston: A History and a Guide

Galveston: A History and a Guide

by David McComb

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Indians! Pirates! Rebels! Blockade Runners! Smugglers! Murder! Beaches! Beauty Contests! Hurricanes!

These are all a part of the colorful history of an island city that once called itself “The Free State of Galveston.” Located at a natural harbor on the northeastern part of a thirty-mile-long sand barrier island, the city dates its beginning


Indians! Pirates! Rebels! Blockade Runners! Smugglers! Murder! Beaches! Beauty Contests! Hurricanes!

These are all a part of the colorful history of an island city that once called itself “The Free State of Galveston.” Located at a natural harbor on the northeastern part of a thirty-mile-long sand barrier island, the city dates its beginning from the end of the Texas Revolution. Before then, the harbor had attracted Jean Lafitte, a pirate from Louisiana, and the revolutionary Texan government fleeing in front of the attack of Santa Anna’s Mexican Army.

After independence in 1836, Michel B. Menard, along with nine associates, bought the harbor property and founded the town. Galveston grew on the strength of the harbor—the best between New Orleans and Veracruz—and the city became a major entry point for immigrants to Texas. During the Civil War it was a haven for Confederate blockade runners and the site of one of the major battles of the war in Texas. Afterward it was a center for occupation forces and the point from which Major-General Gordon Granger announced emancipation for Texas slaves on June 19, 1865 (Juneteenth Day). The city later became a major cotton port for the Southwest and the location of the University of Texas Medical School.

In 1900 Galveston was struck by a hurricane and flood that killed approximately six thousand people: the greatest disaster in the history of the United States. Afterward, the citizens built a sea wall, raised the grade of the island, and constructed a causeway for future protection. The city led the way with a commission form of government, and in the first half of the twentieth century, became noted for its illegal drinking, gambling, and prostitution.

After the Texas Rangers cleaned it up, Galveston developed into a tourist town with its attractions of the beach, hotels, celebrations, and fishing. Historic preservation projects such as houses, buildings, museums, and the square-rigged ship Elissa completed its evolution.

This authoritative and well-written history of Galveston provides an overview of the city’s rich and colorful past and provides readers, researchers, and tourists with information about today’s historical points of interest. Galveston: A History and a Guide is a delightful read and a useful traveling companion.

Product Details

Texas State Historical Assn Press
Publication date:
Fred Rider Cotten Popular History Series , #15
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Barnes & Noble
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7 MB

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A History and a Guide

By David G. McComb

Texas State Historical Association

Copyright © 2000 Texas State Historical Association
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-87611-283-0



THE TOWN BEGAN ON APRIL 20, 1838, with the first sale of city lots by the Galveston City Company. Michel B. Menard (1805–1856), a French Canadian who had worked at the Indian trade and for Texas independence, and a group of nine other associates purchased 4,605 acres at the eastern end of Galveston Island from the newly formed Republic of Texas. It was a deal in which no money exchanged hands and was based upon the future sale of the lots. It was this group who firmly used the name "Galveston" for the city and island, although the name refers to Count Bernardo de Galvez, the viceroy of Mexico who ordered a mapping of the coastline in 1785. The purchase took over the best natural harbor along the Texas coast, reputedly the best sailor's shelter between New Orleans and Veracruz. Water currents in Galveston Bay had scooped out the sand to form the harbor on the leeward, or mainland, side of Galveston Island. It was deep enough to allow the sailing vessels of the time to anchor close to land and provide some protection from the periodic storms of the Gulf.

Galveston Island was a part of a curving chain of sand barrier islands some two miles off the Texas coast. They were shaped by soil washed down the rivers, carried by littoral currents, and deposited by wave action. Galveston Island, typical of the group, varied in width from one and a half miles to three miles and stretched twenty-seven miles long. In depth it was mainly sand—gray, brownish-gray, and pale yellow sand. In 1891 workers drilling for fresh water brought up in their bit various samples of sand, clay, shell, fragments of wood, and sandstone. There was no bedrock; there was no potable water. So, older island dwellers caught rainwater and planted salt-resistant oleanders; modern inhabitants imported both water and topsoil.

