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San Antonio Missions National Historic Park

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Statue at Mission San Jose, San Antonio, Texas

Statue at Mission San Jose, Dave Alexander, February, 2011.

This image available for photographic prints & commercial downloads HERE!



The Missions:

Mission Concepcion

Mission San Jose

Mission San Juan

Mission Espada

Mission Najera

Mission San Antonio de Valero - The Alamo

San Antonio Missions Slideshow




Over 400 years ago Spanish expeditions began to explore land that is now the American Southwest. Beginning in the 16th century, missionaries, accompanied by a few soldiers, moved north out of the Valley of Mexico, founding missions and presidios.


For the Spaniards, the acculturation of the native peoples was a major means for securing their claim to vast lands in North America. With very few soldiers and settlers, Spain's claim to these areas, in the face of encroachment by other European settlers, depended upon the success of the missions.


Church and State were very closely linked, and the Spanish monarch granted various religious orders of the Catholic Church permission to found mission communities. Through instruction by these religious, communities of native converts were to emerge as loyal subjects to the crown on the frontier.


San Antonio Missions Interactive Map  


Threatened by French encroachments from Louisiana, the Spanish stepped up their colonization of Texas and beginning in 1690, six missions were established in what is now East Texas. Along with the missions, a system of frontier military outposts, or presidios, was built as a means of protecting Spain's expanding territory. Generally these presidios were manned by a small force of soldiers. Wherever missions were built, a presidio was sure to be established nearby. Despite an interval of withdrawal, eastern Texas missions began a period of slow growth.


The lush area of the San Antonio River Valley in the San Pedro Springs area soon attracted the Spanish missionaries. The region had long been called home to Native Americans, who called the vicinity "Yanaguana," meaning "refreshing waters." In 1691, a group of Spanish explorers and missionaries came upon the river and the Indian village on June 13, the feast day of St. Anthony of Padova, Italy and named the place and river "San Antonio" in his honor.


In need of a way-station between the missions and their source of supply to the west, a failed mission known as San Francisco Solano, was relocated from Coahuila, Mexico to the San Antonio River in 1718 and renamed Mission San Antonio de Valero. By the start of the next century it was called "The Alamo" and received enduring fame in 1836 during the Texas Revolution, when around 180 defenders, made up of settlers and native Texans, held out for 13 days against up to 5,000 enemy soldiers in the Battle of the Alamo, before finally being defeated.


Franciscan Missionairies.Noting the substantial population of native people nearby, Fray Antonio Margil de Jesús established a second mission, San José, south along the river in 1720. A third mission, called San Francisco Xavier de Nájera was established two years later about three miles south of Mission San Antonio de Valero. However, it was very short-lived an no permanent buildings were erected. It was abandoned just four years later.


By 1731, as a result of changing political policies, drought, and disease, the missions in eastern Texas once again began to falter. Three of these missions were eventually relocated along the San Antonio River, joining the two founded earlier and the presidio of San Antonio de Béxar. These missions are Concepción, San Juan, and Espada. A fort, a village and an irrigation system with dam and aqueduct were added soon after, and the communities flourished, gradually becoming augmented by other development and forming the city of San Antonio.


The missions flourished between 1745 and the 1780’s. Increasing hostility from the mission Indians' traditional enemy, the Apache, and later the Comanche, coupled with inadequate military support, caused the communities to retreat behind walls. Disease reduced the native population, accelerating the missions' decline.


Several gateways provided entrance into the compounds of the walled communities. Bastions, or fortified towers, were located along the walls to provide defense. Living quarters were built inside, against the compound walls, for the Indians who had converted to Christianity, as well as the Spanish soldiers. The church was the focal point of community life. The structure was prominent within the compound. The convento, or living quarters of the missionaries and several lay assistants, was in close proximity to the church building. The cemetery, well used as the result of European diseases, lay adjacent.


Workshops and storerooms dotted the grounds. Outside the walls were the croplands and ranches, and the danger of the Apache and Comanche.


The Native Americans who lived in the San Antonio missions came from a number of hunting and gathering bands. Collectively, they are referred to as Coahuiltecans (kwa-weel-tay-kans.) Their strictly regulated mission life represented a profound change for people who had followed the rhythms of nature. Formerly ranging throughout south Texas and northeastern Mexico, their movements were dictated by the seasonal availability of food. While distinct dialects and religious practices were found among these bands, they shared some characteristics.


Extended families joined others in larger bands when food was abundant. The men hunted bison and deer. This was supplemented by fish, birds, rabbits, lizards and snakes. Fruits, nuts, beans, roots, and seeds gathered by women and children were part of their diet.


The local people fashioned brush huts and slept on woven mats. Dressed in skins and woven sandals, they used bows and arrows, fishing nets, digging sticks, and grinding stones to obtain and prepare food. They produced some simple pottery, but were more skilled in making baskets, using them to store and transport food. They practiced rites of passage and seasonal ceremonies common to many hunter-gatherer cultures.


Coahuiltecan Indians by Frank Weir

Coahuiltecan Indians by Frank Weir. The Coahuiltecan were not one specific tribe, but rather, were comprised of various bands which the Spanish found living in the area of San Antonio. Speaking different languages, they had similar habits and were encompassed as a geographic group.


