Public Historian on Vacation: The Missions of San Antonio

This is part four of my Public Historian on Vacation series, which was originally intended to be a three part series. However, I realized I had more to say about various stops along the way. However, this will be the third and final post about our time in San Antonio before moving on to our stops in Louisiana.

To recap the series so far, this trip took place in April and included stops in Galveston, Texas; San Antonio, Texas; New Iberia, Louisiana; and New Orleans, Louisiana. I’ve already described our time in Galveston visiting family and enjoying The Strand Historic District and the Seawall, dipping a little into the commercialization of the past. I have also now written two posts about San Antonio, one about our visit to the Alamo, and one about our visit to Barney Smith’s Toilet Seat Art Museum. This final post about San Antonio will be about our day in the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.

The park consists of four different missions, from north to south: Mission Concepcion, Mission San José, Mission San Juan Capistrano, and Mission Espada. Each mission is about 2.5 miles from the next mission and can be reached by following Mission Road.

The Mission system was devised by the Spanish as they colonized North America and staked their claim on territory. Missions served many different purposes for the Spanish colonizers. They were miniature towns inside stone fortifications, a combination of church, military outpost, school, and living quarters. The work of the Missions was to convert indigenous people not only religiously, but culturally, to make the native people Spanish citizens. These newly converted citizens helped the small number of Spanish priests, soldiers and others to grow in number and be able to maintain and hold their territory.

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The mission system in San Antonio is summarized on the park’s website: “After 10,000 years, the people of South Texas found their cultures, their very lives under attack. In the early 1700s Apache raided from the north, deadly diseases traveled from Mexico, and drought lingered. Survival lay in the missions. By entering a mission, they foreswore their traditional life to become Spanish, accepting a new religion and pledging fealty to a distant and unseen king.”

This short introduction to the Missions on the National Park Service website for the park begins to get into why indigenous people would enter a mission–the push and pull reasons. Dangerous conditions pushing and promised food and safety pulling them in. However, within the Missions there was forced conversion and also forced labor, with indigenous people being the very ones who built the stone walls of each of the 4 Missions.

I am fascinated with Latin American history, the history of Latinos in what is now the United States, immigration history, and the colonial era, so I knew as soon as we started planning our trip to San Antonio that I wanted to see the Missions. My poor husband was just along for the ride, but I think he ended up getting more out of our whirlwind tour then he expected.

Having grown up in North Carolina, I was taught much more about the 13 original British colonies than I was about Spanish colonization of territories that would become the U.S. and so the word colonial usually conjures different imagery.  To see these 300-year-old Spanish Missions and think about how their presence helped shape the region was a new and eye opening experience.

I was somewhat familiar with the history of Spanish colonization in general, having written my undergraduate seminar paper on the Spanish conquest of Mexico and the ways in which women were used by conquistadors to expand Spanish control. I also took a survey course on the history of Latin America which covered the colonial period including the main goals of Spanish conquest, the 3 G’s: God, glory, and gold. Conversion and spread of Christianity, exploration and territorial claims in the name of Spain, and accumulation of wealth were the three main motivators and goals of Spanish conquest.

Armed with this background knowledge, my husband and I set out first thing in the morning in an effort to beat the San Antonio heat, already reaching over 80 degrees in April. We went in geographic order, beginning with Mission Concepcion.

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Mission Concepcion was dedicated in 1755 and is the oldest unrestored stone church in America. Like all of the San Antonio Missions (except the Alamo) it is still in use for church services, including English, Spanish, and bilingual services. Also some of the original frescos, murals, and other art is still visible on the walls and ceilings, showing that this grey stone church would have once been colorful and bright.

Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo was up next, the largest and most restored Mission in San Antonio. It was largely restored as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project in the 1930s during the Great Depression. Founded in 1720, it was a model for other later missions and was a social and cultural center of colonial Texas. According to the Park’s website, at the height of the San Jose Mission 350 indigenous converts lived within its walls, worked in its fields, and tended cattle. The restored site includes the church, the granary, the convento, and the walls into which was built rooms for the indigenous people who lived at the Mission. More about San Jose, since it was the largest, is available and in more detail on the website. It was definitely the most complete stop on the tour owing to its restored exterior buildings which give a better idea of the more complete life of the inhabitants, not just their religious life. The site also includes a 1794 grist mill, fueled by the acequia and used to process wheat, the preferred grain of the Spanish, that began to replace the indigenous corn.

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The last two missions, Mission San Juan Capistrano and Mission Espada were less restored than San Juan and at Mission San Juan we could not go inside the church. However, these buildings were the most architecturally beautiful to me. More about each of these are in the links. An interesting tidbit about Mission San Juan though is the incomplete larger church. The project halted as the population declined. Near Mission Espada is the Espada aqueduct used to irrigate the farmlands surrounding the Missions.

These four historic sites were among some of the most interesting, most powerful sites I’ve visited. There was this conflicting feeling between the beauty of the architecture, the romanticized beauty of colonial ruins, and the sacred feeling of religious spaces and the ideas of forced conversion, forced labor, disease, war, fighting, and the upheaval of culture that took place in the walls of each of these missions. Each of these sites left me feeling that conflict and wanting to look deeper into these sites. I’ve done some of that in the process of writing this post, reading more in depth about each site on the park’s website and looking beyond for other resources. I do think the sites themselves could delve deeper into these conflicting narratives and experiences of the Missions and it does seem since we visited that Mission Concepcion has put up a new exhibit, Four Voices, aimed at sharing the divergent points of view at the Missions.

Overall, these sites are so important for understanding the history of San Antonio, Texas, the Southwest and ultimately the United States. As in many other places in time, several cultures converged. Owning up to what that convergence meant for many indigenous people is important for how we move forward.

2 thoughts on “Public Historian on Vacation: The Missions of San Antonio

  1. Excellent post on the San Antonio Missions! You do a good job balancing the history with your personal thoughts and discoveries. And the photos are excellent too! From the looks of those charred stones, I imagine there was some fire damage at one point in its past.

    1. Thank you for your feedback! I wouldn’t be surprised about fire damage to such an old structure. There is little interpretation at these sites so no info that said as much, but a good question for the rangers or to look into. Thanks!

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