Corpus Christi, a seaport at the mouth of the Nueces River on the west end of Corpus Christi Bay, is the county seat of Nueces County and the largest city on the South Texas coast. It lies at the junction of Interstate 37 and U. S. highways 77 and 181, 210 miles southwest of Houston. The city's transportation needs are also served by the Texas Mexican, Southern Pacific, and Missouri Pacific railways and Corpus Christi International Airport. In prehistoric times the area was inhabited by various tribes of the Karankawa Indian group, which migrated up and down the Coastal Bend region. It is not known who the first Europeans were to visit the area, but it seems most likely that Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and his band were the first Europeans who actually set foot on the site. The Spanish, however, largely ignored the region until the 1680s, when Frenchmen under René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, established a colony in Texas. Spanish authorities dispatched an expedition to the area in 1689 under Alonso De León, but the Corpus Christi Bay area remained unknown and unexplored until 1747, when Joaquín de Orobio y Basterra led an expedition down the Nueces River, reaching the bay on February 26. After Orobio's return, José de Escandón, governor and captain general of Nuevo Santander, proposed founding a settlement at the mouth of the Nueces called Villa de Vedoya. In the summer of 1749, fifty families accompanied by a squadron of soldiers and two priests set out to colonize the area, but because of prolonged drought and a lack of adequate provisions they gave up before reaching their goal.
In 1787 Manuel de Escandón, son of José de Escandón, proposed another settlement at the mouth of the Nueces, but the project never advanced beyond the planning stages. In the late 1780s and early 1790s Spanish authorities considered moving Nuestra Señora del Refugio Mission to the mouth of the Nueces, but abandoned the idea because of continuing friction with the Lipan Apaches. During the 1830s two further failed attempts were made to establish colonies at the mouth of the Nueces. German nobleman Baron Johann von Rachnitz tried to found a German settlement there, but the ship carrying the colonists was prevented from landing by the French during the Pastry War. Around the same time, abolitionist Benjamin Lundy proposed the establishment of a colony of former slaves at the site; however, he dropped the plans after the outbreak of the Texas Revolution. The area thus remained uninhabited until September 1839, when Henry Lawrence Kinney and his partner William P. Aubrey established a trading post on the west shore of Corpus Christi Bay, reportedly near what is now the 400 block of North Broadway. Kinney and Aubrey quickly developed a brisk illegal trade with Mexico. In 1841 Capt. Enrique Villarreal, a rancher from Matamoros who had been granted the land by the Mexican government, led a force of 300 men to reclaim his property and seize the arms stored at Kinney's stockade. Kinney, who at the time reportedly had only eight men under his command, however, managed to negotiate an agreement to purchase the land. Kinney and Aubrey's post soon became the focus of trade in the area. Attacks by Mexican bands forced the abandonment of the post in 1842, but Kinney returned a short time later and reestablished his business. A post office opened the same year with Aubrey as postmaster. By the mid-1840s the settlement—now known as Corpus Christi ("the Body of Christ")—was a small village. An English visitor described it as consisting of "Colonel Kinney's fortified house, about a half dozen stores, and a grog shop or two"; another visitor around the same time reported that the village had some fifty families. In 1846 the town became county seat the of newly formed Nueces County. It was incorporated on April 25, 1846, but because no public officials were elected, the corporation was repealed, and the town was not reincorporated until February 16, 1852.
