Texas: Galveston Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Galveston Island is about twenty-seven miles long and three miles wide at its widest point. The city of Galveston lies at the extreme eastern end of the island. A major port in the nineteenth century, the wealth of which allowed its citizens to create luxurious and often highly unusual residences and public buildings, Galveston declined in the twentieth century as Houston, its inland neighbor, prospered. Its eclipse as an economic power served to preserve its architectural grandeur virtually intact.

Site Office

Galveston Historical Foundation

2016 Strand Street

Galveston Island, TX 77550-1631

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Galveston Island’s most notable events suggest an inauspicious history involving social outcasts and natural disasters. In the sixteenth century, a group of shipwrecked Spanish conquistadores named the island Malhado (misfortune). The island’s regular inhabitants apparently were the scourge among Native American tribes in the area. Then there was a reign of pirates in the early nineteenth century and plagues of deadly yellow fever. The hurricane of 1900 surely devastated Galveston the most.

There is also the Galveston that served proudly as port of entry for Texas (both the republic and the state), and which was known throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century as “Queen of the Gulf,” one of the most prosperous ports in the nation. Galveston remained a key port well into the twentieth century, until its eclipse by inland rival Houston. Since then the island has capitalized on its history and access to the Gulf to develop a resort economy.

Early History

Before the coming of Europeans, Galveston Island–actually two islands until a storm in the early nineteenth century closed the pass between them–had been occupied, on a seasonal basis, since at least 1400 by the Karankawas, a group of nomadic Native American tribes who lived in the coastal areas of Texas. They were rumored to practice ritualistic cannibalism, but their first encounters with Spaniards were amicable. The Karankawas even shared their meager resources with the Spaniards when the latter lost their provisions to the surf. As elsewhere in the New World, though, the Europeans eventually alienated their hosts, and a mutual wariness marked by sporadic hostilities developed between the natives and the Spaniards. The Karankawas survived into the nineteenth century and survived a battle with the island’s pirate residents in 1821. By 1844, however, the aggressive policies of the Anglo-Americans who came to control Galveston Island and Texas had driven most of the Karankawas south to Mexico.

Galveston Island might have figured incidentally in at least one Spanish investigation of the Texas coastline. In 1519, navy lieutenant Alonso Alvarez de Piñeda sailed from Jamaica and followed the northern Gulf coast to the Rio Grande, a route that would have taken him past the island. Making a much more consequential visit in 1528 were the survivors of the Pánfilo de Narváez expedition, which had sailed from Spain with the intention of conquering Florida. Instead, the four hundred soldiers lost track of their fleet and were attacked by hostile natives; soon they were starving and determined to sail farther west on crude barges with sails made from their clothing. One barge after another disappeared in the Gulf storms, and only about eighty survivors made it to Galveston Island. Chief among these survivors was Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, second in command of the party, and eventually the first European to see the interior of present-day Texas. It was he and his companions who called the island Malhado, but after their escape from the Karankawas and his published account of his journey, the land was renamed Isla de las Culebras (Island of the Snakes).

The next major record of the Galveston area resulted from Spanish navigator José de Evia’s survey of the island, bay, and harbor in the 1780’s. He named the bay for Bernardo de Gálvez, the Spanish governor of Louisiana (and later viceroy of Mexico) who had ordered the survey.

The Pirate Lafitte

A succession of privateers and other opportunists who had been driven out of Louisiana set the stage for Galveston’s role as a trading post. The first to establish a long-term settlement on the site of the present city was Jean Lafitte, the pirate who had helped Andrew Jackson defeat the British in the Battle of New Orleans as the War of 1812 drew to a close. For this patriotism he was pardoned for the piracy he had practiced around New Orleans, and he briefly enjoyed the company of legitimate society there. He soon returned to smuggling, slave trading, and privateering, and when threatened with arrest in Louisiana in 1817, he headed for Galveston Island.

He arrived there in the wake of other adventurers; Henry Perry, Louis-Michel Aury, and Francisco Xavier Mina had become active on the island in the previous year or two, recruiting mercenaries to help Mexico fight its revolution against Spain. On one incursion into Mexico, Perry and Mina’s rebel forces were routed, and the two men were killed by royalist troops. When Aury returned to Galveston, he found his authority there had been usurped by the pirate Lafitte, who had sailed into Galveston Bay in May, 1817, and taken over the nearly deserted settlement.

