Port Isabel in the Gold Rush Era

Word of the discovery of gold in California comes late in January 1848, mere days before the Treaty of Guadalupe is signed officially ending the U.S. Mexican War. Point Isabel was profoundly affected by those two events.

The arrival of General Zachary Taylor and some 4,500 troops in 1846 swelled the population of Point Isabel from some 200. Many stayed on after the war was over in 1848 seeing opportunity in the coastal community coupled with warmer weather. When word of the abundance of gold in California spreads across the nation and the world, it becomes clear that location will play a big role in the movement of gold-seekers from across the nation and Europe and Point Isabel has the location. It was noted that transportation entering Mexican ports so gold-seekers could go overland to California would keep from the US some the benefits of the Gold Rush. A bill is introduced and arguments are laid out for the improvements and infrastructure necessary to confine the Gold Rush traffic within the borders of the United States and Point Isabel will never be the same.

Intro by Valerie Bates


The importance of a port of entry somewhere in the vicinity of this great river has been pointed out by the Secretary of the Treasury, and commented upon by the press. At the last session a bill was introduced into Congress providing for such a port, but unfortunately laid over from want of time. The bill has lately been passed in the Senate, and is now in the hand of the Committee on Commerce of the House, where it has received a few sight amendments, and will come up in a few days for final action. 

The necessity for adoption of this bill is so pressing, and the remaining time of the session so short, that we trust no unnecessary delays will be imposed.*

The bill locates the port of entry at Point Isabel, and provides for a system of drawbacks upon goods exported thence into the neighboring provinces of Mexico.

  1. The port of entry at Point Isabel.– The point is the location nearest the mouth of the Rio Grande, where government warehouses, buildings, &c., can be constructed with safety, and where a sufficient depth of water can be had at all seasons, a safe entrance, harbor, &c.+

Point Isabel, on the mainland, about ten miles distant from the river, in a straight line, is approached through Brazos entrance and bay, where there is a depth on the bar of about 10 feet water–nearly once and a half the depth at the mouth of the river. Vessels drawing six feet may approach to the very wharves of Point Isabel, whilst those of largest tonnage discharge their cargoes at Brazos, to undergo a short and safe lighterage of three miles to that place. The expense of this lighterage hardly exceeds ten or fifteen cents the barrel.

The depth of water at the mouth of the river is 6 feet, very difficult of approach during the prevalence of the northers, and the banks for some distance are subject to overflow at particular seasons. The vicinity of Burita is the nearest point of safety where government buildings can be constructed; and this is about as distant from the mouth of the river as Point Isabel, all things considered.

Brazos island is entirely insecure, as there is the most abundant and irresistible evidence to show. The Mexicans considered it in this light, as the reports of their commissioners evince. Melancholy proofs have already been furnished of this face. ++

From Point Isabel there are excellent roads leading to Brownsville,  a town which has grown up on the American side of the Rio Grande, opposite Matamoras, and exhibits even now marks of rapid progress. The distance by road is twenty-seven miles, capable of being greatly shortened. In fact we regard nothing more practicable than the construction of a railway connecting these points, eighteen or twenty miles in a straight line, which can be effected through a level country with very moderate cost, and would prove highly remunerative when the resources of the country are all brought into play, and the extended Mexican commerce which it promises opened.

  1. The trade of the Rio Grande.–It is believed that the route which is offered in this direction to Santa Fe is a less expensive one than can be otherwise furnished, and that merchandise from the United States can be transported at a greatly reduced freight. The importance of this Santa Fe trade is pretty generally understood, already amounting to several millions of dollars. ll

The same route of the river offers inducements to emigrants to New Mexico and California unsurpassed by any other, and has already been taken advantage of by large numbers. **

In regard to the trade with the Mexican provinces on the Rio Grande, we may state that it is considerably on the increase; and that by the way Point Isabel and Brownsville, Matamoras and the Mexican market will be supplied at all times with the greatest facility, increased by the advantages of warehousing, drawbacks, &c. The inhabitants having acquired some taste for American products, find advantages now at Brownsville and Freeport.

