A Texas Camel Story

Texans make a lot of extravagant claims. Sometimes they are true; like the story about having camels in Texas. Jefferson Davis, Secretary of War (1853-1857) under President Franklin Pierce, convinced Congress to appropriate $30,000 to buy and import camels for military use as beasts of burden. Davis claimed that camels were well-suited to the desert-like conditions of the West because they carried tremendous loads, traveled long distances without water and would forage on any plant.

Gwinn Heap Illustration for Jeff Davis report to Senate 1857. National Archives

On May 13, 1856, citizens of the thriving seaport of Indianola on the Texas Gulf Coast turned out in droves to watch thirty-two adult camels and one calf wildly rearing, breaking halters, kicking, and crying as three Arabs and two Turk handlers made a valiant effort to control the beasts. Before the day ended the camels regained their land legs and amid the tingling of bells hanging from their saddles, they plodded docilely toward the corral constructed by the War Department.

A horseback rider rode ahead of the camels shouting to get horses and mules out of the way since the sight and smell of the strange beasts sent both horses and mules into frightened frenzies causing runaway wagons and tossed riders. The townspeople followed the parade thoroughly enjoying the commotion.

Some accounts claim that the War Department ran out of wood for building the corral and resorted to stacking up the plentiful prickly pear cactus for fencing. The camels ate the prickly pear.

Major H.C. Wayne, who purchased the camels and accompanied them to Texas, reported to Secretary Davis that Indianolans voiced skepticism about camels being stronger than their mules and oxen. In sort of a PR stunt, Major Wayne directed one of the handlers to take a camel to the Quartermaster’s forage house for four bales of hay. Major Wayne mingled among the crowd listening to the derisive comments of those certain the kneeling camel could not rise under the burden of two bales weighing 613 pounds. Then two more bales were added for an incredible 1,256 pounds. To the astonishment of the onlookers, the camel rose on command and easily walked away.

After three weeks of exercising to prepare the camels for the 200-mile trek to Camp Verde on the western frontier of Texas, the procession moved majestically across the prairie.

A Victoria woman along the route gathered some of the camel hair and knitted socks for President Franklin Pierce. He sent a thank you letter but did not mention wearing the things.

The experiment proved so successful that an additional forty-one camels arrived in 1857. The beasts carried supplies for a team surveying a wagon road from New Mexico to the Colorado River and on to California. They hauled supplies in the first expedition to explore and map

1859, Thomas Lovell, Big Bend Expedition
Courtesy Abell-Hanger Foundation & Permian Basin Petroleum Museum

the Big Bend on the Texas/Mexican border.

A Methodist circuit rider, John Wesley Devilbiss, wrote that he was conducting a brush arbor camp meeting south of Camp Verde when six camels walked into the meeting carrying wives and children of Camp Verde military officers. At the end of the day, the visitors climbed aboard the docile beasts and plodded away.

When Texas seceded from the Union, Federal troops abandoned the western frontier and the camels were left to roam. The Confederates used some camels to pack cotton bales to Mexico where international ships waited to barter for guns and medical supplies. One camel carried all the baggage for an entire infantry company.

Although the camels fulfilled all expectations as beasts of burden, they were eventually sold. Some were purchased by circuses and others roamed the West until they died out. They never gained acceptance because they smelled terrible, they frightened horses and mules, and their handlers, who preferred the more docile mules, hated them.

Circus Camels 189?
University of North Texas Libraries

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THE DRAMA OF THE IMAGINATION

Newspapers around the country in 1860 called it “the Texas Troubles.” Rumors—fanned by letters written by Charles R. Pryor, editor of the Dallas Herald—claimed that a mysterious fire on Sunday, July 8, which burned the newspaper office and all the buildings on the Dallas square except the brick courthouse, was an abolitionist plot “to devastate, with fire and assassination the whole of Northern Texas . . . .”

On the same day, other fires destroyed half of the square in Denton and burned a store in Pilot Point. Fires also erupted in Honey Grove, Jefferson, and Austin. The city leaders of Dallas (population 775) first believed the extreme heat—105 to 113 degrees––caused spontaneous combustion of the new and volatile phosphorous matches. They concluded that the matches, stored in a box of wood shavings at a drug store, ignited and quickly consumed the entire building before spreading over the downtown. Citizens in Denton, after experiencing similar problems with “prairie matches,” concluded that spontaneous combustion caused their city’s fire.

