The streets of Dauphin Island are mixtures of names that combine recognition of Spanish, French and American settlements on the island and around Mobile Bay. Indeed, the Spanish were the first Europeans to land on Dauphin Island when explorer Alonso Álvarez de Pineda found and mapped the island in 1519. However, no substantial European settlers were on the island permanently until the French came in 1699 and established a small colony, yet a number of Spanish historical figures are recognized in street names. Why?
The names can be traced to a document produced in 1950 by the Mobile Chamber of Commerce and the Dauphin Island Land Sales Corporation, a company that shut down in 1960 but involved real estate investors such as Julius Marx, founder of Marx Realty in Mobile, and John A. Roberts, the founder of Roberts Brothers Realty, amongst others. After voters in Mobile County defeated a planned tax to pay for a bridge to the island, the Mobile Chamber of Commerce offered to assist in the sale of lots on the island to help pay for a bridge, and the state would pay the rest. By 1955, bridge construction concluded under this scheme. The 1950 brochure represented the kickoff to this land sales campaign.
Their 1950 brochure, meant to sell property on the island, highlighted the historical significance of street names throughout the island, and here a number of notable names from the Spanish Empire in the Gulf region are highlighted, despite having few, if any, ties to Dauphin Island itself. A local committee on nomenclature had come together to name the streets in an effort to expand the population of the island, which was only 190 according to the 1950 U.S. Census. Many streets on Dauphin Island were named for French settlers and governors, probably the majority, and then Spanish names come in second place. The historical significance of a place, it must have been thought, would help sell parcels of land.
The first of these is Deluna Street, named for Tristán de Luna y Arellano, commander of a group of colonists who left Vera Cruz, Mexico, in 1559 and set out to expand Spain’s colonial empire. His orders from Viceroy of New Spain (Mexico), Luís de Velasco, was to establish Spanish land along the Gulf Coast. His experience was as a general under the command of Francisco Vázquez de Coronado in his conquest of native tribes in Oaxaca. He and his party bypassed Mobile Bay and settled in Pensacola but scouted the region extensively in 1559 and survived a hurricane which forced the party to relocate on the banks of the Alabama River. Their supplies dried up, forcing de Luna to send an exploratory party up into north Georgia in June 1590 before returning to the region of Pensacola. De Luna was replaced as governor there in April 1561, and a small outpost lasted just another year before being abandoned, only to be found again in 2015. No other Europeans settled in Pensacola until 1698. De Luna died in Mexico in 1573. This street no longer exists, and its exact location is unknown today.
The other streets with Spanish names remain so named today. Desoto Avenue is named for Hernando de Soto, Spanish governor of Cuba and a key figure in the Spanish conquest of Peru, Nicaragua and the Yucatan Peninsula. He led the first Spanish expedition into what became the United States, landing near Tampa Bay in 1639. He then moved into the Southeast, into what is now Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee and then back south to Alabama. That is where he encountered the Mobile tribe of native Americans in the city of Mauvila in southern Alabama. The natives attacked first, but the Spanish won and burnt the town in retaliation, killing an estimated 2,000 – 6,000. Rather than leave North America through Mobile Bay, however, de Soto entered Mississippi and moved westward, becoming the first European to reach the Mississippi River in 1541. He died in what is now Louisiana in 1542. Although no settlements resulted from de Soto’s exploration of North America, his visits with Native Americans brought expansive diseases into the region, causing significant depopulation in the years that followed.
In addition to Desoto Avenue, there is also a Hernando Street on Dauphin Island. Moreover, Isabella Point is named for de Soto’s wife, Isabel de Bobadilla, who governed Cuba in her husband’s absence. Her tenure (1539 – 1542) marked the first time a woman ruled politically in the New World. It is claimed she was escorted to Mobile Bay once, in 1542, to visit her husband, but they never met due to de Soto’s encounter with the Mobile Indians. She is said to have waited on Dauphin Island for the return of her husband when he died in 1542; she returned to Spain and died herself shortly thereafter.
Maldanado Place is named for Francisco Maldonado, one of de Soto’s officers and a member of the team that escorted de Soto’s wife to Mobile Bay to meet her husband. Mauvila Place is named for the native village destroyed by de Soto. Narvaez St is named for Panfilo de Narvaez, the second European known to have been in Mobile Bay and a trusted assistant to Velaquez. Ponce de Leon Court was named for the founder of Florida and believer in a fountain of youth in the New World.
One of the more interesting names recognized on Dauphin Island is that of the Spanish Bishop Luis Ignatius Peñalver y Cárdenas, first bishop of the new diocese of Louisiana and Florida, established in 1795 and based in New Orleans. He was born in Havana and made the first Bishop of New Orleans in July 1795 when Spanish-controlled Florida and Louisiana, which included Alabama, were made their own Bishopric, separate from the one based in Havana. He is most infamous in this role for writing a report in 1799 that highlighted the irreligious nature and lack of discipline amongst parishioners in Louisiana and Florida, which certainly makes one wonder why there is a street named for him in our region. It is quite likely, of course, that those who named the street after him did not know of his dismissal of the local population. He was subsequently promoted to become the Bishop of Guatemala in 1801, a position he held until he retired back to Cuba in 1806.
The naming of streets on Dauphin Island for Spanish conquistadores, and others, such as the bishop, was meant to jump-start an era of expansion there. And so it did, as the island today has approximately 1,300 residents — on a smaller physical space than existed in 1950 due to hurricanes and erosion.
David A. Messenger is a professor of history, focused on Spanish and modern European history, at the University of South Alabama. He also serves as chair of the University’s Department of History.