The Missions are my favorite part of visiting San Antonio, and they are a great place to begin understanding the history of Texas. Before the Missions, Texas was the home of very distinct Indian tribes. Due to the vastness of the area, it is no surprise that the different tribes had very different means for their livelihoods – some were hunter/gatherers, some were fisherman, and some did plant crops. By the mid-1500s, Spanish conquistadors began to penetrate into the Texas interior. A point of interest is that the first actual conquistador in Texas, Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca was shipwrecked on the Gulf Coast and spent 8 years enslaved by the Indian tribes living in extreme poverty – not the glorious expedition he had pictured, yet the experience gave him a heart for the Indians that many did not share at the time – he saw them as equals.
The Spanish conquistadors are known for having three main motivations: gold, glory and God. We must be mindful as we consider the conquistadors and their efforts, that from the 1500’s to the 1800’s, Spain ruled the largest Empire in the world. Included in their empire were Florida and much of the Southwest. By the 1600’s Spain’s main competition, the French, began a colony in East Texas, but it was short-lived due to the severity of the conditions, and Spain continued its ownership of Texas. However, France did claim a large portion of land extending from Canada to the Gulf coast along the Mississippi, which it named Louisiana. The proximity of Texas with Louisiana made the Spanish anxious to settle the Texas land thereby securing it from the French. This drive for continued ownership is how the Missions became an integral part of settlement in Texas. Over 40 Missions were established in Texas the first of which was built in 1632. Of those Missions, five were constructed in San Antonio, with the goal of converting the natives to Catholicism and making them Spanish citizens.
How did the Missions get started? The Indians of Southern Texas were facing difficult times. Since the first contact with Europeans, diseases were spreading through the tribes as plagues the likes of which they had not seen before. In addition, the Apaches to the North were raiding Southern tribes on horseback. Just like the diseases, the horses came from the Spanish. The Franciscans came at an opportune time when the Indian tribes were desperate for relief. The Franciscans promised food and shelter, in return for the Indians giving up their way of life and beliefs. With the help of Indian labor under the instruction of Master builders from Europe, the Missions were built. They used the Camino Real from Mexico to bring in supplies. The Franciscans taught the Indians how to farm and tend sheep, and they built intricate acequia systems that directed water to the fields for irrigation purposes and used gravity to return the water to the main stream. They sold their surplus to soldiers at presidios (frontier forts). The Indians gave up their nomadic lifestyle under the broad sky for small rooms and the ever vigilant signal of the Church bell to call them to their next duty. They visited the granary weekly to receive their stipend of food and learned the Spanish language and Catholicism.
Did the Missions work? Unfortunately, the European diseases took their toll even on Indians within the Missions. At the Mission San José Visitor Center, we learned that in ten years, about 70% of the Indians in Missions died, mostly due to disease. Many of the Indians also succumbed to the pressures of the strict lifestyle and fled for the open lifestyle they remembered and loved. The Franciscans continued recruitment in the Southern tribes to fill the empty spaces. The Northern tribes of Apaches and Comanches raided the Missions before eventually submitting to the Spanish presence. The ultimate desire of the Franciscans was to “secularize” Missions by turning them over to the Indians once they had learned how to keep the community sustainable. The process was to take 10 years, but it took much longer. By the end of the 1700’s, all five of the San Antonio Missions were secularized. By 1824, when Mexico won its independence from Spain, all of the remaining Missions were secularized.
Now that we have a better understanding of the Missions, lets take a look at them together. San Antonio is home to Missions National Historic Park. All five of the Missions lay on or near the San Antonio River starting with the Alamo in the heart of downtown and continuing South. The Alamo began as the Mission San Antonio de Valero, but it has a unique story all its own which takes us up to the founding of the Republic of Texas, which you can learn about in this post. The Alamo is not part of the National Historic Park, as it was managed by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas and now has been turned over to the state. For this post, we will take a look at the four Missions within the Park beginning at the Southernmost and working our way toward downtown.
Our first Mission to visit is Mission Espada, built originally in East Texas in 1690 and then moved to San Antonio in 1731. Being the farthest from downtown, this Mission gives a better picture of what the area was like during the Mission years. While not remote, this Mission remains in a very rural setting unlike the other Missions.
On the way to the next Mission, be sure to stop and see the Espada Aqueduct. The aquaduct shows some of the remains of what it took to build the acequia system and turn an arid area into productive farmland. While you are there, be aware of the many different birds in the area.
The next stop is Mission San Juan also moved from East Texas to San Antonio in 1731. This Mission is the only one that is painted, and it also has a small museum.
The third Mission, and the largest, is Mission San Jose, built where it still stands in 1720. All of the Missions are more ornate than one would expect, but San Jose really shows the talent and craftsmanship that was used in these buildings. This Mission also has a large visitor center with a video and museum.
Last of the four is Mission Concepcion, moved from East Texas in 1731. What sets this Mission apart is that it is the only Mission of San Antonio that did not need repairs – it is still completely intact.
Here is a quick video we made.
I hope you enjoyed learning about the beginnings of Texas settlement and touring the Missions as much as we did. While I thoroughly appreciate the intricate buildings and the grounds, I equally find myself fascinated imagining the people that lived in them. There were so many different hopes and dreams being played out in these places, as two cultures from different extremes were brought together. I can imagine the hardship on the Indian’s spirit felt from the strict rules and lifestyle and a lack of understanding and value of their ways. I can also imagine the Franciscans’ feelings of despair as those they were dedicating themselves to save were dying from disease or returning to their previous ways. As with many other times in history, two different civilizations collide – what it was like we can now only guess.
Fun Facts & Tips
- The Mission National Historic Park is FREE – so is The Alamo.
- There are places to rent bikes to travel between the Missions – here is the rental rack at Mission San Jose.