Heritage, Volume 6, Number 1, Spring 1988 Page: 6
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Visitors to South Padre
Island, Texas, share in a history
befitting the world's
longest barrier island. Today
as you stroll along this
peaceful beach, it's hard to
imagine the island possesses
such a rich and turbulent
Yet this thin, sandy finger
of South Texas has a
heritage replete with savage
Indians, pirates, warfare
and enough shipwrecks to
earn its reputation as
"Graveyard of the Gulf."
Recorded history begins
in 1519, when Alonso Alvarez
de Pineda sailed past
the Isla Blanca (White Island)
while chartering the
Gulf of Mexico for Spain.
When Pineda claimed the
coast was inhabited by
giants, he may have been
referring to the Karankawa
The "Kronks," as they
were nicknamed, spent
summer on the island, subsisting
on fish and clams.
Early accounts portray
them as cannibals. We will
never know, since the Karankawas
By 1521, Hernan Cortez
had conquered the Aztecs,
and gold and silver was
being mined in Mexico for
shipment to Spain. Numerous
galleons laden with treasure and
immigrants were blown off course to
Padre Island, where they foundered on
sand bars and surf smashed their hulls.
In 1553, three ships suffered this
fate and were abandoned by 300 passengers
who swam to shore. After resting
for six days, they were surrounded
by some 100 Indians (presumably
Kronks), who peppered them with
arrows. The castaways fled to Mexico;
only two survived the Flight of the 300,
according to one account. Ironically,
Spanish divers recovered half the
cargo of silver reales. Over the centuries,
lucky treasure hunters have found
some of the gray, sand-scoured coins,
that now belong by law to the state.
Such wealth afloat offered irresistable
temptation to buccaneers who
preyed chiefly on Spanish ships. About
1800, the pirate Jean Lafitte, who
would become an American hero in
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.
At the eastern foot of the Queen
Isabella Causeway, stop to meet the
man for whom the island is named.
Cast in bronze, Padre Nicolas Balli is
clad in a cassock and clasps a crucifix in
his right hand. In 1804, this Catholic
missionary priest founded a
settlement on Padre Island
called Rancho Santa Cruz,
raising cattle and horses.
In 1829, the year he died,
Balli was awarded title to
the island by the Mexican
government. His nephew,
Juan Jose Balli, continued
living on the island until
1853. Rediscovered in
1931, the site of Rancho
Santa Cruz is known as the
"Lost City of Padre Island."
Many of Balli's descendants
still live in the Lower Rio
Friction between Mexico
and Texas did not end
when the Republic of Texas
was annexed by the United
States in 1845. Spurred by
President James Polk, federal
troops were sent 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 presidency.
In 1847, two notable
castaways ran aground on
i.d Padre Island. John Singer,
brother of the sewing machine
magnate, and his
wife, Johanna, built their
home of driftwood on the site of the
Rancho Santa Cruz.
When the Civil War engulfed the
island in 1861, the pro-Union Singers
buried some $62,000 in coins and
jewelry before leaving. At war's end in
1865, they returned to discover that
shifting sand had concealed their
cache. It still lies buried in an unmarked
When Texas seceded from the
Union, in 1861, the Federal Navy
moved to blockade the coast, seeking
to stanch the flow of Confederate cotton
and European guns. Fighting continued
on sea and land throughout the
war. The last battle took place in May
1865-a full month after Robert E. Lee
exas' Treasured Islar
by Richards E. Bushnell
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Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 6, Number 1, Spring 1988, periodical, Spring 1988; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45435/m1/6/: accessed October 22, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Historical Foundation.