In Dallas, however, white leaders stirred by the prospect of Abraham Lincoln’s election and encouraged by Pryor’s claims, decided on a sinister slave plot hatched up by two white abolitionist preachers from Iowa. They jailed the preachers, publically whipped them, and sent them out of the county.

A committee of fifty-two men organized to mete out justice to the slaves in the county. At first, the vigilante committee favored hanging every one of the almost 100 Negro slaves in the county, then cooler heads prevailed and decided to hang only three. Two days later the men were hung on the banks of the Trinity River near the present Triple Overpass. The remaining slaves, out of consideration of their property value, were given a good flogging. Later, a judge who had been part of the vigilante committee said that the three murdered slaves were probably innocent, but because of the “inflamed state of the public mind, someone had to be hanged.”

The “troubles” were not over. By the end of July, towns throughout North and Central Texas organized vigilance committees to find and punish the conspirators. The committees terrorized the slave community. Interrogations focused on white itinerant preachers who were cited as insurrection leaders.

Despite fears of a slave rebellion that lasted until after the Civil War, there was never an organized group of slaves in Texas that shed white blood. Vigilantes often obtained “confessions” and evidence points to white leaders spreading the rumors to garner public support for secession.

Estimates vary from thirty to 100 Negroes and whites who died before the panic subsided. One historian described the times as “the drama of the imagination.”

Legends of A Lady Pioneer

Two official Texas historical markers sit on the shore of Lake Texoma, the enormous reservoir separating North Texas and Oklahoma. One marker commemorates Holland Coffee’s Trading Post, now under the waters of Lake Texoma. The neighboring marker calls Sophia Coffee

Sophia Coffee Porter, Grayson County TX GenWeb

Porter a Confederate Lady Paul Revere. The colorful lives of Sophia and Holland Coffee came together in 1837 probably while Coffee served in the Congress of the Republic of Texas.

Sophia was born a Suttonfield in 1815 on the remote military post at Fort Wayne (present Indiana). As a beautiful dark-haired girl of seventeen, she ran away with Jesse Aughinbaugh, the headmaster at her school. The twosome split up in Texas—Sophia said he deserted her—in 1836 and Sophia, who told many stories about herself, claimed to be the first woman to reach the battle site at San Jacinto. She arrived on April 22, 1836, the day after Texas won its independence from Mexico. Although no record exists of their relationship in Sam Houston’s published letters or biographies, Sophia maintained that she nursed the wounded general back to health. Some historians believe she may have been a camp woman who sold her services to the general.

Coffee’s Trading Post
Grayson Co TX GenWeb

Holland Coffee established his trading post in the early 1830s on the Indian Territory (present Oklahoma) side of the Red River and moved to the Texas border in 1837. The historical marker says Coffee traded with the Indians for many white captives. Coffee ransomed a Mrs. Crawford and her two children by paying the Indians 400 yards of calico, a large number of blankets, many beads, and other items. In later years, Mrs. John Horn wrote that when Comanches refused to trade for the release of her and her children, Holland wept and then gave her and the children clothing and flour. Despite being accused by settlers of trading whiskey and guns to the Indians for cattle and horses they stole from the whites, his neighbors must have forgiven him because they elected him as their congressman.

When Sophia failed to get a divorce from Aughinbaugh through the courts in Houston, she petitioned the legislature to intervene on her behalf. After several attempts to get a bill through Congress, Sam Houston, President of the Republic of Texas, used his influence and the petition passed both houses with Holland Coffee as a member of the House of Representatives voting aye.

Coffee and Sophia took a 600-mile honeymoon on horseback through Washington County, to Nacogdoches, and along the Red River, stopping at several locales to attend balls in celebration of their marriage. Coffee settled with his bride at his trading post, a popular place for Indians and for cowboys heading north with their cattle. Coffee gave Sophia a wedding gift of one-third league of land––about 1,476 acres—only the first of her many acquisitions. In her later accounts of life on the Red River, Sophia said her nearest neighbor lived twenty-five miles away.

