Spaniards and An Island
In 1519, twenty-seven years after an Italian in the service of their Catholic majesties made a famous discovery, one Alonso Alvarez de Piñeda, also in the service of Spain, sailed around the interior edge of the Gulf of Mexico looking for the mythical Strait of Anian. At the mouth of what he called the Rio de las Palmas, better known as the Rio Grande, Piñeda disembarked and for the next forty days explored the surrounding countryside. It is possible but by no means certain, that Piñeda's reconnaissances included a short excursion up the coast from the river's mouth. If he went about six to eight miles by boat or by foot, he came to the beginning of a curve of sand and grass which stretches 115 miles to the north-northeast. And if, by chance Piñeda actually set foot on this narrow strip of sand, he became the conquistador of a barrier island on the Texas gulf coast. But this is conjecture. It is certain that the map which resulted from Piñeda's Gulf of Mexico voyage showed a small spot at this location designated Isla Blanca, White Island. It would be another 281 years before any Spaniard would settle on Isla Blanca, but as of 1519 it had been discovered.
The history of the Isla Blanca between its discovery in 1519 and its being granted to a Roman Catholic priest named Padre Nicolas Balli around 1800 is very brief. Spaniards did leave their footprints on its white sands, and indeed in 1553 three hundred unfortunate shipwreck survivors found themselves stranded on its beach, but Spanish visits were few and far between. In relation to the Spanish empire in North America, Isla Blanca was insignificant. The entire present-day state of Texas had little economic value to the Spanish and was as great a drain on the royal treasury as a producer of wealth. An island along the coast which consisted of nothing more than sand and grass, and which at times was inhabited by hostile natives with a reputation for being cannibals, was of even less value.
Being an island, Padre guarded the Texas coast. It was in a sense a strategic island. Nevertheless, Padre had no strategic value for the Spanish. Although at the middle of the eighteenth century a rumor that the English had established a military presence along the Texas coast alarmed the Spanish authorities in Mexico and led a party to explore Padre Island looking for the site, Spain never fortified the island's passes (nor did she fortify any other part of the Texas coast). Spain viewed the entire province of Texas as a buffer between her valuable possessions to the west and south and French and later English colonies to the east. Although a popular Texas folklore which has developed around Padre Island claims that nearly every famous explorer from Cabeza de Vaca to de Soto, La Salle, and Sir Francis Drake stopped on Padre Island and found it of great importance, these tales are unfortunately romantic and entertaining adventure. The discovery and exploration of Padre Island is a story of a few very brief visits to an unimportant island and a major tragedy. Section one outlines this story in greater detail.
By the end of the eighteenth century Spanish settlements dotted the Rio Grande Valley and presidios and missions had long been estabished in Texas itself. Settlement of Padre Island began about 1800 when Padre Nicolas Balli, a member of a prominent Rio Grande family, received a land grant to the island. Balli and his nephew Juan Jose brought civilization to the wilderness of Padre Island in the form of a cattle ranch. Until the end of the Spanish-Mexican period in 1846, the Ballis and their successors were the settlers of Padre Island. Section two discusses their activities.
As we have already noted, Alonso Alvarez de Piñeda, a lieutenant of Francisco Garay, the Governor of Jamaica, was the first man to visit the Texas coast. After reaching Mexico, where he had a brief conference with the conqueror of the Aztec, Hernando Cortes, Piñeda sailed back along the coast following the Gulf Stream He stopped at the mouth of the Rio de las Palmas, where he explored the surrounding countryside. Although it is not known with certainty whether he visited the coastal barrier islands in the vicinity, his maps did show an Isla Blanca which is today Padre Island. Piñeda sailed for his home port and, although a spot on a map, Isla Blanca returned to its wilderness anonymity.
With Cortes' conquest of Mexico and the start of a flow of treasure back to Spain, interest in the New World quickened. In 1527 Panfilo de Narváez sailed for Florida looking for gold and glory and finding only disaster. Losing his ships on the West Florida coast, he was forced to build makeshifts which were little more than rafts. With them Narváez hoped to reach Mexico. After making it past the mouth of the Mississippi, his "fleet" wrecked on the coast of Texas. The only survivors were the now famous Cabeza de Vaca, two other Spaniards, and a black. The Karankawas promptly captured and enslaved them. When eight years later, after incredible hardships and adventures among the Indians, de Vaca make it to Mexico, he told a story of a fantastic Indian city built of gold and emeralds called the Seven Cities of Cibolá. Cabeza himself never set foot on Padre during his Texas wanderings, but those searching for his imagined, treasure city did.
