By John Ronan Broderick
PRE-19th CENTURY ARANSAS COUNTY AREA
Before the first white men settled in what is now Aransas County, circa 1828, the area had been inhabited by Native Americans as early as 6,000 to 8,000 years earlier, according to archaeological artifacts found in the region. About 4,000 years ago, a culture known as the Aransas supplanted these earlier inhabitants, and these hunter-gatherer type Indians stayed until approximately 1300 A.D., when they departed the region.
A century passed before the predecessors of the Karankawa and Coahuiltecan and some other minor tribes occupied the Coastal Bend area, circa 1400 A.D. Like the Aransas Indians before them, they were nomadic hunter-gatherers, but they never formed alliances with one another. When the Europeans began arriving on the scene in the early 1500s, most of the Indian cultures disappeared from the region, victims of diseases introduced by the Europeans, or moving on to Mexico, blending in with indigenous tribes there. They had pretty much disappeared altogether by the mid-19th century when the Anglos displaced them.
The first European to sail the Gulf of Mexico and to chart Aransas and Copano bays was the Spaniard, Captain Alonso Alvarez de Pineda, in 1519. Then, in 1528, the shipwrecked Spaniard, Cabeza de Vaca, was the first European to document the existence of the Karankawas. Not until 1685, when the famous French explorer, Rene Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, established a colony in Texas, did the Spanish pay any serious attention to the region.
In 1689, a Spanish expedition under the command of Alonso De Leon explored the area but, he established no colony there. It was not until 77 years later that Diego Ortiz Parrilla, in 1766, conducted the next Spanish exploration of the Gulf Coast, and he assigned the names Santa Domingo to what is now Copano Bay, and Culebra Island to what we now refer to as St. Joseph’s Island. In the 1700s, Spanish Catholic missions were established in the area, as was a small fort on Live Oak Point, which was named for Rio Nuestra Senora de Aranzazu, a name derived from a Spanish palace.
It is interesting to note the similarity between the spelling of this Spanish palace, Aranzazu, and the Aransas Indian culture that occupied the region several hundred years earlier. This would seem mere coincidence, for the eventual county that emerged from the region has the exact same spelling as the Indian culture, not the Spanish palace, though many other names of places in the region do bear Spanish names.
For instance, in the 1780s, the Spanish colonial Governor Bernardo de Galvez, for whom the city of Galveston was named, established a port of entry and a customhouse in what was to become Refugio County. It was known as El Copano, a name which survives today in Copano Bay, and it serviced San Antonio, Refugio, and Goliad during the late Spanish and Mexican periods. Though hundreds of colonists disembarked at El Copano, most chose to move inland, with only a handful settling in the coastal region.
I am indebted to the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), of which I am a member, for the information contained about Aransas County in the 70th edition of their Texas Almanac, 2020-2021, and to the fine article, “Aransas County,” written by Christopher Long and published on the TSHA’s website, for most of the information I have so generously borrowed and paraphrased here.
ANGLO COLONIZATION OF ARANSAS COUNTY IN THE 19th CENTURY
A few words about the geography of this region would be appropriate at this point of the narrative. Though present-day Aransas County is situated on the western side of the Gulf of Mexico, it is separated from the Gulf by barrier islands, which form the Gulf Intracoastal Canal. The county covers more than 326 square miles, much of which is under water. It is comprised of three peninsulas: Live Oak, which encompasses the Rockport-Fulton area; Lamar, home of the “Big Tree,” believed to be 1,000 years old; and Blackjack, home to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.
Two major islands are also a part of the local topography: Goose Island, a haven for the endangered Whooping Cranes; and Saint Joseph (San Jose) Island, which is privately owned. Moreover, there are five bays located within the environs of Aransas County: Aransas; Copano; Mesquite; St. Charles; and Port. Aransas County is bounded on the north and northwest by Refugio County; on the south by San Patricio and Nueces Counties; and on the east by the Gulf of Mexico.
Local lore has it that in the early 1800s, pirates plied the waters of Aransas and Copano Bays. It is entirely possible that the most famous pirate of the era, Jean Lafitte, patrolled these waters in search of ships to plunder, for he sailed up and down +the Gulf Coast for at least two decades during this period.
