Across the Aransas Pass from Port Aransas lies a 21- mile strip of sand historically known as Culebra, San José, San Joseph, St. Joseph and St. Joe island. That cafeteria of names closed in 1973 when the Texas legislature made San José the real deal. Local historians are interested in our neighbor to the north because of its ties to Mustang Island, as well as its role in Texas and U.S. history.
San José Island began to develop when, relative to land scrip claims reaching back to pre-Republic days, the island was surveyed. Part of that included the laying out and establishment (circa 1845) of Aransas, the island’s sole settlement. This town/port was on the bay side of San José, about opposite Corpus Christi Bayou. Today, no overt signs of Aransas remain.
The business enterprises of Peter Johnson and Charlie Johnson (unrelated) helped to open up San José Island. From points north, the Johnson and Johnson stagecoaches and wagons carried people, goods and the mail down the island to the Aransas town/port, where Johnson vessels completed the circuit to Corpus Christi.
The federals degraded San José Island during the Civil War (1861-65) by removing livestock and assaulting Aransas. After the war, San José Island did not surge back (as did Mustang Island). Rather than prime the island for social and economic growth, the San José Island owners kept it a natural rangeland -- as do the current owners.
The histories of San José and Mustang islands are linked by a coastal pioneer and a wealthy sportsman. For several years, San José Island was home to Robert A. Mercer, who oversaw a transshipment dock. When his family (in Mobile) joined him in 1855, the Mercers came to Mustang Island… and the rest is history.
Members of an exclusive 1900 hunting and fishing club on San José Island hired Mustang Islanders to take them to the tarpon grounds. Exasperated with the snail’s pace of the islanders’ little rowboats, the club founder acquired a powerboat for the boatmen. That upgrade helped Mustang Island’s fledgling sport fishermen to become truly professional guides afield.
VIPs in San José Island history include Gen.l Zachary
Taylor, Sid Richardson and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In preparation for the Mexican-American War, Taylor and his troops landed on the island in 1845. Planning to encamp at Corpus Christi, Taylor needed a depot where large cargo ships from New Orleans could unload supplies for transshipment to Corpus Christi. He had that military depot, called Government Warehouse, built at the Aransas town/port.
Richardson, an eminently successful oilman, owned San José Island when World War II began. Richardson’s business acumen so impressed President Roosevelt that soon after Pearl Harbor, this Texan was called to Washington to give his assessment of America’s strategic energy picture.
That war time meeting was not the first time Sid Richardson and Franklin Roosevelt interacted. When FDR was fishing in this area in 1937, Richardson invited the President to lunch at his San José compound. There was the matter of wheelchair bound FDR getting from his motorboat onto the island. A chute for loading cattle was quickly adapted, and while it met the approval of the President’s handlers, FDR questioned the solution: “What in the world Sid; do you mean you’re going to roll me down that bull chute?” Mustering his best Texas drawl, Richardson broke the tension by answering, “Why Mr. President, you’re the biggest bull that ever went down that chute!” (from Barney Farley’s Fishing Yesterday’s Gulf Coast ).
[ Editor ’ s note: Port Aransas History Corner is a monthly feature compiled primarily by historian Dr. John Guthrie Ford. Ford, a charter member of, and consultant to, the Port Aransas Preservation and Historical Association, is the author of A Texas Island, available at various retail outlets in Port Aransas.]