The trade through this channel must be, eventually, very large. llll

Nothing is now needed but the speedy establishment of the port of entry above mentioned, demanded so urgently by the wants of the whole region.

The writer speaks from an acquaintance with the country and a study of its advantages, and fortifies himself still further by the notes he has appended below.



*In consequence of the absence of a port of entry, vessels intended for the Rio Grande, with valuable freights, have been obliged to seek Mexican ports, and thus carry of a large portion of commerce which would otherwise have been ours. Several instances have been given lately, particularly that the ship Elizabeth, from Liverpool, and brig Maria, from St. Thomas.

+A meeting of the citizens of Point Isabel declares that “anterior to the late war, it was through the bay of Brazos Santiago, on account of greater depth of water, that all direct importations from Europe were made, as also a great part from the United States, for Matamoras; landing at Point Isabel, and being transported to Matamoras overland.” During the war they were landed on the beach, buildings being prohibited. Since the peace, “two-thirds of the importations for the Rio Grande have been landed at the same place.” This is confirmed by the American consul at Matamoras, who states: “The merchants on both sides the Rio Grande are interested in opening the port of Point Isabel;” and that “drawbacks on goods exported thence overland would increase trade, by preventing the dangers of two bars required in transportation from Brazos by way of the river, and the delays caused by the northers for six months in the year. The transportation by land from Point Isabel is always easy, for whatever quantity of merchandise.” The English consul says: “It is well known the bar at the mouth of the Rio Grande, on account of shallowness and quicksands, will only allow crafts of a very light draught, &c. Hence, under Mexican rule, vessels entered at Brazos, and shipped cargoes overland from Point Isabel.” The channel from the Brazos entrance, being of clay bottom, is capable of being deepened at slight expense; and the work, when once effected, will be permanent.

++ A meeting of the citizens of Point Isabel, held in December last, adopted a preamble and resolutions, which have been printed and are before us. From them we learn that “all attempts by the Mexican government to establish custom-house buildings at Brazos, or near the mouth of the river, were successively defeated by the floods caused by the equinoctial gales;” and that the government, after the last terrible inundation in 1844, making such havoc in life and property, fixed their “only coast custom-house section at Point Isabel, and abandoned permanently the others.” The meeting at Point Isabel is fortified by the official report of Lieut. Webster, of the topographical engineers, who says: “I have a pretty strong feeling of the insecurity of Brazos. Point Isabel is not open to the same objection, being sufficiently elevated to secure it from danger from these inundations.” The Spanish consul, resident twenty years at Matamoras, enumerates various storms at intervals of four years which have destroyed the various settlements at Brazos and near the coast. Louis Berlandier, through Colonel Davenport, or our army, says: “If we go back only a period of twenty years, we can cite the storms of 1829, -’31, -’35, -’40, -’44, the destruction and sufferings caused by which will be found quite sufficient to hinder any government settling places so exposed.” The French consul adds: “It has always been considered imprudent by the people of the country to establish any buildings on the margin of the sea, in the places above mentioned, (Brazos, and near the mouth, as high as Burita, ten miles in a straight line) The Mexican government in 1844 withdrew its customs sections to the hills of Burita and Point Isabel.” The American consul, after consulting the highest sources of information, confirms the above.

