In the mid-1700s, Jose de Escondon led a party of colonists into what is now the Rio Grande Valley and northern Mexico. Here, Escondon founded the townships of Camargo, Mier, Reynosa, and Matamoros (situated on the south side of the Rio Grande River, Matamoros is just about 25 miles from Port Isabel). In the 1770s, a small fishing village named El Fronton de Santa Isabel was founded at Point Isabel. Nicknamed "El Fronton" because of the steep bluff overlooking the bay, the village became a popular spot for ranching families from throughout the region to visit.
Though El Fronton de Santa Isabel remained a small fishing village and early vacation spot, throughout the late 1700 and early 1800s, many important events transpired in the nearby area. In 1803, Padre Nicholas Balli was granted the barrier island just across the Laguna Madre bay. Today, the island is known as Padre Island in his honor. Just across the bay to the south, a fort was constructed on Brazos Island in 1832 to protect Brazos Santiago Pass, the natural pass that connects the Laguna Madre to the Gulf of Mexico.
In the mid-1800s, things began to happen in El Fronton as well. In 1842, a custom house for the port of Matamoros was placed in El Fronton. A few years later, in 1846, Gen. Zachary Taylor established Fort Polk for the US Army. The site of Fort Polk was near the present-day site of the lighthouse. Upon establishing Fort Polk, Taylor renamed El Fronton Point Isabel. Between 1846 and 1848, Point Isabel and Fort Polk played a central role in the Mexican War.
In 1852, the Point Isabel Lighthouse was built. Today, the Point Isabel Lighthouse is a popular attraction, part of the Museums of Port Isabel, and a State Historic Site. In the 1860s, the Lighthouse played an important role in the Civil War. In 1864, Confederate forces removed the light from the tower structure so the Union troops would not be able to utilize it for navigation. They also attempted to blow up the Lighthouse, but were unsuccessful. Following the war, the lit was relit.
In 1867, a powerful hurricane caused significant damage to Point Isabel. However, the township rebounded and, five years later in 1872, saw the Rio Grande Railroad begin service between Brownsville and Point Isabel. The advent of the railway kicked off another boom in tourism for Point Isabel. By the turn of the century, commercial fishing was also a viable industry in Point Isabel.
Point Isabel became Port Isabel in 1928 when the Point Isabel Land Company mapped out the modern townsite and renamed the town. That same year, another devastating hurricane hit the area. A few years later, as an attempt to boost tourism, the first Texas International Fishing Tournament was held. That was in 1934. Today, the Texas International Fishing Tournament is the largest saltwater fishing tournament in Texas.
Today, Port Isabel boasts a population of just over 5,000. However, together with sister city South Padre Island, the area is one of the largest tourist draws in Texas, with droves of summer visitors, as well as seasonal winter residents known as 'Winter Texans.' In addition to great fishing and access to the beaches of South Padre Island, Port Isabel features a number of good attractions such as the Museums of Port Isabel, as well as several great restaurants, tour boats and more.