The Historic Seacoast of Texas

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The Historic Seacoast of Texas

Paintings by J.U. Salvant
Text by David G. McComb

Lovely watercolor paintings, accompanied by a concise and fascinating text, capture the beauty and history of the Texas Gulf Coast.



33% website discount price


10 x 11 | 96 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-77741-5

The Gulf Coast of Texas has drawn people ever since nomadic Indian tribes sought sustenance in the coastal lagoons and marshes. Spanish and French explorers shipwrecked on these shores, while settlers in the nineteenth century turned Galveston and Indianola into thriving ports. Today, the coast is a major hub for industry and maritime shipping, as well as for commercial and pleasure fishing. Perhaps most important, the Gulf Coast remains a place where visitors and residents alike find refreshment and renewal.

J. U. Salvant's lovely watercolor paintings in this book capture the history, beauty, and natural resources of the Texas coast. Some recreate landmarks that have been washed away by the tides of time, while others depict historical sites that welcome visitors. Still other paintings portray aspects of coastal life that are timeless. David G. McComb offers a concise, fascinating history of the Texas coastline to accompany the paintings. He shows how the resources of land and sea have always attracted people to the coast and describes the effects of major hurricanes. He also provides vignettes of individuals whose lives are woven into the Gulf Coast story. Taken together, these words and images blend past and present into a seamless depiction of the charms of the Gulf Coast.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Artist's Notes
  • Introduction
  • The Sabine Crossing
  • The Bolivar Peninsula
  • Galveston Island
  • The Brazos Landing
  • Troubled Waters at Matagorda Bay
  • The Aransas Passage
  • Corpus Christi and the Cowtowns of the Coast
  • Padre Island—Shipwrecks and Tourists
  • Afterword
  • Suggested Reading
  • Notes
  • Resources

In the black solitude at the end of the asphalt I waited in a rented white Ford sedan at Boca Chica beach, a sandy spit at the extreme southern tip of the Texas coastline. My headhts had illuminated the successive warning signs of Highway 4: "Pavement Ends"; "Road Ends, 1500 Feet"; "Road Ends, 500 Feet"; and, finally, "Stop." Beyond the last sign stretched one hundred feet of darkness that disappeared into indistinct rumbling surf. Translated from Spanish, "Boca Chica" means "little mouth," or "mouth of a girl." It marked the opening of the Rio Grande. Curiously, some 900 miles eastward in the Florida keys there is another Boca Chica. The two places, at either end of the United States Gulf Coast, are a reminder that this was once a Spanish sea.

Cautious about the loose sand, I parked facing the sea on the few remaining feet of pavement and waited to witness the sun appear over the Gulf of Mexico. The WPA Guide to Texas, published in 1940 and written by out-of-work historians for the New Deal, commented about this place: "Here in early days the well-to-do Spanish ranchers of Matamoros came for recreation, making the spot one of the oldest beach resorts in the United States."' I had tried to confirm that information in other books and with various contemporary borderlands historians, but without success. If true, it meant that Boca Chica could claim a unique place in the nation's past. But I was here for another purpose—to experience the beginning of a new day at this remote stretch of beach at the end of the Texas coast. I was curious.

At 5:30 A.M. in March 1991 there was still a three-quarter moon, and the constellation Scorpio danced at my right shoulder. Two boat lights twinkled on the dim line of the horizon, probably shrimpers, and illumination from South Padre Island glowed on my left. The road pointed directly into the eastern sky. Sharing this solitude with me was a long-legged, tailless, white-and-gray feral dog who politely came to the door of the car looking for a handout. His lack of fear was impressive, but he was not much interested in saltine crackers and shortly left to sniff the scattered trash cans along this largely undeveloped beach of Brazos Island State Recreation Area.

