Padre Island, a long sand-barrier island extending some 130 miles along the coast of South Texas, has the longest sand beach in the United States. The north end is just east of Corpus Christi (at 27°37' N, 97°14' W), and the south end is opposite Port Isabel (at 26°05' N, 97°08' W). The island is separated from the mainland by the Laguna Madre and connected to the mainland at each end by causeways. It is divided by the dredged Port Mansfield Channel, which provides shipping access to the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway and to Port Mansfield from the Gulf of Mexico. Padre Island comprises a total of 133,918 acres in Nueces, Kleberg, Willacy, Cameron, and Kenedy counties. A belt of dunes twenty-five to forty feet high runs along the Gulf side of the island. Nowhere is the island more than three miles wide. The island was formed by the slow, ongoing process of sea erosion and deposition. A large variety of shells has been washed ashore on the island, and other objects from rivers and from the Gulf have been deposited in fine silt and sand on the island. The result is a treasure hunter's paradise. The Sigsbee Deep, the deepest part of the Gulf of Mexico, is situated off the central part of the island. It is an abyss 300 miles long, 100 miles wide, and 12,000 feet deep. More than 272 varieties of saltwater fish have been identified in the Sigsbee Deep, a favorite site for fishermen. Padre Island first appears as a dot labeled Isla Blanca on a map by Alonzo Álvarez de Pineda in 1519. Since that time the island has been known by various names: Isla de San Carlos de las Malaguitas, Isla Corpus Christi, Isla del Padre Ballí, Ysla del Vallín, Isla de Bayán (Vallín and Bayán are variations of Ballí), and Isla de Santiago.
Indians of the Archaic period are believed to have lived on the island from 2700 to 1000 B.C. They were followed by Karankawan and Coahuiltecan peoples of the Rockport culture, who visited the island seasonally until the mid-1800s. In 1554 four ships sailed from Veracruz for Spain. They encountered storms, and three of the four were cast up on Padre Island at about the location of the present Mansfield Channel (see PADRE ISLAND SPANISH SHIPWRECKS OF 1554). The first known land grant on the island is believed to have been given to Padre José Nicolás Ballí and his nephew José Ballí II in 1805. They established Rancho Santa Cruz de Buena Vista some twenty-four miles from the south end of the island. Their grant was perfected by the Mexican state of Tamaulipas on February 21, 1829. Capt. John V. Singer and his family were shipwrecked on Padre Island in 1847. They built a home on the site of the old Ballí ranch and ranched there until the Civil War. In spite of the independence of Texas in 1836 and statehood in 1847 Padre Island remained a possession of Mexico until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. The state of Texas subsequently relinquished all rights on the island to Nicolás and Juan José Ballí, on February 10, 1852. In 1879 Patrick Dunn, the "Duke of Padre," was living on the island. He gradually acquired title to all but 7,500 acres of the south end, then sold his interests in 1926 to Samuel A. Robertson, who attempted to develop the south end into a beach drive. Robertson's two hotels and four houses were destroyed by the hurricane of 1933 (see HURRICANES), and the developer sold his interests to Albert and Frank Jones of Kansas City, Missouri, in 1939. In the 1940s oil was discovered offshore, and gas was discovered on the island. In the 1950s oil and gas leases were negotiated on what is now the National Seashore.
Padre Island is a biological wonder with more than 600 species of plants and wildflowers. A unique species of oily live oak tree (Quercus fusiformis) grows only on the island. Blacktail jackrabbits, ground squirrels, kangaroo rats, coyotes, and eastern moles are among the many animals on Padre. The Laguna Madre is noted for its astronomical numbers of waterfowl. Herons, ibis, egrets, spoonbills, pelicans, cormorants, ducks, and geese use the island and the lagoons as a sanctuary and breeding ground. In 1991 the island was divided into three distinct areas: north, central, and south. The north is devoted to residential, water-oriented, recreational development. In 1962 the central portion became Padre Island National Seashore, which is in its natural state except at Malaquite Beach. The south part has been developing rapidly since the 1970s as a resort area; the town of South Padre Island was incorporated in 1973. All of Padre Island is susceptible to tropical storm damage. Between 1900 and 1979 eleven tropical storms struck the island, an average of one every 7.1 years. Historically, developments have been hard to maintain against storm surge, flooding, and wind and wave erosion.