In 1540 Hernando de Soto landed on the Florida coast and began his wandering odyssey into the North American interior. In 1541 he reached the Mississippi, crossed over, and wintered near present-day Fort Smith, Arkansas. Returning to the Mississippi in the spring of 1542, de Soto hoped to build boats, float down the river, and sail back to civilization, Unfortunately, the illustrious explorer died in May. Captain Luis de Moscoso took over command of the bedraggled party, constructed the boat-rafts, and set out. The Spaniards descended the Mississippi and, upon reaching the Gulf of Mexico, decided to head for Mexico. Sailing along the coast they periodically stopped to fish, repair the boats, and take on fresh water. The exact locations of their stops are unknown, but it is probable that they stopped for a longer period at Aransas Pass to repair the boats. Continuing south they came to Isla Blanca. It is almost certain that they put ashore one or more times on the island to search for food and water. The survivors of de Soto's expedition finally reached Tampico. They did not discover the Seven Cities of Cibola, but they did find fame in American history books. A very minor moment in their travels was a probable visit to Padre Island.
By 1550 Spain had firmly established her presence in Mexico and throughout Latin America. Exploitation of the empire's natural resources was an established economic activity which swelled Spanish coffers and made Spain the envy of Europe. Each year in April a fleet escorted by stately men of war left Spain carrying supplies and passengers to North and South America. One section of the fleet headed for Cartagena and Porto Bello and another for Vera Cruz. After discharging their cargoes and passengers, the galleons filled their holds with gold and silver from New Spain's mines. Also going on board were colonial officials, priests, and settlers returning to Spain permanently or for a vacation at home. In September 1553 such a fleet left Vera Cruz and, following the Gulf Stream, arrived in Havana, where the main fleet usually made up to be escorted across the Atlantic. Deciding not to spend the winter in Cuba, some 15 to 20 merchant ships accompanied by two or more men of war left port and headed for the open Atlantic and disaster. The hurricane which hit the fleet had no name, but its effect was as deadly at its modern counterparts. Screaming winds drove the stricken fleet back into and across the Gulf of Mexico. Of the more than 20 ships ensnared in the hurricane's frenzied lashings, only three or four of the lighter survived. The rest either sank at sea or crashed against the coast. One or more of the ships and 300 passengers smashed onto the beaches of Padre Island.
The wreck of the 300 on Padre Island is the most noteworthy single event in the island's history. It is also the most tragic. Finding themselves on the beach without a sign of civilization in any direction, the survivors salvaged supplies from the hulk and huddled together in a council to decide what they should do. Indians, either Coahuiltecan or Karankawa, came upon the group. Their at first friendly disposition masked evil intentions and they soon attacked. Defending themselves with arquebuses, the Spaniards repulsed the Indians, who retreated out of range and waited. Taking some provisions salvaged from the wreck, the three hundred turned south, hoping quickly to reach the Mexican settlements and safety. Carlos Castañeda, a historian of the Spanish period in Texas, graphically describes their plight and their flight down Padre Island, "All were afoot, most of them without shoes, and with but scanty clothes. The women and children suffered the most, but necessity forced all to travel as fast as possible. They soon experienced the pangs of hunger and the pain of exhaustion. The heat of the sand tired them severely and it seemed as if there was fires both over their heads and under their feet. The children cried. The mothers were filled with sorrow at their inability to help them, and all hurried on, spurred by the hope of finding relief in the land of the Christians."  It was pitiful spectacle. Constantly pursued by the hostile natives, whose deadly arrows sought out the tired and weak, and quickly plagued by famine and thirst, the line of survivors soon stretched out with the stragglers left behind to die. The stronger pushed ahead in the hope of finding help. It was nowhere to be found. Of the three hundred who started the trek on Padre Island, two survived. One, a man named Francisco Vásquez, had left the main body and returned to the wreck site. For a year he lived on Padre where he subsisted on the remaining supplies. A ship sent out to search for survivors and to recover, if possible, any salvageable treasure, found him a year after the disaster. Vásquez showed Capt. Angel de Villafana where a ship had gone down. Divers salvaged the treasure and it was once again safe in a Spanish hold. To this day, however, there are those convinced that a large treasure lies just off Padre Island or is buried under the sand.