The sky changed quickly from black to indigo to muddy blue as the burnt orange sun emerged from the sea. When it freed itself from the horizon the sun became an oval of bright orange and then a circle of gold. There was no fog and the slanting light colored the sand to look like light brown sugar, gave mascara strokes to wind ripples in the beach, and draped long shadows on the cactus standing stiffly at attention behind the dunes. The grumbling, breaking waves momentarily held the angled light in green translucent curls that fell and dissolved into hissing foam upon the shore while a few early-rising gulls, sounding like bigcity garbage collectors, noisily began their daily task of scavenging the frothy surf line. Dawn at the Boca Chica—many aspects were immemorial, dictated by nature; others were strongly influenced by human existence, as has been the world since the time of Adam and Eve.

The Texas coast is a part of a low plain, several hundred miles wide, that bands the United States from New York to Mexico. Not over 1,000 feet above the sea and submerged many times over geological time, the landform now gradually descends from the Balcones Escarpment in central Texas to the shore and then out into the Gulf of Mexico for six miles to form the Continental Shelf. The gentle topography produces slow meandering rivers and easy surf on the coastline.

Early settlers, buoyed on the tide of the American westward movement, sought the fertile soils, moderate temperatures, and generous rainfalls of the eastern Texas coastal plain and moved quickly inland to plant their cotton and corn. Understandably, during their rush the farmers and ranchers of the nineteenth century paid scant attention to the thin ribbon of sand that delimited water and land, or to the expansive salt marshes that often stood between the beaches and farming country. These areas were nonproductive for the Anglo settlers of the nineteenth century. At a time when human energy had to concentrate upon survival in the wilderness, the pioneers—Americans of all sorts, English, Irish, Czech, Africans, Germans, and others—sought out the good Texas soils. It was land so rich, according to talk, that a crop of ordinary white potatoes turned naturally into sweet potatoes. The beach and marsh were notably rejected and ignored.

Such rejection was not just a peculiarity of the settlers, either, because most Indians of Texas also shunned the shoreline. Two groups, among the poorest and least sophisticated of the natives, occupied the coast. To the east, from Galveston Bay into Louisiana, small, scattered bands of Atakapans hunted deer, raked in oysters, impaled flounders in shallow water, and gathered bird eggs for food. They poled crude blunt-end dugout canoes and speared alligators through the eyes to kill them. They extracted the ill-smelling body oil of the reptile to smear on themselves as mosquito repellent. The Atakapans wore little clothing, lived in crude brush huts, and, because of land conditions, engaged in no agriculture! In general, they were peripheral to the more culturally complex Caddo Indians who lived to the north. Seemingly, these Atakapan Indians lived a marginal existence on land unwanted by more powerful groups, on land unable to support large numbers of people. Ominously, in the Choctaw language, their name meant "eaters of men."

From Galveston on toward Corpus Christi lived a similar group, the Karankawas. As with the Atakapans, knowledge about these Indians is limited, but they also apparently lived a nomadic life partly sustained by the coast. They fished the shallow lagoons in crude dugouts, made their pots leakproof with asphaltum that washed up on beaches, ate clams and oysters, and harvested the roots of cattails. The Karankawas possessed no agriculture of their own and moved periodically in search of a seasonal bounty from nature. Noah Smithwick, when he arrived at Matagorda Bay in 1827, saw a band of Karankawas from the safety of a ship. "They were the most savage looking human beings I ever saw," he recorded. "Their ugly faces were rendered hideous by the alligator grease and dirt with which they were besmeared from head to foot as a defense against mosquitoes." Smithwick, like other immigrants at the time, had no great liking of Indians and he was disappointed not to fire a cannon into their midst. His observations were tainted by prejudice, however, and the Atakapans and the Karankawas lived a successful hunting and gathering life on marginal land.

The difficulty with the coastal country was that it was not productive enough to sustain great numbers of people who only fished, hunted, and gathered food. Seasonally, after the spawning seasons of black drum and redfish during the fall and winter, the Karankawas broke into small bands and migrated inland to hunt bison and deer. To be sure, the nearby marshes teemed with life. Snakes, alligators, birds in stunning variety, insects, small fish, larvae for oysters and shrimp were all a part of a salt wetland ecology now recognized for its importance. It was land difficult to hunt and impossible to farm, however, unless it was drained. That took capital, engineering, and great effort. In frontier Texas, where there existed cheap land that was easy for settlers to cultivate, why bother?