Lafitte renamed the colony Campeachy (or Campeche), flew the Mexican flag, and encouraged the immigration of other renegades and adventurers. Lafitte ruled the slave markets, saloons, and gambling dens from a fortified building called the Maison Rouge (red house). The settlement was a pirate’s mecca, a market to dispose of contraband and slaves captured from Spanish ships. Lafitte in turn shipped the goods overland by mule to New Orleans and sold slaves for one dollar per pound. Importation of slaves had been outlawed by this time in U.S. history, and slaves had become a valuable commodity among pirates and their agents in the United States.

Lafitte’s protocol was to attack only Spanish ships, and he looted more than one hundred during his four years on Galveston Island. He knew that the Spanish could not ably defend themselves and that Spain would not ask the United States for assistance, because doing so might establish precedent for American authority in Texas. Lafitte was careful not to attack U.S. vessels, and when in 1819 a rogue captain attacked a U.S. cutter, Lafitte hanged the offender. A second incident, though, prompted the United States in 1821 to deliver an ultimatum to Lafitte to leave Galveston Island. In a grand parting gesture, Lafitte left Campeachy in flames as he boarded his ship, Pride, and sailed off into the Gulf of Mexico. Presumably he was headed for the newly independent Mexico, and he may have died of fever in the Yucatán in the 1820’s.

Galveston Becomes a Texas Port

Only a few years after Lafitte’s departure, Galveston commenced its history in legitimate commerce when the legislature of Coahuila and Texas (by then a Mexican state) made Galveston a port in 1825. This act was in response to a petition by Stephen Fuller Austin, the founder of Anglo-American Texas, whose business at the time involved helping some three hundred families get settled in Texas. Austin persuaded the Mexican government to believe that a Texas-based coastal trade would benefit both his colonists and Mexico, and that Mexico would be able to balance its imports from England by exporting Texas cotton. Traffic was sufficient for Mexico to send a garrison to guard the customhouse in about 1830. Anglo-Americans had begun to locate at the site of the future town (there were about three hundred settlers in 1832), and the settlement gained importance as commercial traffic increased throughout the 1830’s.

A French Canadian Indian trader, Michel Branamour Menard, who had signed the Texas Declaration of Independence in 1836, bought about 4,600 acres on Galveston Island with nine associates on December 8, 1836, from the First Congress of the Republic. He subsequently formed the Galveston City Company to sell lots to settlers.

The Texas Independence Movement

The ensuing years of turmoil between Texas and Mexico, and between Mexico and the United States, only enhanced Galveston’s strategic importance. On November 25, 1835, with the Texan revolt impending against Mexico, the provisional government of Texas authorized the establishment of a navy, with Galveston as the base of operations. In January, 1836, they purchased the vessels Liberty, Invincible, Independence, and Brutus, and this navy of four ships effectively prevented a Mexican blockade of the Texas coast, allowing trade with the United States to continue throughout the Texas Revolution.

Galveston achieved even greater prominence in the revolutionary effort when it became temporary capital of the fledgling Republic of Texas. Just before the Texan victory in the Battle of San Jacinto on April 21, 1836, Texan president ad interim David Burnet and his cabinet–fleeing from the Mexican army’s sack of Harrisburg–arrived in Galveston, leaving open the possibility of escaping to New Orleans by sea.

Already a port of call, Galveston became port of entry for the Republic of Texas in 1837, and customs duties provided substantial support for the young republic. The next year, Galveston County was organized, and the city of Galveston was incorporated in 1839. Six years later, Texas was admitted into the United States. As Texas’s official port, Galveston served as entry point for thousands of American and European immigrants. Between 1844 and 1847 the German and Alsatian immigrants alone numbered about 9,500. Most new arrivals passed through to inland destinations in the new state of Texas, but many remained to settle in Galveston.