Because of the constant threat of Indian attacks, the Texas Rangers guarded their trading post. While their slaves plowed the fields, the horses had to be watched. At preaching services, they stacked firearms nearby for easy access. The Republic of Texas built a protective line of forts along the western edge of the frontier and connected them with a Military Road from Austin to Fort Johnson on the Red River near Coffee’s Trading Post. The military base bought supplies, clothing, tobacco, gunpowder, and tools from Coffee, which injected new life into his business. He opened a ferry at a crossing on the Red River and he and Sophia continued to buy land and slaves. New settlers arrived, and in 1845 Holland sold town lots for the town of Preston.

Glen Eden
Grayson County TX GenWeb

In 1845-46 Holland Coffee hired Mormons traveling from Illinois to Central Texas to build Glen Eden, a home that expanded over the years into the most impressive house in North Texas. Sophia entertained lavishly. By her own account, her guests included such notables as Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant (no record exists of either man being there), and Sam Houston. Men from nearby Fort Washita in Indian Territory came often to Glen Eden.

Stories vary about how Coffee died in 1846. Some say it began when Sam Houston arrived to dedicate the new county courthouse in nearby Sherman and planned to stay with the Coffees at Glen Eden. Coffee’s niece had married Charles A. Galloway who offended Sophia by commenting about her former relationship with Sam Houston. She demanded that Coffee horsewhip his new nephew. When Coffee refused to publically air the family problems, Sophia said she would rather be the widow of a brave man than the wife of a coward. Coffee started an “Indian duel,” a fight to the death, with Galloway who killed Coffee with a Bowie knife.

A rich and charming widow of a brave man, Sophia, at age thirty-one managed the 3,000-acre slave plantation, tended her extensive gardens, and continued to host grand parties. On one of her regular trips to New Orleans to sell her cotton crop, she met Major George N. Butts, who returned with her to Glen Eden to manage the plantation. There is no record of a marriage in either Texas or Louisiana, but the relationship became Sophia’s happiest—Butts enjoyed the niceties of gracious living—and they paid for their lifestyle with the sale of their cotton and land. They enlarged Glen Eden, filled it with fine furnishings and china from New Orleans. She became known for her rose garden, an orchard of more than a hundred fruit trees, and grape and berry vines for jams and wines. She grew a magnolia tree in the front yard from a seedling given to her by Sam Houston. Albert Sidney Johnston brought catalpa seeds from California, which she planted, in a line down the driveway.

In 1863, William Clark Quantrill with his group of Confederate guerrillas from Kansas and Missouri moved into Sherman and began robbing and killing anyone who did not agree with Quantrill’s brand of Confederate support. Although Sophia and Butts were southern sympathizers, Butts got into an argument with one of Quantrill’s men and was ambushed one night as he returned from a cotton-selling trip to Sherman. Sophia garnered the sympathy of Sherman residents against Quantrill and got him arrested; he later escaped.

Some historians say the historical marker calling Sophia Coffee Porter a Confederate Lady Paul Revere may not be altogether accurate. Several tales surround this claim, most of them of Sophia’s own telling. One story says that when James Bourland, commander of a Texas frontier regiment, stopped at Glen Eden on his way back to Fort Washita, he warned her that federal troops were following him. When the Yankees arrived, Sophia fed them dinner and took them to her wine cellar where they proceeded to get drunk. She locked them in the cellar and then, riding a mule, forded the treacherous Red River to warn Bourland of the Union’s plans, thus preventing the invasion of North Texas. Another version of the story says she stripped to her underwear and swam the river and then whistled to get the Confederates’ attention.

At age fifty, toward the end of the Civil War, Sophia found the Red River country too dangerous. She packed her gold in tar buckets and took her slaves with her to the safer environment of Waco in Central Texas. There, she met Judge James Porter, a Confederate cavalry officer from Missouri. Rufus Burleson, president of Baylor College performed their marriage on August 2, 1865, and the Porters returned to Glen Eden. With her slaves freed, Sophia’s net worth dropped, but she and James Porter began buying land at sheriff’s auctions and reselling it quickly to increase their holdings.