The other man who lived to relate the tragedy of the three hundred was a Dominican named Fray Marcos de Mena. He survived a more horrifying experience than Vásquez. Finding himself no longer able to keep up with the main body of survivors, de Mena decided to make his peace with life and go quietly to his maker. With the help of a fellow Dominican he dug a shallow grave and lay down to die. Falling asleep he awoke to discover he was not in his heavenly reward, but rather still in this vale of tears. He got up, pushed on, and eventually stumbled half alive into a Mexican settlement. As a witness to the flight of the three hundred, as this tragic event is often called, Padre Island briefly entered history.
The failure of the Coronado, Narváez and de Soto expeditions in addition to the tales of barbaric Indians told by de Vaca and de Mena all but extinguished Spanish desire to push into present-day Texas for the purposes of settlement and development. Spanish energies were occupied in other places such as New Mexico. At this point events fall silent around Padre Island for more than a hundred years. It is possible, and indeed probable, that Spaniards set foot on Padre between 1553 and the second half of the seventeenth century, but there is little documentary proof of such. Padre's beach collected debris from wrecked vessels and Spanish settlements far to the south, but as a part of the hostile and uninviting Texas coast the island was shunned.
In the second half of the seventeenth century, in 1685 to be exact, an event occurred which was to result in Spaniards once again coming into the neighborhood of Padre Island. In 1682 Robert Cavalier Sieur de la Salle, the greatest of French explorers in North America, boated down the Mississippi to its mouth and claimed the territory for France. Returning to France he persuaded Louis XIV that it would be possible to establish a new French colony in North America and encroach on the Spanish empire. The Sun King gave his grudging consent to such a venture and in 1685 La Salle returned to the gulf. By mistake or design, he sailed past the mouth of the Mississippi to Matagorda Bay on the Texas coast and up into Lavaca Bay, where he established a French outpost called Fort Louis. From Fort Louis La Salle explored to the west. In the meantime the Spanish had gotten word that the French were coveting the northeastern flank of their empire and that La Salle had established a colony on which he could base territorial claims. The viceroy of Mexico on instructions from Madrid resolved to find the French settlement and eliminate it. The search for La Salle went forward by sea and by land. In 1686, a full year after La Salle had founded Fort Louis, Captains Antonio de Iriarte and Martín de Rivas spent six months at sea searching the coastline for the French settlement. Although they entered Matagorda Bay and were actually within miles of Fort Louis, they failed to find it. It is probable that they also closely examined the passes at both ends of Padre Island and might have sailed into Corpus Christi Bay. Upon returning they reported that the coast was unfit for settlement. In 1687 and 1688 Spanish ships again sailed along the coast looking for La Salle. Again they had no success, but they probably came close to Padre Island. The sailors did report, however, that the coast was too swampy and for bidding for settlement.
While the search for La Salle from the gulf went forward, expeditions called entradas entered Texas by land. Led by Alonso de Leon, entradas took place from 1686 to 1689. The last was successful in finding Fort Louis, only to discover that it had been abandoned and its occupants either had fled, been killed by the Karankawas, or were captured. The first two of these entradas came near Padre Island and the first might have actually visited the island. In 1686 de Leon advanced to the mouth of the Rio Grande and explored the coast for a distance of eight leagues.  He reported that he found all kinds of debris, boards, shipmasts, broken rudders, barrel bands, and four wheels from broken artillery carriages. Although it is uncertain whether de Leon was on Padre, his reports of a litter-strewn beach could apply to the island.
In 1687 he explored up the mainland as far as Baffin Bay. Finding nothing, he turned around. On this trip he undoubtedly saw Padre Island and probably inquired among the natives about it. Once again Padre had been briefly touched by Spanish exploration. In 1689 another party finally found Fort Louis.
