After the dissolution of the Balli estate, the island passed through many hands. For most of the island's post-settlement history, very few people lived on the island and the island was used almost solely as open rangeland, although a meat packery to process hides and tallow did exist at Corpus Christi Pass from at least 1870 to 1874. This was followed by a short-lived cannery. During this time, much of the island was owned by Nicolas Grisante, who had purchased it from Padre Balli's heirs. Portions of Jose Maria Tovar's portion of the island's north was gradually sold off to prominent Corpus Christi citizens such as John McCampbell and Stanley Welch.
What we know of the island's population during this time comes from local accounts, reports of people who were shipwrecked on the island, or on the rare occasions that a military reconnaissance party scouted the island for a route to the Rio Grande Valley. From those sources, it is known that most inhabitants were ranchers or cowhands or hermits.
Mention of hermits being found on the island crops up periodically in the records. Little is known of them, although it appears that often they survived by being "wreckers", men who salvaged wrecked ships run aground or beach combed and either sold the spoils or used them to build their homes. Sometimes a wrecker was noted as deliberately luring ships to their doom at night by hanging a lantern from a donkey or horse and walking the animal down the beach. The crew of a ship would spot the light and, thinking it was another ship that had found a safe passage, head for it.
The historical records also note at least a few settlements in the island's interior, but usually inhabitants collected near the southern or northern tips. One settlement is said to have existed prior to the Civil War about sixty-five miles from the northern end on the Laguna shore. During the Civil War Union soldiers (probably ashore scouting for cattle to use as fresh meat) reportedly visited the "Curry settlement" on the Laguna Madre about twenty miles south from Corpus Christi Pass. The Curry settlement was named for one of its inhabitants, Carrey Curry, who raised cattle and was a Baptist minister. Another settlement is said to have existed at "Murdock's Landing" on the Laguna Madre thirty miles south of Corpus Christi Pass.
Perhaps one of the more notable people who lived on the island in its early days was John Singer, brother to the famous sewing machine manufacturer. He was captain of a vessel named the Alice Sadell, which wrecked on the island in 1847. Instead of hurrying to leave the island however, Mr. Singer bought one of the seven original divisions set up by Padre Balli for his heirs and set up a ranch across from Port Isabel and established a family consisting of a wife and six children. He made his living by ranching, wrecking, and selling vegetables he had grown. John Singer might have stayed on the island for the rest of his life but for the Civil War. Because his ranch was located near the strategic Brazos Santiago pass and because he was known to have northern sympathies and ties, he was forced off the island in 1861. He moved to Flour Bluff on the mainland, just across the Laguna Madre at the the island's northern tip. There his wife passed away in 1866. Then he sold his Padre Island holdings to Jay Cooke and moved to New Orleans. Rumors have persisted throughout the years that Singer buried as much as $80,000 before leaving the island, but no one has ever found his legendary treasure.
In the 1870's Richard King and Mifflin Kennedy acquired giant ranches between Corpus Christi and Brownsville. As they fenced off their territories with barbed wire the era of open range cattle ranching ended forcing many smaller landowners out of business. One of these was Patrick Dunn. Faced with either moving west or going out of business he decided to move east instead and set up his cattle operations on the island. By the 1940's Patrick Dunn owned most of the island. During the 1960's the National Park Service bought the Dunn Ranch in order to establish Padre Island National Seashore.
Did You Know?
Although Padre Nicolas Balli established the first permanent settlement on the island, the island was previously owned by his father and his grandfather, who obtained the original grant from the Spanish crown. More...