In September 1845 Gen. Zachary Taylor's army encamped nearby, and in the late 1840s numerous fortune-seekers passed through to join wagon trains headed for California, but few settlers put down permanent roots. In 1852 Kinney organized a state fair—reportedly the first in Texas—in an attempt to put Corpus Christi on the map, but it proved to be a failure and did little to spur the town's growth. A yellow fever epidemic struck the town in 1854, decimating the population, and difficulty in obtaining fresh water plagued the city throughout the 1850s. The chief impediment to growth, however, was the lack of a deepwater port, a problem that occupied the town's leaders for the next seventy years. Large ships, unable to enter Corpus Christi Bay, were forced to anchor offshore where supplies were offloaded onto lighters, shallow-draft vessels capable of navigating the narrow, twisting channels of the bay. Kinney, undismayed by the problems, continued to promote the town, placing glowing advertisements in northern newspapers and in Europe, which breathlessly described the natural beauty and business opportunities of the area. Some immigrants came and the population grew slowly, but the town continued to reflect something of a frontier character through the early 1850s. Public drunkenness and lawlessness were common. For many years there was no effective city government. By the middle of the decade, however, the situation began to change. The first schools opened around 1854, and by the eve of the Civil War the town had several established churches and several fraternal lodges. During the 1850s steamships of the Morgan Lines began making regular stops, and the volume of trade through the city gradually increased. By 1859 it was reported that some forty-five vessels carried on trade between Corpus Christi and Indianola alone. In 1860 the population reached 1,200 and the town reported four teachers, one music instructor, three ministers, a priest, three doctors, and eight lawyers. Men, however, outnumbered women, with seventy-three more men than women, a reflection of the town's continuing frontier character. Nearly one-third of all of all residents were foreign born.
During the early years of the Civil War, Corpus Christi served as an important crossroads for Confederate commerce. In defiance of the Union blockade, small boats sailed inside the barrier islands transporting goods from the Brazos River to the Rio Grande or delivering them for overland transport to Mexico. In an effort to halt the trade, Union forces seized Mustang Island in September 1863 and bombarded Corpus Christi on two occasions. They did not occupy the town until the end of the year. Military occupation continued until the early 1870s, but the town's economy quickly recovered, in large measure due to the growth in sheep and cattle ranching in the surrounding region. Between 1870 and 1880 Corpus Christi was the center of a wool market. But the growth of the cattle industry had the greatest impact on the town's economy in the postbellum period. During the great cattle boom of the 1870s Corpus Christi emerged as an important shipping point for cattle from the South Texas plains, and in the 1880s packing houses, stockyards, and markets for hides, tallow, and other cattle by-products flourished.
As the city grew in importance as a shipping center, efforts were made to improve access to the ocean. In 1874 the main sea channel was dredged to a depth of eight feet to allow large steamers to navigate. The railroad also reached the town in the mid-1870s. The Corpus Christi, San Diego and Rio Grande Narrow Gauge Railroad was organized in 1875, and by 1881 it was extended to Laredo as the Texas Mexican Railway. In 1885 Corpus Christi was a city of some 4,200 residents, with three banks, a customhouse, railroad machine shops, an ice factory, carriage factories, several hotels, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, Catholic, and Baptist churches, and two newspapers, the Caller and the Critic. The decades of the 1880s and 1890s brought other signs that Corpus was developing into a modern city. Many of city's streets were paved for the first time, a street railway system was built in 1889, and a public water system opened in 1893. In 1890 New York promoter Elihu H. Ropes announced plans to build a deep-water seaport that would make Corpus Christi a combined "Chicago of the Southwest" and "Long Branch of the South." His scheme collapsed in the national depression of the early 1890s, but the town continued to develop rapidly nonetheless. Growth was most impressive in the eight years from 1906 to 1914, when bank deposits increased ten-fold, from $300,000 to $3 million and property values rose from $1,290,000 to $7,455,000.
By 1914 Corpus Christi was served by four railroads, the Texas Mexican, the San Antonio and Aransas Pass, the St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexico, and the San Antonio, Uvalde and Gulf. The expanding network of links with the outside world contributed to the town's rapid development. The railroads aggressively promoted the city and the surrounding countryside, offering inexpensive fares in the hope that new residents and farmers would increase the rail business. Rail agents similarly promoted the city as a tourist center, billing it as a all-year resort "where the weary can come to rest, the invalid can come for health, and the gay devotee come for pleasure." During the teens, the Texas State Epworth League of the Methodist Church held its annual encampment in the city, and some 5,000 to 8,000 visitors each year took advantage of excursion rates to spent several weeks on the shore. Many others also came to the city, fueling a construction boom for hotels, cottages, and boardinghouses. A city administration elected in 1913 headed by mayor Roy Miller adopted an aggressive program of modernization. In three years it paved twelve miles of streets, laid twenty-six miles of storm and sanitary sewers, installed a modern water system, organized a paid fire department with two "triple-motor" pumpers, and constructed a new city hall and municipal wharf.