Spanish Missionary

While Texas was a part of the Spanish empire, church and State were very closely linked, and the Spanish founded numerous mission communities. Through instruction by these religious, communities of native converts were to emerge as loyal subjects to the crown on the frontier.


Even before the missions altered their living habits, the native people were pressed by nomadic tribes encroaching from the north and south. In addition, a more ominous threat came with the introduction and spread of European diseases that, in time, decimated their population.


Struggling under such hardships, they proved to be relatively willing recruits for the missionaries. The Indians found food and refuge in the missions in exchange for labor and submission to religious conversion.


Franciscans carried out the mission efforts among the Indians of Texas, serving the Church and acting as protectors of the Indians. They entered the area early on, accompanying explorers, acting as their chroniclers. Their primary task was to spread Christianity and to extend Spanish culture.


Like the Indians, Spaniards were also diverse in nature and background. Some were soldiers or missionaries directly from Spain. Others came as long time residents of New Spain (Mexico). Distinctions were made between criollos, those born in the Americas, and peninsulares, those born in Spain. Criollos were considered inferior to those who came from the mother country.


Those persons of mixed race - Indian and Spaniard - known as mestizos, were one of the most rapidly growing groups in frontier society. Bearing Spanish names but, a culture that was a mixture of Indian and Spanish, they became the backbone of the Spanish empire in the Americas. Mestizos made up the majority of soldiers in the army; as well as working as artisans, traders, and local officials. 


Each day the mission overseers, which included missionaries, lay helpers, leaders from the resident Indian bands, and members of the soldiers' families, would lead work groups of mission Indians out of the walls to the farm lands. Farming was the main occupation of the communities in their quest to become self-sufficient. Crops included corn, beans, chile, squash, melons, cotton, and sugar cane. Orchards produced apples, peaches, grapes and other fruits.


The dry climate of southwest Texas made irrigation crucial for growing the crops that would determine the success of a new mission. Around San Antonio the Spanish used what was known as acequias (ah-SAY-key-ahs), a system of irrigation ditches. Missionaries and Indians built seven gravity-flow ditches, five dams, and an aqueduct in order to distribute water from the San Antonio River over a 15-mile network that covered 3,500 acres of land. The grist mill at Mission San José was powered by this water.


Raising livestock also played an important role in mission life. A ready supply of meat and beasts of burden was a necessity. At first, the common lands, lying between the missions, towns, and presidios were given over to grazing. However, as the settlements and herds grew, additional land was designated for ranching, which stretched in an arc about 20 to 30 miles to the north and south of the missions along both sides of the San Antonio River. Ranchos were designated for each mission and Indian men, sometimes with their families, lived part of the year on the ranchos in compounds built for that purpose. Taught to care for the livestock by missionaries, their lay assistants, and the soldiers, they came to be known as vaqueros, the first Texas cowboys.


As Spain's frontier expanded, links were maintained between the northernmost settlements and Mexico City. As the vast area developed, a network of roads, or caminos reales, grew between major settlements, presidios, and missions. Originally blazed along game trails for military use, over time these roads provided a path for civilian settlers, trade and supply trains and, late in the colonial period, a postal service. In Texas, this historic route has been designated as El Camino Real de los Tejas National Historical Trail.


In the 1790s, the missions began to change. At that time, secularization, the process of turning the settlements into civil rather than religious communities, began. The Spanish government withdrew its financial support and ordered mission lands and livestock to be divided among the mission Indians who had been converted to Christianity.


Only one of the San Antonio missions, Mission San Antonio de Valero (the Alamo) was fully secularized. The other four, which are now part of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, were only partially secularized. Here the populations elected their community officials, but missionaries remained to act as parish priests.  


In 1824, after Mexico achieved independence from Spain, the remaining missions were fully secularized and all the missionaries left the area. The remaining native converts assimilated with nearby local populations or migrated to Mexico.


Though the buildings then fell into decline, in the 1930’s restoration began. Archeological investigations over the years have uncovered a wealth of evidence pertaining to mission life, as well is defining the original locations of buildings, walls and other architectural features. 


The Alamo in the 1830's

How the Alamo Chapel looked in the 1830's, Gleason's Pictorial

 Drawing-Room Companion, 1854


The five San Antonio missions survive intact and the southernmost four are protected within the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, which incorporates various sites and tracts of land along the river connected by the Mission Trail, a 12 mile route along city streets south of downtown San Antonio. The four missions within the park continue to serve as parish churches, and all five San Antonio missions are open to the public.

Continued Next Page


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 From Legends' General Store


San Antonio Missions DVDDiscoveries - San Antonio Missions National Park DVD or Blue Ray - Missions Concepción, San José, San Juan Capistrano & Espada. Frontier missions were established by Catholic religious orders to spread Christianity among the local natives. Built in the mid to late 1700’s, these four missions are active catholic parishes holding regular services. Discover and explore the importance of this critical part of America's history.


Includes stone restoration efforts & San Antonio Riverwalk.  From Bennett Watt Productions.


Buy Product $24.95



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