Although Louis XIV quickly lost any interest he ever had in wresting territory west of the Mississippi from Spain, La Salle's incursion alarmed the Spanish and led them to begin the settlement of Texas. The first Spanish settlements in Texas and the road connecting them passed far to the north of Padre Island. Uninterested in occupying the coast, which had been reported to be unfit for settlement, Spanish officials were obviously less interested in such barren barrier islands as Padre.
By the middle of the eighteenth century, Spain had established her colonial system of presidios and missions in Texas at such places as San Antonio de Bexar and La Bahiía. The coast and mainland, however, for a distance of 100 to 150 miles inland remained a vast territory as yet un occupied. In order to pacify the Indians, exploit the valuable salt deposits reported to be found along the coast, and establish a direct and safe communications route to La Bahi a on the Guadalupe, Spanish officials decided the time had come to move into the area of the lower Rio Grande Valley. In 1746 Jose de Escandon, a man of energy and ability, was appointed to settle the Rio Grande Valley. Entradas associated with Escandon's settlement plans once again brought Spanish explorers to the neighborhood of Padre Island.
In planning the settlement of Seno Mexicano, as the area was called, Escandon decided to first explore the region in order to determine the best locations for establishing settlements. Exploration parties made up of soldiers would accomplish two goals. They would show the flag to the natives and thus demonstrate the strength of Spain. Seeing well-armed soldiers would, it was hoped, cause the Indians to think again before starting hostilities with the coming settlers. Second, the soldiers would bring back valuable information about the character of the land and its potential for economic exploitation. Escandon decided to divide his forces and send separate columns through the countryside. One of them would originate at the presidio of La Bahiía del Espíritu Santo on the Guadalupe. This party would march south, staying as close to the coast as possible. Upon reaching the mouth of the Rio Grande, it would meet up with the column from Coahuila and together they would proceed to Escandon's camp 15 miles up the river.
On January 29, 1747, in compliance with Escandon's orders a force of fifty well armed men under the command of Captain Orogio y Basterra left La Bahiía and headed for the coast. Hitting the Nueces somewhere between San Patricio and Calallen, Basterra proceeded down river. After an un eventful march he soon reached Corpus Christi Bay, which he called San Miguel Arcangel. Here he spent several days enjoying the landscapes and mild climate. On February 27 he continued south and, following his instructions, remained as close to the coast as possible. By the time Basterra reached Baffin Bay, he discovered he was having difficulty finding sweet water. This forced him to leave the coast and head inland. Reaching the Rio Grande, he rendezvoused with Escandon and made his report.
Basterra told Escandon of his explorations, saying that the country he had just covered was for the most part well suited for cattle raising. He described Corpus Christi Bay in ideal terms, con tending it could easily be reached by sea and would thus make a good place to establish a colony, He reported that he and his men had seen many wild horses and asses and that deer were plentiful. Although there is no evidence that he visited the Isla Blanca, he undoubtedly saw the island and probably inquired about it. Basterra's 1747 reconnaissance of the south Texas coast is important not only because his was the first description of Corpus Christi Bay. Basterra's entrada marked the first time that Spanish explorers visited the region in order to determine its potential for economic exploitation. The agricultural frontier had come to the south Texas coast.
Escandon listened carefully to Basterra's description of the region and integrated the information into his report to Mexico City on the lower Rio Grande Valley and Texas. Calling the area to the Nueces and along the coast to the mouth of the San Antonio River "Nuevo Santander," Escandon recommended that three new settlements of 50 families each be made in Texas. One of them was to be at San Miguel Arcangel.
Demonstrating unlimited energy and great administrative ability, Escandon immediately proceeded with the settlement of the lower Rio Grande Valley. Beginning with Camargo in 1749, settlements sprang up along the river. Reynosa in 1750, Dolores in 1750, Revilla in 1750, Mier in 1753, and Laredo in 1755 were the principal communities. By 1761 Escandon was able to report that the settlers at Carmarge "have already settled all the opposite bank of the Rio Grande del Norte within the limits of the land granted them, and the country as far as the Nueces has became so desirable, that most of the settlers aspire to it." [23 Escandon was speaking of the mainland. It is doubtful that anybody at this time aspired to Padre Island. He further reported cattle were to be found all the way to the Nueces. They were owned by men who had already moved into the area such as Bláls María de la Garza Falcon. Falcon was a name that would be prominent in south Texas for the next century.
