Galveston Island is one of the barrier islands that can be found along the coast of the state of Texas. At one point, it was home to one of the largest cities in that part of the United States, so much so that it was actually larger than the Texan cities that are well-known in the present. However, a number of disasters have brought it low from its former heights, ranging from the single most devastating natural disaster in U.S. history to an economic crisis following World War 2. In spite of these disasters, the people of Galveston Island have continued on, which is why the place is now a fairly popular choice for vacationers, both because of its hospitable climate and because of its annual attractions. As a result, people who are interested in having some fun and excitement out in the subtropical sun should give Galveston Island some serious consideration, not least because it offers them so much more than what meets the eye at first glance.
Here are 20 things that you may or may not have known about Galveston Island:
1. Once Inhabited By Native Americans
At the time that Europeans began making contact with the peoples of the Americas, Galveston Island was inhabited by both the Akokisa and the Karankawa. This is the because Galveston Island was a rich source of food, which ranged from both fish and shellfish to the seeds as well as other edible parts of various plants. In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that even earlier Native American peoples used it as a site for seasonal fishing and hunting, which was not uncommon for the barrier islands that can be found along the Gulf of Mexico.
2. Once Hosted Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca
Striking out into unfamiliar regions could be a high-risk business, as shown by the example of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca. In short, the Spanish explorer was part of the ill-fated expedition led out of Spain by Panfilo de Narvaez in 1527. By a combination of greed as well as bad decision-making and a lack of understanding of local conditions, the expedition was whittled down from hundreds and hundreds to four people including Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, who managed to make his way over what is now the American Southwest and northern Mexico to reach Spanish territories. Galveston Island is believed to have been one of his stops, which is fortunate because his accounts of his remarkable experience provided us with some of our best information about the Native Americans of those regions.
3. Once Home to an Infamous Pirate
Galveston Island was once the base of a rather infamous pirate named Jean Lafitte, who started out as a smuggler but became a slaver because of a loophole in a U.S. law that had prohibited the import of slaves to U.S. ports. In short, the import of slaves was prohibited but there was an exemption for slaves from captured slavers, which is why Lafitte went after slavers so that he could sell their human merchandise in the United States with the assistance of his U.S. contacts.
4. Used to Be Texas’s Main Port
It is interesting to note that Galveston Island used to be one of the most important ports in not just the state of Texas but also the United States as a whole. For example, it saw so much traffic following Texas’s annexation into the United States in 1845 that it was more populous than San Antonio. Furthermore, it was the second largest port for American immigrants before the American Civil War and remained important afterwards throughout the 19th century.
5. Saw Fighting During the American Civil War
The state of Texas saw little fighting in the American Civil War because of its location. However, it is interesting to note that Galveston Island was the site for one of these battles because of its strategic importance as a port. In 1862, Union soldiers managed to take and hold the place for a few months, but were pushed out by Confederate soldiers on January 1, 1863. Afterward, the Union continued to blockade the place to hinder its potential use as a source of supplies.
6. Devastated by the Worst Natural Disaster in U.S. History
In 1900, Galveston Island was hit by a Category 4 storm, which killed between 6,000 and 12,000 people. The usual figure cited in official reports is 8,000 people, which is enough to make it the single deadliest natural disaster in the United States and the third deadliest Atlantic storm known to us. It is believed that the impact of the storm was worsened by the fact that few people had expected it, both because of contradictory reports and because of widespread complacency in the people of Galveston.
7. Became Less Attractive As an Investment After the 1900 Hurricane
Fewer and fewer people chose to invest in Galveston Island after 1900 for fear that the hurricane could happen a second time, which is part of the reason that it lost its place of prominence in the state of Texas. However, it is interesting to note that the people of Galveston Island took steps to prevent a repeat, as shown by the building of a seawall as well as the raising of an all-weather bridge that would serve as a way out in case of future emergencies.
8. Raised By 17 Feet
One of the reasons that Galveston Island had suffered so much in the 1900 hurricane is the fact that it used to be a low, flat island. As a result, one of the most impressive measures to prevent a repeat is the fact that the people of Galveston Island actually raised the entire island by as much as 17 feet in some places, which required the use of enormous amounts of dredged sand. This feat is particularly impressive considering that all of the buildings that had survived the storm had to be raised as well, which was a serious challenge to say the least.
9. Its European Settlement Was Financed By a Jewish Immigrant
It is interesting to note that the earliest European settlement of Galveston Island was financed by Jao de la Porta, who was a Portuguese merchant of Jewish background. To be exact, he financed the privateer Louis Michel Aury, who used Galveston Island as his base of operations. Later, Jao de la Porta was also the one who sold Aury’s base of operations to Lafitte, who picked up where his predecessor had stopped.