In 1826, James Power and James Hewetson applied to the Mexican government for an empresario grant for this area. On June 11, 1828, the Mexican government granted it, so that the two Anglo-Americans could colonize the region that encompasses present-day Aransas County. Their goal was to import Irish immigrants and local Mexicans to settle in the area. Though a few Irish families arrived between 1829 and 1833, settlement of the grant had only been meager by 1835, but they had at least succeeded in establishing Aransas City at the tip of Live Oak Peninsula, circa 1832, near the site of the old Aranzazu fort. These colonists were among the many stout-hearted souls who signed the Texas Declaration of Independence from Mexico in late 1835, which resulted in the Texas Revolution.
After the Battle of San Jacinto on April 21st, 1836, in which General Sam Houston’s rag-tag army defeated General Santa Anna’s superior (in numbers at least) army, winning Texas’s independence from Mexico, events proceeded at a fast pace to organize the new Republic of Texas. Some of these events were the founding of new counties, towns, and cities across this vast land of opportunity.
One of these counties was Refugio County and one of the towns was Lamar, on Lamar Peninsula, about 10 miles north of present-day Rockport. It was founded in 1837 by Captain James Byrne, an Irish immigrant, veteran of the Texas Revolution, and survivor of the Battle of Goliad, along with two other men. Their purpose was to establish a port of entry to compete with Aransas City.
Meanwhile, back in Aransas City, “a customhouse, a post office, and several stores were established at the settlement, which by 1840 served as the de facto seat of government for Refugio County. . . . The town was raided by Comanche and Karankawa Indians on several occasions, and at least three times by Mexican bandits, in 1838, 1839, and 1841” (“Aransas County,” Christopher Long, TSHA).
The 1840s were unkind to Aransas City and it began a decline due to the competing settlement of Lamar, which the President of the Republic of Texas at the time, Mirabeau B. Lamar, favored. By 1840, Refugio had become the county seat of Refugio County, President Lamar had moved the customhouse to the town that bore his name, and by 1846, Aransas City had become a veritable ghost town.
Captain Byrne et al had been shrewd in the naming of their town to favor the second president of the Republic, who succeeded Sam Houston in 1838. “After the revolution cattlemen and sailors founded another community, Aransas, on the southern end of St. Joseph’s Island, which was a prosperous port in antebellum Texas” (Long). This similar naming of towns in the immediate vicinity of one another can be quite confusing in hindsight, e.g., the subsequent founding of the port known as St. Mary’s of Aransas.
Notably, as a precursor of events soon to follow, Lieutenant Chandler of the U.S.S. Alabama, planted the first U.S. flag in Texas, in Refugio County, in July 1845. In December 1845, the inevitable occurred and Texas was gladly annexed by the United States of America, resulting in the Mexican War of 1846.
By then, the old Mexican land grants had been challenged in court and had been overturned. Power and Hewetson had lost all their titles, and their challengers emerged the victors, chief among them Joseph F. Smith (no relation to Joseph F. Smith, religious leader of the Mormon Church), who soon became the major landholder in the area.
The nearly two decades from the beginning of the Mexican War of 1846 throughout the end of the American Civil War in 1865 was a period of constant upheaval in Refugio County, as one port city after another rose up to challenge whichever city was the current leading port at the time—first Aransas City, then Lamar, followed in succession by Aransas, St. Joseph, St. Mary’s of Aransas, Fulton, and Rockport.
Similarly, it was a period of reversals of fortunes, today’s winners becoming tomorrow’s losers. Joseph F. Smith was a prime example. Though he had emerged as the victor over Power and Hewetson, even after subsequent counter-litigation during the late 1850s, Smith lost much of his property when St. Mary’s wharves and warehouses were destroyed by Union naval forces in 1863, because the port was considered a prime focus for blockade runners. Soon thereafter Smith moved to Tuxpan, Vera Cruz, Mexico, where he bought a plantation and lived out the remainder of his life. I could uncover no evidence that he ever returned to Texas.
The commerce that developed immediately before, during, and after the Civil War in this area was considerable: overland transport to the interior of lumber and building materials; the shipping of cattle, hides, tallow, and cotton; and eight meat packing plants. It was in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War that several new towns in the area were founded, among them Fulton in 1866, and Rockport in 1867, the latter town named for the rock ledge underlying its shore.
