Brazos Island, its unique legacy

BY NORMAN ROZEFF

The Handbook of Texas Online tells us, “Brazos Island is a barrier island south of Padre Island, at the south end of the Laguna Madre (at 26°01’ N, 97°09’ W). The lower Rio Grande Valley was largely ranching country when Mexican independence opened the port of Brazos Santiago on Brazos Island. A lively trade in specie, wool, and hides in exchange for cloth, hardware, and machinery developed.”

The island had been granted at one time to recipients now unknown by the King of Spain. The State of Tamaulipas in January 1829 granted the southern portion of the island to Ygnacio Trevino as as part of the Potrero de San Martin Grant.

The pass between South Padre Island and Brazos Island is now defined by the stone jetties that extend from the ends of both islands. The pass is presently named Brazos Santiago Pass. Literally this means “The arms of Saint Iago (James).”

The people of Matamoros surely named it after St. Iago, whose image was said to have appeared when the Castillian Spaniards fought to expel the Moors from southern Spain. This warrior saint was revered in Mexico as well as in Spain. For some he took on the name Santiago Mata Moros (Saint James the Moor slayer), hence his connection to the city’s name.

The use of Brazos Island, also known as Brazos Santiago Island, as a transportation hub had begun in earnest in 1846 when General Zachary Taylor used it and the shallow pass for logistics of the Mexican War. Taylor had a road built south down the 4 1/2 mile long island. His forces then built a floating bridge across the Boca Chica Channel. It was anchored by cypress pilings. This was to move military supplies to his temporary headquarters in Matamoros.

Before the Civil War, shallow draft vessels could move into the Port of Brazos Santiago on the island’s northwest side. It was recorded for the year ending June 30, 1858 that 132 ships had visited the port. With only nine feet of water at high tide over the sand bar in the pass, the trip to the wharf on the Laguna Madre Bay side was always threatening.

For over half a century Charles Morgan and his Morgan Lines provided the Valley and northern Mexico with the best link to the outside world. A backwater the region may have been, but it still needed to communicate with the rest of the U.S. and export its limited number of products.

The start of Morgan’s voyages to Texas began in early 1846 when he won a mail contract between New Orleans and Galveston. His Valley connection would come with the commencement of the Mexican War. General Zachary Taylor was already encamped on the Nueces by July 1845.

That Morgan now stood ready to gain from troop and matériel transport was a given. The newly established U.S. Army Depot at Brazos St. Iago (later corrupted to Brazos Santiago), Texas would soon need troops and stores. On April 29, 1846 Morgan’s New York would be chartered for $2,196 to transport troops to Brazos St. Iago.

In May 1846 Morgan’s 548-ton side wheeler Galveston was retained for $7,000 to do the same. Between April 29 and September 16, 1846 Morgan grossed nearly $80,000 for various military charters. Unfortunately on September 7 the New York sank on a voyage between New Orleans and Galveston. Eighteen lives were lost. Morgan, however, saw the future potential for Texas and in 1847 expanded his fleet by five new ships.

By 7/1/1850 Morgan had standardized his services to Texas. His line was receiving $15,000 per year for its weekly mail service to Brazos St. Iago. Its four-year contract was renewed in 1854. Since Morgan also had the New Orleans to Galveston mail contract and the trip to Brazos St. Iago was in reality a continuation of the former he was in reality collecting double for the contract.

His ship Globe that had joined Morgan’s fleet in 1847 was to wreck on the Brazos St. Iago Pass bar on June 17, 1851. It had been described this year by a woman passenger as “an old disabled shell that had already been condemned as unsafe…our old leaky vessel.”

By the year 1854 Morgan offered semi-weekly service to Galveston and Matagorda Bay. Smaller steamers continued occasionally to Brazos St. Iago where they offered connections to steamboats plying the Rio Grande.

While attempts by Morgan to establish a mail connection through Mexico from Veracruz to Acapulco then to San Francisco didn’t work out Morgan did effect a regular service from New Orleans to Veracruz.

On 5/23/1853 the 276 ton Morgan ship Cincinnati was lost at Brazos St. Iago. The service to Brazos St. Iago ceased by October 1853 due to lack of patronage. Over $10,800 was then deducted from its mail subsidy before its contract expired in May 1854. The Postmaster General then open bids for a new contract. When no competitors appeared for Route 7853, 550 miles twice-monthly from New Orleans to Brazos St. Iago, the route was reluctantly awarded to Harris & Morgan. Harris was Morgan’s son-in-law Israel Harris whom he had taken as a partner for his Gulf operations in December 1847.

The new contract as of May 10, 1854 was for $20,000 per annum. This service began July 1 with steamers leaving New Orleans at 8 a.m. the first and third Thursday each month and returning from South Texas the second and fourth Monday at 4 p.m.

The port would have two wharfs, a Morgan warehouse, and a U.S. Bonded Warehouse.

The cargo that the Morgan Lines brought to the port consisted largely of lumber, ironware, and general merchandise. On the return to New Orleans the ships carried cotton bales, beef hides, bundles of various skins, goat skins, pigs, slabs of lead mined in Mexico, and considerable silver bullion.

In his memoirs Rip Ford in recounting the Cortina era in late 1859 notes, “…the merchandise entering Brazos Santiago and passing up the Rio Grande and into Mexico amounted usually to as much as $10,000,000 a year. King & Kenedy had a fleet of steamboats plying between Brownsville and Brazos Santiago. The steamships of the Morgan Line were at anchor at the Brazos wharf every eight or ten days.”

By 1867 the Galveston to Brazos St. Iago route via Matagorda had been reactivated. Morgan would receive a $12,000 annual subsidy. At his time exports produced by cattle shipping and packing centers included dried and salted hides, tallow, processed salted beef, turtle meat, sheepskin, wool, bones, and as live cattle were called “sea lions.”

The Brazos St. Iago Pass continued to be a thorny issue. In 1868 Morgan’s relatively new 1,282 ton Josephine was stranded on the bar for six weeks before it was refloated and repaired. The absence of competitive land transport and the demand for commodities, made Morgan’s relatively short hauls quite lucrative.

To enhance its volume however, after 1871, discounts were provided for both foreign and domestic emigrant groups traveling to Texas.