Mustang Island State Park is 3,954 acres with about 5 miles of beach on the Gulf of Mexico in Nueces County, south of Port Aransas. It was acquired from private owners in 1972 and opened to the public in 1979.
The earliest known inhabitants of Mustang Island were Karankawa Indians, known for their fierceness and cannibalism. The Karankawas were a hunter-gatherer people and depended heavily on shellfish and mussels for food. Encountered first by Spanish explorers, the Karankawas survived in the region until the 19th century. The island was first named Wild Horse Island, then Mustang Island, because of the wild horses, called "Mestenos," brought to the island by the Spaniards in the 1800s.
The first historical record of Mustang Island was by Alonso Alvarez de Pineda, who charted this section of the Gulf Coast in 1519. In 1747, Captain Joaquin Orobioy Basterra landed here and trekked overland to a bay that he named San Miguel Arcangel. The bay was renamed Corpus Christi by Diego Ortiz Parrilla, who made detailed explorations of the coast in 1756. A notable event occurred in 1553, when a Spanish treasure fleet encountered a hurricane off Padre Island. Many ships were lost, and only two survivors lived to reach Mexico.
Padre Island was part of a Spanish land grant to Padre Nicholas Balli around 1800, and the Balli family established a ranching tradition that continued for several decades. Records show that an Englishman named Robert A. Mercer and one H.L. Kinney both ran cattle on Mustang Island in the 1850s, and that Uriah Hayden obtained a patent on land in the state park area in 1858. A small fort was built on Mustang Island during the U.S.-Mexican War, 1846-48, to guard the entrance to Aransas Bay. During the Civil War, the coastal area was blockaded by the Union Navy, but the conflict ended with no major battles occurring in this area. Ranching resumed, and a meat-packing plant was built and operated until the 1880s.
Regular steamship service between Mustang Island and New Orleans began in the 1850s, with the first deep draught ship sailing through Aransas Pass in 1859. Mercer's Dock, a small port settlement, was destroyed in an 1875 hurricane, and was replaced by another called Mustang Island. In the passing years the community was known as Ropesville and Tarpon, before finally being named Port Aransas about 1910.