Brownsville's counterpart across the Rio Grande, the Mexican town of Matamoros, grew to prominence in the 1820s as the Mexican port closest to then-booming New Orleans. After the Mexican-American War (1846–48), American merchants and traders thought it wise to cross the Rio Grande to Texas, where they established Brownsville in 1849. The town was named for Major Jacob Brown, the US commander of Fort Taylor (later renamed Fort Brown), who died during a Mexican raid in 1846.
During the rest of the 19th century, the fast-growing town was filled with ornate brick structures that drew their architectural inspiration from Mexico and New Orleans. Many survive today and help make Brownsville an atmospheric stop. Its authentic and slightly gritty culture make it excellent as a day trip from South Padre Island or a stop on a longer Rio Grande Valley itinerary.