Why San Antonio Missions?

Trip Start Oct 15, 2006
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Trip End Jan 01, 2007


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Thursday, November 23, 2006

Why San Antonio Missions?

In the late 1600s the major European Nations mad a power play for colonialzation and control of the lands in the New World. Portugal ruled the majority of South America with Brazil. Great Britain established itself on the East Coast, which would become the USA at a later date. The Russian Empire settled along the vast shores of Alaska and Southward into present British Columbia. Spain Controlled the vast majority of land of South, Central and North America along the South coast of the Gulf of Mexico Westward to present California and the Pacific Ocean. France put its roots along the St. Lawrence River in Canada and spread Northwest throughout Canada and then South along the Mississippi River to present New Orleans, LA. The Netherlands also established colonies in the New World, but were merely a minor player in the colonialization.

Spain fell from its glory days as the maritime giant with the defeat of its Armada by the British in the 1590s. Since that time they tried to keep a grasp on their holdings in the New World. This first occurred in 1563, when the French tried to take over Florida by building Fort Caroline near presant day Jacksonville. General Gonzalo Menendez, later governor, destroyed the French hopes by laying waste Fort Caroline and subsequently establishing St Augustine.

Spain also knew of the French exploration down the Mississippi River and the city of New Orleans. It raised the hackles of Spain when France erected Fort St Louis near present day Corpus Christi, in 1685. The king of Spain decided that he needed a presence in the province of Tejas (Texas) to deter these encroaching outlaws. Spanish towns strategically placed would keep the French at bay. First he set up Fort los Adaes near to be Natchitoches, LA along the Cane River. A mission by the name of San Francisco was established near today's Tifton, TX in 1691. This was joined by San Jose (later named San Juan Capistrano, and Nuestra Senora de Concepcion. The local tribes were the Caddo Indians, who were farmers and city builders. They had little desire and felt no need to join the Franciscan missionaries.

Meanwhile, the Franciscans found fertile soil to spread the word of the Gospel along the San Antonio River. San Antonio de Valero began in 1718 and two years later San Jose began about six miles to the South along the river. Here the natives were docile hunter-gatherers and were frequently under attack by the Lipan Apache Indian raiding parties from the North. They were small family units and migrated with the food supply. The Franciscans and the soldiers gave the natives an offer they found hard to refuse: provide food and protection. Any father would agree to that proposition. Strings were attached to this offer. In accepting the offer the family had to agree to change their entire lives to become good Spanish citizens: their names, language, religion, customs, etc. In many respects,it is still similar, when we apply for a job we have to abide by the rules of the company, even though we might not like them.

The Franciscans taught not only religion, but government and the many trades that would be necessary for successful communities. Evidence of their artistry and industry is still here to be appreciated by their descendants, who still populate the parishes.

The Spanish government thought that the building of the towns would only take about ten years. In reality the process took between 60 and 90 years, approximately three generations. Not all of the natives agreed to enter the mission towns. So some of the natives, tired of the back breaking work of building the stone structures and the constant adherence to the life schedule dictated by the sound of the church bells, walked away to join in the old customs with the non mission natives. The friars sometimes turned the other way when this happened. Other times they went to find the malcontents and coax them back to the town. This was not too difficult to do, because food was plentiful inside the mission town and relatively scarce outside. Archaeological evidence shows that there must have been some trading between the different bands of natives, because of the variety of animal bones found inside the native living quarters. Skunk, snake, squirrel, rabbit and other wild game bones were uncovered. The mission provided beef, chicken, mutton, and other domesticated meats for the citizens.

Building the structures of the town took several years. The most important structure was the damn and acequia system to irrigate the labores (fields). A majordomo was appointed to oversee the construction and upkeep of the acequia. The acequia was a type of irrigation, taught to the Spanish by the Moors, which consisted of the damn and a series of canals which followed the contours of the land. The water was diverted to the different fields, up to three hundred acres, by a series of sluice gates, before retuning to the San Antonio River three or four miles down stream. All sorts of vegetation was cultivated, both from the Old World Europe and the New World. Orchards or oranges, grapefruit, pomegranate, peaches, grapes and other fruit were abundant. Fields produced corn, wheat, squash, beans, and many other types of vegetables. Because of the abundance of produce grown, a granary was erected to store and protect it from pilferage. Along with the grannery a small temporary church was erected for saying Mass and instruction. Finally the Convento was built to house the friars. The native quarters came last, because they were used to living out doors. As the town grew and became more wealthy and successful, the size of the builds kept up with the expansion.

Yes, the towns were wealthy. In a 1774 inventory of San Juan, 1/2 pound of saffron was shown to be on hand. Saffron is and was the most expensive spice in the world. Records show thousands of heads of cattle, sheep, and other animals which belonged to the missions, on ranches about one days travel from town. The ranches will be talked about in a later article.

By 1793 the Spanish government decided that they had poured more than enough money into their project. They had five successful towns situated along the San Antonio River. So they withdrew their support and started to shut the mission subsides down, i.e., secularize the missions. The Alamo was the first one to close. The others followed suit later. The natives were given deeds to the labores and told to build their homes there. Part of the fields were to be used for the common good, while the families had their own private fields. The ranchos too were divided up to the families who managed them. In 1821 Mexico won independence from Spain. The new government found that the Franciscans might be a threat to them because they had been loyal to the crown. So complete secularization was accomplished by 1825. The churches still remained active parishes, even today. The natives were allowed to take the other buildings and use the materials to erect their homes and fences.

Today you can see evidence of the handiwork of the natives from the 1800s in the homes and fences in the area. The acequia for San Francisco Espada still irrigates the farmers' field even after over two hundred years,and their Spanish water rights are still valid today.

The mission communities were pretty successful in so far that they accomplished what they were intended to do. They produced good Spanish tax paying citizens. For good or bad groups of natives became a new culture: Tejano. Yes, most of their traditions were lost forever, but some native customs still remain even today in South Texas. A good project for a sociologist would be to interview the families on the South side of San Antonio and find out some of the traditions which they have, but do not know their origin.

The next article will focus on each one of the individual mission. Any comments would be appreciated.
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