The small strip of sandy beach was even more difficult, for here was a desert environment in which only the most determined of plants and animals could survive. Texas beaches start near the Louisiana border at Sabine Pass and follow the 367-mile curving coastline southwestward to Mexico. They were formed, according to one explanation, by sand left behind when the sea level rose after the last ice age. Waves and currents, then, pushed the debris into islands. Another explanation is that wave action formed the islands and beaches from sand carried into the Gulf by rivers, including the Mississippi River. Gulf currents moving westward parallel to the mainland from the Mississippi dropped the particles, which then accumulated. Another powerful Gulf current swept northward along the coast of Mexico, performing the same beach-formation task. The streams met at Big Shell, midway on Padre Island, where the island curves eastward in one direction and southward in the other. Because of the turbulence of water and air, this has been a historic danger point for sailing ships, and a place of delight for people who collect sea shells.

From Galveston Bay to Mexico, the sandy beaches are found mainly on barrier islands. The islands vary in length and width and look fragile on a map. This somewhat belies their geologic assignment to protect the mainland from destructive hurricanes. Galveston Island, historically the most important, for example, is three miles wide and twenty-seven miles long. Padre Island, noted for contemporary tourist developments, is 130 miles long—the longest sand-barrier island in the world. If given enough time and peace, live oak trees, sea oats, and morning glory vines grow to anchor the restless sand. However, the islands stand in harm's way. Unlike any other geographical point, where the sea meets the land there is constant combat.

Waves drop sand as they tumble ashore and in the washing movement push the grains first landward and then seaward. Sand does not stay in one place; it is in a dynamic environment. On land, if the sand grains escape the waves and tides, the water evaporates and the crystals become captives of the wind. They blow, often, into dunes which move slowly landward in the direction of the prevailing wind. Indeed, the whole sand-barrier island inches landward, as incipient islands form in the sandbars offshore. Storms may further the movement by washing the sand up and over to the bay side. It is debatable how far this can go, but Live Oak Ridge near Rockport is a stabilized Pleistocene Era sand-barrier island that is now part of the mainland. The Bolivar Peninsula, moreover, is treated by the United States Corp of Engineers as a sand-barrier island even though it is attached to the mainland. It was once an island, apparently, and it has now become partially connected to the main shore .

The wind, generally a strong offshore breeze whiffling in the ears, is a dominant weather feature. It not only dries the sand and creates its own sand sculptures, it also carries a heavy bur den of humidity and salt. Like sea water, nature's ultimate solvent, the air possesses a corrosive quality. Houses almost always look tired and in need of a coat of paint; cars suffer premature rusting; women's hairdos, those with other than straight styling, demand frequent repair; and windows or eyeglasses exposed to the breeze require frequent washing. If the wind stops, as it does once in a while, armies of mosquitoes launch invasions from the nearby marshlands, but at dawn and dusk the wind rewards coastal residents with soft pastel skies of light blue, magenta, orange, and peach. Galveston writer Kate Cambridge commented in 1982, "... it's an evening sky again, that intermingled pink and blue, no, lavender, but yet there's all that gold ... and if I could find a name for that color my own name would shine."

At times the mainland and island chain is battered and rearranged by catastrophic storms, the worst of which are hurricanes. Warm, humid air rising from the mid-Atlantic Ocean creates the conditions for these swirling, broad storms that travel through the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico and sometimes up the Atlantic seaboard during the months of June through November. Every other year, on average, they attack part of the Texas coastline with heavy rains, tornadoes, high tides, and counterclockwise winds blowing at more than seventy-three miles per hour. When this happens, dunes are flattened, channels are opened through the islands, plants are uprooted, shorelines are changed, and a fresh layer of shell debris is scattered over the sand. Storm surges and flooding inflict most of this land damage, while wind and tornadoes strike at arrogant human structures. Even if a beach house survives a storm, the disconcerted owner may find that the beach line has shifted and that his prized vacation home now stands in the surf, or on prohibited state property. This creates a problem, because state law reserves the beach up to the vegetation line of the dunes for public use. Such is the difficulty when humans try to build their homes on moving islands of sand. Hurricanes, however, are a common occurrence and for the people who choose to defy them there can be no excuse.