On the mainland side, the island had a ragged shoreline of shallow salt marsh, reeds, and mudflats good for ducks and herons. On the Gulf side there was a long, even expanse of hard-packed, beige sand—the color of light brown sugar—that from the start of Anglo settlement provided the best beach in Texas for recreation. Francis C. Sheridan, an Irishman in the British Diplomatic Service who otherwise found the town "singularly dreary" in 1839–1840, wrote that the beach had the "whitest, firmest, & most beautiful sand I ever saw." At a time of unpaved, stumpy, and rutted dirt roads it was pure pleasure to drive a light buggy with a spirited horse over the tight-packed sand bordering the surf amid the whirling cries of gulls and the low rumble of waves. The beach proved to be the most important and enduring recreational asset for the city.

Wildlife abounded. In the marshes of the bay shores flourished frogs, snakes, bees, butterflies, herons, blackbirds, mice, ducks, shellfish, and an occasional alligator. Rattlesnakes, rabbits, and deer lived in the dunes of the island, and along the Gulf all sorts of sea birds scavenged for a living. There were, for example, some fifty-three varieties of seagulls—the most common was the laughing gull, identified by its dark red legs and raucous laugh. Galveston is in the midst of the central flyway for birds of the United States, and continues to attract bird-watchers for the spring and fall migrations. In the surrounding waters were shrimp, flounder, red snapper, Spanish mackerel, sheep shead, croakers, and speckled trout. There were also some sharks, and the occasional whale or sea turtle. Silver king tarpon could be caught from piers and jetties, but numbers declined after 1965, either due to pollution or overfishing. The numbers of tarpon have recently increased thanks to conservation measures. Galveston Island, thus, was an interesting place to visit from the very beginning.

The earliest human visitors were Karankawa Indians on hunting expeditions who waded or poled their way to the island in crude dugout logs. The men wore no clothing and pierced their nipples and lower lips with large pieces of cane. The women covered themselves with Spanish moss or deerskin. The Karankawas carved blue, curved tattoos on their faces, and smeared their bodies with smelly shark or alligator oil to repel mosquitoes. They spent their time hunting, fishing, and gathering seasonal roots, nuts, berries, and shellfish. They never learned the arts of metallurgy or agriculture. The Karankawas treated their children with kindness, celebrated marriage and death with elaborate rituals, and, at least at first, gave sympathy and aid to Europeans.

Insight into the Karankawas' lives came through the report of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (1490?–1556?), a durable Spanish explorer who was shipwrecked on the beach in November 1528. He was the second in command of the doomed entrada of Pánfilo de Narváez, which sought gold and glory in Florida, but found only hostile Indians and death. After being abandoned by their transport ships on the Gulf Coast of Florida, Narváez and his four hundred men built barges in order to float along the shore to Mexico. Most perished on the way, including Narváez, but some eighty to ninety washed up on the shores of Galveston Island or nearby Follets Island. Of these, only four survived, and one of them, Cabeza de Vaca, wrote about the adventure.

Karankawa Indians greeted the stranded Spaniards and traded food for bells and beads. De Vaca's group tried to resume their voyage, stored their clothing and equipment on their barge, pushed it into the surf, and lost everything when the crude vessel turned over one hundred yards from shore. The dripping, naked men struggled back through the chilling wind and surf to the cold sand. The observing Indians understood their plight, and as was their custom, sat down to cry in sympathy for thirty minutes. Then the Karankawas built a series of warming fires and relayed the men back to their camp, where they treated them to food, shelter, and an all-night dance.

Exposure, malnutrition, and dysentery, however, soon began to kill both Spaniards and natives. Shocked Karankawas, moreover, discovered that a small group of isolated Spaniards had eaten their own fellows in order to survive. All of this turned the Indians against the Europeans and the remaining survivors, including Cabeza de Vaca, were enslaved. After six years Cabeza de Vaca and three others escaped and walked to safety in Mexico. The subsequent report of Cabeza de Vaca to the Spanish authorities provided the first written description of southwestern America.

Galveston Island where Cabeza de Vaca came ashore was only eight to nine feet above sea level at the highest, and infested with rattlesnakes. It was too exposed, barren, and uncomfortable to support a permanent Indian camp. The first sustained settlement came much later with the pirates of the early nineteenth century. During the first quarter of the century when revolutions crumbled the Spanish New World Empire, a priest, Don Jose Manuel de Herrera, who represented the rebels of Mexico, appointed Louis Michel Aury, a French privateer, commodore of the Mexican Navy. Aury raided Spanish vessels and set up a ragtag base at the natural harbor on Galveston Island. He marketed his contraband through the port of New Orleans. After transporting a rebel army to the Spanish town of Soto La Marina in April 1817, however, Aury met a surprise when he returned to his headquarters. Jean Laffite, a buccaneer from New Orleans, had taken over and Aury had to move on to Florida.

