Americans and An Island
The history of Padre Island from 1836, the year the island de facto became a part of Texas, to the Congressional authorization of the Padre Island National Seashore in 1962 is long and complex. It can be viewed from a number of perspectives. In terms of land utilization, it is a history of cattle ranching, oil and natural gas exploitation, resort promotion, and outdoor recreation. Between 1836 and 1962 land utilization on the Texas gulf coast became ever more sophisticated and complex. The open range gave way to fenced ranches and the ranches in turn gave way to citrus fruit, cotton, and vegetable farms. With the discovery of oil and natural gas, the region's economy was again transformed. Not only did wells, tank farms, and refineries dot the landscape, but also industrialization and urbanization came to the coast. As a modern diversified economy developed, it brought higher incomes and more leisure time to large numbers of Texans. Many turned to the coast with its islands and fish-rich waters as a place to spend happy hours fishing, swimming, and boating. As cattle ranch, as source of minerals, and as object of outdoor recreation, Padre Island participated in the diversification of land utilization on the Texas gulf coast. Americans defined their relatedness to the island in terms of how they could use it.
One can also view the history of Americans and Padre Island in relation to the people who lived and worked there. There is no detailed record of all the men who at one time or another went to Padre Island to establish a home and make a living. This history does not intend to present one and will instead deal with only the more prominent. Although countless people lived on Padre between 1836 and 1962, and there arose one or more small settlements, only a few names are historically connected with the island. John Singer, a displaced Yankee, shipwrecked on Padre in 1846 or 1847 and decided to remain there. Beginning in 1879, Patrick Dunn, the son of Irish immigrants and a man whose name was to be joined to the island until the present day, moved cattle to Padre. Then there was Colonel Sam Robertson, an energetic promoter who had visions of turning Padre into the Miami Beach of the Texas gulf coast. These men and many others joined their interests to Padre Island and became a part of its history.
Still another way of looking at Padre's history is in relation to the considerable body of folklore associated with the island. Here the dividing line between fact and fiction is erased. With a mystery island providing the soil, tales grew tall. It is a fact that the water of the Gulf of Mexico off Padre have witnessed literally hundreds of shipwrecks ranging from ancient Spanish galleons to modern shrimpers. It is a fact that Spanish reales (silver coins) have been found on the island. It is also a fact that the gulf carries debris of all kinds onto the island's long beach. (Indeed, Padre is sometimes called the garbage bin of the Texas gulf coast.) Given these facts, it is not surprising that fertile imaginations have through the years concocted grand stories about Padre Island being one long treasure kingdom. Books have been published giving dates and locations of ships that went down with treasure aboard. This treasure, naturally, may still be there. One such book, written by a man who sells metal detectors, even gives specific locations on the island where one can expect to find treasure.
Still other stories of Padre Island center on pirate activities. According to these tales, the famous Jean Lafitte often sailed in Padre's waters while on his privateering voyages. Some suggest the Laguna Madre was one of Lafitte's favorite pirate hideaways. There is no doubt that Lafitte did in fact live for a number of years around 1817 on Galveston Island at a settlement called Campeche. He engaged in number of dark and mysterious activities ranging from privateering to possibly spying on Mexico. There is good deal of doubt that he ever set foot on Padre Island. Nevertheless, stories that the island conceals buried pirate treasure abound, to the delight of countless children who have for years diligently dug the sands searching for Lafitte's buried gold. Yet another tale claims that John Singer, who because of his Yankee sympathies was forced to leave Padre at the outbreak of the Civil War, buried sixty, seventy, or even eighty thousand dollars before crossing to the mainland. This buried treasure, of course, is still missing.
Buried treasure is only one theme in the folklore of Padre Island. Another centers around a romantic image of the Karankawa Indian. The Karankawa is described as being indeed cannibalistic, but he is given the virtues of the noble savage. He is depicted as being a child who enjoyed a freedom in nature unknown to civilized man. Not only did he live in harmony with nature and the so-called Web of Life, he was also tall, straight, well-proportioned, daring, skillful, and brave. In these stories of the Karankawa, Padre Island is a Garden of Eden.
When stories of buried treasure, pirates, and an idealized conception of the Indian as noble savage are joined with tales of the supposed exploits of such early adventures as Cabeza de Vaca and La Salle, Padre becomes an island of romance and adventure. Folklore is rarely derived from a critical examination, of historical sources. Rather it comes from the fantasy and imagination. Although the folklore of Padre Island is not historical in the sense of actual event or deed, it is nevertheless apart of the island's past. Padre as island of romance and adventure, of Indians, buried treasure, and shipwrecked Spaniards is as much a part of its history as Padre the cattle ranch or Padre the national seashore.