Because Rockport and Fulton are separated by only three miles, they are usually referred to under one designation, Rockport-Fulton. Fulton was named after George Ware Fulton, Sr., a prominent rancher, cattleman, entrepreneur, and inventor, who owned 25,000 acres of land in the immediate vicinity. He and his wife built a mansion in Fulton they named Oakhurst, now a historical landmark, which is restored and under the management of the Texas Historical Commission.
Rockport was a little fishing village that grew mightily once the San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railway came to town in 1886, enabling it to ship all the hides and tallow produced in the area, especially George Fulton’s, to New Orleans and other cities. Fulton obtained a patent for a cooled (predecessor to refrigerated) train car so that the meat from the local slaughterhouses could also be shipped to market as a commodity instead of dumping it into the bay or feeding it to swine, as had been the earlier method for disposing of it.
Most of the early commercial buildings in Rockport were of frame construction. One of these was a grocery store owned by Fred Brunner. His widow sold the business to Simon B. Sorenson in 1885, but it burnt down in 1890 in a fire that destroyed many other frame buildings. Sorenson rebuilt a two-story brick structure, but it too was damaged by fires in 1891 and 1895. This seemingly indestructible building has since withstood unnamed hurricanes in 1916, 1919, 1942, as well as Hurricanes Carla and Beulah in the 1960s, Celia in 1970, and Harvey in 2017. Today the building is home to the Estelle Stair Gallery in the Rockport Cultural Arts District.
For a brief period, Rockport served as the county seat of Refugio County, because it was the largest, fastest growing town/port in the area. But when Aransas County was carved out of Refugio County in 1871, as was often the habit of the Texas legislature in those early years, Rockport was named as its county seat and the city was incorporated that same year.
I am not 100% certain about this, but Rockport may be the only city in Texas that has been the county seat of two different counties. Then the city of Refugio once again became the county seat of Refugio County. Aransas County is the second-smallest county in the state in terms of square miles, the smallest being Rockwall County in North Central Texas, just east of Dallas.
The decade 1890 to 1900 brought many changes to Aransas County and Rockport-Fulton. The number of farms grew from six to 47, tourism began to play an important role in the local economy, commercial fishing began to outstrip farming in net receipts, and in 1889, the Aransas County Courthouse was built. By the end of the 19th century the shipbuilding industry had also began to flourish. Several plans were floated about to develop Rockport as a deep-water harbor, but all came to naught. By the time Aransas Pass had become a deep-water port in the 1920s, the Port of Corpus Christi was opened to ocean-going vessels and the Aransas County ports went into decline.
THE 20th CENTURY AND BEYOND
As Rockport turned the corner into the 20th century, its prospects did not look too bright. In 1919, for instance, Rockport-Fulton was hit by a powerful hurricane (they were still unnamed storms in that day and age) which devastated the area. Combined with the loss of its shipping industry to Corpus Christi, which had crippled the local economy, the 1900 population of 1,153 declined somewhat to 1,140 by 1930, the first census of the Great Depression.
The only bright spots during this period were its nascent commercial fishing and shipbuilding industries, the latter of which got a shot in the arm with America’s entry into World War I. Throughout the next 20 years it continued to thrive and during World War II it was taken over by the U.S. Navy. Additionally, the discovery of oil in the area in the mid-1930s helped somewhat; within a decade there were thirteen wells producing black gold. The relatively new concept of offshore drilling greatly benefited the new industry as well.
But every silver lining has a black cloud, and this oil boom was no different. Fortunately, however, General Sam Houston had sketched out the boundaries of Texas on the battleground of San Jacinto on that fateful day in April 1836. And for the simultaneous surrender and treaty he drew up for Santa Anna’s signature, he wisely stipulated that Texas’s boundaries extended three leagues out into the Gulf of Mexico from land. In other words, more than ten miles of submerged land was encompassed within the new Republic of Texas’s boundaries. This was a farsighted move on Houston’s part.
