County Seat: Bay City * County Population: 36,702 (2010 U.S. Census)
The Matagorda County Courthouse was completed in 1965 in a Modern style as designed by Rusty, Martin & Vale.
The county was organized in 1837 following settlement by Austin colonists. Matagorda was derived from two Spanish words, “mata” and “gorda,” meaning thick plant growth, referencing canebrakes encountered by early settlers.
The original county seat also was named Matagorda. The town was founded in 1829 when a man named Elias Wightman brought 50 colonists from New York. Betting that an area about 25 miles inland from the Gulf would make a better setting for the county seat, a group of developers purchased 650 acres and set aside one square mile for a new town site. Once the voters decided to move the county seat, the group began selling lots and promoting the town, named Bay City for its location on Bay Prairie between the bottomlands of the Colorado River and Caney Creek.
Matagorda County is centered in the Texas Coastal Bend at the crossroads of the Colorado River and the Gulf of Mexico and is known as an untapped natural paradise. The county is a must-see for bird-watchers with several coastal vistas to choose from and a wonderful Nature and Birding Center located just to the west of Bay City on State Highway 35.
Bay City is also home to the first-class Matagorda County Museum located in the old post office building on the downtown square. This museum includes, among other things, a children’s museum, the La Belle cannon, and many other items excavated from the sunken ship, which was lost by La Salle while seeking the mouth of the Mississippi River in 1686.
Bad luck haunted the expedition from the start. Even before reaching America, pirates took one ship. The other three ships continued on but landed on the Texas Gulf Coast several hundred miles west of the Mississippi. La Salle lost a second ship when it ran aground in the shallow Gulf waters. With it sank supplies needed by the colonists to survive. Some colonists rebelled and returned to France on a remaining ship, leaving 180 colonists to explore the wild Texas coast in a single vessel, La Belle. Early in 1686, La Belle sank in Matagorda Bay. Then La Salle was murdered by his own men near present day Navasota.
Fast forward 300 years to 1995, when a diver from the Texas Historical Commission (THC) discovered a bronze cannon on the floor of Matagorda Bay. More divers were brought in and they found the remains of La Belle. The discovery made international headlines, and THC embarked on a massive operation to recover the oldest French shipwreck in the Western Hemisphere. The story continues today at the Matagorda County Museum, which offers a diorama of a portion of the ship showing it under excavation from the bottom of the sea.
Visitors also frequent Matagorda County to visit its coastline, which boasts beautiful, unspoiled beaches along with unmatched fishing and hunting opportunities. Palacios, the county’s “City by the Sea,” is bordered on the east and south by Tres Palacios Bay, which opens into Matagorda Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. The Port of Palacios covers some 600 acres of shoreline property and is the home port for more than 300 commercial shrimp boats, as well as commercial boats from other ports in the Gulf of Mexico. H – Bay City Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture contributed information to this article.
Daniel W. Pustka
David J. Woodson