With an eye on Galveston’s bright prospects as a port, Texas’s state legislature passed an act for harbor improvement in 1856, but the required federal funds were not immediately forthcoming. There were some timely transportation improvements, however, including the construction of a fourteen-mile canal–part of the eventual Gulf Intracoastal Waterway–begun in 1857; in 1859 the first bridge to the mainland opened, a wooden railway trestle for the Galveston, Houston, and Henderson Railroad. When Texas seceded from the Union in 1861, Galveston was a well-connected city with a population of more than ten thousand people.

Civil War Blockade

Texas experienced the Civil War firsthand when the USS South Carolina appeared off the port of Galveston in July, 1861, to enforce President Abraham Lincoln’s order to blockade the Southern coastline. Business as usual ceased, but blockade runners in small boats began to transport cotton to neutral ports in the Caribbean. The Confederates erected several small forts on the eastern end of the island to respond to the occasional bombardment of the city.

The blockade continued for more than a year, until Union Commander William B. Renshaw demanded the surrender of the city on October 4, 1862. Though Texas’s governor urged Galvestonians to burn “every spear of grass” as they departed the city, the Union occupation of the harbor on October 9 was not resisted, and marines raised the Union flag over the customhouse.

Shortly after the city’s capitulation, General John B. Magruder took over as Confederate commander of Texas. He planned to drive the Union forces out of Galveston by having “cotton-clad” steamboats attack federal ships in the harbor while Confederate soldiers attacked the Union soldiers stationed on the wharf. The Confederate forces carefully rolled their cannons into position, and with a booming salvo commenced the Battle of Galveston at 5:00 a.m. on New Year’s morning of 1863.

The Confederate assault on the wharf went awry, however, when the ladders with which they planned to scale the dock proved to be too short. The two steamers, armed at Houston and protected by bales of cotton, arrived just in time to engage the federal ships. Though the Union guns sank one of the steamers and seriously disabled the other, the Confederate sailors managed to board and take control of the USS Harriet Lane. Meanwhile, the Northern command vessel ran aground, and the remaining federal gunboats retreated from Galveston, leaving the troops on the wharf unprotected. The Confederates captured more than six hundred federal troops, and thus won the Battle of Galveston. Southern casualties numbered 26 killed and 117 wounded, and the Union lost about 50 soldiers total. Galveston flew the Confederate flag until the South’s capitulation at the end of the war.

After being informed of the fall of Richmond and the surrender of Robert E. Lee, Magruder boarded a federal ship and signed the surrender papers on June 2, 1865. On June 5 the U.S. flag was raised over the courthouse. Union troops under General Gordon Granger landed on June 19, and he announced that the Emancipation Proclamation was in effect. African Americans in Texas have since celebrated this as their day of emancipation, familiarly known as Juneteenth.

Post-Civil War Prosperity

After the war, Galveston began to enjoy renewed prosperity, as trade channels reopened and demand for cotton shipments increased. Nature intervened again in 1867, when a malaria epidemic ravaged the city; similar epidemics had been recorded in 1839, 1844, 1847, 1853, 1854, 1858, 1859, and 1864. About three-fourths of the city’s residents caught the disease, and more than one thousand people perished. Fortunate medical advances soon eradicated the disease, and this last epidemic proved only a temporary setback for Galveston.

When Texas was readmitted to the Union in 1870, Galveston, with its population of fourteen thousand, still ranked as the state’s largest city. Galveston bustled as the state’s uncontested main port, with Houston, some fifty miles inland, serving as the transfer point for shipments through Galveston to inland Texas.

The city’s prosperity continued unabated–in 1874 a visiting reporter from the New York Herald called Galveston “the New York of the Gulf”–and it ranked behind only Providence, Rhode Island, in per capita wealth among American cities. Thus Galveston was able to recover relatively quickly from a nighttime fire that swept through the city in 1885 and destroyed forty-two blocks of homes and businesses.

Creation of Deep-Water Port

In 1889 Congress agreed to make Galveston a deep-water port, capable of serving the world’s largest cargo ships, which otherwise could not dock in Texas. The resulting channel and harbor improvements, costing $6.2 million and completed in 1896, included two jetties of immense Texas granite blocks; one jetty extended five miles and the other seven miles into the Gulf of Mexico.

