U.S. Engineer Office, Calhoun County Rolled Sketch 11, Galveston: 1942, Map #5367, Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX. [click to view a zoomable version of this map]

Charting Matagorda Island’s Military History in the GLO Archives

Calhoun County Rolled Sketch 11

Texas General Land Office
Published in
7 min readMay 1, 2023

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Matagorda Island is now primarily known for its joint federal-state wildlife refuge, a sanctuary for brown pelicans, white-tailed deer, seagrasses, and numerous other plant and animal species.[1] This map, however, unveils some of the island’s World War II past. Dating to 1942, the U.S. Corps of Engineers created this engineering plan as part of the development of a gunnery and bombing range on the island. An exploration of this site’s history through GLO records highlights the connections between land use, mapping, and military mobilizations.

Detail of the northern end of Matagorda Island.

The island has a long history. Prior to European arrival, the Karankawa inhabited the area before disease and colonial encroachment led to their decline. During the seventeenth century, French expeditions along the Gulf Coast and the Mississippi River Valley, including René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle’s ill-fated 1685 journey, pushed Spain to consolidate their claims to the area of Texas. After Mexican independence from Spain, portions of the island were titled to settlers of the Power and Hewetson Colony and to lawyer and speculator Thomas J. Chambers by the Mexican government in 1834.[2] These titles, however, were overlaid with loan and sales scrips granted by the Republic of Texas, and patented between the 1850s and 1870s. A Calhoun County cadastral map by noted GLO draftswoman Eltea Armstrong shows the distribution of these land grants on Matagorda Island. As shown in the map below, some portions of the island along Espíritu Santo Bay and San Antonio Bay remained unsurveyed.

The marshy areas along the bay were unsurveyed through the early 1900s, while the southerly side of the island was largely patented in the century prior. [Detail] Eltea Armstrong, Calhoun Co., Austin: Texas General Land Office, 1948, Map #73096, Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

Primarily used for ranching after land grants were issued, Matagorda Island did have a modest military presence in the form of a hunting and fishing lodge for the U.S. Air Corps.[3] Although the Air Corps began to discuss possible mobilization at the site as early as 1930, Texas officials opposed the construction of a bombing and gunnery range on the island due to concerns about effects on the area’s distinctive wildlife.[4] However, by the late 1930s, the trajectory of World War II changed priorities in the United States. Although the U.S. remained officially neutral until 1941, the German Army’s advances across Europe fostered small-scale mobilizations on this side of the Atlantic. In 1938 and 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt requested a significant enhancement of warplane production capacity.[5] These planes would also need bases.

Matagorda Island is identified as a key area for WWII military fortifications. Corps of Engineers, Proposed bombing and machine gun restricted areas along Gulf of Mexico from San Luis Pass to Aransas Pass, Galveston: 1941, Map #3024, Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

In 1940, the United States began filing Petitions in Condemnation and Declarations of Taking to acquire different tracts on Matagorda Island for a gunnery and bombing range. By 1942, these efforts expanded to those unsurveyed state lands on and immediately surrounding the island.[6] On October 8, a Judgment on Declaration of Taking was decided in favor of the United States.[7] The ten parcels described in the judgment correspond with those identified, in color, on the rolled sketch. Since these lands had never been surveyed or patented, additional sheets and files associated with this rolled sketch provide detailed field notes for these parcels, as well as survey data for other tracts on the island.

Measuring nearly 41 inches in length, with 1 inch equal to 4,000 feet, the map also spotlights the lakes and marshlands that make up the island’s distinctive topography. These features show that although the island was optimally located for flight practice and training, the marshy habitat required significant improvements to establish an operational base. Proximity to the Gulf of Mexico also left the area at risk for major storms. In August 1942, just three months after the first cadets had arrived, a hurricane severely damaged existing infrastructure, including nearly completed airfields. Even so, the training camp at Matagorda Island returned to service just days after the storm, coping with roofless buildings and “gaping holes […] on the runways.”[8]

Click the link below for an interactive feature, where the map is overlaid over modern satellite imagery.

The military base at Matagorda was one of approximately 1,100 domestic projects that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed between 1940 and 1943, part of an $11 billion program to fortify U.S. air capacity.[9] Other Gulf Coast facilities, including Moore Field, Foster Field, and Port O’Connor, used the area’s bombing and gunnery ranges, receiving some combination of gunnery, bombardier, and navigator training on this site.[10]

[left] Detail showing the approximate location of the base and runways. [right] Aerial imagery of the base and runways in December 1942. Photo from the U.S. Air Force Historical Research Agency files. Courtesy of Texas Historical Commission.

