Matagorda County (population 38,290) was organized in 1837 under the Texas Republic. The original inhabitants of what is now Matagorda County were the Karankawa Indians, thriving when European settlers arrived in the 1500s but wiped out by the time of the Civil War.
In 1828, 50 settlers from New York and 10 from New Orleans established the third-oldest Anglo town in the State. Matagorda was one of Stephen F. Austin's original three colonies, and the second busiest port in Texas after Galveston throughout much of the 19th century.
During the Civil War, Matagorda was at the center of rich farmlands and was one of eight Texas ports that blockade runners used for taking out tons of cotton while delivering to the Confederacy guns, munitions, clothing and other vital goods.
Ranching also thrived in the 1800s, and in the post-Civil War period, cattle barons grazed tens of thousands of longhorns. By the turn of the century, land developers moved into south Texas, touting the climate, the access to navigable streams and the Gulf of Mexico, the land, and the network of railroads available.
Matagorda County is a Certified Local Government with two incorporated cities, Bay City and Palacios. Bay City, the county seat since 1894, is a Main Street Community, and its Matagorda County Museum houses exhibits on the early settlement, industry and social and cultural history of the county.
The county participates in regional heritage tourism efforts including the Texas Independence Trail and the Texas Settlement Region. Nothing has done more for heritage tourism in Matagorda County than the La Salle Odyssey, a collaboration of the Texas Historical Commission, six counties, seven museums, and private citizens and foundations.
The famed French explorer La Salle arrived here in 1684, seeking to establish a colony at the mouth of the Mississippi to curtail Spain's growing hold throughout the region. One ship fell victim to a pirate attack and the remaining three managed to miss the Mississippi by some 400 miles, landing on the Texas coast instead. A small fort was established, but among other disasters, the flagship La Belle sank in a storm in 1686.
Over 300 years later, in 1995, the Texas Historical Commission discovered the wreck of La Belle, and archeologists spent the next year excavating the shipwreck in Matagorda Bay. Mud had protected the ship's contents from decay, preserving a complete portrait of what a 17th-century French colonizer deemed necessary to establish a trading post across the seas.
Today each of the La Salle Odyssey's seven participating museums tells part of the story of the expedition; the Palacios Area Historical Museum shows the role the community played in the discovery of and recovery of the Belle, and a half-scale replica of the ship called La Petite Belle will make its home port in Palacios, while the Matagorda County Museum concentrates on a closer look at the excavation itself and the conserved artifacts.
Designated a Preserve America Community in September 2004.