Houston: History

Early Days Full of Perils

Inhabited by cannibals, visited by Spanish explorers and missionaries, a base for pirates, former capital of a fledgling nation, and site of a battle that ultimately added millions of acres to the United States—all of this can be said for the rich and varied history of the Houston area.

Amerinds, descended from the early races of mankind that crossed into North America via the Bering land bridge, are known to have occupied the southwestern United States many thousands of years before Christ. As these tribal groups fanned out across North and South America over thousands of years, a primitive culture evolved along what is now the upper Texas coast. The first recorded meetings between Europeans and the native populations of eastern Texas are found in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century accounts of Spanish explorers. These accounts are not particularly pleasant, for the natives of the Gulf Coast region that one day became Houston were notorious cannibals of the small Atakapan and Karankawa tribes. These were ferocious tribal groups, described by the Spaniards as bloodthirsty and barbaric.

The Europeans chose to move on, and despite Galveston Bay's relative attraction as a safe harbor, the upper Gulf Coast of Texas remained largely unsettled by the Spanish, who came to control virtually all of the American Southwest by the early eighteenth century. The area now known as Houston remained a malarial coastal prairie, dotted by marshes and bayous, and home to a few remaining Karankawa.

In the aftermath of the War of 1812, various Caribbean buccaneers, notably Jean Lafitte, established short-lived settlements on Galveston Island, just south of present-day Houston. Local legends persisting to this day in Houston's southeastern suburbs along Galveston Bay, tell of buried pirate treasure, placed there by the crafty Lafitte.

War Breaks Out with Santa Ana

By the 1820s settlers from the United States were moving into Texas, then owned by the newly independent nation of Mexico. It was in Mexico's interest at the time to allow these settlements. Later, as the American emigrant population grew, so did Mexico's troubles in Texas. By the 1830s the former Americans, calling themselves Texicans, were eager to form their own government and felt abused by dictates from Mexico City. Disputes emerged as a full-blown war with the Mexican government of General Antonio Löpez de Santa Anna in 1836.

That year the area now encompassed by Houston came foursquare onto the national stage. In April, following the massacres of Texas troops at San Antonio's Alamo, General Sam Houston, leading the main body of the Texas resistance, intercepted a courier and learned of military dispositions planned by Santa Anna, the "Napoleon of the West." Houston, stalling for time, veered away from the superior Mexican force until, at the San Jacinto River near present-day Houston, he used the intercepted information to deploy his small army in an advantageous position. The two armies fought a light skirmish on April 20. Santa Anna, accused by historians of having become contemptuous of Houston, bided his time before pressing home the attack. On the afternoon of April 21, while the Mexican troops prepared for what they expected would be a major engagement the next morning, Houston attacked. By the end of the day, the future of Texas was sealed as Santa Anna lost and Houston won.

Houston Incorporated

In August a settlement named for the hero of San Jacinto began to take shape along the Buffalo Bayou. By the end of the year, even as the town was still being laid out, Sam Houston, by then the first president of the Republic of Texas, moved his capital from Columbia to the town named in his honor. Houston was incorporated in 1837. The capital remained there until 1839, when the town of Austin became Texas's permanent seat of government.

Oil, Port, and Space Center Spur Development

As a settlement, Houston grew slowly but steadily in the mid-nineteenth century. By 1870, with 9,000 citizens, it was the third largest city in Texas behind San Antonio and Galveston. Located 50 miles inland, Houston lagged behind the two larger cities as a transportation center, although even then it was a major steamboat and rail terminus. Houston was mainly a distribution center, and manufacturing of paper products made use of the abundant lumber in the nearby pine forests of east Texas.

Three events, spread out over the first 60 years of the twentieth century, transformed the quiet community into the Southwest's largest metropolis. The first was the discovery of oil at Spindletop, near Houston, in 1901. Vast fortunes were made in the oil business, and Houston quickly began to accumulate the financial power it had once seen displayed by its neighbor to the south—Galveston—known in the nineteenth century as the "Wall Street of the South." The second major development came in 1914, when a colossal project began to reshape the Buffalo Bayou into a ship channel, navigable by more than shallow draft riverboats.

The combination of the new port with Houston's position as a major petrochemical center enabled the city to surpass San Antonio's population in the 1930s, becoming the largest city in what was then the nation's largest state. After World War II the petrochemical industry and Houston grew even more rapidly, but Houston remained a large city with a small-town flavor.

A third major development changed that small-town flavor in 1961, when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration chose Houston as the site of its new Manned Spacecraft Center. Suddenly, the quiet little city was home to oil tycoons and glamorous astronauts, world-famous surgeons, and a professional baseball team called the Astros. Eight years later the electric phrase, "Houston, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed," made the city's name the first human word spoken from the surface of a heavenly body other than Earth.

Oil-Dependency Hurts Economy

When the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 precipitated a world energy crisis, oil prices rose and earnings doubled and tripled, and so did stock in Houston. New towers of commerce, many designed by world-class architects such as Philip Johnson and I. M. Pei, rose up to forever change the face of Houston's central business district. Companies expanded, venture capital looked for ways to spend new-found wealth, and Houston's population shot up as northern industrial workers, eager for a share of the opportunity, flocked to the city.

Houston became in many ways a one-industry town, with both oil and chemical production feeding one another through the petroleum distillation process. By the mid-1980s Houston was the headquarters for 8 of the 10 largest energy companies, and some 5,000 businesses related to energy were located either in Houston or within 100 miles of the city. The chemical industry in Houston accounted for almost 50 percent of the total U.S. production capacity by 1987, with more than 200 refining and processing plants in the Houston area. But by then the oil market had slumped.

Since the heady days of the oil boom, Houston's importance on the national scene has been largely economic. Reacting to the oil slump, civic and industrial leaders, intent on decreasing the city's reliance on the ups and downs of oil, were determined to build on Houston's strengths. Out of mutual interest, closer ties between the leaders of Houston's three major industries—oil, medicine, and aerospace—were forged in concert with city government and an aggressive chamber of commerce. Houston's story became one of diversity and new growth. The goal of diversification has proven successful, and Houston can count technology, finance, insurance, real estate, and manufacturing among the industries in which it plays a leadership role.

Historical Information: The Heritage Society Research Library, 1100 Bagby, Houston, TX 77002; telephone (713)655-1912; fax: (713)655-7527; email info@heritagesociety.org. Houston Public Library, Texas and Local History Department, 500 McKinney St., Houston, TX 77002; telephone (832)393-1313