History of South Padre Island Texas

A history of South Padre Island, is one of the nation’s favorite places for a vacation, has more to offer than just sun, sea and sand. One of the best kept secrets in Texas has finally been revealed (though, most of us don’t want to reveal it!) and the value of this jewel has been made known. There is a uniqueness and charm in the setting of this island that enhances its reception and lures people to return again and again to enjoy the spirit of adventure that can be found there.

South Padre Island lies on the southernmost tip of Texas and is situated on the south end of Padre Island , the longest Barrier Island in the world and the largest stretch of undeveloped ocean beach in North America . On the border with Mexico and hugged by the Gulf of Mexico, South Padre Island is over 34 miles long and get this about 26 miles of it is pristine white sand with lush flora and fauna and beautiful wildlife. Those 26 miles are open for leisure off road driving, camping, shore fishing and wildlife viewing while the other 8 miles are devoted to all the necessities for a pampered life: lavish resorts, private condos, a shopping mall, fine dining, exotic clubs, horse back riding and yes, lots and lots of T-Shirt shops!

South Padre Island also has an interesting and diverse history.

According to some documents from the Spanish Archives, Westerners first walked the shores of Padre Island around 1519 when Spanish Explorer Alonso Alvarez de Pineda surveyed the area as he charted the Gulf of Mexico for Spain . Padre Island first appears as a dot labeled ‘Isla Blanca’ ( White Island ) on a map drawn by Pineda. In one of his letters, Pineda claimed that “giants inhabited the coast” and may have been referring to the mysterious Karankawa Indians, a supposedly cannibalistic Indian tribe that was known to mark its territory…and keep it. The Indians of the Archaic period are believed to have lived on the island from 2700 to 1000 B.C. and were followed by the Karankawan and Coahuiltecan peoples of the Rockport culture. Historical evidence and accounts of encounters between the Karankawans and South Texas cowboys and vaqueros (Mexican cowboys, the first cowboys) suggests that Indians roamed the area as late as 1850! However, at this time, most of the Indians were converted Christians from the nearby mission established by Padre Balli. Historians claim that when their end came, these Indians committed suicide on Padre Island. The tribe chose death instead of slavery and conversion. These warriors killed their feeble old men, women, and children, and buried them on the mainland. They they crossed back to the Island, burned their rafts, folded their arms proudly, and awaited their death by their conquerors.

Whatever the case, the native people of the island have been extinct since 1850 and the only remnants of their past are the few discarded arrowheads and pottery that occasionally spring up on the shoreline.

Cattle Ranch on South Pade IslandEarlier, in 1804, Padre Jose Nicolas Balli was given a land grant by the Mexican state of Tamaulipas and founded a settlement named “Rancho Santa Cruz” on Padre Island, about 26 miles north of its southernmost tip. He and his nephew, Juan Jose Balli, the majordomo (foreman) established a ranching operation and were able to raise large herds of cattle, horses and mules on the island (note: the largest concentration of cattle in the US is, interestingly, on another island: Hawaii ).

South Padre Island is also one of the most legendary Islands in the world and there have been many tales of Spanish treasure, shipwrecks and hidden dinero on the Island . The most famous is an incident that happened here in 1554—a mere 60 years after Columbus discovered the New World . The story is referred locally as “The 1554 Shipwrecks” and is composed of all the ingredients that make up a superb thriller and adventure story.

It goes something like this:

In the mid-1500s, after several years of intense mining for silver and exotic minerals in the mountains of Mexico , Spain began to ship silver bullion back to its motherland across the ocean to help stabilize its weakening economy. At the time, Spain was suffering from several internal revolutions and conflicts. Intense exploitation in foreign lands helped alleviate some of the expenses. Heavy ships were loaded up at a port in Latin America and ferried across the ocean, often stopping in Florida to change ships, refresh provisions and prepare for the long journey to Spain .

In 1554, something happened.

Four ships, laden with hundreds of passengers, silver and metals mined from the mountains of Mexico , set sail from Vera Cruz to Spain —hoping to cash in on the riches of the New World .

But only one ship would make it.

Caught in a raging storm in the Gulf of Mexico , three of the four ships were driven helplessly West-ward, running aground on the merciless Texas coast ( Padre Island ). Over 300 passengers were able to make it ashore, but only two would survive an attack by cannibalistic Indians and eventually return to civilization to tell their bloody story.