ll The Santa Fe trade is estimated in specie and merchandises, both ways, at two and a half millions of dollars annually. It has enriched St. Louis and created independence.  This trade supplies the northern provinces of Mexico; the merchants from there and the United States meeting at Sante Fe as a common depot. American goods must be transported twelve hundred miles from St. Louis, over bad roads, and, after leaving Santa Fe, are carried in the same manner five and even eight hundred miles in the interior. We have seen the cost of transportation from St. Louis to Santa Fe estimated as high as 40 per cent. The Brownsville Flag contemplates a great change in this trade. It argues that a city will grow up on the Rio Grande, perhaps at its junction with the Puerco, commanding the valleys of these streams, Santa Fe, and the peltry trade of the Rocky mountains! The northern provinces of Mexico would all be embraced–the most distant of them, now supplied through Santa Fe, being within five hundred miles from a navigable point of the Rio Grande. By such a route the cost of transportation must be reduced to one-third or one-fourth of what it now is, to make no note of the great expedition. Regular steamers now ply from Brownsville and Freeport, two neighboring towns, to every point on the Rio Grande, as far up as Camargo; and when business offers, as high as Loredo. It is even expected that surveys, now in progress, will lead to improvements extending the navigation several hundred miles above Presidio, or to the neighborhood of the Puerco above referred to.

Goods are now carried to Loredo(sic) at the following rates:

From Corpus Christi toLoredo, per 100 lbs.,$ 2.00
Mier,$ 2.00
Rio Grande City,$ 2.00
From New Orleans toCorpus Christi, per bbl,$ 1.25

From Point Isabel via Brownsville, Freeport, and Rio Grande, the following are the charges:

Point Isabel to Brownsville,100 lbs.$ 0.25
Brownsville to Camargo$ 0.75
Brownsville to Mier$ 1.00
Brownsville to Loredo$ 1.50
New Orleans to Point Isabel, per bbl.,
Being greatly in favor of the river route.
$ 1.00

** A friend informs us that companies are being formed on the Rio Grande for the overland route to California, striking the Pacific a few days’ sailing distance from San Francisco, in about forty days from Matamoras. The road is an easy one, and presents few difficulties. A schooner was chartered the other day by a party of twenty for this new El Dorado, by the Brazos and Rio Grande route. It must become a favorite line of travel.

llll We extract from a work late published the following graphic description of the “Valley of the Rio Grande:”

“The time is probably not far distant when the Egyptian cotton will be cultivated in the valley of the Rio Grande to as great an extent as on the banks of the Nile. A few experiments in the culture of the cotton plant have been made in the vicinity of Matamoras, and have proved remarkably successful. It grows in this region with wonderful luxuriance, and yields abundantly, almost without labor or care. The sugar cane, also, here grows to an enormous size, and far exceeds in its products the cane of Louisiana, or of any portion of eastern Texas.

“It has been remarked by naturalists that tropica plants are more productive at or near the northern limit of the growth than near the equator. If this doctrine be correct, the culture of sugar cane will be found more profitable in the lower portion of the valley of the Rio Grande than even in Cuba. Many valuable tropical fruits may also be grown in this section with great advantage. The orange, fig, and pomegranate flourish with great luxuriance in the neighborhood of Matamoras, and Camargo. Such advantages of soil and climate cannot be overlooked; and it may be taken for granted that no distant day large portions of the country between Point Isabel and Loredo, and even above the Presidio del Rio Grande, will be covered with plantations of sugar cane and Egyptian cotton, interspersed with groves or oranges, figs, olives, and other fruits of the tropics, surpassing in luxuriance of growth and beauty of appearance the same productions in any other region of the South. That portion of the Rio Grande valley lying farther up–say from the Presidio road to one hundred miles above the mouth of the Puerco–with the land lying along the tributaries of these two rivers, is admirably adapted for even a more varied production, and will support and enrigh a dense population.

“Indeed, the valleys of the several tributary streams of this region are equal in all respects to the valley of the Colorado. That of the Puerco is said to be superior to it. The rich vales and the whole region are sheltered from the icy winds of the north by high ranges of mountains, and enjoy a delightfully mild and temperate climate. Under the impotent sway of Spain, and the still more impotent sway of Mexico, there has existed no stimulus to industry; and from this and other causes, these fertile lands have remained almost as desolate and unproved as they were when occupied along as the hunting ground of the savage. That time has gone by. Another race will soon strike deep the roots of civilizations in this favored region, and bring enterprise, industry, and science to bear upon its affluent soil–a soil capable of supporting a more dense population than any other portion of the continent.”


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