The army deactivated the Matagorda Island base at the end of World War II, but the U.S. continued to receive lease extensions for the lands it had condemned during wartime.[11] Letters from the GLO’s records show that even after the war had ended, as of 1947 the agency had never received a copy of the original petition, nor had the U.S. made the required rental payments to Texas for the seized estate. Further, in 1949 the GLO found that when the unsurveyed state lands were taken by the United States, the state had not been the owner of the 210 acre parcel, labeled “unnamed island,” at the northerly end of the rolled sketch. These records reflect the speed with which the U.S. acquired these lands through its wartime powers. With these issues addressed, the base then returned to service in 1949 in the lead-up to the Korean War, and through the 1970s it saw improvements to roads, water mains, and electrical transmission and communication lines while the army continued to use it for training.[12]

Aerial imagery of the northerly end of Matagorda Island post-1949. Photo from the U.S. Air Force Historical Research Agency files. Courtesy of Texas Historical Commission.

The army eventually deactivated the base again in 1976, paving the way for new life on the site.[13] Some vestiges of the area’s past remain. Aerial imagery shows dilapidated runways, roads, and scattered buildings on the northern part of the island. However, Matagorda Island is now more noted for its wildlife than its military facilities. The U.S. Department of the Interior acquired the land in the 1970s, and through agreements with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, it became a state park and wildlife management area in 1979.[14] Now a destination for camping, hiking, and wildlife sighting, the island’s current use is a far cry from its wartime past.

Aerial view of abandoned runways in 2010. Photo taken by Guthrie Ford and Mark Creighton. Courtesy of Texas Historical Commission.
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  1. “Matagorda Island WMA: Wildlife Viewing.” https://tpwd.texas.gov/huntwild/hunt/wma/find_a_wma/list/?id=48&activity=wildlifeViewing. Published by Texas Parks and Wildlife.; “Matagorda Bay Economic and Ecological Resources Report: Chapter 4. Seagrass Habitat Resources.” https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/5d074d040d7d46a2afd468a6523c8bd5. Published by the Texas Comptroller’s Natural Resources Program.
  2. Mexican Title issued to James Power and James Hewetson, 30 October 1834, Box 42, Folder 6, Records of the Spanish Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.; Mexican Title issued to Thomas J. Chambers, 26 October 1834, Box 130, Folder 16, Records of the Spanish Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.
  3. Guttery, Ben. Matagorda Gunnery Ranges, Matagorda Island, Texas: Wings Over America, Item 000491. (Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Army and Navy Publishing Company of Louisiana, 1943), 33. https://aafcollection.info/items/detail.php?key=491&pkg=br!category!10!491!2!title!dn!20
  4. W.G. Kilner, Major, U.S. Air Corps, to Adjutant General of the U.S. War Department, Office of the Chief of the Air Corps, Washington, D.C., July 18, 1930; Central Decimal Correspondence Files, 1919–1950; Records of U.S. Air Force Commands, Activities, and Organizations, 1900–2003, Record Group 342; National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.
  5. Hendricks, Charles. “The Air Corps Construction Mission.” Builders and Fighters: U.S. Army Engineers in World War II, Ed., Barry W. Fowle. (Fort Belvoir, VA: Office of History, United States Army Corps of Engineers).
  6. Miscellaneous Easement 000140, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.
  7. Declaration of Taking: https://uscode.house.gov/view.xhtml?req=(title:40%20section:3114%20edition:prelim)
  8. Guttery, Matagorda Gunnery Ranges, Matagorda Island, Texas, 33.
  9. Hendricks, “The Air Corps Construction Mission,” 21–25.; Schubert, Frank N. “The Military Construction Mission.” Builders and Fighters: U.S. Army Engineers in World War II, Ed., Barry W. Fowle. (Fort Belvoir, VA: Office of History, United States Army Corps of Engineers), 103.
  10. Guttery, Matagorda Gunnery Ranges, Matagorda Island, Texas, 33.; Foster Field: Class 43-G and 43-H, Foster Field, Victoria, Texas, Item 000485, (1943). https://aafcollection.info/items/detail.php?key=485; “Tough Matagorda Gunnery Range Puts Final Touch to Fighters: South Texas Pilots Learn Much There.” Valley Evening Monitor, August 16, 1942. https://www.newspapers.com/image/291733926.
  11. Miscellaneous Easement 000140, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX; School File 150971 and School File 150977, Texas Land Grant Records, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.
  12. Texas Parks Division Matagorda Island Air Force Base and Lighthouse architectural drawings and engineering maps, 1864–1974. Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives Commission. https://txarchives.org/tslac/finding_aids/90037.xml
  13. School File 150977, Texas Land Grant Records, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX. This file includes the amended judgment establishing the end of the U.S. lease on the land in February 1976.
  14. Texas Legislature. General and Special Laws of The State of Texas Passed By The Regular Session of the Sixty-Fourth Legislature, Volume 2, legislative document, 1975; [Austin, Texas]. (https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth221795/m1/1319/?q=Gunnery%20and%20Bombing%20Range,%20Matagorda%20Island: accessed February 23, 2023), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, https://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries Government Documents Department.

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