Man's relationship to Padre Island has been long and, as is always the case with his relationship to the land, complex. For the Indians of the Texas gulf coast, Padre was an island environment that provided subsistence and security. On Padre they seasonally fished and in other ways adapted their cultural forms to the island's environment. When danger from an enemy threatened, they fled to the mainland in their canoes and sought safety on Padre. Although the Karankawas were not the only Indians who lived on Padre, they are the tribe most closely associated with the island. Like the other Texas gulf coast tribes, their history is a two-century record of resistance to Spanish and American domination. By the time of the Mexican War in 1846 the Karankawas had ceased to exist. The Indians disappeared from Padre, leaving behind artifacts for archeologists and legends and tales for story writers.
Euroamerican interaction with Padre Island took place on a number of levels. From 1519 to around 1800 the Spanish called the island a variety of names including Isla Blanca and Isla de Corpus Christi. Survivors of shipwrecks and venturesome explorers encountered Padre during these centuries, but they had no special interest in the island. To them Padre was simply another barrier island off the coast of a vast wilderness land mass. It had no value for the Spanish. The only reason for going to Padre was to make sure the English or French were not there. Unfortunately, visits to Parde by such famous explorers as Cabeza de Vaca or La Salle took place not in history but rather in the fantasies of imaginative story tellers.
By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Spanish settlements dotted the Rio Grande Valley. Spanish settlement policy included the granting of large sections of land to members of the colonial elite. Around 1800 Padre Nicolas Balli, a member of one of the valley's richest and most prominent families, received a grant to the Isla de Corpus Christi. Padre Balli and his nephew Juan José moved cattle to the island and gave it a name. The island ceased to be an unused wilderness stretch of sand and grass and became a producing cattle ranch. For the first time man defined his relationship to the island in terms of an economic form of land utilization. This relationship of rancher and island was to continue for the next 166 years.
In comparison to the over 300 years of Spanish possession of Padre Island, actual Spanish occupation of the island was short. By the time the Texas War of Independence broke out in 1835, the Ballis were no longer actively engaged in ranching Padre. The island had begun to change hand. The Mexican War in 1846 brought the island under American jurisdiction. After the war the Spanish land grants in Texas began immediately to pass into American ownership. The same thing happened with Padre Island. Americans simply moved onto the island and took possession. One of these men, John Singer, established a ranch at the south end of the island in 1846 and remained until the Civil War.
After the Civil War, conditions on Padre were as unsettled as they were on the mainland. Great cattle herds, which became the object of thieves and peelers, roamed the open range and flooded the markets. Packeries for processing hides and tallow did a booming business. One of these packeries was located on Padre Island. Beginning in the late 1860s, fences came to Texas and revolutionized the cattle industry. Men without land and good water were forced to either move or give up cattle raising. One such man, Patrick Dunn, decided to do neither. Instead, in 1879 he moved a herd to Padre Island.
Between 1879 and 1926, by one means and another, Pat Dunn acquired almost total ownership of Padre Island. He developed the island into a large cattle ranch. In order to adapt the techniques of cattle raising to Padre's environment, he built a series of line camps down the island which took advantage of the natural fences provided by the Gulf of Mexico and the Laguna Madre. From these line camps it was possible to work cattle spread out over approximately 130,000 acres and conduct the twice-yearly cattle drives. Although technological change such as trucks and causeways in the twentieth century affected cattle raising on Padre, the basic activity as developed by Dunn remained remarkably little changed between 1879 and 1971. Padre was probably one of the last places in Texas where the cattle roundup and vaqueros eating carne quesada around an open camp fire were not sentimental memories but rather a fact until 1970.
In 1926, Pat Dunn sold his holdings on Padre to a Col. Sam Robertson. By this time outdoor recreation and vacations had become accepted American leisure-time activities. An industry called tourism had developed to satisfy the demand for outdoor recreation. Robertson, who hoped to turn Padre into the Miami Beach of the Texas gulf coast, drew up ambitious development plans for Padre. He constructed a causeway to get visitors to Padre and a hotel and cabins to accommodate them. Unfortunately, Robertson miscalculated the island's attraction. When the depression hit in 1929 he was forced to sell.
Between 1930 and 1950 Padre remained undeveloped except for natural gas wells drilled into its sands. With the construction of the Padre Island causeways at the north end in 1950 and the south end in 1954, commercial development, which continued today in the form of condominiums and residential areas, got underway. The idea of utilizing Padre Island for public outdoor recreation was not forgotten. Beginning in the middle of the 1950s a movement led by Texas conservation groups and championed by Senator Ralph Yarborough urged the preservation of approximately eighty miles of Padre Island in the form of a national park. Pointing to the country's changed environmental circumstances and especially the disappearance of barrier islands in their primitive natural condition, they argued that Padre should be preserved from any environmental transformation. After four years of diligent work their efforts were rewarded in 1962 when Congress passed the Padre Island National Seashore legislation. In the past man had defined his relationship to the island in terms of economic exploitation of its environment. In the future man would define his relationship to Padre in terms of scenic, scientific, and recreational values. Padre would be a place in nature where, as Sigurd Olson expressed it, we may glimpse not only the mystery of the universe, but also ourselves in the new role we must now play.
Last Updated: 16-Mar-2007