Laffite (1780?–1825?) was a double agent—Mexico and Spain—who preyed on Spanish shipping for his own profit. He called his community of a thousand outlaws at Galveston, "Campechy on Snake Island," and served as a broker for the freebooters who brought their loot to him. In exchange for food, gunpowder, and shot, Laffite took the stolen jewelry, silks, laces, and slaves by mule train to the backdoor bayous of New Orleans for illegal sale into the United States. Although operating outside the border of the United States, Laffite was a nuisance, and a U.S. Navy warship politely invited him to leave. Consequently, in 1821 Laffite burned Campechy; boarded his privateer, Pride, with his gorgeous, black-eyed, quadroon mistress; sailed into the Caribbean; and disappeared forever into the mists of history. He left behind nothing but a lurid memory and rumors of buried treasure.

Mexico, having attained independence from Spain in 1821, briefly established and then abandoned a customhouse at the harbor. During the Texas Revolution in 1836 the island and the harbor served as a last point of refuge for the retreating Texas government. After victory at San Jacinto in April, however, the government moved to Velasco, a small coastal settlement near the mouth of the Brazos River, and the future of Galveston Island became uncertain. It was at this point, however, that Michel Menard and his associates purchased the land on the eastern tip.

Levi Jones (1792–1878), one of the partners, became the general agent for land sales, and hired John D. Groesbeck (1816–1856) to survey and subdivide the property. He laid out the town in gridiron fashion, with the avenues running parallel to the harbor labeled in alphabetical order. Streets crossed the avenues at right angles, and Groesbeck numbered them in sequence. In time, some of the numbers and letters changed—Avenue B became the "Strand," Avenue E became "Postoffice," and Avenue J became "Broadway." In 1838 the Galveston City Company sold lots and by the end of the year it had disposed of seven hundred sites for an average price of four hundred dollars each. There were more than one hundred structures and sixty families living there when the Texas Congress granted incorporation in 1839. Adult, white, male property owners could vote and they elected John M. Allen (?–1847), a hero of the Battle of San Jacinto, as the first mayor.

* * *



The free automotive ferry between the tip of Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston Island that connects Highway 87 is one of the unadvertised pleasures maintained by the Texas Department of Transportation. Travelers to the peninsula can visit the ruins of Fort Travis (1898–1943), which was built for harbor defense. It was on this same site that Jane Long, the "Mother of Texas," gave birth to the first Anglo child in Texas in 1821. Nearby is the north jetty used to focus the tidal currents to scour the Galveston Bay channel clear of sandbars. Also dominant on the flat terrain is the iron Bolivar lighthouse, which operated from 1872 to 1933. It holds a place in history as a refuge during hurricanes and as a practice target for undisciplined coastal gunners in World War I. It is now privately owned.

Toward Galveston the traveler on the ferry can see the buildings of the city, the Port of Galveston, the abandoned emigration station, and the partly sunken concrete wreck Selma, built for World War I. Living mainly on fish that he caught, "Frenchy" LaBlanc, a recluse, used the grounded vessel as a home shortly after World War II. The three-mile ferry trip with its boat whistles, swirling seagulls, and movement over water sets a mood of sea and land. It serves as the best introduction for visitors to Galveston.

* * *

The town attracted a mixed group of citizens—American, English, German, Dutch, Italian, Mexican, and African. The men wore boots, trousers, frock coats made from blankets, and carried pistols and Bowie knives. Business took place in bars where there was not only the convenience of liquor, but also a spitting box for those chewing tobacco. "High & low, rich & poor, young & old chew, chew, chew & spit, spit, spit all the blessed day & most of the night," complained Sheridan, the British diplomat. Merchants, known as factors, such as Thomas F. McKinney (1801–1873) and Samuel May Williams (1795–1858) set up warehouses and began to trade in the produce of coastal Texas. Cotton, hides, sugar, molasses, honey, cattle, and pecans were sent to New Orleans, New York, and Great Britain while manufactured items such as cloth, boots, coffee, books, iron tools, gunpowder, bullets, and guns traveled inland to supply the needs of farmers and plantation owners.

