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Victor Lang Remembers 

Galvez's Town
 November 29, 2004 
  


Listen to Victor and Jim Guidry talk 
about the Hotel Galvez 

Recently I spoke to the Texas Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution.  I was initially taken aback when I was told they wanted me to talk about Bernardo de Galvez.  I and so many other Galvestonians think of Galvez as the Spanish official for whom our island was named and that is pretty much the long and the short of it.        

It turns out that Bernardo de Galvez (1748-1786) did a great deal more in his life than serve as a Spanish Viceroy who had an island named for him.  Galvez had a very exciting and productive life---it ended at thirty-eight years of age while he was living in Mexico.  People did not live as long in the era of Galvez as they do now and I suppose they figured they had to get cracking early if they wanted to leave their marks on the pages of history.

Let’s look first at the naming of our island for Galvez.  It is very reassuring to me as a retired Congressional staffer and lobbyist in the private sector that some things worked approximately the same way in the time of Galvez as they did when I was in Washington, D.C.  People who work on the staffs of elected and appointed officials frequently spend a great deal of time thinking up ways to “blow smoke on the boss.”  Some staffers are notably better at this than others and some officials are notably more appreciative of those efforts than others.  (Believe me, I know first hand about this.)

The delightful part of the Galvez story is that his staff really did respect the man (we shall see why that was) and wanted to do something nice for him.  The decision was made to name our island Ciudad de Galvez or Galvez’s Town.  This eventually elided in English into “Galveston.”  Where the story starts to amuse me so much is that while Galvez was duly appreciative of the efforts of his staff to honor him, he never did get around to setting foot even one time on our island.  We hang enough pictures of Galvez around the place (not always life-like ones) to convince the unenlightened that Galvez lived here at least part of the year during his life.

For my part, whether Galvez ever got here or not I am glad we got named for him.  This old island has had a variety of names in history and for the most part they were substantially less flattering than Ciudad de Galvez.  The explorer, Cabeza de Vaca, was shipwrecked here and he took to referring to the place as “Isla Malhaldo” which translates to “Island of Misfortune” and, I suppose, it was just that to him.  He did have his nerve in one way since his name in English means “head of a cow.”  Another name hung on our island was “Isla de Culebras” and I hasten to assure you that is not the name of a Cuban rum drink.  “Culebras” means snakes and we were, for a while, called “Snake Island.”  Someone no doubt will decide to remind me this is not entirely accurate historically and my response will be I don’t care as this is how I enjoyed telling the story when I lived in Washington.

Onward and upward with Count Bernardo de Galvez.  We have things for which to thank Galvez other than our name.

Before Spain entered the American Revolutionary War, Galvez did much to aid American patriots.  He was Governor of Louisiana at the time and corresponded with Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson.  Governor de Galvez received emissaries from Henry and Jefferson who pled for help against the Brits.  Galvez was sympathetic to them and secured the port of New Orleans so that only American, Spanish and French ships could move up and down the Mississippi River.  Over that river a life-line flowed---great amounts of arms, ammunition, military supplies and money were delivered to the embattled American forces under George Washington and George Rogers Clark.

Spain formally declared war against Great Britain in 1779 and King Carlos II of Spain commissioned Galvez to raise a force of men and conduct a campaign against the British along the Mississippi and the Gulf Coast.  In order to feed his troops, Galvez requested the Spanish Governor of Texas to send Texas cattle to Spanish forces in Louisiana.  This was done.  Fueled in part by Texas beef, Galvez, with 1,400 men, took to the field in the fall of 1779 and defeated the British in battles at Manchac, Baton Rouge and Natchez.  In 1780, after a month-long siege with land and sea forces, Galvez captured the British stronghold of Fort Charlotte at Mobile.  The climax of Galvez’ campaign on the Gulf Coast took place when he led more than 7,000 men in a two month siege of Fort George in Pensacola and captured it.  This was the British capital of West Florida.  In 1782 Galvez and his Spanish forces captured the British naval base at New Providence in the Bahamas.  Galvez was busy preparing to mount a grand campaign against British Jamaica when peace negotiations ended the Revolutionary War.  Galvez even got involved in helping to draft the terms of the peace treaty and was cited by the American Congress for his aid during the conflict.

When I lived in Washington, D. C., someone took me to see a statue in what is called Foggy Bottom---that is near where our Department of State is located in Washington.  The monument I saw is at Virginia Avenue and 22nd Streets.  The statue is of a soldier mounted on horseback.  The inscription on the plinth states “Bernardo de Galvez, the great Spanish soldier, carried out a courageous campaign in lands bordering the lower Mississippi.  This masterpiece of military strategy lightened the pressure of the English in the war against American settlers who were fighting for their independence.  May this statue of Bernardo de Galvez serve as a reminder that Spain offered the blood of her soldiers in the cause of American independence.”  I don’t know that  the site of this statue is one of the greater tourist stops in Washington but perhaps it should receive more attention---and thought---than it does.  I always encourage friends of mine traveling to Washington to take the time and go and visit our friend, Bernardo de Galvez.

We should have such allies as Galvez today!  (We do have some fine allies and I have the feeling that some who strayed from the reservation in the past couple of years will be returning to the fold.  This will drive some people in this country and abroad nuts and I will enjoy watching it happen.)

Let me not fail to make it clear in this essay (as I did when speaking to the Sons of the American Revolution) that I have cribbed shamelessly and extensively from the Handbook of Texas Online.  If you have not had the good fortune to discover this site on the internet, here is the citation to it:  http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online

I hope your Thanksgiving was as peaceful and enfattening as mine turned out to be.  See you again soon in Ciudad de Galvez AKA Galveston.  

Victor

 

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