From Native American history 17th century French explorers, from the Civil War to the second World War, Matagorda County is definitely a place with a past.
Even thousands of years ago, as early as 10,000 B.C, people were living off the bounty of the Matagorda land and sea. By the time European explorers arrived here in the 1600s, the area was home to the Karankawa Indians, a tribe of powerful swimmers and runners, excellent marksmen and formidable fighters. The Karankawa were fierce-looking people, many of whom stood over six feet tall, adorned themselves with lip and nipple piercings and dramatic tattoos. They smeared themselves with alligator or shark grease to repel insects, and were believed to practice ritual cannibalism against their enemies – a belief that recent research has challenged. Yet they were known to exhibit deep tenderness as well, as the first Spanish explorer in the region, Antonio Nu–ez Cabeza de Vaca reported.
Cabeza de Vaca befriended the native tribes in his long journey through the American wilderness, and the Karankawas were no exception. He described a scene when, shipwrecked and bereft at the lost of many of his companions who had perished at sea, the tribesmen sat on the shore with him and wept.
But well they might have wept for themselves. For all his benign intentions, Cabeza de Vaca’s landing presaged the decline and eventual obliteration of the Karankawas. The tribe resisted assimilation and, by the 1850s, the last ragged band of them was spotted in Tamaulipas, Mexico, driven far from the Texas shores they’d called home. They were never seen again.
Matagorda takes its name from the thick canebrakes that once grew along the shores, perhaps inspiring the name of Caney Creek (mata is Spanish for shrub, and gorda means thick). The Spaniards who explored these lands throughout the 16th and 17th centuries left their linguistic mark everywhere, from Tres Palacios Bay in the west to the San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge in the east.
The area remained under Spanish and then Mexican control, along with the rest of Texas, until the fledgling republic gained its independence in 1836 after the Texas Revolution.
Exploration to excavation
But France, too, had a brief and shining moment in the historical spotlight of Matagorda with the La Salle expedition. René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, the flamboyant French explorer who had led a previous expedition down the Mississippi River, actually landed in Matagorda Bay in 1685 by mistake. This expedition was met by a series of misfortunes including mutinous crew members, raiding Karankawas and the wreck of La Salle’s beautiful La Belle off the shore of the Matagorda Peninsula. La Salle himself was murdered by an angry member of his crew. A few survivors of his band were reported to be living among the Karankawas as late as 1717.
LaSalle’s brief foray into the region was all but forgotten until the dramatic excavation of La Belle put Matagorda County back into the national spotlight. Considered by some to be the most important shipwreck discovery in North America, the excavation took nearly a year and produced a million artifacts, items intended to establish a new colony. The amazing array of items frozen in time by the salty waters of the Gulf included three bronze cannons, beads and bells for trade with the Indians, and the skeleton of a solitary crewmember.
The whole story comes to life each year, when the city of Palacios stages a reenactment featuring “Dead Bob,” that ill-fated sailor who went down with the ship.
A LaSalle Trail of seven museums containing parts of the LaSalle story has been established; two of those museums, the Matagorda County Museum in Bay City and the City by the Sea Museum in Palacios, are in Matagorda County.
LaSalle’s bad fortune helped ensure that the Spanish would prevail in Texas until the Mexican War for Independence transferred control of the territory to Mexico City in 1821. That control was turbulent and short-lived, however, as the Texians who settled the area with Mexican permission chafed under their rule.
Stephen F. Austin began the Anglo-American settlement of the area with a colony at the mouth of the Colorado, established in 1822. By 1829, he had convinced the Mexican government that a military post was needed to protect the settlers from invading Karankawas, and the port town of Matagorda was founded. Matagordians were among those who met at the councils leading up to the war, and they were also among those who fought. Matagorda County became one of the original 23 counties of the new Republic of Texas.
Matagorda’s economy is ravaged, then rebuilt
The county became a major agricultural producer in the subsequent years, and black slaves outnumbered whites more than two to one in the mid 1800s. Matagordians fought for the Confederacy, of course, and when they lost and the slaves were freed, the county’s economy was devastated.
The county’s fortunes began to turn around with the coming of the railroads, and development began to spread out to other towns besides Matagorda. Bay City was founded in 1894 and became the new county seat because of its central location. The discovery of oil and sulfur also gave the economy a big boost, and between 1900 and 1920, the population doubled.
This growth laid the groundwork for Camp Hulen in Palacios to become a major training ground for soldiers during World War II. Palacios was also a major beach resort, with big-name acts performing at the elegant Palacios Pavilion and people coming for miles around to take the waters, which were believed to have healing properties.
The camp closed in 1946, and the grand pavilion was destroyed by Hurricane Carla in 1961. Palacios took a lower profile as a charming, slow-paced seaside village. But hints of its former grandeur can still be seen at the Luther Hotel, which was the elegant grande dame of its day, and at the excellent little City by the Sea Museum.
You can find a list of historical markers and locations in Matagorda County here.