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The History of Galveston County

Long before Anglo settlers inhabited Galveston County, two man groups of Native Americans lived in the region. The Akokisa and the Karankawa lived off the abundance of wild plants, fish, and small mammals. Archeological evidence of their existence includes campsites, shell middens (trash piles of discarded bone, shells, etc.), burial grounds, arrow/spear points, and pottery. Coastal Indian groups were sometimes raided by conflicting interior groups like the Apache, Comanche, and Tonkawas.
When European explorers entered the area disease and fighting further reduced the already declining population. Juan de Grijalva, is credited with discovering Galveston Island in 1519, although scholars debate if he actually landed at Galveston Island, or another place. Cabeza de Vaca’s explorations of the area provide the first documentation of what most scholars believe was Galveston Island and Galveston County. De Vaca was on the Narvaez expedition in 1528 when he was shipwrecked on what most scholars believe was Galveston Island. His notes name the island the “Isle of Misfortune” and “Isle of Snakes.” De Vaca’s group was rescued by Karankawas who took them to a village where they were given food and shelter. Eventually, de Vaca moved on, and it was not until 1685 that another French explorer, Sieur de La Salle, visited the area. And, in 1783 José Antonio de Evia a Spanish navigator, surveyed the area and named the bay Galvezton for Viceroy Bernardo de Gálvez who supported the United States in the Revolutionary War.

Despite all the visitors, pirates were the first to make a permanent home here. Mexicans invited pirate Louis d’Aury to settle on Galveston because they would have a more legitimate claim to the land if settlers were living there. However, Aury was forced out, and pirate Jean Lafitte took over. In 1817, Lafitte established a village called Campeche on the east end of Galveston Island. He ran a successful operation trading slaves and other goods. Due to troubles with the U.S. government, Laffite burned his village and left in 1821.

While under Mexico rule, settlement of the area proceeded slowly. Lead by Stephen F. Austin, American colonists began settling the area under the Mexican Empresario system of land grants. On the Mainland, early settlers built farms close to creeks and bayous and raised beef and produce. Surplus was transported by boat to Galveston for sale. Eventually, railroads became a major mode of transportation which allowed the county to further develop its economy of agriculture, ranching, and tourism. By 1911, the Interurban rail line began running between Houston and Galveston with several stops throughout the county. The non-stop, express ride from Houston to Galveston took about an hour. Throughout the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s the petrochemical industry and NASA’s presence transformed this rural area.