Spanish settlement of the lower Rio Grande Valley is related to Padre Island in the sense of pushing back the frontier. By the middle of the eighteenth century, Spanish settlers had arrived in the neighborhood of Padre Island and had begun to graze cattle north to the Nueces, The region was no longer wilderness. In 1800 a member of a prominent Rio Grande family that had come to the valley with Escandon would be granted title to Isla Blanca.
As the Spanish settlers went about their daily business of raising cattle, extracting salt from the saline deposits along the coast, and civilizing the Indians, international political events were taking place which led to the next visit to Padre Island. In 1763 at the end of the Seven Years War, England gained possession of all the French and Spanish territories east of the Mississippi. Three years later rumors reached Spain that England intended to expand her North American Empire westward and that she had already established forts along the Gulf, of Mexico. One of these forts, so the rumors went, had been built on Isla Blanca in 1765. Orders went out immediately from Madrid to Mexico City to check out the accuracy of these alarming reports. The authorities in Mexico City quickly notified Escandon and instructed him to send out searching parties. Escandon replied that he had sent a long report about Nuevo Santander in 1764 which covered the coastal islands. At that time people seeking ranch sites around the Neuces had reported that the coastal islands were too barren to sustain a settlement or a fort. There had been no mention of any English fort on Isla Blanca. This did not satisfy the viceroy and Escandon was ordered to send a party to the island and make sure the English were not there. Escandon turned to the Falcon family, which had established the Santa Petronila ranch about 15 miles southwest of the Nueces not far from the coast, carry out the assignment. In June 1766, José de la Garza Falcon, 25 men, and Indian guides went to Isla Blanca and traveled its entire length. Falcon reported that the island was barren and deserted. There were no signs of any Englishmen. Escandon thought the matter had been laid to rest, when reports reached him that Indians had seen foreign ships in the area. In September he decided to reconnoiter the island once again in order to make sure the English had not sneaked onto the Isla Blanca sometime after Falcon had been there in June. He assigned the task to Don Diego Ortiz Parrilla.
On September 13, 1766, a detachment of three officers, 25 men, and nine Indian guides from the missions of the Rio Grande set out from San Juan Bautista (Eagle Pass) and headed overland to the Nueces. Following the Nueces to its mouth, they named the beautiful bay previously known as the San Arcangel, Corpus Chrtsti. The Indians showed the party where they could ford the lagoon which separated the Isla Blanca or Isla de los Malquittas, as they called Padre Island, from the mainland. One hundred and fifty years later cattle would regularly use this ford on their way to market. Arriving on the island, they spent the next five or six days marching to the southern end, carefully examining the terrain as they went. By September 22 they had completed their mission and Parrilla made his report.
Although Spaniards had been on Padre Island a number of times before September 1766, Parrilla's report is one of the first descriptions of the island that we have, if not the first. The men who visited Padre reported that no Englishmen were there nor was there any evidence that their ships had anchored in the vicinity. Turning to a general description of the island, they pointed out that it was unsuited for any kind of military installation. Fresh water was a problem and could only be obtained by digging shallow wells in the sand. There was no rock which could be used for building a fort and there was only a limited amount of grass. In their opinion the island was not fit for raising cattle. Noting that objects thrown up by the sea cluttered the beach, they reported on finding several rotten canoes and small boats as well as the hulk of a 15- to 20-gun sea-going vessel, which they burned. Upon reaching the southern end the party came across the abandoned huts of an Indian rancheria. The guides pointed out that Indians regularly visited the island during certain seasons; however, at this time of year they were not there. Once again fording the lagoon, they returned to the mainland, satisfied that England had not established a presence on the Isla Blanca. (A translation of the full report is found in Appendix One.)
As of 1766 Padre Island was no longer a mysterious sweep of shimmering white sand stretching along the coast from Corpus Christi Bay to the mouth of the Rio Grande. The island had been visited many times and the general nature of its environment had been recorded in official documents. No efforts had been made to settle the island, and, indeed, it had acquired a reputation of being unfit for cattle raising, which was the major agricultural activity in the region. For the next 36 years the sea continued to wash the Isla Blanca and throw drift upon its beach. The island watched the Indians make their seasonal visits and patiently waited for someone who would recognize its potential value as a cattle ranch. At the turn of the nineteenth century that person arrived.
