History of Galveston

Uncover the rich history of Galveston Island.

Galveston has a fascinating and storied past: from devastating storms to civil war battles. Before the 1900 storm, Galveston was the second richest city per capita in the United States and was even dubbed the “Wall Street of the South” due to its flourishing banking industry and the retail success of The Strand. Among many of its Texas “firsts” (there are over 100), it had Texas’ first bank and first post office.

Early Beginnings

Galveston got its name from the Spanish Colonial governor, Bernardo de Galvez, who ordered the first survey of the Texas Gulf Coast in 1786. Oddly, de Galvez never stepped foot on the island; it was the surveyor, Jose de Evia, who named Galveston Bay in his honor, which later led to the name of the island.

The first inhabitants in Galveston were the Karankawa Indians in the 16th century. They were joined at one point by the Island’s first noted visitor, a shipwrecked Spanish explorer named Cabeza de Vaca, in 1528. He was forced to live among the Karankawa, serving as a medicine man and slave.

Pirates

Later visitors included corsairs, like the French Jean Lafitte, who built the small colony of Campeche in 1817. Ever the privateer, he used this as a base to raid Spanish merchant ships that passed through the Gulf. He fled after a decade, burning down the community he built (his treasures are rumored to be buried on the Island).

Wall Street of The South

In 1836, Canadian fur trader Michel B. Menard purchased seven square miles of land, which became the City of Galveston. It was the same year Texas gained independence from Mexico and became a republic. Other great changes followed, business flourished, and Galveston became a major U.S. commercial center and one of the largest ports in the United States; it was second to Ellis Island as an immigration port. By 1885, it was the largest and richest city in Texas.

Great Storm of 1900

The tragedy that was the Great Storm is the worst natural disaster ever recorded in North America. It hit Galveston on September 8, 1900. Few managed to evacuate before the bridges to the mainland collapsed, resulting in the loss of more than 6,000 lives (estimations vary). Due to a lack of storm monitoring equipment, residents had little warning to evacuate when surging seas and high winds enveloped the island.

1900 storm damage

After this, Galveston, being the resilient city that it is, raised most of the island 17 feet to create Seawall Boulevard. It took around eight years to complete the raising of 500 city blocks—all done by hand to prevent damage from future storms. People walked on raised wooden sidewalks during the construction, which also included building 2,000 homes.

The Storm led to the development of the celebrated Seawall and a shift away from being a trade center to an entertainment and gambling hub. A popular haunt was the Balinese Room, a famous nightclub on the pier that hosted some of the biggest names of the era, even Frank Sinatra. It was also an illegal casino that invited much mob activity. Sadly, the structure was destroyed by Hurricane Ike on September 13, 2008.

Modern Galveston

In 1957, the Galveston Historical Foundation sought to preserve local historic buildings and developed the Strand Historic District. Galveston gradually became geared toward family-oriented tourism, which it is to this day.

Discovery pyramid moody gardens
Moody Gardens pyramids.

Today, Galveston still boasts top schools, historic districts featuring beautifully restored Victorian homes and hotels, and an array of restaurants and activities that attract more than seven million visitors annually. Known as the “Playground of the South” in the late 1800s, Galveston remains an important leisure area today, with Schlitterbahn Waterpark, the Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier, and Moody Gardens. There’s also tons of culture to take in, including a variety of museums that cater to children and adults alike as well as theatre and live music. And of course, don’t forget the beaches!