10. Was Home to the Galveston Movement
In the late 19th century, antisemitic pogroms in Tsarist Russia forced Jewish residents to flee from Russia and the rest of eastern Europe in enormous numbers. A lot of those people ended up fleeing to the U.S. East Coast, so much so that some of the Jewish leaders in the United States became concerned about the potential of a backlash because most of those immigrants were poor and crowded into small spaces, which could have led to immigration restrictions. As a result, they set up the Galveston Movement, which was intended to bring Jewish immigrants to Galveston Island and from that point on, the rest of the American South by providing them with the assistance that they needed.
11. Named After a Spanish Viceroy
Galveston Island is named for a Spanish man named Bernardo de Galvez, who was not just the colonial governor of Louisiana and Cuba but also the Viceroy of New Spain later in life. It is interesting to note that Galvez supported the Americans in the American Revolution, having gone as far as to lead Spanish soldiers against their British counterparts, which resulted in the Spanish reconquest of Florida.
12. Exploited Prohibition to Boost Tourism
After the 1900 hurricane, the people of Galveston Island began seeking other ways to boost their economy, which they believed was too reliant on shipping. One of the most important methods was tourism, which got a significant boost after Prohibition because the people of Galveston Island were not particularly interested in enforcing those rules. As a result, the place became known as one of the sin cities of the United States.
13. Earned the Nickname “Free State of Galveston”
The people of Galveston Island took so much pride in their rejection of Prohibition as well as what they saw as the over-restrictive rules of the state of Texas and the rest of the United States that they actually called themselves the Free State of Galveston from time to time, which was not a genuine call for independence but more of a rejection of the cultural mores of the time. Now, the nickname is associated with Galveston in that particular time period, which was one of the highest points in its long history.
14. Was Once Home to the “Wall Street of the South”
At one point, Galveston Island was so important to the economy of the region that one of its districts, the Strand, was actually called the Wall Street of the South in the 19th century. After all, it was a major hub in the transportation network that connected the United States as well as the rest of the world, which in turn, made it a natural choice for a place to do business on such a vast scale.
15. Suffered an Economic Crash After World War 2
During World War 2, Galveston Island received a fair amount of economic investment because of the military build-up. However, the rise of Las Vegas combined with stricter enforcement of the laws after the end of World War 2 put Galveston Island’s gambling industry under incredible pressure, so much so that it as well as the rest of its vice industries collapsed when the Attorney General of Texas began authorizing raids in 1957. Once the vice industries collapsed, the tourism industry collapsed as well, which brought the rest of Galveston Island’s economy down along with it.
16. Replaced with Family-Oriented Tourism
In modern times, Galveston Island is still known for its tourism, which has a more family-oriented nature. This could not have happened without the support of both local and non-local investors, who went to significant lengths in order to restore the historic buildings of the Strand district while also creating new sites of interest that make use of both its cultural significance and its natural landscape.
17. The West End Is Eroding
In 2011, Rice University released a study concluding that the west end of Galveston Island was eroding, so much so that it actually recommended that the city take steps to curb construction in that area. In fact, the problem was so bad that the study also recommended that the west end of the island should not be rebuilt in case it suffered damage from another hurricane, which speaks volumes about the scale of the problem. For the time being, it remains to be seen whether the people of Galveston Island will come up with another solution as remarkable as the one imposed by their predecessors.
18. Contains an Excellent Collection of 19th Century Buildings
For people who love historic buildings from the 19th century, there are few places in the United States that can match Galveston Island, which boasts one of the finest collections that can be found in the entire country. Examples range from the Grand Opera House rendered in the Romanesque Revival style to the Bishop’s Palace, which is actually a particular ornate example of the Victorian style. These historic buildings are all the more impressive in that they are survivors of the 1900 Hurricane.
19. The Strand Is Home to Multiple Festivals
Now, the Strand is famous for being home to multiple festivals of distinction in the region. One particularly famous example of these festivals is the Mardi Gras celebration, which draws about half a million people to the city on an annual basis. This has been helped by ongoing efforts by city leaders to encourage the right talent while also creating the right conditions to draw in big crowds.
20. Was Hit Hard By Hurricane Ike
Despite their efforts to mitigate the effects of the hurricanes that roll through the region on a semi-regular basis, the people of Galveston Island were still hit hard by Hurricane Ike, which caused a fair amount of damage to both businesses and residences while also convincing a fair number of the people of Galveston Island to move away. Still, it was hardly a mortal blow, as shown by the fact that those who chose to stay just picked up the pieces and proceeded to rebuild in the same spirit that moved their predecessors so long ago.