Oh, yea, and over 10 million in silver lay at the bottom of the ocean and in the sand at Padre Island . To this day, local treasure hunters and beachcombers still find silver washed upon the shores. Two of the ships were accidentally discovered by a dredging crew in 1954, but the third still remains a mystery. Where is it and what does it contain? Spanish Archives still leave an open chapter in the history of the fleet of 1554.

South Padre Island has seen its share of stories throughout the past 4 centuries. In 1846, the Mexican War was fought throughout South Texas and many troops were stationed on the Island and nearby Port Isabel, which was a valuable trading and supply depot for the US Military. Many famous figures such as future president Zachary Taylor, Robert E. Lee, William Sherman, Abner Doubleday (inventor of Baseball) and James K. Polk were stationed or stayed overnight nearby the area.

During the American Civil War, and as the Northern Army moved South, many Confederate loyalists began to hide their valuable possessions in the sands of Padre Island . The “John Singer” family built a home of driftwood on the site of Balli’s Rancho Santa Cruz in 1847, and when the Civil War engulfed the Island in 1861, the pro-Union Singers buried approximately $62,000 in coins and jewelry before escaping the area. At the end of the war, they returned to the burial spot, and found, to their surprise, that the shifting sands had concealed their hiding spot. The coins and jewelry still lie buried in an unmarked sand dune known as ‘Money Hill’. There are many stories about other buried treasures of gold and jewels that were being transported to Spain from Mexico, and the boats had been shipwrecked by storms at Padre Island.

President Harding getting ready to fish at South Padre Island

President Harding getting ready to fish at South Padre Island

In the early 1900s, South Padre Island was still a remote piece of land that mainly served as a place of diversion and recreation for many locals. It was also a hot fishing spot and saw the likes of many celebrities including President Harding, who claimed it as his “favorite little fishing spot at the end of the world”. During this time, the locals reported fish as big as boats and turtles the size of model-T automobiles.

During the early 1940s, the US Air Force established an Air Base at a nearby airport (today known as Cameron County Airport ) about three miles West of South Padre Island. Fighter aircraft from the base practiced bombing and gunnery sorties in and around an isolated portion of South Padre Island (and nearby Laguna Madre). Local newspaper headlines at the time were often seen to quote: “Do not swim in the waters East of Laguna Madre or you may be shot by diving aircraft!” If you travel to the West side of South Padre Island , you can still find old bomb and bullet shells from fighter/bomber aircraft. On low tide, you can still see pieces of aircraft from a few unfortunate wrecks and crashes.

In 1943, Paramount Pictures shot a WWII propaganda film named “Aerial Gunner” starring Robert Mitchum on portions of South Padre Island and the Laguna Madre/Harlingen area. The movie doubles South Padre Island as Japan and features an intense crash-landing sequence of a WWII bomber. If you take a hard look in one of the flying scenes, you’ll spot tents situated every two miles or so apart on SPI. This confirms a long standing debate that SPI, did, indeed, have German U-boat patrols setup by the US Coast Guard (remnants of one of these campsites can be found about 6 miles north of where highway 100 ends on SPI).

A large portion of the Island was closed to the public under the National Park Service until 1962. With new access to the Island , local civilians and outsiders began to see a bright future ahead for South Padre Island . Businesses began to spring forward and entrepreneurs soon started building motels and resorts. However, this prosperity stifled a bit when a destructive hurricane destroyed much of Port Isabel and portions of South Padre Island in 1966.

In 1978, South Padre Island had a population estimated at 314. Ten years later it had an estimated 1,012 residents and 111 businesses. Its main industry is tourism; peak seasons are summer, late winter and spring. Hundreds of thousands of college students make the trek down to South Padre Island during their annual Spring Breaks to party and party and party. During the winter season, the area is much calmer and the population drops almost 50% and is often visited by Winter Texans (senior citizens from the North who escape the cold). Still, the area is often warm enough to enjoy the outdoors.

In the late 1980 and early 90s, South Padre Island was labeled the “best kept secret” of the state of Texas and to this day is considered one of the top 10 beaches in the nation.