These are only three of many perspectives which help bring the history of the American's interaction with Padre Island into clearer focus. The interaction of man and the island is indeed complex. Man uses the land. He adapts his technologies to the biophysical environment in order to exploit the resources which, support human life. He joins his fortune and interests to the land and depends on it for material well being. He fights over it, speculates on it, and creates. legends and myths to explain its meaning and significance. He paints its landscapes and writes songs and poems about it. He preserves it in national parks. In the sections which follow we once again pick up the chronological history of the interaction of man and Padre Island. It was all of the above. The story begins with a war and ends with a national seashore.
By 1836 Padre Island had become an established cattle ranch. Its herd was small in comparison with the thousands of cattle which grazed the open range between the Rio Grande and Nueces, but it was a settled and producing ranch. The Karankawa Indians continued to visit the island. However, having been battered by the American settlers, they were the pitiful remnants of a once powerful tribe. In 1830 Juan José Balli had sold his interests on Padre, i.e., the northern half and one seventh of the southern, to Santiago Morales The remainder of the southern half apparently came into the hands of one Nicolás Grisante. It is unknown who actually lived on the island at this time or what the extent of the cattle operations were. In all probability the practice of the absentee landowner continued to function with hired vaqueros actually living on Padre. In 1835 the quiet routine of the island was broken and events began which resulted in Padre ceasing to be an island off the coast of Tamaulipas and becoming instead the longest barrier island in the United States.
The military events of the Texas War of Independence did not touch Padre directly. No battles were fought on the island. The closest the war came to its beaches was when a Mexican agent stationed at Matagorda Bay was forced to flee his post. He escaped back to Mexico by traveling down Padre Island. The war did, however, place Padre in an undefined position between Mexico and the new republic. Texas claimed that its territory extended to the Rio Grande. Mexico claimed that Tamaulipas, which was formed out of Escandon's Nuevo Santander, extended to the Nueces. With neither side possessing the military capability to enforce its claim, the status of the region including Padre Island became no man's land where, as one historian has put it, "for nearly a decade a predatory and guerrilla like warfare was waged between Mexicans and Texans." 
It is unknown how the Texas War of Independence affected Mexican citizens living on Padre Island. Like their compatriots who had ranches between Matamoros and Refugio, they might have been forced to flee to the Rio Grande settlements. However, in that they were in little danger from the Texans, who were more interested in filibustering along the Rio Grande than in routing a few Mexican peons on a remote island, they probably stayed on Padre and tended the cattle and horses.
In 1839 Americans for the first time arrived in the immediate vicinity of Padre Island. In that year one Henry Kinney established a trading post on the shores of Corpus Christi Bay. The trading post would later become the prosperous and modern city of Corpus Christi. There were reasons why the Americans had not come at an earlier date. Prior to 1836 the land between the Rio Grande and the Nueces had not been granted Texas empresarios, but rather to trusted and reliable Mexican citizens. Moreover Mexican authorities allowed no foreign immigrant colonies within ten miles of the coast. The closest foreigners had come to Padre was an Irish colony at San Patricio. It was only after Texas had achieved her de facto independence that Americans could move into those coastal areas, which had previously been reserved for Mexicans.
Kinney and his partner William P. Aubrey choose well the location of their trading post. It was right on the de facto border between Texas and Mexico. The post was easily supplied by sea and Kinney prospered. Although Mexican officials frowned on the trade, American goods such as calico, hardware, and tobacco moved south and Mexican silver, beans, sugar, flour, shoes, and saddles arrived at Corpus Christi Bay. Kinney's success soon attracted other frontier entrepreneurs.
