Rio History: From Pineda to Lafitte

Special to the PRESS

Alonso Álvarez de Pineda was on a mapping expedition when he discovered the Brazos pass in 1519. He is generally credited with naming the pass, Brazos de Santiago, meaning the Arms of Saint James, which has remained unchanged to this day.

Pineda continued south from Brazos to a large river he named Rio de las Palmas. While his men made repairs to his ships, Pineda explored inland about 150 miles. He reported finding and making contact with over 50 tribes, or groups of Indians, who were friendly. In 1520, an attempt was made to establish a colony at the mouth of the river by Diego de Carmago. Unfortunately, the Spaniards angered the Indians and the colony failed. Cortez himself learned of the plan and wrote to the king saying, he (Cortez) had been informed that the land there was good and there was a port. The Indians of the area became increasingly hostile to the Spaniards and by 1535, the Spanish gave up on the idea of establishing a settlement upon the Rio de las Palmas, which is today known as the Rio Grande.

Nineteen plus years later, in 1554, 300 men women and children — the survivors of three Spanish treasure ships — found themselves shipwrecked near the present day Mansfield ship channel, or “the cut,” as locals call it. They mistakenly thought they were located about 40 miles north of Panuca, Mexico. As they trekked their way south, they were attacked by coastal Indians and slaughtered. Despite horrible wounds including an arrow in one eye, a priest survived to tell the story. The wrecks, partially salvaged by the king of Spain, were largely forgotten until the late 1960s when they were rediscovered. Artifacts recovered from these wrecks form the base of a collection now on display at the Port Isabel Museum.

One of the earliest settlements in the Rio Grande Delta area was located upon Brazos Island, which was situated at the northernmost tip of modern day Boca Chica Beach. On the mainland, Fronton, modern day Port Isabel, was first settled around the 1770s.

Both settlements were used primarily as summer resorts by rich ranchers escaping the hotter temperatures inland. Many of the buildings were nothing more than open-air jacals or lean-tos of stick and mud.

Regardless, the thatched roofs provided a modest amount of cover for protection from the elements. Prior to the Mexican War of Independence, the pass and harbor at Brazos Santiago saw only a moderate amount of shipping, being used primarily by small fishing boats with an occasional visit by larger craft in search of water from the nearby Rio Grande. In 1823, the town of Matamoros was granted status as a port of entry by the Mexican government. A customs office and public buildings were established at Brazos Island, joining a small collection of semi-permanent homes. Records indicate the harbor was open to foreign trade.

Ranchero Martin de Leon brought a shipload of items from New Orleans for trade in the settlements farther up the river. This part of the Gulf Coast remained largely unnoticed by Europeans until the early 1800s when Jean Lafitte, the famed buccaneer and hero of the War of 1812, was rumored to have used the shallow waters of the Laguna Madre to hide from Spanish warships whose orders were to sink him on sight. Legend has it that Lafitte’s men dug a fresh-water well, right in the center of present day Laguna Vista. Older maps reveal the present day location of that notorious watering spot and old timers still tell of hopeful treasure hunters digging a multitude of holes during moonless nights near the well.

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