The longest undeveloped stretch of barrier island in the world, Padre Island National Seashore along the South Texas coast in the Gulf of Mexico remains one of the few places left that provide an image of America as it appeared to American Indians and the earliest European explorers. Although Spain, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, and eventually the United States all owned the island, this natural seashore remains practically unscathed. Today, Padre Island National Seashore preserves this natural reserve, offering visitors the opportunity to experience the seashore, as it has existed throughout most of its history.
It remains uncertain which group of American Indians was the first to set foot on Padre Island, but estimates pinpoint their date of arrival in South Texas at around 10,000 B.C. The earliest known inhabitants of Padre Island were the Coahuiltecan and the Karankawa Indians that the Spanish encountered in the 16th century. Their people commanded the area from Corpus Christi Bay to Galveston. These tribes were nomadic hunter-gatherers, with braided hair and tattoos. They wore breechcloths and used feathers and stones to decorate their braids. Their diets consisted of deer, small game, rodents, and plants such as cactus, pecans, and mesquite beans. Both the Coahuiltecan and Karankawa also lived off the fish and shellfish from waters along the Padre Island seashore. Although both groups had similar diets and spoke the same language, the Coahuiltecan and Karankawa Indians did not share the same lineage.
More than one tribe of Coahuiltecans inhabited the region of Padre Island, including the Malaquites who lived in circular huts with wooden frames that they covered with animal skins. The Malaquite settlements, which appear on a map drawn in 1766 by the Spanish Colonel Diego Ortiz Parrilla, were on the southern end of the island known today as Malaquite Beach. The Karankawas, like the Coahuiltecans, also lived in huts, and hunted their food with a bow and arrow. They established their settlements near the shore on the northern part of Padre Island. Since the Karankawas were mainly a coastal people, they often traveled by dugout canoes. Together, the Coahuiltecan settlements in the south and the Karankawas in the north dominated the overall landscape of Padre Island. When the Spanish arrived, disease and warfare began to decimate the population of the Coahuiltecan and Karankawa Indians.
The Spanish first learned of the existence of the region in 1519, when cartographer Alonso Alvarez de Pineda traveled to the Gulf of Mexico to map the western coastline from Florida to Vera Cruz. Marked on this map was Padre Island, which the Spanish originally called la Isla Blanca, meaning White Island. Although Pineda drew the island on his map, it is unknown whether he actually set foot on Padre Island. Following Pineda’s voyage, many Europeans passed through the region; Cabeza de Vaca and the survivors of Hernando De Soto’s expedition may have visited the island.
The first confirmed visit to Padre Island occurred in 1554, when a storm shipwrecked the Santa Maria, the Espiritu Santo, and San Esteban near the Mansfield Channel. Among the 300 passengers to survive the wreck was Francisco del Huerto, who with 30 men sailed back to Vera Cruz to begin rescue operations. The natives killed all the survivors who stayed on the island. All that remained of the wreckage was the gold and silver from the Spanish treasure fleets. Unaware of the native attack, the salvage crew headed by Garcia de Escalante Alvarado returned from Vera Cruz. The salvage operations at Padre Island continued for several months until the crew returned to Vera Cruz with all the gold and silver they found at the wreck site.
In the 200 years following the recovery of more than 29,000 pounds of silver and 22,000 pesos, few Spaniards returned to the area of Padre Island. During this period, the Spanish documented the 1687 expedition of Martin de Rivas and Pedro de Iriarte, who described Padre Island as a region of tall grass and few trees. A second expedition, documented in 1766 by Diego Ortiz Parilla, also described the island and its surroundings. Parilla, whom the Spanish sent to scout and map the region after learning that the English were attempting to establish a settlement on the coast of Texas, documents in this expedition the existence of several native bands, including the Malaquite Indian settlements from which the island eventually took its name.
Possibly other expeditions to La Isla de San Carlos de Malaguitas occurred after Parilla. The area between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande was designated as the province of Nuevo Santander toward the end of the 17th century, and the Spanish soon began establishing settlements throughout the present day region of Texas. The first settlement near Padre Island was the Santa Cruz de Buena Vista ranch. In 1804, Padre Jose Nicolas Bali established the ranch 26 miles from the island’s southernmost tip, which he also jointly owned with his nephew. In 1845, almost two decades after Bali’s death, his nephew’s family sold the ranch to Jose Maria Tovar.
In time, other prominent ranchers would settle in Corpus Christi and buy the land and ranches of those who settled before them, forcing smaller ranches out of the farming business. In the 1870s, wealthy landowners forced small farm owner Patrick Dunn to move his ranch and his cattle operations closer to Padre Island. Although not directly situated on Padre Island, Patrick Dunn’s ranch was the closest settlement near Padre Island. By the time he died in 1938, Dunn owned most of the island. After his death, Dunn’s son managed the ranch until the 1960s, when the Federal Government purchased Dunn’s ranch and land to establish Padre Island National Seashore.
At Padre Island National Seashore, tourists may visit the Malaquite Visitor Center and Camp store, enjoy activities ashore and afloat, and admire the wilderness of this undeveloped barrier island. Activities include picnicking, camping, bird watching, hiking, boating, fishing, swimming, and windsurfing.
Padre Island National Seashore, a unit of the National Park System, is located at 20420 Park Rd. 22 in Corpus Christi, TX. The Dunn Ranch, Novillo Line Camp, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Click here for the National Register of Historic Places file: text and photos. The park is open 24 hours a day all year round, and the Malaquite Visitor Center opens daily from 9:00am to 5:00pm, except on Christmas Day. There is an admission fee. For more information, visit the National Park Service Padre Island National Seashore website or call 361-949-8068.