James Porter apparently influenced Sophia’s desire to “get religion.” She attended a camp meeting and rushed forward throwing herself at the feet of the preacher. Before the entire congregation, the minister said Sophia must wait for twelve years because “the sun, moon, and stars were against her being a Christian.” The Methodist preacher in Sherman, however, welcomed her into the church. She gave a section of land to Southwestern University, a new Methodist institution at Georgetown and land for a Methodist Church at Preston Bend.

“Aunt Sophia,” as she became known in later years, apparently earned the respect of her neighbors. At the first meeting of the Old Settlers Park in Sherman in 1879, Sophia Porter entertained the crowd with the stories of her life as a pioneer woman along the Red River.

Glen Eden continued to be a social center, but Sophia no longer allowed dancing. She and James Porter continued giving money or land to churches in the area until his death in 1886. For the next eleven years, Sophia and her long-time friend and companion Belle Evans searched

Sophia Coffee Poter
Grayson County TX GenWeb

the shops in nearby Denison and Sherman and ordered from catalogs new fashions that would restore Sophia’s youth. Mrs. Evans also applied Ayer’s Hair Dye each week to maintain Sophia’s black locks that had attracted so many suitors over the years. On August 27, 1897, when Sophia died quietly at the age of eighty-one in her fine home of fifty-four years, the man at her side was Reverend J. M. Binkley, the Methodist preacher from Sherman who had accepted her into his congregation.

Church Bell With a Story to Tell

St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Cuero boasts three bells in its arched façade. The small copper bell claims a story of survival. It began life on the Reliance, a Morgan Steamship Line merchant vessel that sailed between New Orleans and the thriving Texas port of Indianola.

St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Cuero.

Indianola residents were enjoying a party onboard the Reliance in 1856 when a fire broke out. The partygoers escaped unharmed, but they heard the ringing of a tiny bell as they watched the burning ship sink into the shallow water of Matagorda Bay.

The Lutherans needed a bell for their new church, and with the Morgan Steamship Lines’ permission, some of the members dove into the bay and retrieved the bell for their church steeple.

Nine years later, during the Civil War, Union troops occupied Indianola for a few months. While they confiscated everything of value, a group of Union soldiers climbed the Lutheran church steeple and tossed the little bell to the ground, intending to return for it when they loaded their other booty.

That night, some of the church members retrieved the bell and buried it. In 1875 a terrible hurricane wrecked Indianola and destroyed most of the churches. Many residents moved inland to places like the new railhead town of Cuero. Then another devastating storm and fire in 1886 turned Indianola into a ghost town.

Meantime, the Lutherans in Cuero held services in the German schoolhouse and finally built their first church in 1889. As the building neared completion and talk centered on the need for a bell in the handsome steeple, one of the members remembered helping bury the little copper bell almost twenty-five years earlier. He led a group to the site where the little bell waited, and they proudly mounted it in the steeple. The bell called the congregation to worship for about five years until a member donated a much larger bell.

Again, the little copper bell received a new life summoning volunteers of the Cuero Fire Department. After several years, the volunteer firemen installed a modern alert system, and an observant church member discovered the little bell tossed in a trash heap. Upon completion of the present church in 1939, the little bell found its final home as one of three bells in the peal.

Serving as St. Mark’s Prayer Bell, it rings when worshipers pray the Lord’s Prayer and it tolls at the conclusion of funeral services when the casket is moved from the front of the church to the narthex.

St. Mark’s Lutheran Church history claims the little copper bell is a reminder to continue serving as circumstances change, even after being buried and resurrected or thrown on a trash heap.

BRITS LEARNED TO FLY IN TEXAS

In March 1941 the United States and Great Britain agreed on a secret operation under the Lend-Lease Program to train Royal Air Force (RAF) pilots in six civilian U.S. aviation schools. The plan was instituted in order to locate the RAF pilots out of danger of constant aerial

Courtesy, British Flying Training School Museum, Terrell, Texas

attacks during their training and the scheme remained a secret because of the United States’ neutrality laws.