In May 1841 three men named Philip Dimitt, an early trader on Lavaca Bay who had been one of the first to raise the Texas flag, James Gourlay, and John Sutherland set up a trading post in competition with Kinney. This post was located either at Flour Bluff on the Laguna Madre or at the head of Padre Island.  Dimitt's activities aroused the anger of the Mexican authorities, who thought he was involved in smuggling and purchasing stolen cattle. They were probably right. In September 1841, a Mexican force raided Dimitt's post, capturing him and several other traders. They plundered the establishment of all its merchandise, which they loaded on boats and took south to Mexico. Dimitt and a colleague named James C. Boyd were packed off overland to a Mexican jail where Dimitt committed suicide. Dimitt's arrest naturally enraged his fellow Texans. Irish immigrants from San Patricio organized to conduct a reprisal raid. They received intelligence as to Mexican troop strength from fellow country men living at the south end of Padre Island.  The Texans captured a Mexican colonel and nine enlisted men and took them back to San Patricio. In addition they accused Kinney, who was left untouched by the Mexican raid, of being in league with the Mexicans. Kinney was arrested and charged with treason. He was subsequently acquitted. For a brief five months in 1841 Padre Island was the possible location of a busy trading post. In transporting goods south into Mexico, it is probable that Dimitt's agents often traveled the beach on Padre Island. When the weather is right, the beach becomes a hard, flat surface, an ideal wagon road. Those desiring to smuggle goods into Mexico could easily do so by rolling down Padre Island and boating the contraband across the Laguna Madre to the mainland. Although records of this illegal but romantic activity are of course not available, it is almost certain that Padre has often been used for this purpose.
The unstable conditions which prevailed between the Nueces and the Rio Grande, and especially the hostility that Texans demonstrated for all things Mexican, were noted by Santiago Morales, the owner of one-half of Padre Island. In 1845 Texas joined the United States. Morales recognized that it was only a matter of time before Texas enforced its claim that the Rio Grande was the border. He also apparently knew that Mexicans would have a difficult time as citizens of the United States. In 1845 he sold his interest in Padre to one José María Továr.
As Továr and perhaps Grisante continued to ranch the island, and American immigrants arrived at San Patricio and Corpus Christi. American manifest destiny was casting ever more covetous eyes on the vast Mexican possessions of New Mexico and Upper California. By 1846 the American desire to settle its territorial questions with Mexico reached a climax.
When in July 1845 Texas joined the union, President James Polk ordered a detachment of the regular army to take up position on the Nueces River and await the results of diplomatic efforts to negotiate the Rio Grande border dispute. Although Mexico had not yet recognized the annexation of what she officially considered a rebellious province, she had no intention of making Taylor's landing at Corpus Christi a cause for war. Taylor set up camp near Kinney's trading post, which quickly grew into a small town when merchants and camp followers arrived to benefit from quartermaster vouchers and soldier's pay. Here the small army of 3,900 men awaited developments.
At the beginning of February 1846, President Polk ordered Taylor to proceed to the Rio Grande and take up a defensive position opposite the small Mexican town of Matamoros. "Although Taylor for been on the ground for six months," historian Justin H. Smith informs us, "he was utterly ignorant of the way to Matamoros, and had now to investigate the matter."  Taylor immediately dispatched two scouting parties to carry out a reconnaissance to determine the best route south. One went overland via the old road between Matamoros and Refugio. The other, under command of Capt. William J. Hardee, set out to reconnoitre a coastal route down Padre Island. That Taylor sent Hardee to Padre is another indication that the island was a well known route to Point Isabel, a small settlement opposite Brazos Santiago Pass, and Matamoros. On February 9, 1846, Hardee and a detachment of about 25 men forded the Laguna Madre at Flour Bluff and arrived at the head of Padre Island. From there he reported to Taylor that three Mexicans and an American were living at Mr. Eilly's. Mr. Eilly is another of those many Padre Island names that are fleetingly mentioned in sources and about whom nothing is known. Perhaps he lived at Dimitt's old trading post. Hardee said that these men informed him there was a ford "ten miles this side of Brazos Santiago, but none of them are able to take me there."  On February 11 Hardee and his men set off down the island and on the 15th made camp fifteen miles from Brazos Santiago Pass. Unfortunately, he made no note of people living at the south end nor did he mention passing Padre Balli's Buena Vista ranch site. From this camp Hardee scouted the Brazos Santiago Pass and a possible ford across the Laguna Madre to Point Isabel. In a message to General Taylor on February 17, he reported that the beach was firm enough to support wagons, but there was no practicable ford back onto the mainland.  When the reports were in on the two potential routes south, Taylor decided to go via the mainland. By the end of February the road, which because of the winter northers had been impassable in December and January, had dried out. In March the army marched south through the chaparral and set up camp on Brazos Island.
