Rio History: How Did Padre Island Get Its Name?

By STEVE HATHCOCK
Special to the PRESS

Over the years, I have penned several articles about how Padre Island got its name. This latest version is in response to an email from John Nolan who wanted to know more about the history of Padre Island…….
Padre Nicholas Balli, for whom the Island gets its name, was the first European to bring ranching to the Island. He and his nephew Juan founded El Rancho Santa Cruz de Buena Vista (later known as the Lost City), where he kept cattle, horses and mules. The actual ranch and outbuildings, located about 26 miles north of the Islands southern tip, were little more than thatched huts known as jacals. Because of its natural fences of water, the Island was a perfect spot for raising livestock.
For many years, before and during Balli’s ownership, the Island was called various names including Amichel, Isla Blanca, La Florida, Isla Malhado, Isla de Boyan, Ysla del Vallin and Isla de Santiago.
In his will, written in 1811, Padre Balli stated that he owned 1,000 head of cattle. In addition to his large herds of cattle the Padre also built the first church on the Island for the conversion of the Karankawa Indians and for the benefit of the ranch hands and their families. Ironically, Balli never lived on the Island that bears his name today. He left the day-to-day operations of the ranch to his nephew Juan, who also held title to a sizable amount of the Island. The Padre spent most of his time on the mainland ministering to the spiritual and material needs of his people.
Padre Balli died on April 16, 1829 and was buried near Matamoros. Juan operated the ranch until the storm of 1844, after which he moved to the mainland. The ranch was abandoned, but only a few short years would pass before its new occupants arrived on the scene. (But that is a separate story that I will address in future articles.)
The first reference to the name of Padre Island was in the April 24, 1841 Edition of a British publication by the name of “The Old London Newspaper.” In its news from Mexico the editor wrote “Notes from Matamoras bring no news of importance. All was quiet there, and the talk of a war for the re-conquest of Texas had ceased. Three Texans who had served with General Canales were killed on Padres Island.” (A force of about fifty men, the entire company of Minute Men of San Patricio, and a few volunteers from Gonzales had staged a surprise raid to the southern tip of the Padre’s Island. A Mexican Captain and nine soldiers stationed at a rancho were captured and taken back to San Patricio to await a prisoner exchange for some Texians being held in Matamoros. Statements made by the prisoners and a group of Irish settlers living on the extreme southern tip of the Island confirmed the Mexican forces numbered only one hundred regular infantry stationed in Matamoros and a handful posted throughout the interior.)
The name stuck and by 1844 the Island was almost exclusively referred to as Padre Island.
April 10, 1973: Residents of the Island vote for incorporation. Of the 158 votes cast, 128 were in favor of incorporation while 28 were against. Two ballots were not counted according to said election returns, because of their being illegible, and that therefore, a majority of the votes cast were in favor of incorporation. Thus the Town of South Padre Island was born.
Today, a statue of Padre Balli with outstretched arms stands at the eastern foot of the Queen Isabella Memorial Causeway greeting all who arrive.

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