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 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 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 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 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 camino 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 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, 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 1930s restoration began. Archaeological investigations over the years have uncovered a wealth of evidence pertaining to mission life, as well as defining the original locations of buildings, walls, and other architectural features.
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.
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 fair 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. Due to the fact that it was built directly on bedrock, it never lost its roof, or its integrity.