Terrell, a town of 10,000 just thirty miles east of Dallas became the first and largest British Flying Training School. Local residents were so delighted to take part in this patriotic mission by allowing the pilots to train at the site used by their small flying club that Terrell’s town

Young British Cadets receiving their BFTS uniforms.

council offered to install all the facilities at no cost. The young, future pilots were flown to Canada where they were discharged from the RAF, given a six months U.S. visitors visa, civilian clothing, and then flown to Terrell where they were welcomed with open arms.

One account says the pilots had some difficulty understanding “Texas talk.” For instance, when they visited in local homes, which they did frequently, the residents often said as the students left, “Y’all come back,” which resulted in the young men turning on their heels and returning immediately. After some explaining, the pilots understood that no one meant for them to return that instant. The expression was intended as a welcome for future visits. Many of the Brits had not even learned to drive a car before they arrived in Texas to learn to fly airplanes and they knew nothing about Texas. They wore wool clothing, which they quickly abandoned. They expected cowboys and Indians and were surprised to discover ordinary folks.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the United States entry into World War II, the training was no longer kept a secret. The young men donned their blue RAF uniforms and continued training. The two-year program was compressed into about seven months, which required flying seven days a week from five A.M. to ten P.M. Upon completion of the course, the pilots returned to Great Britain and another class took their place. By August 1945 when the program ended, more than 2,000 cadets had earned their wings and established many life-long friendships.

More than one-third of the graduates were killed in combat. Twenty died during the training exercises and Terrell residents, who adopted the young men as their own sons, buried them in part of the Oakland Memorial Park Cemetery, which is maintained by the Terrell War Relief Society. Terrell’s No. 1 British Flying Training School Museum, the largest of its kind in the United States, displays log books, training materials, WWII memorabilia, and uniforms.

The Royal Air Force in Texas, Tom Killebrew

THE RISE AND FALL OF INDIANOLA

Waves lap the sunbaked shell beach of a ghost town that never should have been. Despite its locale at near sea level, the thriving port of Indianola rivaled Galveston after the Civil War as a major shipping point on the Texas coast.

In the 1840s a group of German noblemen heard of the cheap land available in Texas, and they saw an opportunity to make a lot of money by ridding Germany of peasant farmers that had no hope of securing more land, craftsmen who were out of work because of the Industrial Revolution, and intellectuals who were unhappy with the strict political environment. The noblemen organized the Adelsverein or Society for the Protection of German Immigrants in Texas and charged each family $250, which paid for transportation to the new land, 320 acres, seeds, tools, and a food allowance to sustain them until the first harvest.

By December 1844 the poorly organized and ill-fated Adelsverein had sent four shiploads of Germans to the bare shell beach at Indian Point, an empty spit of land jutting into the waters where Matagorda and Lavaca bays converge. It was March 1845, before that first wave of immigrants reached their new home, which they named New Braunfels.

The noblemen, ignoring the lack of any kind of village or port facility on the bay, continued sending ships that dumped a steady flow of immigrants, creating a horror story for over 5,000 men, women, and children who arrived at Indian Point and could not find transportation to move inland. Polluted water and lack of sanitation caused diseases that killed hundreds before they could be moved off the coast.

Disillusionment with the Adelsverein led many of the Germans to refuse to join the trek to the land they had been promised. Instead, they remained on the coast and built docks into the shallow bay to receive the steady stream of ships. By 1849 a community had developed at Indian Point, and the residents changed its name to the more melodious “Indianola.”

The United States War Department built a wharf and opened its Army Supply Depot to serve as the disembarkation point for personnel destined for posts as far away as El Paso del Norte (future Fort Bliss) and along the western edge of Texas settlement. Hundreds of freight wagons and Mexican carts loaded with silver from the mines of Chihuahua, Mexico, rolled into Indianola, where ships transported the silver to the mint in New Orleans.

If anything proved to the citizens of Indianola that their seaport was making a name for itself in Washington D.C., it was the arrival of thirty-three camels in May 1856, followed by a second shipment of forty-one camels the next February. The entire affair was an experiment initiated by the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, to test the viability of camels as beasts of burden in the Southwest.

