Visit the Texas Missions
Although there were dozens of missions built in Texas, nothing remains of most of them. In fact, the exact location of many has been lost to time, although there are historical markers indicating their approximate positions.
There are just a few places in Texas that you can see interesting remains or reconstructions of the Spanish missions and presidios
El Paso Area Missions
The mission buildings in the El Paso area – the far west of Texas – are quite different from the missions of San Antonio and Goliad. They have a distinct “New Mexico” feel.
There are several sites worth seeing in the area:
- Mission Corpus Christi de la Ysleta – the oldest continuously operating parish in the United States.
- Mission Nuestra Señora de la Limpia Concepción de Los Piros de Socorro del Sur – the beautiful mission church – the third on the site – was dedicated in 1843.
- San Elizario Presidio Chapel – the San Elizario Presidio was constructed in 1789. The present chapel was built in 1877.
San Antonio Area Missions
The San Antonio area has the largest concentration of well-preserved and reconstructed mission ruins and reconstructions. In addition to The Alamo, best remembered for the battle in the Texas Revolution, there are several mission sites:
- Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Acuña – a handsome stone church built in 1755. It is considered a perfect example of Spanish colonial architecture.
- Mission San Antonio de Valero (The Alamo) – the current stone structure was built in 1744, but restorations have focussed on restoring the site to its 1800’s appearance.
- Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo – the stone church was constructed from local limestone in 1768. It was restored by the WPA in the 1930s.
- Mission San Juan Capistrano – the long, low adobe building was constructed in 1756.
Goliad Area Missions
Goliad State Historical Park features the beautifully restored Mission Nuestra Señora del Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga and Presidio La Bahia.
Weches Area Missions
Mission Tejas State Park features a reconstruction of Mission San Francisco de los Tejas, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.
To understand the history of the Texas missions, you need to first understand their purpose, and the challenges the missionaries faced.
The Franciscan missionaries wanted to convert the Indians to the Catholic faith and to “civilize” them. They also hoped to teach the Indians skills ranging from cattle ranching to carpentry, which would allow them to be stable, self-sustaining communities.
The Spanish authorities wanted to extend the land under Spain’s control by establishing settlements. They also wanted to ward off encroachment by the French (from nearby Louisiana) into what the Spanish regarded as their territory.
The Indians sometimes welcomed the teaching that the missionaries brought, sometimes just wanted Spanish protection from their enemies, and sometimes wanted nothing to do with the missionaries!
Establishing a successful mission was very difficult. Texas was truly on the frontier, and the friars and their followers were far from supplies or support. Establishing a mission required courage and hard physical work. The missionaries were subject to disease, starvation, floods and other natural disasters, and attacks by hostile Indians.
Political support and funding for the missions ebbed and flowed. Sometimes a mission was established to discourage French encroachment, only to be closed due to fear of French attack, and then reinstated in another location a year or two later.
The Mission Period
The First Texas Mission
The first Texas mission, San Clemente, was constructed in 1684 (there may have been an earlier mission on the site, built in 1632), to serve the Jumano Indians. The exact site has been lost, but it was near Ballinger. The mission was abandoned after just a few months, due to the presence of hostile Apaches, and there was no further development in the area.
There were many other missions built in various locations throughout Texas (see the Texas mission list), but most failed. The most successful, in general, were those built in groups to support specific goals.
Legacy of the New Mexico Pueblo Revolt
The true birth of the Texas missions dates to the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. After three generations of repression, Pueblo Indians in what is now New Mexico rebelled against Spanish rule. They burned the colonial headquarters in Santa Fe and killed more than 400 Spanish soldiers, missionaries, and civilians.
Refugees from the massacre resettled in a series of missions and settlements built near modern El Paso (including Mission Corpus Christi de la Ysleta and Mission San Antonio de Senecú).
Central and East Texas Missions
In 1685, the French explorer La Salle mistakenly landed on the Texas coast (he had been trying to reach the mouth of the Mississippi river). He set up a colony, which failed very quickly.
The abortive La Salle colony, along with the French presence in Louisiana, made the Spanish fearful of French incursions into Spanish territory and provided a key motivation for most of the colonial efforts over the next few decades.
Starting in 1718, the Spaniards began to develop the area around San Antonio. The first mission built in the area was San Antonio de Valero (now known as The Alamo). In 1731, Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Acuña and Mission San Francisco de la Espada, were moved to the area.
Eventually, the San Antonio area was home to five missions and a presidio. It became a major supply and support center for the missions further to the east.
