In the beginning, ownership was very simple. Spain had laid claim to all it could of the Upper Gulf Coast and the land behind it, past what is now Galveston Island and up to French (and later the United States) claims from the east.
After Mexico gained its independence in 1821 it quickly sought to solidify its ownership by encouraging and making land grants.
In 1838, Juan Seguin, Texas born, and a captain in the Texan Army at San Jacinto, applied for a “league and labor” of land — about 4,600 acres — covering the eastern portion of Galveston Island at the request of Michael Menard, his attorney, and upon award, transferred this title to Menard in 1834.
Soon, Anglo Europeans were in a majority, a spirit of independence grew and in 1836, Texas won its right to be recognized as a separate republic.
The new Congress of the Republic of Texas confirmed for a $50,000 fee, Menard’s title to the 4,600 acres except for the very north eastern tip of the serpentine eastern end of the island, containing about 15 acres “more or less” adjacent to a fort, further defined by words using features of the low-lying land and waterways that quickly turned out to be pretty temporary.
Menard subsequently arranged for John Groesbeck to survey his land as to suitability for the sales of lots.
The survey was completed in 1838, and William Sandusky was commissioned to create a plat map for the city, which was completed in 1839.
The plat map extended only to where First Street is today. Menard, with partners created the Galveston City Co. — a real estate development company — in 1841 and it began to sell lots, predictably on the higher ground west of Sixth Street and close to the harbor.
The Groesbeck survey established a north eastern line of demarcation between City Co. and Republic of Texas lands.
For whatever reason, that line, even at the time, established a Government Reserve further southwest of and well in excess of the “15 acres more or less.”
Upon annexation of Texas into the United States in 1845, the terms included a requirement that “all barracks, ports and harbors, docks, fortifications, and all other property and means pertaining to the public defense” be transferred to the United States government.
By the 1890s, the growth of the city, expansion of docks and wharves had created land speculations and a surge in private ownerships.
In 1890, the U.S. government stepped in and attempted to define the lands and reservation of the United States and by 1900 established a fence across the far north east end of the island “generally” agreed to, basically using the Groesbeck line.
The City Co. acquiesced and issued a quitclaim deed to the government for the reserve lands, with transfer finalized in 1912.
The quit claim deed, however, stipulated that the property was to be used by the U.S.for fortifications, military or naval posts and other public U.S. government purposes and if abandoned, shall revert to the City Co.
The government later acquired more land to the south west of the demarcation line and south to the beach, reaching a peak in 1917 involving private transfers from Maco Stewart when the city was looking for ways to induce the U.S. to extend the seawall east to protect land which would be behind it. It came with no reversion stipulations.
Following World War II and the decommissioning of Fort San Jacinto in 1947, the city sued to reclaim the military reserve land.
In 1971, the courts concluded that in 1910 and thereafter, the U.S. already held and asserted a valid fee simple title and at no time did the U.S. acknowledge or claim any title under the 1898 deed from the City Co., therefore the quitclaim stipulations were void.
Just four years later, in 1975, the government quit claimed to the city 391 acres of their land south of the seawall, including the accreted area channel side of the jetty known as Big Reef and some acres landside of the jetty, but held onto several hundred acres of land and waters designated for NOAA and U.S. Coast Guard use.
A year later, the government quit claimed to the city an additional 64.5 acres enclosing just the northeast part of the lagoon.
The government quit claim, however, came with its own stipulations that the conveyed properties shall be used and maintained for public purposes, otherwise it reverts.
Slightly later in 1976, the government also agreed to lease 211 acres of the Coast Guard land and beach to the city, excluding only 19 acres surrounding a building housing then state-of-the-art navigation technology, the LORAN-A, building.
In 2005, this land, including the 19 acres no longer of value for that navigational technology, was made available by the U.S. through its National Park Service and was secured in total by application from the city.
It came, however, with the same stipulations as in 1975 but with one significant addition — that a plan be created for its recreational use and preservation.
So by 2005, all land conveyed to the government by the City Co. in 1912, which had formed on the south side of the seawall, (with one tiny exception) had been returned in spades.
The tiny exception being a tiny triangle west of where the south jetty meets the seawall.