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The History of Aransas County

Aransas County, Texas

Come with us and learn about the history of Aransas County. From Native Americans to the first European settlers, to the Texas Revolution and beyond.

Before we dive into the history of Aransas County, we need to establish where Aransas County is and what its main features are.

Aransas County is located in South Texas along the Gulf of Mexico in the United States of America. Its county seat is the City of Rockport, Texas. Aransas County has a total area of 528 square miles. 252 square miles is land, and 276 square miles (52%) is water. Communities that make up the land are the Live Oak Peninsula, which contains the city of Rockport and the town of Fulton, the Lamar Peninsula which has Lamar and Holiday Beach, the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, and San Jose Island. Bodies of water bordering Aransas County include the Gulf of MexicoAransas BayCopano Bay, and St. Charles Bay.

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Spanish conquistador and cartographer Alonso Álvarez de Pineda was likely the first European to encounter this land when he sailed along the Texas coast in the summer of 1519 and charted Aransas Bay. This name is derived from an outpost established during the Viceroyalty of New Spain called “Rio Nuestra Señora de Aránzazu,” which was itself named for the Sanctuary of Arantzazu, a Franciscan sanctuary in Oñati, Basque Country, Spain.

Early Map of the Gulf of Mexico

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But way before the Spanish ships arrived to document and record our history books. Aransas County and its boundaries have been inhabited by humans and a great diversity of different species and fauna. Let’s dive right in…..

6000 TO 8000 YEARS AGO

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Lots of people may not realize this but Aransas County has been the site of human habitation for several thousand years. Archeological artifacts recovered in the region suggest that the earliest human inhabitants arrived around 6,000 to 8,000 years ago. Subsequent inhabitants belonged to a culture known as Aransas. Campsites, some dating back approximately 4,000 years, have been found in Copano Bay and Aransas County.

The ancient history of Aransas County is something that is not only quite extensive but should be celebrated and preserved. Many artifacts have been preserved and can be found at The History Center for Aransas County and by members of the Aransas Historical Society. Thanks to archeological research, we now know a great deal about the people who inhabited this part of the world.

1200 TO 1400 A.D. ARANSAS, KARANKAWAS AND COAHUILTECANS

Karankawas along the Aransas County Coastlands

The Aransas Indians, a nomadic, hunter-gatherer people, appear to have left the Gulf Coast around A.D. 1200 to 1300. The region apparently afterward remained uninhabited for 100 years until the ancestors of the Karankawas moved there around A.D. 1400. During historic times, the Coastal Bend area was occupied by several groups of Indians, including the Karankawas and Coahuiltecans. These nomadic hunter-gatherers never formed a large alliance or organization. After the arrival of the Europeans most fled, succumbed to disease, or were absorbed by other Indian groups in Mexico; by the mid-1800s virtually all trace of them had disappeared.

Historical research of the Karankawa is hindered because the documents concerning them were overwhelmingly written by enemies of the tribe. The Karankawa had been described for centuries as “cannibals,” now believed by many to be a falsehood initially spread by the Spanish after failing to convert them to Catholicism at missionary settlements in La Bahía and Refugio. Years later, Texan colonist John H. Moore attempted to justify his role in the massacre of Karankawa because “their cannibalism… was beyond question,” despite the absence of evidence.

Karankawas

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COAHUILTECANS

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The Karankawa descendants now call themselves Karankawa Kadla, living still in Texas along the Gulf Coast, Austin, and Houston, Texas. Their language has been kept alive and they are revitalizing their culture.

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1519 TO 1766 SPANISH CONQUEST EXPLORATION

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Aransas County was formed in 1871 from portions of Refugio County. It was named after Rio Nuestra Senora de Aránzazu, a Spanish outpost in early Texas. The first European to see this land was probably Alonso Álvarez de Pineda, who sailed along the coast of Texas in the summer of 1519 and who also discovered Aransas Bay. The area remained undisturbed until 1766 when Diego Ortiz Parrilla conducted an exploration of the Gulf Coast and gave the names Santo Domingo to Copano Bay and Culebra Island to what is now St. Joseph Island.