The harbor at Galveston was a pivotal point of Texas trade. It was deep enough for the blue water sailing ships of the time. Cargo and travelers, however, had to be transferred to a different mode of transport to reach the interior of Texas. Deep water ships could not maneuver in shallow Galveston Bay, and the plantations lay inland beyond the marshy salt flats of the coast. So, at Galveston stevedores moved the cargoes from the holds of the large vessels to the decks of small, shallow-draft steamboats. The steamboats, spouting sparks and smoke from their funnels, sailed through Galveston Bay, which was seven to eight feet deep, and up the tortuous Buffalo Bayou to Houston, which was a small inland trading town at that time.

At Houston dock workers moved the shipping items to ox wagons for transport over crude roads to the farms and plantations of the hinterland. When cotton and other country products were ready after harvest, the transportation system reversed itself to carry the materials to Galveston. The rhythm of commerce, therefore, was that of crops and harvests, but storage warehouses, docks, and factors flourished in the towns to facilitate the trade. During growing season or wintertime, the towns languished and awaited the bounty of nature. But, towns were vital to the economy of nineteenth-century Texas, and they were essential links in the transportation network.

Galveston grew to be the most important city in Texas in the 1870s and 1880s when its population, reaching 22,000, was the largest Texas city. Its strength lay in its natural harbor and commerce, which formed a near monopoly of trade along the Texas coast. Outsiders complained that the Galveston Wharf Company, which had controlled the docks since before the Civil War, was greedy, and called it the "Octopus of the Gulf." This monopoly crumbled, however, with the advent of new technologies—rail-roads and harbor dredging.

Harvest season, in the wet fall of the year, was when heavy ox wagons carried cotton bales to Houston over muddy roads in what was often an agonizing journey. When the wagons sank to their axles in mud holes, they had to be unloaded. The teamsters then pried the wagon from the muck, reloaded, and traveled a bit farther until it sank again. Progress was so slow that at times the wagoneers could look back down their path at night and see where they had camped the day before. Railway technology, imported from the eastern United States, solved the problem of impassable roads by lifting travelers out of the mud. It was no surprise that Houston became the the railroad center of the state before the Civil War with rails reaching out in all directions as far as a hundred miles. The years between the end of the war and the end of the nineteenth century were when the railroads formed spiderwebs of connections across the state, not only to the Galveston-Houston trade corridor, but also to the northeast and east, to Chicago, St. Louis, and New Orleans. Texas farmers, plantation owners, and ranchers, consequently, were no longer dependent upon muddy roads, or for that matter, the natural port at Galveston Island.

Galveston merchants, among the richest in the state, did not hesitate to join the railroad builders. A cannon's boom announced the first train of the Galveston, Houston and Henderson (GH&H), which reached the island over a two-mile trestle in 1860. This was a trunk line between Houston and Galveston designed to carry cotton from the warehouses of the Bayou City to the docks at Galveston harbor. The small Galveston Bay steamboats were no longer needed and that colorful industry slowly languished and died. Following the Civil War the transcontinental railroads moving east and west drained the port's commerce, but it remained important for cotton shipments to Europe.

Galveston cotton merchants led in efforts to improve the harbor as ships became larger and transport technology changed. The tidal bore that had scooped out the harbor and provided a forty-foot-deep channel between the tip of Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula to the northeast also created sandbars that became particularly difficult to cross in the late 1860s. Amid the increasing frustration, the idea emerged to use jetties to direct the flow of the tidal current to scour the channel free of sandbars, and to persuade the federal government to pay for it. Led by Col. William L. Moody (1828–1920), a cotton factor, the important island businessmen formed a Deep Water Committee to seek out the best solution and to lobby Congress. It took time, but in 1890 a Galveston Harbor Bill for jetties passed. The whistles of the city—on trains, steamships, and factories—blasted the air for thirty minutes in celebration.


Excerpted from Galveston by David G. McComb. Copyright © 2000 Texas State Historical Association. Excerpted by permission of Texas State Historical Association.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

DAVID G. MCCOMB, a professor at Colorado State University, has published numerous books and articles on Texas history, including a history of Galveston published by the University of Texas Press.

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