Galveston is named for the Spanish colonial governor and general Bernardo de Galvez, who never actually set foot on the island, having died soon after his subordinate, Jose de Evia, charted the Galveston Bay area on Galvez's behalf. Before its discovery by European explorers, Galveston Island was home to the Akokisa tribe.

The pirate Jean Lafitte arrived on the island in 1817 and made it the base of operations for his lucrative slave-trading business. His village included gambling houses, boardinghouses, pool halls, and saloons for the entertainment of visiting buyers and pirates alike. Lafitte was forced to leave the island in May 1821 after he attacked an American ship.

Galveston Island played an important role in early Texas history when four Navy ships headquartered there prevented supplies and men from reaching Santa Anna during the battle of San Jacinto, in 1836. That very year, the city of Galveston was founded by Canadian native Michel B. Menard and his associates. Three years later, the city was incorporated. It rose to prominence as a port, and one street, The Strand, became "The Wall Street of the Southwest," containing the largest and most important wholesale houses west of the Mississippi River.

Galveston was the first city in Texas to have a post office, a law firm, a private bank, and an opera house. It was also the first Texas city to have a telephone, electric lights, and a railroad locomotive. At the turn of the century, it competed fiercely with Houston to become the most important center of commerce in Texas.

However, Galveston fell behind Houston. Probably the single most important reason for Galveston's demise as a commercial center was the vulnerability of the island to the hurricanes that prowl the Gulf of Mexico during storm season. The storm of 1900 destroyed a third of the city, sank most of the island underwater, and killed a sixth of the population.

In order to prevent such disasters in the future, the island constructed a 17-foot seawall, and a tremendous grade raising project was begun. Galveston's seawall now extends 54,790 feet, one-third of Galveston's ocean front. The wall stands 16 to 20 feet wide at the base and at the top ranges from 3 to 5 feet in width, and is composed of granite, sandstone, and concrete. Many structures were jacked up during the grade raising while dredges poured 4 to 6 feet of sand beneath them.

While Galveston's hopes for luring industrial entrepreneurs sank with the island itself during that terrible storm, modern day Galveston is a top U.S. resort town.



Copyright © 1999, Random House, Inc.