When Texas was later voluntarily annexed by the U.S., these boundaries were again reiterated and affirmed in that treaty between two sovereign nations, the United States of America and the Republic of Texas. With the discovery of oil within these boundaries, however, seemingly all bets were off. Even the U.S. Supreme Court tried to abrogate this long-standing agreement when suit was brought by avaricious oil companies who wished to extract oil from these areas under a more liberal federal provision that would enable them to realize greater profits.
But Texas and Texans were vehemently opposed to such greedy men who would rob revenues from the state’s coffers that greatly benefited Texas school systems, and the battle lines were drawn over these submerged lands that had been theirs for well over a century. Fortunately, a savior arose who championed their cause, the 1952 Republican presidential candidate (and native-born Texan), General Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower, who asserted in his campaign that he would sign into law without hesitation any act passed by Congress that guaranteed these boundaries to Texas.
His Democratic opponent, Adlai Stevenson, unwisely took the opposite view, saying he would veto any such legislation. Eisenhower carried the State of Texas in the election that made him the 34th President of the United States, and Stevenson became a footnote to American history. It is said that even lifelong, die-hard Democrats were sporting bumper stickers on their automobiles in 1952 that proclaimed, “I Like Ike!”
True to his word, when Congress passed that legislation the first year of Eisenhower’s presidency, he gladly and promptly signed it into law. The settlement in 1953 of the “Tidelands Controversy” gave Aransas County, Texas an additional 208 square miles of submerged land area. Prior to Eisenhower’s election in 1952, Aransas County had been staunchly Democratic. For the next 40 years, it swung to the Republicans in the majority of elections. Who was the guy who said, “Oil and water don’t mix”?
During the second half of the 20th century, Rockport’s population more than tripled, from 2,266 to 7,385. This was due, primarily , to a diversification of its industries: agribusiness, tourism, oil and gas exploration, fish packing, and a revival of its shipping industry via the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, which runs the length of Aransas Bay. The 21st century local economy also numbers recreational fishing, commercial shrimping, and hunting among its industries. Moreover, it is nationally recognized as a birding hotspot, e.g., Goose Island State Park. In 1987, the Texas state legislature named the Texas Maritime Museum in Rockport the official maritime museum of the State of Texas.
ROCKPORT’S VITAL STATISTICS
According to the World Population Review website, Rockport’s 2020 estimated population is 10,969, making it the 225th largest city in Texas. Its population has increased over 25% since the 2010 U.S. Census. Currently it has a population density of 663 people per square mile.
Rockport’s average household income is $82,035, and it has a poverty rate of 26.41%. Recent years’ median rental costs come to $1,010 per month, and the median house value is $174,600. Median age is 49.1 years, and for every 100 females there are 90.5 males. Females comprise 52.51% of its population, whereas males constitute 47.49%. The overall marriage rate is 54%.
From an educational perspective, 11.88% of the population did not finish high school, whereas that was the highest level attained by 26.84%. Those who obtained some college were 22.9%, and those who obtained Associate’s degrees were 7.21%. Another 20.29% earned a Bachelors’ degree, while 10.79% attained Graduate degrees.
In the area of languages spoken, according to the U.S. Census 2018 ACS (American Community Survey) 5-year survey, 77.37% of Rockport residents speak only English; 18.75% speak Spanish as their primary language; and the remaining 3.88% speak other languages.
Moreover, according to the same survey cited regarding languages, there were a total of 1,138 U.S. military veterans in Rockport; 1,028 were males; 110 were females. The breakdown by war they served in was as follows:
Vietnam 424 42.3%
Second Gulf War 306 30.5%
First Gulf War 155 15.5%
Korea 86 8.6%
World War II 32 2.8%
Based on the same ACS Survey cited above, in terms of places of birth, 63.9% of Rockport residents are native Texans; another 25.88% were born elsewhere in the U.S.; of the remaining 10.22% who were foreign born, the largest percentage was from Latin America.
Among the four sites in the Rockport-Fulton area that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) are the George W. Fulton Mansion in Fulton, which was built over a three-year period between 1872 and 1875. This property also holds the following historic designations: State Historic Site; State Antiquities Landmark; and Recorded Texas Historic Landmark (RTHL). Another home on both the NRHP and the RTHL is the Hoopes-Smith House in Rockport, which was built during the years 1890 to 1892; it is now a Bed & Breakfast.