After the outbreak of hostilities, Brazos Island became the primary staging area for the coming campaign. Volunteers from throughout Texas and the Mississippi Valley converged on the island and headed inland for camps at Point Isabel and along the Rio Grande. In May 1846, a group of these volunteers, a Texas outfit called McCulloch's Texas Rangers, traveled from Corpus Christi to Point Isabel via Padre Island. Samuel Reid, a Louisiana volunteer who had joined McCulloch, was with the outfit at this time. He reported that, with the exception of an old man, Padre was deserted. According to Reid, the old hermit was a wrecker i.e., an early-day beach comber who salvaged material from wrecked ships. [37
During May 1846, another man visited Padre on his way to join Taylor's army at the growing camp on Brazos Island. S. Compton Smith, a doctor from Louisiana, volunteered in New Orleans aboard a Texas outfit. The volunteers shipped out of New Orleans aboard a schooner named Rosella. According to Smith, Rosella was a "worthless little tub, which would hardly hold her rotten timbers together while lying in the harbor, and must inevitably go to pieces if caught out in rough weather."  As Rosella neared Brazos, rough weather set in and the feared happened. "I will not attempt to describe," Smith wrote, "the fearfully sublime spectacle of a vessel, crowded with human beings, dashing into the jaws of the maddened breakers, whose foamy spray was tossed above her tallest spar."  At the end of their terrifying ride through the surf, Smith and his fellow volunteers found themselves on the beach at Padre Island. He did not speak well of the island's natural values. In his shipwrecked eyes, Padre was a "wretched, barren sand bank . . . destitute of animals, and nothing found existence here, but disgusting sand crabs, and venomous insects."  After salvaging what they could save from the ship, most of the survivors headed south for Brazos Island, leaving twenty men behind to look after the supplies. Wagons were sent out to pick up the men and stores. As Smith proceeded south he noted the rich variety of beach objects ranging from fragments of wrecks to fresh Brazil nuts. He also passed a dead steer which wolves had eaten. Although Smith thought that animal must have been washed overboard from a supply ship, it probably came from the herd on the island.
Brazos Island and Point Isabel became the major points of Mexican War activity on the Texas gulf coast. During the initial buildup on Brazos Island, there were times when the island became overcrowded. When the Brazos camp filled up, it is possible that some volunteers camped on the south end of Padre before moving to the camps in the Rio Grande Valley. Padre, however, played no substantive role in the Mexican War. General Taylor did not march down Padre in full dress uniform with banners flying. When in February 1848 the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was negotiated in Mexico City, the Rio Grande became the border and Padre Island joined the United States. The island quietly awaited the return of its legal Mexican owners.
With the war with Mexico decided, Texans promptly turned their attention to acquiring Mexican owned land south of the Nueces. The cattle industry was quickly revived and herds once again began to roam across the open ranges. On Padre Island an American arrived, who also hoped to acquire land and establish a ranch. In 1847 John V. Singer captained a vessel named Alice Sadell. While on a voyage to Brazos Island the Alice Sadell, like so many of her sister ships, shipwrecked on padre Island. Unlike other survivors, however, Singer did not hurry to get off the island and return to civilization. He decided to remain on Padre and seek his fortune. Using materials salvaged from his wrecked ship, Singer built some structures and his ranch was in business. The exact location of the Singer ranch is unknown. It might have been originally located at the site of Padre Balli's Buena Vista ranch. It is probable that Singer lived at more than one location near the southern end of Padre. In 1867, when James Boyd surveyed the mouth of the Rio Grande for the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey, he placed the Singer ranch at the southern tip of the island opposite Port Isabel. Little is known of Singer's activities during the years he lived on Padre between 1847 and 1861. He raised cattle, engaged in wrecking and general beach combing, and raised vegetables which he sold in Port Isabel and Brownsville, the town on the border opposite Matamoros which sprang up around the fort General Taylor had constructed in 1846. Singer purchased the property of one of Padre Balli's seven devisees, i.e., Singer apparently acquired one-seventh of the southern half. He may have also speculated in Padre land. With his wife and six children, Singer lived on Padre for 11 years and probably would have stayed there for the rest of his life, if it had not been for the Civil War. As a Yankee, and the brother of the sewing machine king of the same name, Singer made no secret of his sympathies. When war finally came, the Texans regarded him and his ranch, which was located at the strategically important Brazos Santiago Pass, a security risk. They forced him to leave the island. A long-standing tale contends that Singer buried as much as $80,000 on the island before leaving. Naturally, nobody has ever found this treasure. Singer did not return to the North, but rather moved up to Corpus Christi Bay and settled on Flour Bluff. He had hopes of opening a steamship company, which would transport goods and passengers between Brownsville, Corpus Christi, and New Orleans. The company apparently never functioned. When his wife died in 1866, Singer sold his on-seventh interest in Padre to Jay Cooke and moved to New Orleans.
