Texas Independence Trail Region

Participant in the Texas Historical Commission's
Texas Heritage Trails Program

Galveston Gateway

Not every soon-to-be-Texan arrived by land during the state’s greatest era of immigration. Many, in fact, came by sea (including Africans, forced into ships and then sold as slaves). Most of the first free-willed immigrants, however, came from northern and western Europe, disembarking at Galveston where the state’s barrier island served as a southern version of Boston, San Francisco, and New Orleans, other ports along the country’s coastline providing immigration processing. These ports, including Galveston, were in service to immigration long before New York City’s Ellis Island. Unlike today, however, when cruise ships and oil tankers are able to dock alongside land, Galveston’s early years as immigration gateway required the newly arrived to wade through the shallows or board small wooden boats arranged to bring them to shore. But once on dry land, immigrants were met with a thriving port town.

Galveston was known as the “Wall Street of Texas,” capitalizing on a booming trade-based economy flooding the region. Immigration was big business too, at least through most of the 19th century when cheap land and plenty of jobs made a permanent move to Texas sound like the ideal way to a better life. But by the late 1800’s Texans were competing for jobs and resources with the continuing tide of new arrivals, many of them diverging culturally and ethnically from the previous wave composed mostly of northern Europeans who were already well-established in the region and who no longer considered themselves “foreigners”. Immigration, once unrestricted, acquired laws and regulations which often reflected the rising xenophobia generated by the established populations. Despite the push-back by citizens, immigration through Galveston continued, making it one of the top ten immigration stations in the country. Soon, Galveston received a federal contract to build a new station designed to accommodate the rising influx of newcomers but nature ended up having another plan for the barrier island. Before the station could be built, the hurricane of 1900 devastated the coast, killing over six thousand islanders and wiping away any chances of new construction for immigration processing. Afterwards, nearby Houston with its safer mainland environment took Galveston’s place as booming commercial port. Today, Galveston’s Texas Seaport Museum archives the coastal immigration legacy through exhibits, educational programs, and a computer database of more than 100,000 names of immigrants who once passed through the Galveston Gateway on their way to becoming new Americans.

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