Of the settlements made by Jose de Escandon in the 1740s and 1750s, Reynosa, located about 70 miles from the mouth of the Rio Grande, was one of the more important. The official in charge of military and secular affairs at Reynosa was a man named Juan José Hinojosa. In addition to being captain and chief justice of Reynosa, Hinojosa had also received large land grants in the region between the town and the mouth of the Rio Grande. Hinojosa had a lovely daughter named Rosa, who married a young man named Jose María de Balli (or, as the name was sometimes spelled, Vallín). Together with his son-in-law, Hinojosa acquired more land around the present day towns of Pharr, San Juan, and Alamo.
Rose and Jose Maria had two sons; they named the older Juan José and the younger Nicolás. When Juan Jose Hinojosa. died, his grandson, Juan José Balli, succeeded him as captain and chief justice of Reynosa. Although he had inherited considerable land from both his grandfather and father, Juan JoséEspiritu desired to increase his holdings. He applied for and received a grant to another 315,941 acres in present-day Hidalgo County.
Nicolás, the second son of Rosa and José María, joined the third branch of the Spanish elite in Mexico. He studied for the priesthood. As a priest, Nicolás administered to the spiritual needs of the community. His position did not, however, demand that he take a vow of poverty. As a member of a wealthy and influential family, Nicolaá, like his brother, was a large landowner. Sometime between 1800 and 1805 he decided to increase the size of his land holdings and applied to the Spanish crown for a grant to the Isla de Corpus Christi, the name Isla Blanca or Isla de los Malaquittas had acquired after the naming of Corpus Christi Bay in 1766. He of course received it.
It is unknown when Padre Nicolás Balli took the first cattle and horses to the island, but it probably was around 1805. It is interesting to note that at the time Lewis and Clark made their great journey of discovery up the Missouri across the Rockies to the Pacific and back to St. Louis, Padre Island was already a developed, producing cattle ranch. Joining Padre Balli in the ranching venture on the Isla de Corpus Christi was his nephew Juan José, who had one-half interest in the original grant. Neither Padre Balli nor Juan José actually lived on the island. Large Spanish landowners, who practiced a system of absentee ownership, lived in the settled communities. They hired men to look after their cattle on the open ranges. On the Isla de Corpus Christi Padre Balli set up a ranch about 24 miles from the south end of the island. He called it Santa Cruz de Buena Vista. Two hired men, who were probably peons, lived at the ranch and watched over the cattle. The ranch structures were little more than huts or jacales constructed of willow laths and thatched with reeds.
Unfortunately, little is known about Padre Balli's activities on the island, The cattle and horses apparently grazed freely throughout the island. It is probable that they were very seldom worked and were collected only once a year. It is possible that no stock were taken from Padre for a number of years in order to build up the size of the herd. Wandering freely throughout the island and seldom worked, Balli's cattle and horses soon became wild.
The years between 1805 and 1821 appear to have been uneventful. In 1811 Padre Balli filed a will in which he stated, "I maintain 1,000 head of cattle on Padre Island."  This was probably the maximum size of Balli's herd. Compared with the thousands of cattle that roamed between the Rio Grande and the Nueces during these years, Padre Balli's ranch was not a large operation.
There is a report that, at the time of the Mexican revolution in 1821, Padre Balli, being a member of the Spanish elite, was forced to leave the Rio Grande Valley and flee to his island. With the return of stability he returned to his San Juan de los Estóres ranch on the south side of the Rio Grande about twenty miles from the mouth of the river.  It is possible that cattle from Padre Island were first taken to this ranch before being delivered to market.
In 1827, as a result of the Mexican revolution, it became necessary for the Ballis to reaffirm their original grant to the Isla de Santiago, as Padre was also called during these years. The legal procedure for confirming Spanish land grants called for a court-appointed survey of the property for the purpose of assessing its value. The court made the required appointments and in February 1828 a survey party set out for the island. Landing at the south end, they headed north until they reached Balli's ranch headquarters. "We reached the Ranch of Santa Cruz de Buena Vista," the surveyor Don Domingo de la Fuente recorded, "and in all this distance nothing was found but sand dunes and salty bays with very little pasture grass (with the exception of an opening situated at or near the entrance to said ranch which contains a certain amount of grass), a large amount of cattle and horses belonging to the interested parties."  Proceeding north, the party noted more cattle and sand. Arriving at a point they called Carnes Tolendas (see illustrations), they reported seeing some wild horses. The land was characterized by high sand dunes, some of which were covered with grass. In addition one found, "large thick trees that are known as pale de muelas, a great number of willows, oleanders, short oaks, plenty of herbs known as aaise, and many fresh water lakes or pools covered with reeds." 