At the end of the Mexican War the owner of the northern half of Padre Island, José María Továr, returned and resumed cattle raising. When in 1855 his will was filed in Corpus Christi, Továr's Padre Island holdings were valued at $4,049.  The will stated that Továr owned three leagues of land, more or less, with improvements. The land was worth $1,000. In addition he had 430 head of cattle ($2,580), one mare and a colt, one two-year old filly, 13 hogs, and an assortment of guns, hides, lumber, tools, and three branding irons. Figuring 4,428 acres to the league, Továr's will would indicate he owned 13,284 acres on Padre. The early measurements of Padre's size were little more than rough estimates. It is probable that Továr owned considerably more land than his will claimed. Továr's land was later divided into the standard sections and in future transfers became known as the Továr sections.
Továr and Singer were not the only men who lived on Padre Island during the years between the Mexican and Civil Wars. Unfortunately, however, there are very few records that would give a clear picture of activities on the island during the years. Mustang Island, at this time separated from Padre by the shallow Corpus Christi Pass, became the location of a customs house and a wrecker station. In 1854 Robert Mercer established a ranch on Mustang where he raised "sea lions," as coastal cattle were called, and horses. As of 1850 Nueces County and Corpus Christi had a population of 698 and 533 respectively. By 1860, thanks to immigration from the Mississippi Valley and Europe, the population of the county had grown to 2,906. It is possible that as Nueces County grew a community was established on Padre Island, but its exact location and size are unknown. One source speaks of a settlement on the Laguna Madre side of the island located 65 miles from the north end. It is almost certain various men ran cattle on the island and they might have lived at this settlement. Other men combed the beaches and still others smuggled goods into and out of Mexico. A type of Padre Island visitor called a wrecker also pursued his trade during these years. A wrecker's business consisted of salvaging whatever could be saved from shipwrecked vessels. Legitimate wreckers, such as those stationed on Mustang Island, worked for the county. Whenever a ship went down on Padre, they hired a crew, went down the island to the wreck site, collected the goods, inventoried them, and sold them at public auction with the proceeds going to the lawful owners. Naturally, there were many men in the tough Texas gulf coast towns who recognized the opportunity of gathering a valuable cargo from a wrecked ship and selling it on their own behalf. These men were also called wreckers. However, when referring to this type, one pronounced the name with a different inflection. These wreckers were not content to wait patiently for a particularly stiff norther or hurricane to blow fortune their way. They gave nature a helping hand. First they placed lanterns on poles which were then attached to a horse or donkey. After dark they led the animal down Padre's beach. The animal's rolling gait swung the lantern on the pole from side to side as if it were hanging from the yardarm of a ship riding a gentle swell. Coastal schooners seeing the swinging light naturally thought they were near a good anchorage. Coming about they headed for the light. By the time they realized the ruse, it was usually too late and they found themselves stuck fast in Padre's surf. The wreckers then moved in, stripped the stranded vessel, loaded the plunder on wagons or skiffs, and made their silent getaway, leaving an unfortunate captain cursing Blunt's Coastal Pilot for not providing reliable information and swearing that he would never again head into unknown waters following a swaying light.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Padre Island was the lonely home of a few hardy men who wrung a living from its hard environment. Corpus Christi had grown into the largest trading center south of San Antonio. The town was a wholesale center and distribution point for the gulf coast area and northern Mexico. Immigrants heading for California often landed in Corpus, where they outfitted for the overland journey. In the countryside cattle covered the vast expanses of open range and giant ranches, such as the famous Kenedy and King spreads, were supplying beef to the New Orleans market. When Texas joined the Confederacy, the residents of the coast from Corpus Christi south to Port Isabel and Brownsville rallied to the support of the state's leaders.
The decisive military events of the Civil War of course took place on battlefields far to the east of Padre Island. Although the Texas gulf coast was not the scene of major military action, its citizens were not spared the presence of the enemy and the roar of gunfire. Union ships, intent on blockading all Confederate attempts to ship the South's valuable cotton crop to the English mills, patrolled the entire Gulf coast from Key West to the Rio Grande. The effectiveness of the Yankee blockade forced cotton growers from as far away as Louisiana to ship their foreign exchange earning crop across country to Mexican ports south of the Rio Grande. The coastal trade was also disrupted. Schooners out of New Orleans carrying manufactured goods from northern factories or cloth from England no longer regularly visited the gulf ports to pick up cattle, hides, and other agricultural products. Peacetime commerce came to a halt.
