When visiting the beach or relaxing at one of Galveston’s renowned resort hotels, the island’s historic past might not be the first thing that comes to mind. But a closer look reveals that while there was a Native American population before Europeans arrived in the early 16th century, it wasn’t until the 18th and 19th centuries that Galveston became a key North American port city. And there are key museums, buildings and attractions where that history can be explored.
In the 16th century, the Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca lived among the native tribes as a medicine man and slave after he was shipwrecked on the island. French explorer Robert Cavelier La Salle later named the island St. Louis and claimed it for France. The island, however, got its name from Spanish colonial governor Bernardo de Gálvez who sent explorers to map the area in 1786. The 106-year-old Hotel Galvez bears his namesake.
The attraction Pirates! Legends of the Gulf Coast highlights the life of Galveston’s own pirate Jean Lafitte in the early 19th century. A debonair privateer, Lafitte started a colony on the island known as Campeche. When he was eventually driven out of town, he burned his town behind him. Shortly after that, the island as we know it today was founded by Michel Menard and Samuel May Williams. The 1838 Menard House and 1839 Samuel May Williams House remain today and are among the island’s oldest homes.
The city was incorporated in 1839 and became the most active port west of New Orleans. At that time, it became the largest city in Texas and home to the state’s first post office, hospital and The Grand 1894 Opera House which is still an active theater.
Galveston’s most horrendous moments came when the island was battered by the Great Storm of 1900, the most deadly natural disaster to ever strike the U.S., leaving 6,000 islanders dead. The film, The Great Storm highlights the disaster and is shown daily at Pier 21. That devastation from the Great Storm led to the building of the Seawall which has helped protect the city from hurricanes’ devastating storm surges. The Seawall today is the city’s most popular pedestrian promenades along the beaches.
Galveston did recover but was soon surpassed in size by Houston and other growing Texas cities. But its port on the Gulf of Mexico continued to welcome immigrants from all over the world. The port’s immigrant past is highlighted in the Texas Seaport Museum, also home to the 1877 Tall Ship Elissa, one of only three pre-20th century sailing vessels in the world that have been restored to full sailing capacity.
Museums showcasing Galveston’s history includes the Bryan Museum, home to artifacts from pre-Columbian times to the 21st century including documents, rare books, maps and antique firearms, to name a few. The Rosenberg Library has a wide-ranging collection of manuscripts and artifacts including Gulf of Mexico charts and maps, rare books and first editions, paintings of Galveston residents and more than 250,000 books.
The Strand District, the heart of the island’s downtown, has many restored buildings from the 19th and 20th centuries. Historic mansions include the 32-room Moody Mansion built in 1895, and the 1892 Bishop’s Palace, once a home for the Galveston-Houston Archdiocese’s Bishop Byrne in 1921.