By the late colonial period, the Spanish had established a small fort on Live Oak Point that they named Aránzazu, reportedly after a palace in Spain. Several attempts were made to establish settlements in the lower Nueces River valley to the south, but because of the threat of Indian attacks and the distance from other Spanish enclaves the plans came to nothing. Across Copano Bay in what is now Refugio County. A port of entry and customhouse was established in the 1780s, which became known as El Cópano. During the late Spanish and Mexican periods, the port, which served Goliad, Refugio, and San Antonio, was considered the best in what was called western Texas. Around 1832 James Power founded Aransas City on Live Oak Point near the site of the Aránzazu fort. A customhouse, a post office, and several stores were established at the settlement. Until the establishment of Corpus Christi, Aransas City was the westernmost port in Texas; its estimated population was several hundred. The town was raided by Karankawa Indians on several occasions, and at least three times by Mexican bandits, in 1838, 1839, and 1841.

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Aransas City

Aransas City is now considered a ghost town on the tip of the Live Oak Peninsula in Aransas County, Texas near present-day Fulton. It served as a port on Aransas Bay at its confluence with Copano Bay during the 1830s and 1840s but declined following its loss of a Republic of Texas customhouse to the rival port of Lamar.

Prior to the Texas Revolution, impresario James Power constructed his house on the northern tip of Live Oak Peninsula at the site of the former Spanish fort of Aránzazu, which guarded Copano Bay to the west. Power later founded the town in 1837 in what was then Refugio County and partnered with former Texas Governor Henry Smith to organize and advertise the town to potential settlers. Afterward, several stores were established, and the population reached 500. The town was incorporated in 1839, included a customhouse for the Republic of Texas, and served as the county seat of Refugio County until 1840. The town was attacked by the Karankawa and Comanche Indians several times and was raided by the Mexican irregulars in 1838, 1839, and 1841.

After the founding of Corpus Christi by former Aransas City-resident Henry Kinney, the port was no longer the westernmost in Texas. It soon lost its customhouse to the rival port of Lamar in a controversial decision that contributed to the town’s demise: Lamar had been founded in 1839, on the other side of the present-day Copano Bay Causeway (on Lamar peninsula) by settler James Byrne, who had been affiliated with Power. The town was named after the newly elected President Mirabeau B. Lamar, whom Byrne lobbied, to relocate the Aransas City customhouse. Lamar complied with the request, ignoring an Aransas City petition that opposed the move, and soon Aransas City was stripped of its designation as the county seat. The events mirrored the political feud between Lamar, who was supported by Byrne, and former President Sam Houston, whom Power backed. Power moved on to Copano, and by 1847, Aransas City was largely abandoned and no longer had a functioning government.

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EL Copano

El Copano was the first port in use in south Texas and rivals Galveston’s port in antiquity. The port was officially opened in 1785 by a decree from the Spanish Governor Bernardo de Galvez but may have been used much earlier as a landing site. The site was named for the Copane Indians while the bay was still called Aransas Bay.

Many of the Irish immigrants of the 1830s came ashore at El Copano and reported that there was nothing there but a guard shack manned by two Mexican soldiers. The immigrants camped on the beach until the customs inspector traveled down from Goliad. Mexican law prevented the immigrants from settling near the coast, so no structures were built there until the time of the Texas Republic.

Joseph E. Plummer built the first house in 1840 and eventually about a dozen shellcreate houses and stores lined the bluff north of the mouth of Mission Bay. Three long wharves were built out into Copano Bay because the depth of the bay never exceeded 10 to 12 feet. Despite the shallow water, El Copano and its sister town, St. Mary’s of Aransas, founded in 1857, were the most important ports in south Texas from the 1830s to the 1870s. Both were abandoned after a devastating series of hurricanes in 1869, 1875, 1886, and 1887. Some ruins of the original shellcreate buildings are still visible from the bay.

An archeological survey of El Copano was made in the summer of 2005.

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MIRABEAU B. LAMAR BECAME PRESIDENT OF TEXAS. LAMAR BECOMES A TOWNSITE

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MIRABEAU B. LAMAR

At about the same time three local figures, Capt. James W. Byrne, George R. Hull, and George Armstrong were developing another townsite, Lamar, across the pass on Lookout Point. After Mirabeau B. Lamar became president of Texas, he ordered the customhouse moved to the new town. In 1840 Refugio became the county seat, and as a result, Aransas City began to decline; by 1846 it had ceased to exist.