Like their sister Confederate harbors to the east, the Texas ports were soon blockaded by Union men of war. Nature assisted the North. The barrier islands which extend from Galveston to the Rio Grande restrict access to the south Texas ports to the narrow passes which separate the islands. Ships wishing to enter Corpus Christi harbor had first to pass through Aransas Pass between Mustang and St. Joseph's Island. The Union Navy effectively disrupted Corpus shipping by simply blockading the pass. In February 1862, a Confederate engineering officer in charge of coastal defenses visited Mustang Island to inspect the fortifications which had been hastily thrown up there to guard Aransas Pas. He reported that "The line of trade for the present is destroyed."  It did not return to normal until the end of the war.
The military events of the Union blockade of Aransas Pass took place during 1862 and 1863 and they indirectly touched Padre Island. In July 1862, Yankee ships entered Corpus Christi Bay and captured three prizes, the sloop Bella Italia and the schooners Monte Cristo and Reindeer. Unable to challenge the Union navy, Confederate officers at Corpus decided to block the channel. They sank several boats. However, the Yankees quickly cleared them away. In August 1862, eight northern vessels entered Corpus Christi Bay and bombarded the town. Having little artillery with which to respond, the Confederates were unable to counter effectively. It was only a matter of time until the Union forces captured the town.
In December 1862, the war came to Padre Island. Early in the month Confederate Capt. John Ireland and seven men crossed Corpus Christi Bay to Corpus Christi Pass in order to check the depth of the bars on both ends of the pass. The depth measured three and a half feet at one bar and five feet at the other, i.e., the pass was too shallow to allow any ships to use it. While checking the depth, Ireland and his men observed a Union bark; Arthur, which apparently was looking for them. Beaching their boat on Mustang Island, Ireland spent an hour watching Arthur's movements. At noon the Confederates returned to their boat, Queen of the Bay, with the intention of returning to Corpus. No sooner had they pushed off from Mustang than they discovered that Arthur had succeeded in putting overboard two launches which were closing fast on the Queen. Quickly realizing that he would not be able to escape the launches, Ireland beached his boat on Padre Island. The Confederates hastily grabbed some baggage and their weapons and took up a position in the sand dunes. When the Union launches closed to within two hundred yards of the beached Queen, the rebels opened fire. The Union force returned the fire, but realizing that they were exposed in their open boats, while the Confederates enjoyed the cover of the dunes, they turned away and landed on the other side of Corpus Christi Pass on Mustang. In their haste to get out of range of the Confederate sharpshooters, the Yankees failed to secure or anchor their launches. No sooner were they safely under cover than the two boats came loose from the beach and drifted across the pass towards the Confederate position. Seeing his good fortune Captain Ireland waded out to one of the launches and secured it. When he looked into the boat, he discovered why the northerners had been so anxious to find cover. Two men lay at the bottom of the launch, one dead and the other wounded. Meanwhile the other Union launch, which had also broken away from Mustang, was drifting towards the gulf. Jack Sands quickly jumped into the captured Union launch, rowed out into the pass, and pulled it in. With the two Union boats in their hands, the Confederates reboarded the Queen of the Bay, pushed off from Padre, and headed back to Corpus. The 22 stranded Union soldiers watched them sail away and, badly embarrassed, wondered how they would get back to the Arthur. Back in Corpus, Captain Ireland proudly reported that his party had captured two launches with full equipment, one double-barrel shot gun, three holster pistols, four percussion muskets, four cutlasses, and one bayonet.  The affair of Padre Island, as the official records call this minor encounter, was an insignificant rebel victory, but it did much to boost Corpus morale.
During the two years the Union forces blockaded the passes at each end of Padre, men from the ships often visited the island to patrol it and secure provisions. Militarily their objective was to make sure cotton stored on Flour Bluff did not get through the blockade. In addition Yankee commanders strived to prevent salt gathered along the Laguna Madre from reaching Corpus, where it could eventually reach Confederate forces. Indeed, in September 1862 Texans captured a Yankee party which had landed on Flour Bluff looking for cotton and salt. The Confederates undoubtedly tried to get through the Union blockade by transporting cotton across the Laguna Madre to Padre Island and then loading it on ships standing off shore. Nevertheless, these ventures were infrequent. The difficulty of getting across the very shallow lagoon and the island, and then loading the cotton on a ship with the Union patrol craft always just over the horizon, made such attempts hazardous and time-consuming. During the Civil War, Padre did not become a secret door through which the South shipped cotton to Europe.
In addition to patrolling the island to disrupt the Laguna Madre salt trade and to stop any blockade running, Union troops also landed to secure fresh provisions. The cattle grazing on both Padre and Mustang provided many a Union mess with roasts and steaks. It is possible that by the end of the war most of the cattle on Padre had been requisitioned by the North.