Indianola was a southern town, but it boasted a seaport’s connection to the more cosmopolitan world of commerce, business cooperation, and a diverse blend of residents newly arrived from all over Europe. The soil—gritty shell beaches cut by a crisscross of shallow bayous and lakes—did not lend itself to cotton growing. Thus the vast slave plantations thrived much farther east and north along the rivers and in the rich bottomlands. Planters who came to Indianola to purchase supplies could also buy slaves at auction on the front porch of Indianola’s Casimir House, an elegant hotel and social center that used slaves to serve its guests. Most of the blacks in Indianola were free—having bought their freedom or been freed by previous owners. They worked the docks and they operated pig farms on the huge Powderhorn Lake that sprawled ominously behind the low-lying port city. Unlike most southern towns, the residents of Indianola accepted the presence of free blacks, and they were allowed to go about their business without interference.

During the fall of 1860, talk of Lincoln’s possible election caused little concern and no apparent disruption in the cooperation between northern business people pouring into the port and local shipbuilders producing steamers at a brisk pace. The newspaper editor touted the rosy financial picture, expecting it to continue indefinitely.

Before the first war shots were fired, United States military personnel that had manned the posts along the western edge of Texas settlement to protect colonists from Indian attack, began marching through the streets of Indianola to the docks where federal ships waited to carry them away. The federal blockade of the Gulf of Mexico soon forced the Indianola merchants to close and many residents to flee the city. Despite bombardment by federal troops in October 1862 and a three-month occupation of Indianola in early 1864, residents quickly returned after the war and began rebuilding the destroyed docks and their homes and businesses. The eagerness to return their port to a thriving commercial center and to assist families that had been impoverished by the war played well for an economy that thrived on its maritime commerce.

The problem of high tide washing into the downtown streets was virtually ignored as profits soared, freight wagons by the hundreds clogged the thoroughfares leading to the docks, and ships sat patiently at anchor waiting for access to the busy port. In September 1875, Indianola overflowed with visitors from all over the region who had come to witness the murder trial of participants in the infamous  Sutton-Taylor Feud. Few people noticed the increasingly bad weather until the road out of town became impassable and the railroad tracks washed away. By the time the storm ended, several hundred had died and most of the business houses were destroyed, washed into the huge Powderhorn Lake. Many residents moved inland, but those who remained were determined to rebuild their city.

When railroads were built from rival ports undermining Indianola’s shipping enterprise, businessmen began developing the town as a resort to take advantage of its clear water, excellent fishing, and fine restaurants and hotels.

In August 1886, a West India hurricane moved into the Gulf of Mexico. By the time it reached Indianola it was one of the most powerful storms in recorded history. Structures that had survived the 1875 storm soon gave way to the force of wind and flood. A lamp exploded in a disintegrating building and the wind fanned flames across the entire downtown. At dawn, the port city of Indianola was gone, and the survivors moved, many without ever looking back at the ghost town they left behind.

 

I have told Indianola’s story in The Doctor’s Wife and Stein House.

https-//goo.gl/wMjbVf.webloc

Padre Island, A Story of Hope and Heartbreak

The treasures of Padre Island, playground on the Texas Gulf Coast, reveal far more than sandy beaches and sand dunes rippling in the steady breeze. Dig beneath the sand castles and you find a legacy of grand visions and broken dreams.

South Padre Island
Courtesy City of South Padre Island.

Padre, a textbook example of a barrier reef island, edges the Texas coast for 113 miles from Corpus Christi to the Rio Grande. Its width varies from a few hundred yards to about three miles.

South Padre, the town on the southern tip of the island, enjoys a year-round tourist industry from spring breakers who hang from the rafters of elegant hotels to families who come at other times in search of a retreat from the summer heat and winter chill.

Padre Nicolas Balli
Wikimedia

Approaching the southern end of the island from Port Isabel, travelers cross Queen Isabella Causeway as it rises majestically over Laguna Madre and the Intracoastal Canal to offer the first view of high-rise hotels and condominiums, surf and sand, fun and sun of South Padre Island. In anticipation of an exciting holiday, it is easy to overlook the life-size statue of Padre José Nicolás Ballí welcoming visitors with open arms to his island.

