La Bahía, literally "the bay," is a term with multiple meanings in Texas history. Various sites on the Gulf Coast were so designated. The Spanish came to use the name as a short form of La Bahía del Espíritu Santo, or Bay of the Holy Spirit, now called Matagorda Bay and Lavaca Bay, bounded by present Calhoun, Victoria, Jackson, and Matagorda counties. (In 1519 Alonso Álvarez de Pineda called the Mississippi River the Río del Espíritu Santo, and others extended the name to the bay.) The official application of the name to Matagorda and Lavaca bays occurred during the Spanish search for the French colony planted by René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle.
The name La Bahía subsequently referred both to the bay and to entities associated with it. During the Aguayo expedition, which the viceroy of New Spain authorized to reestablish Spanish dominion in Texas after the French threatened Spanish hegemony, a detachment under Domingo Ramón occupied La Bahía del Espíritu Santo and in April 1721 founded a presidio upon the ruins of La Salle's Fort St. Louis, generally considered to have been on Garcitas Creek, which empties into the bay. The presidio was named Nuestra Señora Santa María de Loreto de la Bahía del Espíritu Santo, though the name was commonly shortened to Nuestra Señora de Loreto Presidio; the place was popularly called Presidio La Bahía. In 1722 the Marqués de Aguayo authorized Father Agustín Patrón y Guzmán to establish a mission across the creek from this presidio. It was named Nuestra Señora de la Bahía del Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga Mission and popularly called Mission La Bahía (see NUESTRA SEÑORA DEL ESPÍRITU SANTO DE ZÚÑIGA MISSION). Thus the bay, as well as the presidio and the mission because of their location on the bay, were all commonly called La Bahía.
Although the presidio and mission were at least twice moved farther inland, the names, including La Bahía, were retained. La Bahía presidio and mission were reestablished in 1726 on the Guadalupe River near the site of present Mission Valley in Victoria County. In 1749 the mission was moved to the north bank of the San Antonio River near the site of present Goliad in Goliad County, and the presidio to the south bank. The missions of Nuestra Señora del Rosario and Nuestra Señora del Refugio, twenty-seven miles away at the site of modern Refugio, were sometimes grouped with Nuestra Señora del Espíritu Santo, and all three were called the La Bahía missions.
In time a civic settlement grew up around the presidio, and it, too, was known as La Bahía. This village became commercially important because it was on the Atascosito Road, the La Bahía Road, and roads from San Antonio de Béxar and El Cópano. La Bahía, Bexar, and Nacogdoches were thus the most important areas of Spanish settlement in Texas. The importance of La Bahía continued after Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821 (see MEXICAN WAR OF INDEPENDENCE) and during the period of Anglo-American colonization. On February 4, 1829, after a successful petition submitted to the Coahuila and Texas state legislature by Rafael Manchola, who argued that the name La Bahía had become meaningless because neither mission nor presidio had been located on "the bay" since 1726, the Mexican government proclaimed the settlement a villa-a chartered town with municipality jurisdiction-and changed its name to Goliad.
During the Texas Revolution, particularly the Goliad Campaign of 1835, the Matamoros Expedition of 1835–36, and the Goliad Campaign of 1836, the town was called both La Bahía and Goliad, though the old Spanish term was used primarily to mean the presidio and was often corrupted by Anglo-Americans to "Labadee." During the period of the Republic of Texas and after annexation, the old mission and presidio fell into ruin, but the presidio chapel remained intact and was used first as a residence and then for church services after the Catholic Church regained possession of it about 1853. This chapel was commonly referred to as "La Bahía Mission," a designation that led to confusion with the actual La Bahía mission, Espíritu Santo, which lay in ruins until reconstructed as a public-works project in the 1930s. Presidio La Bahía and its chapel were restored in the 1960s by the Kathryn O'Connor Foundation (see GOLIAD STATE HISTORIC PARK and O'CONNOR, KATHRYN STONER).