TOBOSO ISLAND. Isla de Toboso, or Toboso Island, was a name given by eighteenth-century Spaniards to what is known today as Matagorda Island. Its origin is unknown. Until near the end of the century, Toboso Island lay firmly in the grasp of hostile Karankawan tribes and apostates from Rosario and Espíritu Santo missions. In May 1776 Capt. Luis Cazorla of Presidio La Bahía (Nuestra Señora de Loreto Presidio) crossed the lagoon near the mouth of the Guadalupe River with twenty-one men to reach the island on horseback. Investigating the wreck of an English trading vessel, he found the ship on its side on the Gulf side of the island, the crew massacred by the Karankawas. In an attempt to define the island, Cazorla expressed the belief that it ran from "the port of Mata gorda" to the mouth of the Nueces River. Such a concept was slow to change, but at last the definition was narrowed to embrace only Matagorda Island. Although Cazorla extracted from Karankawa chiefs a pledge to stop preying on shipwrecked sailors, the coastal natives soon returned to their old habits. Not until 1791, with one final effort to missionize the coastal denizens, was their island refuge breached again. On December 5, 1791, Fray José Francisco Garza, accompanied by a few soldiers from La Bahía, found the crossing used by the natives to reach Toboso Island, where the Indians kept horses stolen from Spanish ranches and other Indian tribes. The feat was a high point in the "peace offensive" by Garza and Fray Manuel Julio de Silva of the College of Guadalupe de Zacatecas and pointed toward the eventual founding of Nuestra Señora del Refugio Mission. The island, "fourteen leagues long and not less than two wide," Garza recorded, had several shallow freshwater lakes, most of which dried up in summer. Even then, the Indians told him, fresh water could be obtained from holes dug in the sand. The shore was littered with fragments of wrecked vessels.
Largely as a result of Garza's efforts, Mission Refugio was founded near the head of San Antonio Bay (to be moved later to the present Refugio townsite). In August 1793 Juan Cortés, the La Bahía commandant, inspected the new mission's environs with special attention to the Indians' retreat on Toboso Island. Finding the crossing that the Indians had shown Father Garza, he and his four soldiers rode their horses across the lagoon. By the time they reached the island, the animals' hooves were lacerated and bleeding from the oyster shell. The water was shallow enough that the island could be reached on foot, without a boat, but thick-soled shoes were needed to protect the feet. Exploring the island from San Antonio Bay to the "Port of Matagorda," Cortés defined Toboso Island's limits. To render it ineffective as the natives' retreat, he ordered the cutting or burning of some thickets on the island near the crossing, where an ambush might be laid. Because of the lack of a permanent water source and the numerous mosquitoes and horseflies, Cortes deemed the island "more appropriately called purgatory."
Luis Cazorla to Viceroy Bucareli, June 12, 1776 (Archivo General de la Nación, Provincias Internas 99, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin). William H. Oberste Papers, Catholic Archives of Texas, Austin. Robert S. Weddle, Changing Tides: Twilight and Dawn in the Spanish Sea, 1763–1803 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1995).