José Nicolás Ballí, a secular Catholic priest, the oldest son of José María and Rosa María Hinojosa de Ballí, was born in Reynosa, Mexico, about 1770. His parents were both Spaniards. Padre Ballí was an original grantee of the Texas coastal island later named Padre Island in his honor. He led an active civic and religious life in South Texas and the state of Tamaulipas as a missionary, a rancher, a colonist, and an explorer. His parents, prominent settlers and landowners at Reynosa, Camargo, and Matamoros and in the lower Rio Grande valley, owned over a million acres of land in South Texas. His two brothers, Juan José and José María Ballí, were officers of the Militia of Provincial and Frontier Cavalry. Nicolás spent his childhood in the company of his two younger brothers in Reynosa and received his elementary education there. His parents sent him to the Conciliar Catholic Seminary in Monterrey to complete his secondary and ecclesiastical education. He was probably ordained in 1790 or 1791.
Ballí conducted religious services in all the villas and haciendas in the lower Rio Grande valley. He lived in Matamoros and was a secular priest in Nuestra Señora del Refugio Mission from 1804 to 1829. Around 1820 he began the construction of the present Church of Nuestra Señora del Refugio in Matamoros. Ballí became the official collector of building funds for the churches of the villas on the Rio Grande. He was well known in South Texas and officiated in more than 500 baptisms, marriages, and funerals between 1800 and 1829.
The properties that he owned in South Texas were the La Feria grant, the Las Castañas grant, part of the Llano Grande grant, the Guadalupe grant, and the Isla de Santiago grant, known as Padre Island. Padre Island had been granted to his grandfather, Nicolás Ballí, by King Carlos III of Spain in 1759, and Padre Ballí requested a clear title to the property in 1827. He was the first to have the island surveyed and was the first settler on the island who brought in families. He also built the first church on the island for the conversion of the Karankawa Indians and for the benefit of the settlers. Twenty-six miles north of the island's southern tip the priest founded El Rancho Santa Cruz de Buena Vista (later known as Lost City), where he kept cattle, horses, and mules.
Ballí died on April 16, 1829, and was buried near Matamoros. Title to the island was granted to him posthumously on December 15, 1829, issued jointly in the name of the padre and his nephew Juan José Ballí. The priest had requested that half of the island be given to his nephew, who had been helping him there. Juan José lived on the island from 1829 to his death in 1853.