The efforts, however, all seemed to come to naught on September 14, 1919, when the city was hit by a powerful hurricane that destroyed much of the North Beach area and the central business district and killed some 350 to 400 people. The tremendous economic loss convinced civic and business leaders that for the city to recover and prosper it would be necessary finally to build a deepwater port. Various city and local organizations lobbied the federal authorities to build a thirty-foot-deep channel from the gulf to a protected harbor in the city. In 1922 President Warren G. Harding approved a rivers and harbors act that authorized construction of the ship channel. Dredging and construction began the following year. Finally, on September 14, 1926, seven years to the day after the hurricane hit, the jubilant city celebrated the opening of its deepwater port. The impact on Corpus Christi was immediate. In just ten years, from 1920 to 1930, the city's population more than doubled, growing from 10,522 to 27,741. The town's new-found prosperity was also apparent in other ways: in 1927 the first "skyscraper," the Nixon Building, was finished, and by 1930 two other modern office buildings and a large hotel, the Plaza, dotted the central business district.
Growth slowed during the years of the Great Depression. The number of businesses fell from 920 in 1931 to 710 in 1933, but the discovery of oil in the county in 1930 and the continued development of the port of Corpus Christi helped to offset the depression's worst effects. Between 1931 and 1941 the town's population more than doubled again, climbing from 27,741 to 57,301. In the years after World War II Corpus Christi continued to grow rapidly. By 1952 the city had 108,053 residents and 2,845 businesses. Already in 1948 the port was twelfth in volume of business in the United States, and it ranked ninth in the United States and second in Texas in 1969, when it handed more than twenty-nine million tons of cargo. A new system of channels forty feet deep and 400 feet wide was completed in 1965, assuring entry of the latest supertankers into the port.
Corpus Christi exports cotton, grain sorghums, and wheat. Its coastal shipments include fuel oils, gasoline, crude petroleum, and natural gas. Other major contributors to the income of the Corpus Christi area are petroleum and natural gas, manufacturing, agriculture, fishing, a naval air base (see NAVAL AIR STATION, CORPUS CHRISTI), and tourism. The region has become the center of a large petroleum and petrochemical industry. Its six oil refineries are located in close proximity to 1,500 oil wells. Short-distance pipelines connect Corpus Christi to one of the nation's largest supplies of natural gas. Oil and gas production in the county was valued at 277 million dollars in 1987. Twenty-two docks in the Corpus Christi port handle only petrochemicals and petroleum products. Other manufactured goods of importance are metals, stone products, glass, chemicals, and gypsum products. Corpus Christi, in addition to its port facilities for agricultural products, also has some food processing, meat packing, and cottonseed oil manufacturing. Corpus Christi and nearby Aransas Pass are the commercial fishing headquarters of the area, and the city is a seafood-processing center. The Naval Air Station at Corpus Christi adds more than $40 million annually to the economy.
The Corpus Christi metropolitan area offers numerous recreational facilities. Opportunities for boating, swimming, fishing, camping, and birdwatching are provided by Padre Island National Seashore, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, the Rob and Bessie Welder Foundation and Refuge, Goose Island State Park, and Lake Corpus Christi State Recreation Area. The area includes historic Fort Lipantitlán, Fort Marcy, the San Patricio cemetery, and a number of historic homes. Annual events include Buccaneer Days, the All-Texas Jazz Festival, the Navy Relief Festival, the New Year's Day Swim, and the Cinco de Mayo celebration. Major cultural attractions include the Corpus Christi Museum, the Art Museum of South Texas, a symphony orchestra, and a little theater. Del Mar College and Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi provide higher education in the area. Del Mar Technical Institute, a branch of Del Mar College, and the University of Texas at Austin Marine Science Institute in nearby Port Aransas offer specialized training.
In recent years the city has continued to grow steadily. In 1968 the number of residents topped the 200,000 mark for the first time, and in 1990 the population reached 250,000. Over the same period the number of businesses grew from 3,900 to 4,500. In 1992 Corpus Christi was an ethnically diverse city with a population of 257,453; approximately 50 percent of the population was Hispanic, 43 percent white, 4 percent African American, and 3 percent Asian and other. In 2000 the city had 277,454 inhabitants and 10,173 businesses.