To complicate matters, the sea level is rising. This has accelerated since the 1930s at a rate that amounts to one foot per century. Along the Texas coast, where there is a gentle slope, this can amount to 100 to 1,500 feet of beach per century. An estimate by one group of beach experts predicts, moreover, that in the twenty-first century, South Padre Island will shift 1,000 to 1,500 feet, Galveston Island, south of the seawall, from 1,000 to 2,000 feet, and Bolivar Peninsula from 500 to 1,000 feet. The evidence of movement is easy to see when the old oyster, snail, and clam shells from the inner lagoons turn up on the Gulf side as the sand rolls inland. It is a shifting, dynamic environment.

Yet about nine percent of the Texas population live in the coastal counties, and large cities, including Brownsville, Corpus Christi, Houston, Galveston, Beaumont, and Port Arthur, are vulnerable to the reach of the great storms. There are ample reasons, however, for a choice of coastal location. The ports stand at a break in transportation, where items in transit must shift back and forth from ships to trucks, trains, airplanes, and even pipelines. in addition, fishers, including those in oyster and shrimp production, have a claim to the coast, as do off-shore oil companies sipping petroleum from the Continental Shelf. In times of warfare, reaching back to the Texas Revolution, and the War with Mexico, soldiers and sailors have made use of shoreline areas for bases of operation.

Beyond the economic and military purposes, there is another major reason for coastal habitation. Since 1920, tourists have sought recreation and entertainment from the seashore. Travelers, perhaps more than others, seek what is missing from their lives. From the seacoast, almost any seacoast, comes a faint call, a primordial voice that seems to beckon all human beings home. Roy Bedichek, one of Texas' most revered naturalists, heard this call and commented about his first boyhood trip to the beach at Galveston:

Upstate boys accustomed to playing about in the placid waters of ponds and inland streams here got the surprise of their lives. How well I remember the first rude embrace of the sea! With a number of companions far out on "West Beach," joyously naked, I rushed forward to meet the landward-racing waves.... I was knocked down, ducked, rolled, tossed about, strangled, until I learned to accommodate myself to the waves. Then came the thrill of being lifted, rocked, and gently wavering, like a falling leaf, let down, up and down again and again, in slow pulsative timing. I experienced with the whole body that original rhythm from which, some say, the very sense of rhythm in animal creation was derived, based back in the very beginning, before life left the sea."

The seacoast is a reminder of faint connections, where the gentle surf of the Gulf of Mexico offers redemption to the spirit. The severe line of the horizon tolerates no trees, buildings, or telephone poles; it is an uncompromising border separating two enormous hemispheres of blue air and blue water. The endless roll of the waves indicates a power beyond human control—an unforgiving force that simply says, "I am not asking you, I am telling you." But the shore also carries the message, "I am, I have been, I will be, and you are a part of me." Somehow, a visit to the shore is both humbling and embracing at the same time. Although we of the human species crossed that desert barrier of surf and sand, we can still hear the voice of the ocean from our remote past.

This series of paintings and historical essays explores the Texas coast with an eye and a word for the human interaction at the shoreline. There are additional comments about plants, birds, and sea creatures, as well as ports, storms, cities, people, mineral wealth, recreation, and other topics. The book follows a simple geographical pattern, moving from Sea Rim Park and the Louisiana border to South Padre Island, close to the Boca Chica at the Mexican border. Both writing and painting are forms of art, and with this art we have hoped to provide an interpretation of the mythic and historical qualities of the seacoast of Texas.


J. U. Salvant, of Austin, is a painter whose watercolors also illustrated If These Walls Could Speak: Historic Forts of Texas and Historic Ranches of Texas. David G. McComb is Professor of History at Colorado State University in Fort Collins and author of four books about Texas.