Galveston County - Introduction
Lying just southeast of Houston, TX along the Gulf of Mexico, Galveston County has a rich and colorful history which is perhaps matched only by the population that now calls it home. As it currently exists the county consists of a portion of the Texas mainland, a sizeable piece of the largest estuary in the state (the Trinity-San Jacinto Estuary, which includes Galveston Bay and several smaller extensions and inlets), and various islands, the largest of which is Galveston Island. Only 43% of the county's total area of 874 square miles is covered by land, and the latest population estimate by the US Census Bureau stands at approximately 350,000 residents.
As with most areas in Texas, nomadic tribes were the primary residents for thousands of years and aside from scattered camps along the coast or simple burial grounds there are very few records of long-term settlements. Much of what has been learned of early inhabitants comes from study of shell middens, which are essentially the gathered remains of meals where inedible bones and shells were piled up and left behind. Various tribes including the Atakapan and Karankawa have been identified as spending time along this portion of the coast, and were likely among those native populations that first encountered Spanish explorers as early as 1519. The first Europeans seem to have a negative impression of Galveston Island, known to the Indians as Auia, and referred to it either as Isla de Malhado or Isla de Culebras (island of misfortune or snakes).
Interestingly, the source of the name now attached to the bay, island, and primary city was a man respected by both the Spanish and Americans. Bernardo de Galvez, a Spanish military commander who had previously participated in wars in Europe, Africa, and North America, was the governor of Spanish Louisiana at the time of the American Revolution. He not only helped provide the colonists with desperately-needed provisions but also successfully forced the British out of West Florida by winning battles from Baton Rouge to Pensacola. His contributions not only helped the new American nation by preventing the British from encircling them from the south, but also secured Florida for the Spanish crown in the Treaty of Paris. In 1783, the year that marked the end of the American Revolution, a Spanish explorer named Jose Antonio de Evia surveyed the bay and named it Galveston to honor the hero. In 2014, Galvez became only the eighth person to ever be granted honorary citizenship by the United States government.
Galveston County was formed by the Texas government in 1838 by taking portions of Harrisburg, Brazoria, and Liberty counties, and soon it became the primary entry point to Texas. Commercial goods, immigrants, and news poured in on ships arriving from New Orleans, the United States, and Europe. Galveston soon became the largest, most important city in the Republic of Texas, despite the fear of many investors that it was susceptible to hurricanes. The Civil War took a toll on the area, but a significant Union faction and the fact that neither the railroad nor the port were destroyed allowed Galveston to survive Reconstruction in better shape than many other Confederate locations. It wasn't until the Great Hurricane of 1900 that the city's relative importance was diminished in favor of Houston to the northwest. The early 20th century witnessed a sharp decline in shipping and manufacturing interests but other businesses rushed to take their places as agriculture, gambling, railroads, seafood, and minerals all took their turns at influencing economic life throughout the region. In the decades since the end of World War II, Galveston County has become increasingly urban and now supports such industries as petrochemical, aerospace, medical education, and tourism. Over the coming weeks, we'll look at the histories and interesting details of various cities and communities that make up this remarkable county. I hope you'll join me for the journey!