Contact between the northern soldiers and sailors and Padre's residents during the war is largely unknown. There is one report that the Union soldiers often visited the Curry settlement, which was located on the Laguna Madre about twenty miles from Corpus Christi Pass. Although Mrs. Curry's sons and son-in-law had all joined the Confederate army, she apparently became popular with the men from the North who always stopped by for a slice of her famous cornbread. 
In November 1863, Union forces captured Brazos Island and reoccupied the camp originally set up by General Taylor in 1846. From Brazos Island they moved north intent on capturing the passes all the way to Galveston Island. On November 18, 1863, a large body sailed along the Padre to Corpus Christi Pass and landed on Mustang Island. Moving quickly and quietly in the grey morning light up the island, they surprised the Confederate garrison at Aransas Pass. After minor skirmishing the Confederate force, which consisted of nine officers and ninety men, surrendered.  Brazos, Padre, and Mustang were securely in northern hands. For all intents and purposes they remained so until the end of the war.
Unfortunately, very little is known about Padre Island during the years between the end of the Civil War and 1879, the year Patrick Dunn came to Padre. On the mainland, Nueces County continued to grow. By 1870 it had a population of 3,975 and the town of Corpus Christi counted 2,140 citizens. The decade of the 1870s in Nueces County was in fact a time of the wild, wild West. Huge cattle and mustang herds roamed the open range throughout the countryside. At one time in the early 1870s perhaps as many as 1,000,000 head were to be found between the Nueces and the Rio Grande. Every winter herds seeking grass moved south towards the coast. The abundance of cattle led inevitably to a drop in prices. As both cattle and land became valueless, a "skinning war" broke out. All cattle, branded or maverick, became free game for the lawless and hungry men who "peeled" them for their hides. The Rio Grande, always a source of controversy, became known as the "bloody border." Thieves and cutthroats from both sides raided the herds and kept peaceful citizens in a constant uproar. When the price of beef dropped to 2-1/2 cents a pound, large packing houses called packeries sprang up all along the coast from Port Isabel to Galveston. At the packeries, cattle were slaughtered by the thousands for their hides and tallow. Some meat was pickled, i.e, packed in salt, and shipped to New Orleans or Cuba, but the bulk of the valuable commodity was simply discarded or fed to pigs. Rockport was the center of the packeries, but one was also located at the head of Padre Island. It probably functioned from 1870 or 1872 to 1874. Very literally thousands and thousands of sea lions or coasters passed through these houses. In 1872, 300,000 hides were shipped from Rockport and Corpus Christi.  In 1875 prices started to rise. The great cattle drives north up the trails to the railroad or to pastures in Colorado, Wyoming, or Montana which had started in 1867, proved ever more profitable.
Beginning in the 1870s a change took place on the great range of south Texas which altered the nature of the cattle industry. In the early 1870s Mifflin Kenedy and Richard King, two men who had hauled supplies up the Rio Grande during the Mexican War and had since then acquired giant ranches between Corpus and Brownsville, fenced their land. With the invention of barbed wire in De Kalb, Ill., in 1875, the fencing process became simple and cheap. Others soon followed the example set by Kenedy and King. The result of fencing the free open range was revolutionary. No longer could men enter the business simply by purchasing a herd or a brand and then running their cattle on the open range. Having no land of their own, small cattle owners were driven out of business. Land ownership became crucial and, equally important, a good water supply determined the value of land. Some men whose cattle had for years headed for the most convenient water source, suddenly discovered that their acreage was valueless because they could no longer get to water. These changes were the stuff of countless later Western stories, movies, and television serials.
The fencing of the range had a direct effect on Padre Island. In 1876 a young man from Corpus Christi named Patrick Dunn discovered that he was no longer able to graze cattle freely on the open range. Dunn faced the choice of either moving farther west, where the range was still free, securing ranch, or getting out of the business. Desiring to remain in the Corpus area, he looked around for a place of his own. His eyes fell on Padre Island as a good place to work cattle and make his fortune. He was not to be disappointed in either venture.
