Galveston is a barrier island, a strip of sand and shell that runs parallel to mainland, separated by West Galveston Bay. The island began to form around 5,000 years ago; however, it took another 3,000 years for the core to become high enough to withstand typical storm surges. Sand dunes formed behind the beach; grasses and other plants spread and stabilized most of the island’s surfaces.
Rise and fall of local American Indian populations
After discovering an island that teemed with life, American Indians began to visit Galveston Island around 2,000 years ago. While relatively few mammals (except the cotton rat) inhabited the island long-term, deer were present in periods between major hurricanes. Freshwater and brackish ponds held frogs, crabs, turtles, water moccasins, and alligators. Fish and crustaceans were plentiful.
Indians had a mobile lifestyle and only lived on Galveston seasonally – typically during cooler weather. They fished, trapped rats, and gathered shellfish and roots. Galveston Island is thought to have become the boundary between two groupings: Akokisas, who lived around Galveston Bay, and Karankawas, who lived along the coast between the Brazos River delta and the Corpus Christi Bay.
By 1500, Spanish exploration initiated European interaction with Karankawas and Akokisas. One of the first Europeans to set foot on Galveston – albeit wetly – may have been Cabeza de Vaca, when his vessel was thought to have foundered in the surf in 1628. It was rumored that de Vaca spent a year with the Karankawa before making his way to Mexico.
By the late 1600’s, the French began moving into the Gulf Coast area and were soon building towns, trading settlements and military posts over an area that extended from Biloxi to Natchitoches (in today’s western Louisiana). Traders traveled among the Indians, exchanging European manufactured goods for commodities such as deer hides.
The traders brought with them European diseases, against which the Karanawa and Akokisa had never developed immunities. Population levels declined dramatically, leaving surviving communities unable to withstand the aggressive Anglo-American settlement of Texas coastal prairies. By the 1860’s, the last remaining Karankawas had intermingled with other populations and disappeared as a distinct tribe.
First settled by pirates
As early as 1783, the Spanish surveyed the area, naming the bay after Viceroy Bernardo de Galvez. However, it was pirates (or privateers) who were the first to make a permanent settlement on Galveston Island in 1816 when Louis Aury declared Galveston to be part of the Republic of Mexico. Aury used his settlement as a base from which to attack Spanish shipping.
While Aury was away attacking the Spanish in 1817, Jean Lafitte staged a coup to seize control of Galveston. While on Galveston, Lafitte acted as a privateer and also smuggled slaves and other goods into Louisiana. After a series of incidents with the US government, Lafitte was evicted from Galveston in 1820 – but not before he was able to burn his settlement and seed long-lasting rumors of buried treasure.
During his stay on Galveston Island, Lafitte clashed with the Karankawa at the Battle of the Three Trees, close to the site of the Park.
Rise and fall of Galveston as a center of commerce
More conventional forms of commerce thrived in Galveston in the 1800’s; however, major storms in 1867, 1871, 1875, and 1886 greatly slowed progress. The Great Storm of 1900 devastated the island, killing thousands and precipitating a long, slow decline.
Demonstrating the optimism prevalent in Galveston prior to the Great Storm, developers planned to build the new town of South Galveston on land now occupied by the Park. Streets were laid out and lots platted; dredging began in 1893.
Developers also planned to build a railroad to the mainland over “Coronkaway Reef,” as well as a “commodious and handsomely furnished” hotel – the Alta Loma – on the shores of Lake Como. Another key feature was the existing racetrack with stadium seating for 6,000, located where the defunct amphitheater now stands. However, these dreams were never realized; all that remains of South Galveston today is one of the Park’s freshwater ponds.
During Prohibition there were some echoes of the past as schooners from Cuba, Jamaica and the Bahamas anchored off the coast and offloaded liquor to smaller boats.
Impact of the Stewart family
The Stewart family has a large place in the Park’s history. Maco Stewart (1896 – 1950) was a successful businessman — for example, at various times he was president of Stewart Title Company of Texas, Guaranty Federal Savings and Loan, Gulf Coast Marine Ways, Stewart Petroleum Company, and Southland Hotel Company and a director of the American National Insurance Company. In 1933, Stewart purchased an 8,000 square foot retreat from the family of George Sealy. This Spanish-style structure, renamed Stewart’s Mansion but more commonly known as the Stewart Mansion, became the main house on a cattle ranch that extended to both sides of the state highway. In addition, there were two smaller houses for guests and ranch hands. The mansion is situated close to the site of the Battle of the Three Trees.
Stewart was also known for his philanthropies; indeed, his will stated that his “Galveston Island home” should be given to the state of Texas “to be used and maintained as a fish, game and oyster preserve and for any other public purpose.” This wish was fulfilled in 1969 when the Stewart family sold almost 2,000 acres of the ranch to the State of Texas under the State Parks Bond Program. The Stewart Mansion was excluded from this purchase, though the two smaller houses were not — and, in the first quarter of 2014, will be made available for daily, weekly or weekend rental via State Park Reservations. Remnants of the old ranch (such as dip tanks and wind mills) are still scattered throughout the Park.
1975: The Park opened.
1977: The 1,700-seat Mary Moody Northen Amphitheater opened in the Park with “Lone Star,” the official play of the State of Texas. The original intention for the amphitheater was to portray Texas history and early pioneers via music, gunfire and galloping horses. Beginning in 1979, however, Broadway-style musicals such as “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Hello Dolly” and “Oklahoma!” were added to the schedule to bolster attendance. Stars included cabaret singer Marilyn Maye. Due to declining interest, “Lone Star” was eventually put on hiatus in 1990. The combination of unpredictable weather, unbearable heat, and mosquitoes forced a move to Moody Gardens in 2004. As of January, 2014, the musicals are no longer being performed in Galveston on a seasonal basis.
1987: Volunteers from Telephone Pioneers of America began meeting at the Park one day a week to do “what needs to be done.” They built benches, replaced blinds for bird watching, trimmed trees, painted buildings, and more. Telephone Pioneers of America was made up of long-serving workers from the communications industry; the organization is now known as Pioneers, a Volunteer Network.
1998: Tropical Storm Frances destroyed the dunes on the beach.
2001: The Friends of Galveston Island State Park organization was formed.
2008: On September 14, the Park was closed due to damage from Hurricane Ike.
2009: The Park reopened in July. For images of the damage caused by Ike and the Park’s surprisingly rapid recovery, refer to Archives.