The oldest home in the area to be accorded both designations is the 1867 T.H. Mathis House, a Greek Revival style structure; remarkably, it is still owned by the same family over 150 years after it was built. The last site on the NRHP is the Kent-Crane Shell Midden in Fulton, a prehistoric site dating back to the Middle and Late Holocene periods, i.e., 10,999 B.C. It is privately-owned and access is restricted.
There are eleven other properties in Rockport that are listed on the RTHL, though not on the NRHP. They are the: 1881 Baldwin-Brundrett House; 1881 Leopold M. Bracht House; the 1868 Fulton-Bruhl House; 1874 Hynes-Balthrope House; c. 1910 Joe A. and Bertha Harper House; 1874 Moore House; 1892 Rockport School; 1903 Smith-Brundrett House; c. 1890 Sorenson-Stair Building; 1948 Woman’s Club of Aransas County; and 1910 Wood-Jackson House.
In addition to the above-named sites that are listed on either the NRHP or RTHL, or both, there are many other sites designated by State Historical Markers. These include sites of structures no longer extant, such as churches, commercial buildings, homes, hotels, shipyards, and the 1899 Aransas County Courthouse–buildings that were either purposely demolished or destroyed by fires or hurricanes. A few, such as cemeteries and structures still extant that do not meet the strict standards set by the Texas Historic Commission for inclusion on the RTHL (most likely due to modifications to the original building), also fall under this category.
The Aransas County Historical Society has apparently done a stellar job in preserving the heritage of this community. They are to be commended for their diligent efforts to preserve the legacies of their forebears in an area that has had more than its fair share of natural disasters.
SO MUCH FOR HISTORY, LET’S TALK ABOUT THE PRESENT!
I gotta tell ya, Rockport has got it going on! If the incredible array of 147 hotels, inns and B & Bs in the area is any indication of what lies in store for the tourist anxious to get away from the hustle and bustle of the big city and get down to the Gulf of Mexico for sea breezes, sun, and surf, Rockport is where the action is.
Check out the names of some of these locally owned and operated places and make up your own mind: Blue Pineapple House; Redfish Lodge on Copano Bay; No Agenda Hacienda; Camp Coyoacan; Sea Breeze Suites; Candlelight Cottages; Balinese Wellness Spa and Yoga Retreat; Angel Rose Bed & Breakfast; Whooping Crane Manor B & B; Sea & Sand Cottages; Sea View Motel; Shark Reef Resort; Pelican Bay Resort; Laguna Reef Condominium; Tropic Island Resort; the Lighthouse Inn at Aransas Bay; the Tarpon Inn; Beachcomber Motels.
And I haven’t even mentioned all the popular, well known national chain hotels that are represented down there: Hampton Inn & Suites; La Quinta Inn & Suites by Windham; Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott; Days Inn by Windham; Holiday inn Express & Suites; Econo Lodge Inn & Suites; Best Western Inn & Suites; Super 8 by Windham; Quality Inn; and I lost count of the number of RV parks in the area. There is no doubt in my mind, folks: there is an inn, hotel, no-tell-motel, RV park, or B & B to suit every pocketbook, taste, and style imaginable.
And need I tell you what to expect in the way of restaurants? Naturally, seafood is king, whether your tastes run to shrimp, oysters, crab, red snapper, calamari, sushi, flounder, or whatever, it makes no difference, Rockport has your back. But that’s not all folks! (I feel like that fella on TV selling some remarkable new kitchen gadget.) Like any other Texas town, there is a vast array of barbeque, steaks, burgers, Mexican, Tex-Mex, pizza, Italiano, even Vietnamese. The food selection is International! You name it, you got it. And naturally, all your favorite national restaurant chains are represented. (As long as they’ve got a Whataburger, I know I’m gonna be a happy camper.)
So, what’s not to like about Rockport? Answer? Nothing! I know the next time I get a hankering for some salt sea spray and fun in the sun, I’m gonna hop into my Chevy Impala, slide open the moon roof, crank up Jimmy Buffet on the car stereo’s Bose speakers, and cruise the 188 miles from Houston to Rockport in less than three hours’ time to my own island paradise. See ya there!