On Padre itself little changed during the years after the war. John Singer, who had been forced to leave the island at the beginning of the war, did not return. The Curry settlement, which was named after one of its occupants named Carrey Curry, a hardshell Baptist preacher, apparently thrived about twenty miles south of Corpus Christi Pass.  Curry moved to Padre sometime before the Civil War and apparently raised cattle on the island. A man named J. T. Lyne, who worked at the packery at Corpus Christi Pass during its heyday from 1870 to 1874, also lived on Padre about six miles south of the pass. He ran cattle and horses on both Padre and Mustang. Another settlement may have been located at Murdock's landing on the Laguna Madre about 30 miles south of Corpus Christi Pass. Next to nothing is known about this settlement, but it might have been connected with the King ranch. When R. E. Halter surveyed Padre from 1876 to 1882 for the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey, he noted the landing on his maps and showed a road running from it across the island to the beach. (The landing and road are still shown on U.S.C. & G.S, maps of Padre.) Although pure speculation, the road might have been used during the Civil War to move cotton across Padre to launches on the beach. It also could have been a smuggler's road or perhaps it was simply a wagon path connected with ranching operations. There were undoubtedly men living at the south end of the island, but their names and activities are unknown. Perhaps Nicolás Grisante, who owned much of Padre at this time, had some kind of ranch there.
At the beginning of 1876, R. E. Halter from the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey arrived in Corpus Christi for the purpose of surveying the coast from Brazos Island to Aransas Pass. Between 1876 and 1882 he and a crew of about four to six men spent several months every year moving up and down the island setting markers and making observations. From his correspondence with Washington, one gains the impression that Padre was all but deserted during these years. In December 1876, in one of his monthly progress reports to Washington written from his camp at the north end of the island, Halter remarked that his nearest neighbors were a family living twenty miles down the island and an old hermit "living in a hovel without even a dog."  From a camp sixty miles down the island he commented again on conditions on Padre. He had found it necessary to purchase a rifle for protection against coyotes, wolves, and "panthers," which had "become more plentiful as we go down the island." In April 1878, Halter observed, "This is a very desolate place. There is no one living within forty miles of me that I know of. Even the sea is particularly lonesome, . . . We do have plenty of sand, rattlesnakes, and coyotes."  In March 1879 he explained why he preferred to locate his camp on Padre, although the island was very lonely. Not only was it easier to survey the Laguna Madre from Padre, but also, and just as important, he wrote, "Camps on the mainland are not considered safe to life or property, the country is frequented by cattle thieves, lawless men, Mexicans and others of whom it is said they will kill a man for his saddle and clothes." 
In 1879, Halter finished the triangulation of the Laguna Madre and started back up Padre to carry out the topographical and hydrological portions of the survey. Because the survey left the island during the hot and humid months from May to November, leaving the camp equipage and horses at a deserted shack, Halter did not reach Corpus Christi Bay until 1882. Although from 1876 to 1882 Halter spent several months each year on Padre, he unfortunately did not leave a detailed description of the island's flora and fauna. His maps of the topography and hydrology of the island and the Laguna Madre are excellent.
Halter's survey is important in the history of Padre Island because it marked the first time that the island's physical characteristics had been studied from the perspective of the practical scientist. Padre had ceased to be wilderness in 1805 when Padre Balli introduced a civilized form of land utilization to the island. However, it was not until about 1880 that Padre ceased to be wilderness in the sense of disciplined, scientific knowledge of aspects of its natural environment. In supplying topographical and hydrological data about Padre, Halter began the study of the island's natural history. This study continues to the present day. A national seashore has been created on Padre to institutionalize it.
The years between 1836 and 1879 were for Padre Island, as they were for the rest of the Texas gulf coast, a time of uncertainty, wars, and the wild, wild West. The period saw the island transferred from Mexico to the United States. As political control changed so did actual occupation. Although Mexicans had a legal claim to the island, Padre became in fact Texan. Men like John Singer and Carrey Curry slowly replaced Nicolás Grisante and José María Továr. Cattle ranching continued to be the major form of land utilization. In the 1870s a packery was built on the island to process hides and tallow from the vast Texas herds. When the packery went out of business in 1874, an attempt was made to turn it into a cannery, but this too failed. Many men lived on Padre during these years, but they came and went. The only records of their activities are a brief note in a diary or a line or two in an early newspaper.
At this period no Mexican or Texan spoke of Padre as a pleasant place to spend enjoyable and relaxing hours swimming, fishing, or just walking the beach. Parties from Corpus probably sailed out to Padre or forded the Laguna Madre to spend a Sunday on the island, but such visits were infrequent. Padre remained an isolated and desolate sweep of sand and grass. During this period Texans were much too busy establishing viable forms of economic life to devote their attention to such things as outdoor recreation. For them, nature was an immediate reality. Their task, and it was one which consumed all their energies and attention, was to subdue and transform the natural environment in order to exploit nature's resources. It would be at least another half century of technological and economic progress before Texans started to think of Padre Island in terms of scenic, scientific, and recreation values.
Last Updated: 16-Mar-2007