In 1828 the flora of Padre was much different than it is today. "Although Padre Balli has some stock, although not much," de la Fuente reported, "they do not make use of that water, but drink out of two earthen tanks made with a crowbar and hoe; that the pasture found on that island, although not good for horses, is useful for other large stock."  Like the men who visited Padre in the eighteenth century, this party also noted the variety of drift material found on the beach. "The beaches situated on the island yield lumber, both finished and rough, that at all times the sea throws out, without naming other divers objects that for a long time have been found from wrecked ships; that in addition to this there are a number of willows that furnish lumber for laths to make huts."  The survey party found also Indian camp sites on the island, but, February being a winter month, they were unoccupied.
After the completion of the legal formalities Balli's claim to Padre Island was confirmed. However, Padre Balli apparently did not live to see his title reaffirmed. He died in 1828. Juan José Balli, who owned one-half of the island in his own right and one-seventh as one of Padre Balli's heirs, named Raphael Solís, a brother-in-law, to take formal possession in the name of the family. Sometime during 1828 the alcalde of the village of Matamoros accompanied Solís to Padre Island where the act of formal possession took place. Somewhere on the south end the alcalde took Solís by the hand and following ancient Spanish custom said:
As of 1828, Padre Island was clearly the sole possession of the Balli family. It was perhaps the last time for the next 140 years that legal ownership of the island was not being challenged by one party or another. Starting in 1830 title to the island began to change hands. In that year, Juan José Balli conveyed the one-half of the island he owned in his own right to one Santiago Morales. Morales apparently ranched the northern half of Padre until 1845, when he sold it to a José María Továr. With the exception of 7,500 acres, all of the southern half, which was owned by Padre Balli's seven heirs, eventually came into the hands of one Nicolás Grisante. Grisante may have also grazed cattle on his half.
In the 1830s events occurred which affected not only Padre Island but also all the land between the Rio Grande and the Nueces. In 1836 Texas won her independence from Mexico. Texas claimed that the Rio Grande was the border between the new republic and Mexico. Mexico refused to recognize the claim, contending that Texas began at the Nueces and not at the Rio Grande. The land between the Rio Grande and the Nueces was a part of Tamaulipas, which had been formed out of Escandon's Nuevo Santander. It was not a part of Texas. Being unable to militarily occupy the disputed area, neither side was able to enforce its claim. It was not until the Mexican War in 1846 that the issue was finally settled when General Zachary Taylor marched from Corpus Christi to the Rio Grande and on into Mexico.
Between 1800 and 1836 Padre Island, like other areas of the Spanish-American West, had undergone a qualitative change. A European culture replaced a North American Indian culture as the island's principal occupant and major beneficiary. Each culture's level of relatedness to the island centered on the utilization of its environment for economic purposes. However, whereas Indian land utilization was characterized by primitive subsistence types such as fishing with the bow and arrow and shell fish gathering, Spanish land utilization involved a structured and ordered form of agriculture. A higher form of land utilization replaced a lower and thus qualitatively changed man's relationship to the island. Padre ceased to be an unknown wilderness island. It was surveyed, described, and mapped. It became the object of civilization (and this at a time when the West of Lewis and Clark and fur trade mountain men remained a vast, unknown wilderness).
Spanish settlement of Padre Island and the cattle ranching operation Padre Balli began around 1805 demonstrated the feasibility of a civilized form of land utilization on the island. Padre Balli not only gave the island its name, but he also set a precedent that would continue for the next 166 years. Until 1971, cattle ranching was the major land utilization activity on Padre Island. As we shall see, the techniques employed by Padre Balli to adapt cattle raising to the island were employed by all those who followed him.
Last Updated: 16-Mar-2007