Port Isabel, Cameron County’s Oldest Settlement

BY NORMAN ROZEFF

The story of the Catholic churches in the community is intriguing. The first Catholic chapel had been erected in 1854. A decade later it was demolished piece by piece by federal soldiers who then used the timbers to construct a military hospital.

The next chapel was constructed in 1869 by Father Parisot. It was destroyed by the hurricane of 1874. He then built a third chapel that was consecrated May 30, 1877. In August 1880 yet another Gulf storm scattered this chapel to the winds.

A fourth, more rugged and sturdy structure was erected in 1881. This church took the name, Our Lady Star of the Sea Catholic Church. It had taken its name from a very unusual and mysterious occurrence.

One day Encarnacion Delgado and two other fishermen were gigging for fish in the Laguna Madre. They hooked onto something in the water. Upon inspection in the waters that were only 3-5 feet deep they discovered a small statue sitting upright in the muddy bottom. It was a white porcelain statuette of the Madonna holding the baby Jesus. How it got there and from what source shall forever remain a mystery. It was offered to the church.

This statuette sat for many years in a lofty niche in the circular window above the entrance door to the chapel. Some ascribe its presence to protecting the chapel from subsequent storms.

Also of note is the Port Isabel Cemetery. Encompassing almost one acre of land, the cemetery is located on property initially granted to Don Rafael Garcia. The land was known as the Santa Ysabel Grant, and Garcia soon established a ranch he named El Fronton de Santa Isabel (Saint Elizabeth’s Bluff). Garcia continued to reside at his home in Matamoros, Mexico, and the ranch was operated by hired workers.

According to local tradition, the workers on El Fronton de Santa Isabel Ranch began to use this site as a burial ground as early as the 1840s. No grave markers from that time period survive, however, and the oldest marked graves in the cemetery date to the 1880s.

The ground was consecrated for use as a Catholic cemetery by French Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate in December 1849, although it has served as a community burial ground for people of all faiths throughout its history. Later owners of the land included members of the Champion (Campeoni, also sometimes spelled Champione) Family, who immigrated to America from Italy in the early 19th Century. The Champion Family donated the cemetery property to the Catholic Church in 1926. It remains an important element of Port Isabel’s cultural history.

On May 8, 1845 there was a U.S. Squadron off Brazos de Santiago Pass. It landed marines and seaman to be later quartered at Fort Polk. The square-rigged ships transporting them were the Raritan, Cumberland, and Potomac. A painting of them from a sketch resides in the Stillman Museum, Brownsville. The Mexican village that had developed at Point Isabel was abandoned prior to the U.S. Declaration of War with Mexico in 1846. U.S. Forces led by General Zachary Taylor occupied the point on March 24, 1846. Taylor then erected a depot here to receive supplies from New Orleans.

The town was mostly burned down as its residents departed for Mexico. There then arose a fort — of sorts. It was constructed on the area’s highest bluff.

As forts of that time went, it wasn’t much to speak of. Instead of high earthen or stone ramparts it was shoddily constructed of brush, debris, lumber of demolished structures and timbers salvaged from old shipwrecks. The six-sided Fort, named for President James Knox Polk, consisted of four sides of so-called earthen embankments and two sides open to the shoreline.

The Port Isabel Lighthouse is located exactly where the southeast center side of the fort was. The shoreline east of the fort in 1875 was 300 feet from where it would erode to by 1931. The Fort was abandoned in 1850, but the settlement it attracted eventually developed into Port Isabel. Remnants of the Fort were visible until the 1920s.

Upon the commencement of the war, the Garcias lost their property without compensation. They were, however, able to recover it after the war ended. Rafael’s daughters then were able to donate to the community land for a public square.

It was through the urging of General Taylor that the famed Port Isabel Lighthouse was erected with work starting in February 1852. The brick structure coated with stucco would reach 57’ in height and 82’ above sea level. It has a widely documented history during the Civil War and after and won’t be outlined here.

When in 1887 the US Lighthouse Board decided to abandon the lighthouse at Point Isabel James B. Wells, who by then had purchased an interest in the townsite, realized that it would kill any commerce to the port.

He contacted his friend Congressman Crain to initiate action and interest by the Corps of Engineers. Crain’s bill to retain the lighthouse passed the House of Representatives and was signed by President Grover Cleveland in February 1889.

Because of liens against Wells it woulwd take many years before the light property was purchased by the government. The light ceased its navigation duties after the year 1906. Mrs. Villareal, a local historian of the area, offered, “The original non-Hispanic settlers of Point Isabel came from New Orleans. Some, formerly sailors, had retired from the sea and set up businesses in Point Isabel. Among the settlers were three brothers by the name of Champion. Almost every Champion family residing in the Rio Grande Valley is descended from these early pioneers. Other important settlers who descendants are still in the Valley are the Eglys, La Rouches, Kliebers, Wells, and Schriebers. After a hurricane destroyed Clarksville in 1874 many settlers from that town became citizens of Point Isabel. However when Brownsville began to grow and town lots were sold, many Point Isabel people moved inland.”

Another early Point Isabel pioneer not mentioned by Mrs. Villareal was Sanforth Kidder. A short comment on Captain Kidder around this period is to be found in a interview written up by Lt. W. H. Chatfield in his 1893 publication “The Twin Cities of the Border”. It is a commentary by long-time Brownsville resident Adolphus Glaevecke. He related: “I landed in New York in 1835, and after looking about for a time, I concluded I would not stop there, but go somewhere where it was not quite so cold; so I took passage on a coasting vessel bound for New Orleans. The ship was caught by the great storm of 1835, off the coast of Florida not far from Savannah, Ga., and for about twelve hours things looked pretty black; I began to think I would soon be looking for my fortune in Davy Jones’ Locker. We weathered the gale, though, and got to New Orleans, in due time. It was during that same storm a tidal wave swept over Brazos Island down here at Point Isabel. Captain Kidder was living on the island, with his family, and his wife was drowned.”

This account appears to be at odds with family history later provided by Richard Kidder. Obviously his wife outlived the captain and brought his body back from Mexico for burial in the Old Brownsville Cemetery. That Captain Kidder obtained land in Point Isabel is attested to by: Court records Volume “ F “ PP 50-52 Francis Gonzales, Martha Gonzales to Sanforth Kidder, Convey lots 1 and 2 Block 96, in town of Point Isabel dated March 16, 1854. In LeRoy Graf’s Harvard PhD thesis published as “The Economic History of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, 1820-1875”, he goes to an original source –Deposition of Sanforth Kidder, House Rep. 34th Congress, 3 Session No. 175 (February 2, 1857), 299-300.

It is likely Kidder made this deposition in an attempt to claim compensation for his losses. Gleaning from the deposition Graf writes: “Although the Fronton had occasionally been used as a temporary place of deposit between landing from lighters and loading on carts or pack mules for the trip to Matamoros, we know of no attempt to establish a permanent commercial depot before 1833. In that year Sanforth Kidder, a native of Connecticut, who had come to Matamoros in 1825, leased a site on which he built a warehouse and a wharf. He intended to carry on a forwarding business; but the move was ill-timed. The authorities who were continually plagued by the large amount of smuggling which went on through the lagoons of the Gulf, ordered that these structures be torn down, on the grounds that they afforded facilities for contraband trade. Captain Kidder’s knowledge of Spanish put him in good stead when the Mexican War ensued in 1846. His services as an interpreter were likely valuable to General Taylor’s army.