"Nuestra Herencia" Mural at Chamizal National Memorial; Santa Elena Canyon, Big Bend National Park.
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American Latino Heritage

The National Park Service and American Latino Heritage

Early Spanish Colonial Interests in the Gulf Coast

Padre Island National Seashore

Padre Island National Seashore
Courtesy of the National Park Service

The Atlantic coast of Spanish Florida represented only a small but important claim to a vast region. The European related history of the Gulf Coast dates from the Age of Discovery and covers an immense area, for the Spanish claim included the western coast of Florida that ran from the tip of the peninsula around to Tampa Bay, Pensacola, Mobile, the Mississippi Delta, and the Texas coast past Padre Island to the mouth of the Río Grande. In 1519, Alonso de Pineda explored and mapped the Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida. Among the many estuaries he discovered were those of the Río Grande and the Mississippi. Pineda was the first European to see Padre Island, off the Texas coast.

Padre Island National Seashore preserves the story of Europeans and Native Americans within the context of its mandate to conserve the natural beauty of the island inside the park boundary. Members of the shipwrecked expedition of Pánfilo de Narváez, in particular Cabeza de Vaca, were the first Spaniards to live among the Coahuiltecan tribes of Padre Island and the coast. Subsequently, in the 18th century, Spanish missionaries attempted to convert the various Coahuiltecan bands as well as Caddoan and Karankawan tribes in the area through missions established on the mainland.

Although the Spanish designed their mission program to protect the Coahuiltecans from stronger tribes, it also in many ways contributed to their decline. By 1850, the Coahuiltecan bands had all but disappeared from Texas due largely to warfare with the Lipan Apache and Comanche tribes and to Governor Mirabeau Bonaparte Lamar’s extermination policies during the period of the Lone Star Republic. In the end, the survivors of the Coahuiltecan bands chose to live south of the Río Grande.

Padre Island’s history in the 17th and 18th centuries took a peculiar twist. Known as Isla Malaquita in the 17th century and sometimes as Isla Blanca or Santiago in the 18th and 19th centuries, it became known as Isla del Padre or the Padre Island Grant, and finally, Padre Island. Sometime in the late 18th century, Spain granted the extensive island then known as Santiago to a Friar Nicolas Balli, a Franciscan, and his nephew, Juan José Balli, who lived in the lower Río Grande. The grant covered the entire island, the northern half owned by Padre Balli and the southern half by his nephew Juan José Balli. Padre Balli used the grant to raise stock.

During the War for Mexican Independence (1810-1821), Padre Balli fled to Santiago. After the revolution, he requested the new government to validate his grant. Although the governor of Tamaulipas approved the grant in 1829, Padre Balli passed away during the proceedings, which had taken two years. Consequently, his half of the grant went in a bequest to the children of his brother, José María Balli. Meanwhile, the Texas Rebellion of 1836 had taken place and the grant had to be proven anew. In 1850, Padre Balli and his nephew received a certification that they had properly obtained title from Mexican officials. After two years of deliberation, the State of Texas confirmed the Padre Island Grant on November 10, 1852.

Looking down a hallway at Ford Barrancas

Looking down a hallway at Fort Barrancas (part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore)
Courtesy of Grauke/O, Flickr's Creative Commons

The discovery of oil and gas underneath the island sparked litigation over the grant. The State of Texas contended that the heirs did not have a survey and plats drawn up and did not send field notes to the General Land Office in accordance with the Constitution of 1876. As a result, the State of Texas argued that the Ballis' claim "shall be forever barred." Finally, in 1944, after a lengthy court battle, title to the entire Padre Island Grant was awarded to Alberto Balli et al--heirs of Padre Balli and his nephew Juan José Balli. The Ballis were at last free to dispose of the grant as they wished.

There are many histories to be told of the Gulf region. Gulf Islands National Seashore preserves the natural beauty of most of the old Spanish claim and retells the story of the Spanish-French struggle for dominance of the region. In 1698, a French expedition under Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d' Iberville, left Brest, France, with four ships. Arriving at the mouth of the Mississippi, he sailed eastward and founded a small post at Biloxi. He went back to France to report that the British traders had made tremendous gains among the Indians, who now posed a dangerous threat to French designs on the area.

Returning in 1699, he established Ship Island as a base of operations for exploration of the present-day Louisiana-Mississippi coast. French interest in the area revived Spanish plans to occupy the Louisiana frontier. In the next century, the Bourbon Family Pact between France and Spain made it possible, for Spanish occupation of Louisiana lasted nearly forty years beginning in1763. Aside from interpreting the historic international rivalry between French, English, and Spanish frontiersmen, Gulf Islands National Seashore in Florida and Mississippi preserves Spanish fortifications that were important outposts for Spanish domination of the Caribbean.

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