BY NORMAN ROZEFF
The Coahilitecan Indians originally inhabited this land. As early as 1526 the area that would one day be Port Isabel had been discovered by Spanish gold seekers. It later was a favorite rendezvous place for Caribbean pirates.
The land was inhospitable to only the hardiest Spaniards coming north from New Spain (Mexico), however Martin de Leon, later founder of Victoria, and Ramon Lafon, a former French privateer, brought the harbor of Brazos de Santa Iago (literally the Arms of Saint James and later transliterated to simply Brazos Santiago) to the attention of the Mexican government in 1823.
Some merchants of New Orleans also took notice of trade possibilities at this place, for the Congregation of Refugio, south of the Rio Grande, had grown into the village of Matamoros and was using Brazos Santiago as its port. Supplies to the village took one of two routes. One was overland via the Palo Alto plain while the second was south down Brazos Island, across the Boca Chica channel and then to Matamoros.
Around the late 1820s, Rafael Garcia of Matamoros, his family, and his vaqueros were using the unclaimed area in public domain, later known as the Santa Isabel Tract and earlier as Potrero (pasture) de Santa Ysabel, to graze his wife’s cattle. He then sought to legitimize a claim for the land by requesting a Mexican land grant.
Other individuals had the same idea for surrounding lands. On January 30, 1828, the Alcade of Matamoros ordered the surveying of the lands north of the river and known as Buena Vista, San Martin, and Santa Ysabel. Then on January 24, 1829 (The Texas General Land Office records differ with this date), after much communication between the Alcade and the Tamaulipas state government, an award was made of Santa Ysabel to Rafael Garcia, who at one point had indicated to the Alcade that he didn’t own the land in this jurisdiction, but the very land sought to be awarded was being used for pasturage, belonged to his wife, and was needed for her numerous livestock.
The grant contained 7 sitios, 9 caballerias, and 165,328 square varias by Spanish land measures or 32, 355 acres by English measures. This grant was later inherited by Rafael Garcia’s widow Guadalupe Cisneros Garcia and his two daughters Maria Garcia de Tarnava and Felipa Garcia de Manautou.
The grant area would later contain the settlement designated as “El Fronton de Santa Ysabel (Bluff of Saint Isabel). It took its name from the perpendicular-faced bluff that looked toward Brazos Santiago Pass. It was the site of a ranch settlement, owned by Don Rafael Garcia, who continued to live in Matamoros but had hired hands running the ranch.
Upon the dedication of a THC marker in Port Isabel on June 9, 1996 the Laguna Madre Museum Foundation offered this information in the dedication brochure: Port of Matamoros “During the 1800s when this region was Mexican territory the Rio Grande del Norte was unnavigable to most Gulf sailing vessels.
Hazardous shifting sand and clay bars at the river’s deltaic mouth prevented shipping from reaching the settlement of Matamoros. The closest natural passage through the barrier islands was at Brazos Santiago (Boca Chica and Padre [should correctly state Brazos Island and Padre Island]). This pass afforded a sheltered and accessible port in the Laguna Madre at Point Isabel.
Established in 1824, commercial cargo from New Orleans and other Gulf ports were off-loaded at this new port.
From here material was carted overland across tidal flats to the river, then ferried and rafted to Matamoros. Mexican cities of Reynosa, Camargo, Mier, and Monterrey relied on this commerce route.
The Mexican government maintained a garrison and one navy ship at Point Isabel. This was particularly important during the Texas revolution of 1836-37. Jurisdiction over the port was settled in 1846 when General Zachary Taylor’s troops occupied the area at the outset of the Mexican-American War.” A Texas Historical Commission marker now in Port Isabel adds: “The Mexican custom station was located here in 1844, after the villages of Brazos Santiago and Boca Del Rio were swept away by storms.
Goods landed here were at once freighted inland to Matamoros.” In the Matamoros newspaper “Latiga de Tejas”, Andres Pineda wrote of the 1844 hurricane that entered the mouth of the Rio Grande. He noted that all structures at Fronton had been destroyed with the exception of that of Hipolita Gonzales that stood on the area’s highest ground.
On September 18, 2016 Edward Pro Meza spoke to the Rio Grande Valley Hispanic Genealogy Society on the subject of Port Isabel Families. Mr. Meza was at one time director of the Port Isabel Museums before becoming city manager of that city. He noted, that in 1829, Don Rafael Garcia was given the grant of Santa Ysabel by the government of Mexico.
The family continued to own considerable acreage in the grant for many years. In the early years of what would become Point Isabel (and in 1922 Port Isabel) the family surnames of Garcia, Longoria, Vega, Zamora, Martinez, Barrera, Zurita, Gonzales, Yturria, Olives, Solis, and Gomez would be most common. Later the Garzas from Matamoros and Burrita, Mexico would establish themselves in the town as did the Simo family.
Efforts to build a railroad line to Brownsville in the 1850s did not succeed, but after the Civil War, in 1866, public demands for a rail line to Browns ville were met by Rio Grande steamboat interests, which chartered but refrained from building the road. In 1871, competitors formed the Rio Grande Railroad Company, obtained a charter, and put the line into service in 1873 from Brownsville to a terminus here (450 feet south of the present THC marker). The line served until 1933 when a deep water channel was built to Brownsville.
Upon the arrival of the railroad to the coast, the town moved south to its present location on a point jutting into the bay, hence the combination of Point from the geography and Isabel from the grant. This explanation for the town’s name may seem at odds with the following fact: After the Mexican War (1846-1848), the United States Post Office of “Point Isabel” was created on April 9, 1849. Yet historian Alicia A. Garza notes a Mexican Post Office with the name Punta (Spanish for point) Isabel in June 1845 and adds to the confusion by stating that the names of the community and post office were changed to Brazos Santiago when the Oblates of Mary Immaculate arrived in 1849. In 1850 Port Isabel was the second largest town in the area and, which by 1859, was exporting $10 million dollars worth of cotton annually.