Originally known as the Mission San Antonio de Valero, the Alamo, began as a Catholic mission and compound in 1718, one of many Catholic missions organized as part of the official Spanish plan to Christianize Native Americans and colonize northern New Spain.
The first of five missions to built in what would become San Antonio, the mission was established by Father Antonio de San Buenaventura y Olivares, of the College of Santa Cruz of Querétaroqv, who first visited the region in 1709. In 1716 Olivares received approval from the Marqués de Valero, the viceroy of New Spain (Mexico), for a plan to remove to San Antonio the dwindling mission of San Francisco Solano, founded in 1700 near the right bank of the Rio Grande River at the site of present Guerrero, Coahuila.
The viceroy also directed Martín de Alarcón, governor of Coahuila and Texas, to accompany Olivares with a military guard. After considerable delay, Olivares and Alarcón traveled separately to San Antonio in the spring of 1718 and the mission was founded on May 1st, quickly followed by the San Antonio de Béxar Presidio and the civilian settlement of Villa de Béxar.
The mission, originally located west of San Pedro Springs, survived three moves and numerous setbacks during its early years. After a hurricane destroyed most of the existing buildings in 1724, the mission was re-established on its present site on the east bank of the San Antonio River. Its earliest buildings were of temporary construction, but, were replaced throughout the years with more permanent structures.
Work began on the stone convento, or priest’s residence, by 1727. Replacing earlier adobe structures, the two-story, arcaded stone building eventually included two wings along the west and south edges of an inner courtyard, immediately north of the church. The convento, now known as the long barracks, also served to house the friars, offices, kitchens, dining room, and guest rooms.
Over the next several decades, the mission would continue to struggle, being continually harassed by hostile Apache Indians and becoming the victim of a smallpox and measles epidemic in 1739, which devastated the Indians of the mission.
However, by the 1740s the mission’s Indian population began to increase again. In 1744, work on a stone church began. However, there was obviously a flaw in the building plan, as the church, its tower, and the sacristy collapsed in the 1750s.
With the mission now serving more than 300 Indians, work on a new church began in 1758 with an ambitious plan. Built in a cross design, it was to include a sacristy, choir loft, barrel-vaulted roof, twin bell towers, a dome, and an elaborately carved façade. Constructed of 4 feet thick limestone blocks, it was intended to be three stories high. However, as the number of mission Indians declined, work stalled, and the upper level, bell towers and dome were never begun.
Since the mission church was never finished, it was likely never used for religious services and mission life probably revolved around the convento. The three-acre mission complex also included storerooms, a granary, workrooms, Indian residences, and an acequia, or irrigation ditch. During the mission’s peak population in the mid-1700s, the complex included about 30 adobe homes and numerous brush huts.
The mission was largely self-sufficient, relying on its 2,000 head of cattle and 1,300 sheep for food and clothing. Additionally, the mission’s farmland produced up to 2,000 bushels of corn and 100 bushels of beans and cotton each year.
In addition to constructing buildings and irrigation ditches, Indians operated weaving, blacksmith, and carpentry shops; cultivated maize, beans, cotton, vegetables, and fruits in outlying fields and orchards; and on the mission ranch, grazed livestock herds numbering hundreds of cattle, sheep, and goats, as well as horses and oxen.
While the objective of the Mission San Antonio de Valero was to focus on the conversion of the Indians to Christianity and produce loyal subjects to the crown, the missionaries were forced to take on another role – that of defense. Though the San Antonio de Bexar presidio was established directly across the San Antonio River to protect the mission, the Spanish government failed to complete or adequately garrison the fortress. Though plans were drawn up to build a wall around the presidio, they were never completed, and it consisted of a single adobe building with the soldiers living in brush huts. In 1745, about 100 mission Indians successfully drove off a band of 300 Apache which had surrounded the presidio.
After the massacre at the Santa Cruz de San Sabá Mission, located in present-day Menard County, in 1758, the missionaries and Indians at the Alamo began to build large walls around the mission, which enclosed the main plaza west of the convento. Eight feet high and two feet thick, with a fortified gate, a turret with three cannons, the mission was guarded by a small artillery.
In 1773 the Franciscans of Querétaro transferred administration of San Antonio de Valero and its neighboring missions to the Franciscans of the College of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe de Zacatecas. By 1777, the mission’s Indian population had declined to a mere 44 residents. The following year, the new commandant general of the interior provinces, Teodoro de Croix, thought the missions were largely a liability and began taking actions to decrease their influence. In 1778, he ruled that all unbranded cattle belonged to the government. As a result, the mission lost much of its wealth and was unable to support a larger population of converts.
By 1793, only 12 Indians remained at the mission and the Spanish government ordered the Mission San Antonio de Valero and the other area missions to be secularized. Its religious offices passed to the nearby diocesan parish of San Fernando de Béxar, while its lands, houses, supplies, equipment, and livestock were distributed among the remaining Indians and local residents. By that time, the mission Indian population had been so reduced that there were only 12 habitable homes and the fortress walls had already crumbled.
In the early 19th Century, when Mexico began to fight for its independence from Spain, the old mission would become a strategically important site. In 1803, the site became the quarters for the Second Flying Company of San Carlos de Parras, a company of Spanish Colonial mounted lancers, who arrived to bolster the existing San Antonio garrison.
They would remain in San Antonio for the next 32 years integrating into the existing population and becoming involved in the community’s military, civil and political affairs including the Mexican War for Independence and the Texas Revolution. Officially called La Segunda Compania Volante de San Carlos de Parras (Alamo de Parras), it was from this company of lancers, that the mission gained the name of the “Alamo.”
From 1806 to 1812, the convento served as San Antonio’s first hospital and parts of the mission served as a prison. During Mexico’s War of Independence with Spain (1810–1821), the mission was often held by Mexican soldiers. It was officially transferred to Mexico when the country won its independence and would continue to be held by the Mexicans until December 1835.