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General Zachary Taylor

After the revolution cattlemen and sailors founded another community, Aransas, on the southern end of St. Joseph’s Island, which was a prosperous port. During the Mexican War, the Live Oak Peninsula was the site of Zachary Taylor’s main encampment before he moved his army south. During this time, Taylor is said to have had a campsite near Rockport, TX at a place now called Zachary Taylor Park or Zachary Taylor Arboretum Park. Zachary Taylor Arboretum Park is the home of a historic live oak tree estimated to be 400 to 600 years old. It is said to have provided a shaded campsite for American Army Troops commanded by General Zachary Taylor in July 1845 prior to the beginning of the Mexican-American War in 1846. A short time later James W. Byrne and his associates founded the settlement of St. Joseph on the western end of St. Joseph’s Island.

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Zachary Taylor Arboretum Park. Aransas County

Here are some directions if you would like to go visit.

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1858 THE ARANSAS RAILROAD COMPANY BEGINS WORK

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The communities were starting to prove to be short-lived, however. Byrne became associated with Pryor Lea in a plan to develop a railroad from Lamar to Goliad. In 1847 the railroad was incorporated by the legislature, and Byrne induced a number of settlers to move to Lamar. In 1858 The Aransas Railroad Company graded a roadbed across Live Oak Peninsula. In the meantime, a man named Joseph F. Smith had begun to develop another port town, St. Mary’s of Aransas, on Copano Bay, two miles up the bay from Black Point. The settlement soon became the largest lumber and building-materials center in western Texas. Regular wagon trains hauled goods inland to Refugio, Goliad, Beeville, and San Antonio, and on the eve of the Civil War St. Mary’s was an important shipping point for hides, tallow, cattle, and cotton. By 1860 Lamar had two stores and a post office, but St. Mary’s had become the more important port.

1863 CIVIL WAR CAUSES LAMAR TO BECOME A GHOST TOWN

During the Civil War, the area that was to become Aransas County was the site of several engagements between Union and Confederate forces. In February 1862 marines from the USS Afton went ashore on St. Joseph’s Island and destroyed Aransas. By the summer, civilians had deserted the islands. Vessels of the United States Navy under J. W. Kittredge blockaded the coast, using St. Joseph’s Island as a depot to store captured cotton. On May 3, 1863, Capt. Edwin E. Hobby’s Confederate company attacked the Union garrison there and killed twenty, but in November 1863 federal troops under T. C. G. Robinson succeeded in regaining control of the island. St. Mary’s, which had been a prime focus for blockade runners, was attacked, and its wharves and warehouses were destroyed. Many of the town’s leading citizens moved elsewhere, including Joseph F. Smith, who moved to Tuxpan, Vera Cruz, where he purchased a plantation and lived until his death. Despite the destruction and economic disruption caused by the war, the future Aransas County area quickly recovered. Aransas, which had been destroyed during the war, became a ghost town, and Lamar, which had burned during the war, declined,

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Joseph F. Smith

1867 ROCKPORT BECOMES A TOWN AND THE FULTON’S SHOW UP

Following the Civil War, a number of people considered developing the Live Oak Peninsula. Joseph F. Smith, who had founded the nearby town of St. Mary’s in 1850, joined with Thomas H. Mathis and his cousin J.M. Mathis, who were agents of the Morgan Steamship line, and founded a wharf at the site of what would later become the town of Rockport, in 1867. The same year, George W. Fulton and his wife, Texas heiress, and Joseph Smith’s cousin, Harriet Smith Fulton moved to her extensive land holdings on the peninsula. Fulton also took an interest in the development of Rockport, as well as creating the town of Fulton farther up the coastline. In response, a nascent cattle-slaughtering and packing operation at the wharf expanded rapidly, allowing Rockport to be officially incorporated as a town in 1870; its name arising from the rock ledge that runs along the shore. Thomas Mathis became Rockport’s first mayor after being appointed by the governor. A year later in 1871, the town achieved “city” status after continued growth.

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1866 FULTON IS FOUNDED GEORGE FULTON BUILDS THE MANSION

Fulton was founded in 1866, named for George Ware Fulton, Sr., a land developer in the area. Fulton had been a teacher in Indiana and decided to come to Texas by flatboat with 60 other men during the war for independence between Texas and Mexico. After the long trip to Texas, George Fulton found that the war was over but he joined the Army of the Republic of Texas for a few months. Fulton built a large house, now known as the Fulton Mansion, in the area where Fulton stands. The town quickly became the site for many slaughterhouses as cattle from south Texas were driven to Fulton. The cattle slaughterhouses lasted until the 1880s when railroads reached the area and provided ways to ship live cattle to population centers such as Chicago.