Even this vibrant economy was no match for the disaster that befell the city in 1900. There had been eight major Gulf storms recorded in Galveston since 1818, but the hurricane of September 8, 1900, remains the worst natural disaster in U.S. history in terms of human lives lost.

The 1900 Hurricane

Despite notice of threatening weather, most residents remained in Galveston. When the storm finally broke on the morning of September 8, many fled to the mainland, but by night those who remained were unable to leave. The island’s highest elevation was barely eight feet above sea level, and there was nothing to break the force of the gale. By 4:00 p.m., the entire city of Galveston was under one to five feet of water, and by 5:15 p.m., with the wind velocity clocked at ninety-six miles per hour, all communications with the mainland were cut off. The hurricane built to a climax at about 8:00 p.m., when winds of an estimated 120 miles per hour swept a tidal wave four to six feet high across the city.

All told, the winds, raging waves, and flooding left six thousand people dead. There were so many corpses, mostly unidentifiable, that barges of them were towed out to sea and burned. Fifteen hundred acres of houses–more than thirty-six hundred dwellings–were destroyed, leaving eight thousand people homeless. The estimated property loss was twenty million dollars, with one-third of the island entirely stripped.

To avoid future losses of such magnitude, the city began two large-scale engineering projects: a massive sea wall and the raising of the city’s surface level. The new sea wall comprised ten miles of steel-reinforced concrete. It was sixteen feet wide at its base and five at its top, which was seventeen feet above mean low tide. The engineers added an immense granite breakwater for further protection. They raised the city as high as the sea wall on the vulnerable Gulf side and allowed the land to slope down to the natural level at Galveston Bay. All across the city, thousands of acres were elevated anywhere from eight to fifteen feet. The protective measures have been tested by serious hurricanes since, including a major storm in August, 1915, and another in September, 1961. Damage and loss of life were minimal in both instances.

Galveston Is Eclipsed by Houston

Galveston suffered not only physical losses in 1900, but also long-term economic disadvantages. The devastation precluded a timely role for Galveston in the early twentieth century oil bonanza. Indeed, it was not until 1922 that oil production began in Galveston. While its chief rival was sidelined, the port of Houston began to encroach on Galveston’s commercial territory by sending barges out to the Bolivar Roads pass into Galveston Bay, where merchants could transfer cotton and other goods without paying Galveston’s wharfage fees.

During the 1920’s, the port of Houston was well on the way to bypassing the port of Galveston in tonnage, thanks to Houston’s oil shipments. Galveston still held on as a major cotton port, shipping one-third of the nation’s cotton through the 1960’s. By 1990, when Houston ranked as the nation’s third-largest port by tonnage, Galveston no longer ranked even close to the top.

Galveston benefited in one respect from its decline as a port: Its lackluster shipping economy meant that much of the town’s original architecture did not fall prey to developers’ interests. Today, Galveston boasts a historic charm that distinguishes it from its industrial neighbors. Among the more famous private residences are the Creole-Greek revival-style Samuel May Williams Home, built between 1838 and 1839, and the Victorian-style Bishop’s Palace, designed by Galveston architect Nicholas J. Clayton and constructed between 1886 and 1893. Clayton also designed many of the Victorian buildings lining “the Strand,” once Galveston’s major commercial street. As the home to dozens of preserved historical buildings such as these, Galveston is considered by many to be the most beautiful city in Texas.

For Further Information
  • Barnstone, Howard. The Galveston That Was. Reprint. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1999. Largely of architectural interest, with historic photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Ezra Stoller.
  • Fornell, Earl Wesley. The Galveston Era: The Texas Crescent on the Eve of Secession. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1961. Details the social and economic issues that led to secession.
  • McComb, David. Galveston: A History. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986. Even more to the point than his book Texas below.
  • _______. Texas: A Modern History. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989. A highly readable, fast-paced account of the state’s history, including anecdotes about Galveston.
  • Webb, Walter Prescott, ed. The Handbook of Texas. Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1952. This book and its 1976 supplement edited by Eldon Stephen Branda constitute a whopping 3,075 pages of exhaustive history.
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