Goliad, the county seat of Goliad County, originated as one of the oldest Spanish colonial municipalities in the state. The town is on the Southern Pacific Railroad, the San Antonio River, U.S. highways 59 and 183, and State Highway 239. It was established in October 1749, when colonizer José de Escandón recommended moving Nuestra Señora del Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga Mission and its royal protector, Nuestra Señora de Loreto de La Bahía del Espíritu Santo Presidio (Presidio La Bahía), from the Guadalupe River to a site named Santa Dorotea, on the San Antonio River. A new presidio, La Bahía, was built on a hill near the river, where sand, limestone, and timber were abundant. Around the presidio walls grew the settlement of La Bahía, and on the opposite bank stood Mission Espíritu Santo.
The fort supplied Spanish men-at-arms to the army of Bernardo de Gálvez in the American colonists' war against the British between 1779 and 1782, garrisoned Spanish troops throughout the 1810–21 Mexican war of independence, and after 1812 saw four separate attempts to establish Texas independence. In the longest siege in American military history, the Gutiérrez-Magee expedition captured La Bahía and held it for the first "Republic of Texas" from November 1812 until February 1813. In June 1817 Henry Perry and forty companions tried to capture the presidio but were repulsed. James Long, who surprised the occupying garrison in 1821 and met with little resistance, was unseated by deception after three days when 700 Spanish Royalist troops arrived from San Antonio.
Early in 1829 La Bahía resident Rafael Antonio Manchola, recently elected to the Coahuila and Texas state legislature, petitioned the governor to change the town's name to Goliad, an anagram of the name of Father Hidalgo, the priest who instigated the Mexican independence movement (see HIDALGO Y COSTILLA, MIGUEL). By decree on February 4, 1829, La Bahía became Villa de Goliad. At the time, the town had a number of stone houses belonging to wealthy citizens. In one of these, on March 24, 1829, was born Ignacio Seguín Zaragoza, who became one of Mexico's greatest military heroes. Flanking the stone structures stood dozens of jacals, huts of post and mortar construction that sheltered most of the villa's inhabitants. In 1834 a cholera epidemic nearly destroyed the settlement, but it survived.
The fourth and most noted effort originating in Goliad to establish Texas independence, known as the Goliad Campaign of 1835, began in October after an armed confrontation called the battle of Gonzales. Texans under Benjamin R. Milam and George Collinsworth captured the Goliad fort and its stores of arms and ammunition from the twenty-four-man Mexican garrison. On December 20 Goliad citizens and South Texas colonists met in the presidio chapel to sign a document known as the Goliad Declaration of Independence, the first such declaration for Texas, and afterwards hoisted the first flag of independence, designed by Capt. Philip Dimmitt, above the walls. James Walker Fannin, Jr., took command of the post in February 1836 and evacuated it on Sam Houston's orders on March 19 (see GOLIAD CAMPAIGN OF 1836). He and nearly 500 men were returned as prisoners to the presidio after the battle of Coleto and spent a week of captivity there before the Goliad Massacre.
After the battle of San Jacinto the old town was largely deserted, as many Hispanic citizens fled to Mexico and Anglo-Americans moved north of the river to the present townsite. The building of a new town resulted from complications in land titles; people feared purchasing old-town property since it was doubtful that appropriate Spanish or Mexican titles could be obtained.
Goliad County, named for the city, was established in 1836; Goliad became county seat and three years later was incorporated under the Republic of Texas. A four-league grant offered to La Bahía during the Mexican era was validated and signed by Houston in 1844, and a post office opened in 1847. Paine Female Institute was founded in 1852, and Aranama College was chartered in 1854, but the college closed early in the Civil War, when most of the students left to join the Confederate Army. Paine Female Institute began accepting males in 1873, added a military academy in 1877, and eventually became Goliad College. The Goliad Advance Guard was published continuously from 1855 through the 1980s. Goliad was the scene of the Cart War in 1857. The Cart War Oak, or Hanging Tree, still standing on the north lawn of the courthouse lot, saw both court-approved hangings and unauthorized executions during the conflict, which was halted by Texas Rangers.
The railroad arrived in 1885–86, and Goliad grew to a population of 2,500 by 1890. A new courthouse was constructed in 1894. Local farmers raised cotton and later cattle, but the town lost population as cotton farming declined. On May 18, 1902, a tornado destroyed more than 100 buildings, killed 115 people, and injured 230. Goliad had 1,261 residents in 1904, grew to 2,500 by 1925, fell to 1,400 during the Great Depression, and grew slowly afterward. In 1940 the town had two cotton gins, a gristmill, a poultry-packing plant, a broom factory, and fifty businesses, but in 1942 another disastrous storm damaged the area and destroyed the courthouse clock tower and turrets. La Bahia Downs, a racetrack, began drawing visitors to horse races in 1961. In 1976 Goliad's downtown square was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. In 1984–85 the Main Street Project renovated downtown buildings. By 1989 the population had increased to 2,285, and the major industries included oil, cattle ranching and other agribusiness, and tourism. In 1990 the population was 1,946. Throughout the 1990s heritage tourism also contributed to the local economy, with the sites of Goliad State Historic Park and Presidio La Bahía among area attractions. In 2000 the population was 1,975, and there were 155 listed businesses. Goliad's weekly newspaper The Texan Express had been in publication since 1983. A general aviation airport, Goliad County Industrial Airpark, developed from a closed naval landing field facility, opened in 2001. Goliad was recognized as a National Main Street City in 2003. See also SPANISH TEXAS, MEXICAN TEXAS.