A secular Catholic priest, Padre Ballí was born about 1770 in Reynosa, Mexico, the oldest son of a wealthy Spanish colonial family who owned more than a million acres of land in South Texas. Padre Ballí served as a missionary in the villas and haciendas along the lower Rio Grande. In 1800 he applied for a Spanish land grant of 11.5 leagues (about 154,280 acres) on “Corpus Christi Island,” one of the many names given to Padre Island.

Padre Ballí took his nephew Juan José Ballí as a partner, had the land surveyed, and established the island’s first settlement in 1804 called Rancho Santa Cruz, which lay about 26 miles north of the present town of South Padre. The Ballís ran large herds of cattle, horses, and sheep on their land, and the Padre established a mission to Christianize the Karankawa Indians who lived on the island.

Although the title did not clear until 1829, eight months after his death, Padre Ballí left one-half the land to his nephew Juan and the other one-half to Juan’s brothers and sisters. Juan left for a time and then returned and lived on the island until his death in 1853.

In 1847 a three-masted schooner wrecked during a storm near the south end of Padre Island. Captain John F. Singer, his wife, Johanna, and several sons were the only survivors. The family built a house using material from their ship and wreckage they found along the shore from other vessels.

Mrs. Singer inherited wealth, and in 1851, she bought the Ballí interest in Rancho Santa Cruz. The family rebuilt the ranch, raised large herds of cattle, and grew vegetables, which they took by raft to sell in Port Isabel. John Singer became wreck master of Padre Island and made huge profits salvaging material from destroyed ships washing ashore. In 1861 Singer told the postmaster in Brownsville that he had received a letter from his brother Merritt informing John the $500 he loaned Merritt enabled him to obtain a patent on a device making the newly invented sewing machine more practical for home use. His invention made Merritt quite wealthy and he was authorizing John to draw $150,000 from his bank.

John Singer planned to establish a steamship line from Brazos Island to New Orleans; however, the Civil War halted Singer’s dream. The Singers, known as Union sympathizers, fled to the mainland near Corpus Christi. Stories claim they buried gold and silver worth $62,000 before they left.

The Union army occupied Padre Island for the duration of the war, used the cattle to feed their forces, and tore the ranch apart to build their military installation. When the Singers returned after the war, they discovered shifting sand destroyed every landmark, every guide to where they hid the treasure. After his wife died, John Singer left the island permanently.

Over the years, the Ballí family continued selling pieces of their land believing they retained mineral rights. Meantime, Sam Robertson, a railroad man who laid the tracks for the St. Louis, Brownsville, and Mexico Railway in the early 1900s, saw potential in the rich delta land

Don Patricio Causeway constructed by Sam Robertson.

near the Rio Grande. He developed present San Benito north of Brownsville, and then he turned his development eye to Padre Island. The stretch of hotels and condominiums visitors see today in South Padre represent the dream Robertson visualized forty-five years too early. He saw Padre and Brazos islands as Texas’ biggest resort areas. He confidently began developing the full length of Padre Island—established a ferry across the bay from Corpus Christi in 1927 and built twelve miles of asphalt road to his Twenty-five Mile Hotel. He completed a toll bridge to Brazos Santiago from Boca Chica at the mouth of the Rio Grande, built a bridge between Padre and Mustang islands (at the north end of Padre), and constructed a two-way causeway across Laguna Madre at the midway point on the island.

The stock market crash in 1929 forced abandonment of his scheme and the 1933 hurricane blew away all the new roads and bridges, bringing a devastating end to Robertson’s last big dream. He died in 1938.

Ballí descendants grew to over 300 and continued legal claims over the years to collect vast oil and gas mineral royalties. The Ballí heirs won an $11million award in 2005 claiming they were defrauded out of their mineral rights in 1938; however, the Texas Supreme Court ruled against the family in 2008 claiming the family filed their suit after the statute of limitation expired.

When vacationers romp in the Gulf water, build sand castles along the beach, and relax in the luxurious hotels, not many know this tiny strip of sand offers a history rich in grandiose plans and devastating disappointments.

 

Note: This story and 112 more are in my latest book TEXAS TALES, STORIES THAT SHAPED A LANDSCAPE AND A PEOPLE.