Galveston Island State Park, in Galveston County, is in the city of Galveston and on the west end of Galveston Island. The state acquired the 2,013.1-acre site in 1969 from private owners under the State Parks Bond Program. It opened in 1975.
The park protects both natural and cultural resources, but also provides access for recreation on the beach, prairie and bay. Dynamic beach, bay and freshwater habitats mix and meet at Galveston Island State Park.
Galveston Island is 5,000 years old and has had an interesting human history for at least 1,300 years. Today the island is considered a relaxing paradise, but past and present islanders struggled with intense storms, constant wind and waves, and finding resources for life on this barrier island.
The First Galvestonians
Members of the nomadic Akokisa Tribe (a band of the Atakapan speakers) were the first people to winter on the island. They left behind bones, shell middens, trading items and ceramics. These native peoples and their descendants survived on Galveston Island’s game, fish, wild plants and shellfish.
Natives left few lasting artifacts on Galveston, so historians use European written accounts to learn about early life on the upper Texas coast. Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca and his crew shipwrecked somewhere near here in 1520, leaving behind detailed journals describing these native peoples.
Galveston’s natives were pressured by European and Anglos seeking new lands and riches in the American West. By the 1830s, the Akokisa had moved off the island because of sickness and famine. Adaptive tribes, such as the Karankawa, survived for another half century on the edges of early white society. Eventually, disease and pressure by Europeans forced the Karankawa and all Native American tribes off the island.
New European Inhabitants
Europeans began regularly exploring and settling the upper Texas coast in the 1700s. These Spanish and French adventurers brought trade and new cultures, but it was disease which quickly overwhelmed and disrupted the lives of native inhabitants.
The Lafitte brothers fled the United States prosecution of pirates, and established a government on the island in 1817. Many believe these pirates, and later 20th century bootleggers and smugglers, used the park area to deliver stolen goods and slaves to the mainland.
Castles Made of Sand
Developers came to Galveston’s west end to lay out the city of South Galveston in 1891. Construction plans included a grand hotel, post office, racetrack, city blocks, freshwater ponds, lots for sale, and streets. Although the planned city was not completed, you can still see the landscape changes today in the park’s prairie and marsh.
Washing the Island Clean
Access to the Gulf of Mexico and a deep bay harbor accelerated trade and development of Galveston, but major storms slowed progress. The great storm of 1900 killed or washed away almost 10,000 people. The devastation prompted Galvestonians to build a seawall on the east side of the island, protecting the town and harbor.
Storms have the capacity to cause massive damage, but also offer chances for renewal. In 2008, Hurricane Ike damaged the park. It washed away and moved several yards of beach, sinking buildings and dramatically altering the landscape.
Galveston Island State Park is still recovering from Ike. Camping and day use facilities construction will begin on the beach side of the park in 2018.
Learn more about the park and the island: