San Antonio Missions National Historical Park preserves four of the five Spanish frontier missions in San Antonio, Texas. The fifth and best-known mission in San Antonio, the Alamo, owned by the State of Texas, is not part of the park.
Mission San Antonio de Valero – The Alamo
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Over 400 years ago, Spanish expeditions began to explore the 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 of 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, native converts were to emerge as loyal subjects to the crown on the frontier.
Threatened by French encroachments from Louisiana, the Spanish began their colonization of Texas, and in 1690, six missions were established in East Texas. Along with the missions, a system of frontier military outposts, or presidios, was built to protect 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 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 supply source 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.” It 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.
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, 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, and no permanent buildings were erected. It was abandoned just four years later.
By 1731, due to changing political policies, drought, and disease, the missions in eastern Texas 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. Soon after, a fort, a village, and an irrigation system with a dam and aqueduct were added. The communities flourished, gradually becoming augmented by other development and forming the city of San Antonio.
The missions flourished between 1745 and the 1780s. 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 a 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 near the church building. The cemetery, well used due to European diseases, lay adjacent.
Workshops and storerooms dotted the grounds. Outside the walls were the croplands, ranches, and the danger of the Apache and Comanche.
The Native Americans who lived in the San Antonio missions came from several 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 followed nature’s rhythms. 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. Fish, birds, rabbits, lizards, and snakes supplemented this. 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.
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, and acting as their chroniclers. Their primary task was to spread Christianity and 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 longtime 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 among 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 workgroups of mission Indians out of the walls to the farmlands. 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 to distribute water from the San Antonio River over a 15-mile network that covered 3,500 acres of land. This water powered the grist mill at Mission San José.
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 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 camino reales, grew between major settlements, presidios, and missions. Originally blazed along game trails for military use, these roads later provided a path for civilian settlers, trade and supply trains, and a postal service late in the colonial period. In Texas, this historic route has been designated as El Camino Real de los Tejas National Historic 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, 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 1930s, restoration began. Archaeological investigations over the years have uncovered a wealth of evidence about mission life, as well as defining the original locations of buildings, walls, and other architectural features.
The five San Antonio missions survive intact. 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.
Officially called the Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purisima Concepción de Acuña, the mission was named in honor of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception and Juan de Acuña, the Marqués de Casafuerte, who was the Viceroy of New Spain (Mexico) when the mission transferred to the San Antonio River area in 1731.
First founded in 1716 in what is now eastern Texas, the mission was one of six authorized by the government to serve as a buffer against the threat of French incursion into Spanish territory from Louisiana. Developed by Franciscans, it didn’t originally fare well, and after several moves, the mission was transferred to its present site in 1731.
The handsome stone church took about 20 years to build and was dedicated in 1755. Today, it appears very much as it did over two centuries ago and is the oldest unrestored stone church in America. Because it was built directly on bedrock, it never lost its roof or its integrity.
In its heyday, colorful geometric designs covered its surface inside and out. The exterior patterns have long since faded or been worn away. However, there are several rooms to see the remaining frescos with all their detail and creativity. Until preservation work in 1988 revealed a second eye, this fresco on the convento ceiling was known as the “Eye of God.”
The integrity of the church and convento roofs at Mission Concepción prevented the deterioration of many fine examples of frescos. Remnants of this tediously applied art form, painted over 250 years ago, can still be seen clearly in four rooms.
The church of Mission Concepción is an excellent example of Spanish Colonial architecture. Various features were incorporated into constructing this and other existing mission churches in the park. Intricate Renaissance and Moorish details complement Romanesque forms and gothic arches.
It is a cruciform (cross-shaped) building of limestone. The roof is vaulted with a dome, with which recent research suggests a deliberate placement of windows to illuminate the two side altars on specific feast days. Twin bell towers may have been topped by crosses similar to those in place today. Colorful Moorish designs mix with images showing Native American and Spanish Catholic influences.
Mission builders, skilled master craftsmen, recruited from Mexico, preserved the basic Spanish model, with modifications dictated by frontier conditions. The quarry from which the mission Indians dug the stone to build their community is located on the grounds of Mission Concepción. The church walls are 45 inches thick; however, only the inside and outside facings are of solid stone – between the two layers is a filling of small stones and building debris. The native residents of the missions provided labor for building these churches. This activity was one way to foster a sense of community and train the mission residents as artisans.
Mission Concepción served for many years as the residence of the Father President, a missionary elected from among his Franciscan brothers from the College of Querétaro to act as the local field coordinator. He was administratively in all Queretaro missions along the San Antonio River.
From the beginning, Mission Concepción hosted religious festivals. Missionaries strove to replace traditional indigenous rituals and celebrations with Christian pageantry. Morality plays and professionals such as Las Pastores and Los Posadas, reenacting the events around the birth of Jesus, were commonly practiced.
The missionaries, through baptism and administration of other sacraments, formalized the Native Americans‘ acceptance of Christianity. This combination of strict teaching and celebration eventually bore fruit. Today, Mission Concepción is an active parish with many members tracing their roots to the mission residents of long ago.
The mission is located at 807 Mission Road.
Mission San Jose
Officially called the Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo, it was named for Saint Joseph and the Marqués de San Miguel de Aguayo, the governor of the Province of Coahuila and Texas at the time. It was founded in 1720 by the famed Father Antonio Margil de Jesús, a prominent Franciscan missionary in early Texas. It was built on the San Antonio River banks several miles south of the earlier mission, San Antonio de Valero (the Alamo).
San José, as it became known, was the largest of the missions in the area. At its height, the community contained about 350 Indian converts, sustained by extensive fields and herds of livestock. Its imposing complex of stone walls, bastions, granary, and the magnificent church was completed by 1782. Viewed as the model among the Texas missions, San José gained a reputation as a major social and cultural center and was also known as the “Queen of the Missions.”
The rich enterprise became a natural target for Apache and Comanche depredations. Although they could not prevent raids on their livestock, the mission was almost impregnable. In his journal, Fray Juan Agustín Morfí attested to its defensive character: “It is, in truth, the first mission in America… in point of beauty, plan, and strength… there is not a presidio along the entire frontier line that can compare with it.”
The danger was working the fields, traveling to and from the ranch, or to other missions. With technical help from the two presidial soldiers garrisoned there, San José residents learned to defend themselves. Already proficient with bow and arrow, the men also learned to use guns and cannons.
Once the mission was secularized and the missionaries moved away, it fell into disrepair and partial ruin over the years. However, the San Antonio Conservation Society and the Federal Government undertook to restore portions of the mission community in the 1920s and 1930s. Much of what is visible today at Mission San José was reconstructed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s. The church, which had lost its dome, bell tower, and wall, was rededicated in 1937.
The granary and the convento were still standing but required stabilization and reconstruction work. The large convento housed at least two missionaries and any travelers or guests. The living space was on the second floor, while the first comprised a storeroom, kitchen, and refectory.
With few exceptions, the protective walls with the Indian Quarters built into them were reconstructed in the 1930s above the original foundations. The stone used was not limestone like the originals would have been. The Grape Arbor trellis was meant to enhance the Spanish Quarters next to it.
Located on the south wall of the church sacristy is the La Ventana de Rosa or the Rose Window. Sculpted in 1775, it has been the object of both legend and admiration and is considered one of North America’s finest examples of baroque architecture. The meaning behind the name is unknown, but legend has it named for Rosa, the betrothed of Juan Huizar, who many believe created the window.
In 1941, Mission San José was declared a State Historic Site and a National Historic Site later that same year. When the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park was established in November 1978, the Spanish colonial mission was assured protection in cooperation with the Archdiocese of San Antonio and the parish.
The Archdiocese of San Antonio and San José parish are responsible for any maintenance and preservation work needed on the church structure itself, and about 80% of the church is original. The National Park Service, with the help of the park’s friends group, Los Compadres, is responsible for the other structures and historical landscape.
Mission San Jose is an active parish today, and visitors are welcome to attend mass. It is located at 6701 San José Drive.
Mission San Juan
Officially called the Mission San Juan Capistrano, this mission was originally founded in 1716 in eastern Texas. In 1731, it was transferred to its present location. In 1756, the stone church, a friary, and a granary were completed. A larger church was begun but was abandoned when half complete, resulting in population decline.
San Juan was a self-sustaining community. Within the compound, Indian artisans produced iron tools, cloth, and prepared hides. Orchards and gardens outside the walls provided melons, pumpkins, grapes, and peppers. Beyond the mission complex, Indian farmers cultivated corn, beans, squash, sweet potatoes, and sugar cane in irrigated fields.
Over 20 miles southeast of Mission San Juan was Rancho de Pataguilla, which, in 1762, reported 3,500 sheep and nearly as many cattle. These products helped support the San Antonio missions and the local settlements and presidial garrisons in the area. By the mid-1700s, San Juan, with its rich farm and pasturelands, was a regional supplier of agricultural produce. With its surplus, San Juan established a trade network stretching east to Louisiana and south to Coahuila, Mexico. This thriving economy helped the mission to survive epidemics and Indian attacks in its final years.
In July 1794 the mission was secularized on July 14, 1794, but continued to be attended by the resident priest at Mission San Francisco de la Espada until about 1813. It was then attended by the one remaining missionary at the nearby Mission San Jose until 1924. The mission was largely neglected until 1840 when diocesan priests again conducted religious services. Members of the Claretian and Redemptorist Orders also held mass in the church until 1967, when the Franciscans returned to Mission San Juan.
The Works Project Administration (WPA) unearthed some of the native quarters and the foundations of the unfinished church in 1934. The chapel, priests’ quarters, and other structures were reconstructed during the 1960s. Most of the original square remains within the courtyard walls, portraying an authentic depiction of the floor plan and layout.
An active parish today, it is located at 9101 Graf Road.
Officially called the Mission San Francisco de la Espada, this mission was originally founded southwest of present-day Weches, Texas, in 1690. It served as a buffer against French encroachment from Louisiana, along with several others. Fevers, floods, fires, enemies, and limited supplies prompted several relocations of this early mission. In March 1731, it was transferred to a bank along the San Antonio River. A friary was built in 1745, and the church was completed in 1756.
Spanish Franciscan missionaries developed the mission, training and converting the Coahuiltecan (kwa-weel-teken) Indians in the principles of farming, ranching, architecture, blacksmithing, loom weaving, spinning, and masonry. Espada was the only San Antonio mission where bricks and tiles were made.
In 1794, Espada began secularizing or transforming into a church-based community. However, the mission was impoverished. Each of the remaining 15 families received land but shared equipment and supplies. In 1826, a band of Comanche raided the cornfields and killed the livestock. The same year, a kitchen fire destroyed most buildings, but the chapel survived. Yet, people continued to make their homes here.
From 1858 to 1907, Father Francis Bouchu served the mission, and he undertook to restore many of the collapsed buildings inside the compound. After he left, the church was temporarily closed for repairs and reopened in 1915. At this time, the diocesan priests followed the Claretian Fathers, and a school was opened inside the compound of Espada by the Sisters of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament. In 1967 the school was discontinued, and the Franciscans returned. From 1967 through 1986, the community continued to maintain the irrigation system through the efforts of the Espada Ditch Company.
Today, the mission boasts the best-preserved segments of the historic acequias, including the still-working Espada Dam and Aqueduct. Combined, these structures represent perhaps the best surviving physical assembly of an 18th-century Spanish irrigation network in the United States.
Still an active parish today, the mission is located at 10040 Espada Road.
Mission San Antonio de Valero – The Alamo
The fifth mission in the area is the Mission San Antonio de Valero, more commonly known as the Alamo. The first of the six missions to be established in the area, it was founded in 1718. The mission is a former Roman Catholic mission and fortress compound, the site of the Battle of the Alamo in 1836, and now a museum.
The compound, which originally comprised the church, the convent, and several homes and outbuildings, was built to convert Native Americans to Christianity. In 1793, the mission was secularized and soon abandoned. Ten years later, it became a fortress housing the Mexican Army group, the Second Flying Company of San Carlos de Parras, who likely gave the mission the name “Alamo.” It is best known for being utilized by the Texians during the Texas Revolution and the Battle of the Alamo.
Though it is not part of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, it is part of the Missions Trail. The Daughters of the Republic of Texas operate it. See the full article HERE.
This little-known mission of the San Antonio area was short-lived, no permanent buildings were ever constructed, and nothing remains today. Officially called the San Francisco Xavier de Nájera Mission, it was the third mission established in the San Antonio area in 1722. Located about three miles south of San Antonio de Valero (the Alamo), it was established upon the request of Juan Rodríguez, who was a chief of the Ervipiame tribe, but introduced himself as the chief of the Ranchería Grande tribes, a loose assemblage of Tonkawa and Coahuiltecan Indian bands that dominated Central Texas.
Rodríguez assured the Spaniards that they were friendly and agreed to accept missionaries if the white men would provide his people with firearms to use against the hostile Apache. As a result, Mission San Jose and Najera were established. Though Mission San Jose would continue, Mission Najera would not, as the Indians refused to settle in large numbers. The mission soon languished, without permanent buildings ever having been erected. It was abandoned four years later in 1726, and its followers merged with Mission San Antonio de Valero. Today, a granite monument memorializes the mission, which is probably located on a golf course today.
San Antonio Missions National Historical Park
2202 Roosevelt Avenue
San Antonio, Texas 78210
© Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated December 2022.
See our San Antonio Missions Photo Gallery HERE
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San Antonio Missions National Historical Park
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