San Antonio Missions’ Hidden History: The Silent Storytellers that Stand in Plain Sight in Texas, United States (USA) – You’ll Never Guess What Each is Known For
If you’re up for a Spanish expedition via the San Antonio River Walk, you’re in luck. Many San Antonio visitors know of of the city’s most famous Spanish mission, the Alamo, infamous for housing the last stand of those ill-fated Texas 200. But San Antonio is also home to four other missions! All five are accessible via San Antonio’s extensive River Walk and offer visitors tremendous insight into the history of the region.
What’s a Mission?
Historically missions were missionary outposts erected in colonial Texas and other southwest regions of the modern day United States by Spanish missionaries in the 1600s and 1700s. The intended purpose for these missions was for them to serve as community centers aimed at educating the area’s Native Americans in the pillars of Catholicism.
They also served as havens, as in the fateful eighteenth century Battle of the Alamo, infamous in Texas as the most influential losing battle in the Texan war for independence from Mexico, prior to its annexation into the growing United States.
With time, towns grew up around these missions. Many southwest U.S. cities with their origins dating back to before the Republic of Texas were born this way.
Today, many of those missions still stand, and the five missions in San Antonio are all part of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park and are open to the public. All are positioned around the San Antonio river, understandably because all of these historic missions were originally built along the river before it was converted into the tourist hub we see today.
Mission San José — the “Queen” Mission
Mission San José is nearly three hundred years old and is called the “Queen” of the five San Antonio Missions, not just because it was the largest of the area missions, but because it supported so many converts and served as an influential community center in the region.
As per the standard Spanish design, Mission San José was a walled community with farmland within and without and a church within the walls. It was home, at one time, to up to 350 Native Americans and was considered a great success as far as missions of the day were concerned.
This mission was beautiful and strong in its heyday, and much of it’s original design is reflected in the more modern restorations made to the mission in the 1930s. This mission is actually still an active parish, so pious—or curious—visitors to the the city of San Antonio are welcome to attend mass on Sundays.
Mission Concepcion — the Enduring Mission
Dedicated in 1755, this mission still looks, for the most part, as it originally did in its prime. Mission Concepcion is home to the oldest unrestored church in America and was originally ornately painted with decorative and symbolic frescoes depicting prominent figures in the Catholic faith. Today these frescoes have long since faded from the church’s exterior, though they can still be seen inside some of the rooms.
In addition to its service as a mission to the Native Americans, this mission outpost was erected in attempt to thwart the French from pushing west from Louisiana into Spanish territory, as the Spanish feared losing their lands. Mission Concepcion was moved several times before it landed at its current position near the San Antonio river, but its firm bedrock foundation has helped to preserve its crucifix, limestone church over the centuries since. The building of the church was actually done by mission residents themselves in order to foster a sense of community and help train them in masonry.
Mission San Juan Capistrano — The Commercial Mission
This mission landed in the San Antonio area in the early 1730s, and became a wholly self-sustaining mission. Native American residents within were trained as artisans and produced tools and tended the mission community by utilizing animal hides and tilling farmland both inside and outside its walls.
The mission residents generated so much produce that they were able to use the surplus to establish a trading network that reached as far east as Louisiana and as far south as Mexico, which in turn well supported the mission itself for years to come.
Mission Espada — the Strong Mission
This mission, founded in 1690 and transferred to San Antonio in the 1730s, was the first mission in Texas. Its native residents were also trained in occupational artisan trades such as blacksmithing, weaving, masonry, and carpentry. They contributed invaluably not only to the mission itself, but to colonization of the city as a whole.
Mission Espada is actually the only mission for which bricks and tiles were used for building. It attracted Native Americans in the area for its ability to protect and provide to them. There, they were trained in the Spanish Catholic religion, they received the sacraments, and they learned occupational skills that allowed them to contribute to the life and maintenance of the mission.
The Alamo (Mission San Antonio de Valero) — the Revolutionary Mission
The Alamo is by far San Antonio’s most famous mission, now standing at the center of San Antonio’s main tourist attractions. This was the first mission to stand in the San Antonio area, paving the way for the other four to be moved to the area thereafter.
Back in the nineteenth-century Texas Revolution, this mission was the site of the most influential losing battle in Texas history, and thus arguably has the most historical relevance of any of the five San Antonio missions. In the 1836 battle of the Alamo, roughly two hundred Texas defenders fighting for Texas independence from Mexico held off the one-thousand-strong Mexican army forces laying siege to the mission and its collection of soldiers and civilians alike. After several unanswered requests for reinforcements, those two hundred soldiers determined to defend the Alamo with their lives, and all two hundred did just that. But their resistance lasted a remarkable two weeks, and their determination to hold their stance at all costs inspired the rallying cry “Remember the Alamo!” that echoed throughout the Texas forces and was used to boost morale and influence Texas soldiers to rise up and win the war.
The Alamo was the final home of such famous Texas heroes as Davy Crockett, James Bowie, and William Travis, leaders in the legendary defence of the mission and now well-recognized names in Texas history books. Their likenesses are carved on a cenotaph erected in front of the Alamo, along with the names of all the defenders who gave their lives.
A City Rich in History
San Antonio is a city full of rich area history, taken from a timeline of a pre-united America, and its tourist scene and the missions that stand there honour that history. A walk along the San Antonio River Walk yields many attractions both representative of Texas and unique to San Antonio, but when taking a stroll along its banks, be sure to take some time to visit the missions that helped shaped the region, and Texas as a whole, into what it is today.