Texas History: Severe winter storms evoke memories of family trips

Michael Barnes
Austin American-Statesman
Despite many winters on the coast, columnist Michael Barnes had never seen a Texas beach white with snow before the February winter storm. Virtually nobody else had remained at Surfside Beach on Follett's Island by this dawn. Barnes was mesmerized by the unusual cloud formations and what looked like steam coming up from the sea.
  • As children on the Texas beach, we played “castaways,” inspired in part by historical figures.
  • Cabeza de Vaca, Jane Long, La Salle and Jean Laffite were among our fantasy roles.
  • The severe winter storm did not stop us from reading and fantasizing about the Texas past.

FOLLETT’S ISLAND — No Texan will ever forget where they were during the winter storms of 2021.

I was on Follett’s Island, a 13-mile thread of sand that stretches from Galveston Island and San Luis Pass southwest to Freeport and the old mouth of the Brazos River, for a long-planned vacation.

It is a place that has evoked historical fantasies since I made my first annual trip to the island in 1963, not long after it was visited by highly destructive Hurricane Carla in 1961. The ruins of houses, still not completely cleared two years after the storm, made a lasting impression on a 9-year-old mind.

Respect Texas storms.

My first history mystery there was sparked by a marker placed prominently behind the sand dunes that proclaimed that, as Old Velasco, this spot was briefly the capital of the Republic of Texas. A surfer hangout, it sure didn’t look like a capital of anything in 1963 and still does not today. 

More on Texas history in a bit, but first, how did we fare during the storms?

Like millions of Texans, we lost power, heat and water at our little cabin on stilts in the village of Surfside Beach. Inside, nightly temps dipped into the 20s. So we evacuated over icy roads to family in West Houston. Normally this procedure would have taken about 90 minutes, but it turned into a five-hour journey because of icy bridges and inoperative traffic lights, which furious Houston drivers refused to endure graciously or safely.

More lucky than many Texans, we returned to Follett’s Island a week after our initial arrival for a balmier seven days of reading and relaxation, thanks in part to friends in Austin who looked after our vulnerable house and garden, and our handy beach landlords who quickly fixed the cabin’s broken water pipes.

Texas history played a big part in my childhood trips to Follett’s Island, which, for the first few decades, were taken during the summer months. Something about the sea and sand fired youthful flights of fancy.

Sometimes siblings and cousins played “castaways,” which for me meant pretending to be Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, an early explorer of Texas and its first published historian. He was part of a rather large 1528 expedition to conquer Florida and beyond that made some serious mistakes on land and at sea. 

Makeshift rafts manned by some survivors made landfall on — or near — Follett’s Island. After some tough times, Cabeza de Vaca, two other Spaniards and an enslaved African person next escaped what they called Mahado (Isle of Misfortune) to wander Texas, Mexico and the Southwest, sometimes enslaved themselves, at other times operating as traders or, in Cabeza de Vaca’s case, medical miracle worker among the Native Americans.

At last, three of them arrived safely at San Miguel de Culiacán near the Pacific Ocean, according to the Handbook of Texas, and from there they arrived in Mexico City in late July 1536: “In all they had walked on bare feet an estimated 2,400 miles from where they had fled the Mariames and Yguaces in Texas.”

Now that’s a story for a dream-struck boy.

Related sidenote: During our February trip, I returned to the beach hamlet of Quintana, which lies on the other side of the old Brazos — the river was supplemented in the 1920s by an Army Corps of Engineers canal that dredged a new more southerly mouth for the river. Quintana had been a bustling port of entry during the Republic of Texas and a summer home for the wealthy people who lived inland — until it was wiped out by the 1900 hurricane that also nearly destroyed the city of Galveston.

It has never completely recovered.

Notice anything curious about this sign welcoming guests to the Texas beach hamlet of Quintana? Besides the non-Texan flamingos, there's "Founded 1532." There were no Spanish settlements in what is now Texas for another hundred years. So clearly locals are claiming that Spanish castaway Cabeza de Vaca’s miserable time on this coast around 1532 as part of its founding.

These days, one is welcomed to the hamlet — which maintains a small but wondrous municipal birding park and well-kept county beach park — by molded concrete signs, painted tropical blue and pink with nonindigenous flamingos, and a curious phrase: “Founded 1532.” 

For years, I’ve wondered about this far-fetched claim — the first Spanish settlements in Texas did not come until the 1630s at the earliest, depending on how you define “settlement” — and have concluded that the citizens of Quintana trace their notional history back to Cabeza de Vaca’s time.

In another version of our castaways game, someone might play Jane Long, sometimes called the “Mother of Texas” because she gave birth to a child up the coast on the Bolivar Peninsula in 1821. This title discounts not only many thousands of previous Native American and Spanish births, but also other Anglo-Americans children recorded to have been born in Texas before this blessed event. Her husband, James Long, had planned a filibustering expedition to take Texas from the Spanish, and at one point, left his wife at Fort Las Casas on the peninsula. After he died, she barely survived with her children as they scrounged for shelter and food up and down the coast and inland up the bays. 

Long went on to remarry and to run a boarding house in Brazoria and a plantation near Richmond. Undoubtedly, she was among those super-resilient early Texas women. And she inspired our beach games, although later I realized that she must have received some aid on Bolivar from the nomadic Karankawas, the indigenous peoples of the coast between Bolivar and Corpus Christi Bay. 

Another Barnes watery game, “Ship Ahoy!” was likely inspired as much by a popular brand of store-bought cookies as it was by the French pirate Jean Lafitte, who made his power base on Galveston Island in the early 19th century (Long said that she dined with him).

Another Frenchman — and another castaway in a sense — was René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, whose 1684-1687 expedition to seek the mouth of the Mississippi River by sea went very wrong and left his company stranded on Matagorda Bay further down the coast. At one point as a child, I insisted on having my picture taken as I posed on a modern statue of La Salle that survives at Indianola, another thriving Texas port that was wiped out by hurricanes.

All these fancies rushed back to mind in February during bundled-up walks along the shore, in part because one of my beach books this year was Gary Clayton Anderson’s magnificent “The Conquest of Texas: Ethnic Cleansing in the Promised Land, 1820-1875.” This volume is the Texas enlargement of Dee Brown’s breakthrough 1970 project, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West.”

Both studies look closely at the voluminous records of what Native Americans said in council meetings, treaty parlays, trade encounters, journalistic interviews and so forth. And they have completely changed our previously established understanding of the interactions among Europeans, Americans and Native Americans in our part of the world.

It would have been helpful to read such thoughtful, fluent and deeply researched books about Texas history decades ago. I imagine my youthful beach fantasies might have come out differently.

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