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The Fulton Mansion in Fulton Texas

Ride to Rockport

Shortly after moving back to Texas in 1868, George Fulton pushed to bring the railroad to the Rockport area. Cattle businesses transported their products using steamships, but George knew a rail line would give the industry easier access to northern markets.

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The engine in this photo is the sister engine #109 to the George W. Fulton, Jr. engine.

In 1884, Uriah Lott chartered the San Antonio & Aransas Pass Railroad (SA&AP). The Coleman-Fulton Pasture Company ceded the right-of-way for the SA&AP to build part of the rail line through ranch lands. George also ceded private lands for rail expansion into Fulton. It is possible that his assistance with the rail line led the SA&AP to name a locomotive the George W. Fulton, Jr.

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In July 1888, the SA&AP finished the branch line to Rockport. According to family history, the Fultons hosted a large banquet in their home for passengers arriving on the first train from San Antonio. 

With the arrival of the SA&AP, Rockport began to grow as a fishing, hunting, and beach resort destination. Four trains arrived daily in Rockport. Trolley cars transported visitors from the depot to hotels, ice cream parlors, an opera house, bathing pavilions, and beaches. Private hunting and fishing clubs catered to visitors by providing transportation to and from club properties.

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Postcard of the SA&AP Depot at the Rockport train station.

The SA&AP owned special excursion cars that often came to Rockport. The Fern Ridge, a hunting car, had game racks, ammunition lockers, open platforms, and a sliding side door so hunters could shoot game animals from the car. The Electric, a plush private car, entertained Texas “Nobility,” including sponsors of the railway and frequent commercial clients. George Fulton had his own right-of-way pass for the SA&AP.

With the arrival of the rails, the population of Rockport grew from 601 to 2,500 within 10 years. Its depot is one of the few SA&AP depots still standing on its original site: at the corner of North and Magnolia streets in the Rockport Heritage District. Passenger rail service ended in the 1940s, but freight service continued until 1985.

1872 ARANSAS COUNTY IS FORMED WHILE THE CATTLE INDUSTRY IS BOOMING

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Fulton Beach Road

During the years of the great cattle boom, the new port towns became important shipping and processing points. The first packery in the county was built by W. S. Hall in Fulton just after the war and over the course of the next eight years. Numerous other packeries sprang up, most of them located in the Rockport-Fulton area, including the Carruthers and Fulton Company, Lyman Meat Packing and Canning Company, American Meat Company, American Beef Packery, Boston Packing Company, Texas Beef Packery, and Marion Packing Company. In 1871 a man by the name of Daniel L. Holden installed the first ice machine in the packing houses. As late as 1880 a single factory in the Rockport-Fulton area handled 93 percent of the $500,000 worth of beef slaughtered by Texas factories 1880. In March 1871, because the great cattle boom had established it as the most important town in the area, Rockport became the county seat of Refugio County. On September 18 of the same year, the legislature voted to divide the county and designated much of the coastal area as a new county named Aransas. Rockport was made the county seat, and on March 26, 1872, the county commissioners’ court met for the first time in a rented frame house. In 1888 the San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railroad (later Texas and New Orleans) reached Rockport, thus ensuring the town’s continued importance as a shipping center. The rise of Rockport, however, marked the beginning of the decline for St. Mary’s. Successive storms in 1886 and 1887 destroyed the town’s wharves, and by the early 1890s, St. Mary’s had dwindled to a small village.

1888 ARANSAS PASS L.C. BEGINS DEVELOPING THE AREA

In 1888, the Aransas Pass Land Company instituted a comprehensive plan to develop Rockport and the surrounding region. A new county courthouse was built in 1889 and by 1900 tourism for the first time began to play a significant role in the area’s economy. During the first half of the twentieth century, two new industries emerged, fishing and shipbuilding. By the early 1890s commercial fishing was flourishing in the Rockport area, and over the course of the next several decades, it continued to expand, eventually outstripping agriculture in net receipts. The shrimping industry also began to develop in the 1930s

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1950 SHRIMPING AND SHIPPING BOOM

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