When visiting the beach or relaxing at one of Galveston’s renowned resort hotels, the island’s historic past might not be the first thing that comes to mind. But a closer look reveals that while there was a Native American population before Europeans arrived in the early 16th century, it wasn’t until the 18th and 19th centuries that Galveston became a key North American port city. And there are key museums, buildings and attractions where that history can be explored. In the 16th century, the Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca lived among the native tribes as a medicine man and slave after he was shipwrecked on the island. French explorer Robert Cavelier La Salle later named the island St. Louis and claimed it for France. The island, however, got its name from Spanish colonial governor Bernardo de Gálvez who sent explorers to map the area in 1786. The 106-year-old Hotel Galvez bears his namesake.
Galveston’s most horrendous moments came when the island was battered by the Great Storm of 1900, the most deadly natural disaster to ever strike the U.S., leaving 6,000 islanders dead. The film, The Great Storm highlights the disaster and is shown daily at Pier 21. That devastation from the Great Storm led to the building of the Seawall which has helped protect the city from hurricanes’ devastating storm surges. The Seawall today is the city’s most popular pedestrian promenades along the beaches. Galveston did recover but was soon surpassed in size by Houston and other growing Texas cities. But its port on the Gulf of Mexico continued to welcome immigrants from all over the world. The port’s immigrant past is highlighted in the Texas Seaport Museum, also home to the 1877 Tall Ship Elissa, one of only three pre-20th century sailing vessels in the world that have been restored to full sailing capacity.