In 1722, Mission Nuestra Señora del Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga and a presidio were built on the Matagorda Bay near the site of La Salle’s Fort Saint Louis. In 1749, it was moved to a site on the San Antonio River (now Goliad). Another mission, Mission Nuestra Señora del Rosario, was built nearby on 1754.
The San Xavier Missions
From 1745 to 1749, the Spanish built three missions on the San Gabriel River (then known as the San Xavier), near the current town of Rockdale. A presidio was added in 1751.
The missions were plagued by drought, disease, and unrest, and were abandoned in 1755.
The End of the Texas Missions
The final mission built in Texas was Mission Nuestra Señora del Refugio, founded in 1793. After that, Spain shifted the focus of their missionary efforts to California.
Most of the missions that survived in Texas were secularized in 1794; their property was seized and their lands distributed to civilian authorities. The mission buildings and the remaining presidios were put to a variety of uses over the ensuing centuries.
The Mexican War of Independence
By the time of the Mexican revolution (1810-1821), the surviving presidios and some of the other mission structures were controlled by the Spanish army. In the resulting war, the presidios changed hands between Spanish loyalists and Mexican secessionists several times.
The Texas Revolution
From 1835 to 1836, residents of Texas (chiefly colonists from America) rebelled against the increasingly centralized Mexican government. The Texas secessionists seized mission presidios, where they were attacked by the Mexican army. Three major battles stand out as a major milestone in Texas history.
The Battle of Concepción
In 1835 Mission Concepción was the site of the Battle of Concepción, in which Texas revolutionaries under James Bowie defeated Mexican troops; some of the buildings were apparently damaged during the fight.
The Battle of the Alamo
In February 1836, at the Battle of the Alamo, a small number of Texas defenders held off more than 5,000 Mexican soldiers under the command of General Santa Anna for 13 days. Eventually, the Alamo fell and over 200 defenders were killed. The Mexicans reportedly sustained over 1,000 casualties.
The Alamo became a rallying cry for Texans, who won their independence later that year.
Based on the events of 1836, the Alamo is remembered today primarily as a fortress rather than as a mission.
The Goliad Massacre
In March 1836, the La Bahia Presidio, at Goliad, was held and defended by approximately 300 Texans under the command of James W. Fannin. Facing a much larger force – approximately 1500 Mexican soldiers – the rebels attempted to retreat.
They were caught on open ground and surrendered, believing they would be treated as prisoners of war. Instead, following orders from General Antonio López de Santa Anna, the Mexicans shot and killed almost 400 prisoners (Fannin’s troops as well as other prisoners), galvanizing Texas resistance to Mexican rule.
Texas revolutionaries began to yell “Remember Goliad!” along with the more famous battle cry, “Remember the Alamo!”
Less than a month later, Texan forces under General Sam Houston defeated General Santa Anna’s army in the Battle of San Jacinto, winning independence for Texas.
Life in a Texas Mission
Mention of Franciscan Friars may bring to mind an image of a quiet, contemplative life. But life in a Texas mission was anything but contemplative – it required courage and hard physical work!
Life on the frontier was dangerous. There was a risk of malnutrition and even starvation, as well as disease. There were natural threats such as flood and fire and the constant fear of attacks from hostile Indians.
However, life was not lived in constant fear. The friars, soldiers, and Indians that made up the mission community spent most of their attention on day-to-day tasks.
New missions were supplied by more established missions, and even from Mexico, but they were expected to become self-sufficient.
The missionaries and the Indian neophytes they trained were responsible for building their own structures. Initially, these may have been made or sod or logs, but more permanent structures were built of adobe or even stone. This sometimes required experts such as architects or stonemasons to be brought from Mexico.
The missionaries also planted and raised crops, including the “three sisters” – squash, corn, and beans. Some of the missions had extensive herds of goats, sheep, and cattle, which had to be managed and herded. In fact, the missions were the start of the Texas cattle industry.
Some of the missions were built very close to rivers, which provided a source of freshwater. Others built extensive systems of ditches and aqueducts to carry water over long distances.
The missions required much more than just food. Missionaries wove cloth and made clothes, tanned hides, fired pottery in kilns, built furniture and carts, and forged metal tools and utensils.
The missionaries taught all of these skills to the Indians who were converted and chose to join the mission community. The Indians were then required to provide most of the labor to sustain the mission.
The mission routine was very strict, and punishments for breaking the rules were often harsh. Indians who attempted to leave the mission were pursued, captured, and punished. The harsh treatment sometimes led to uprisings and even the destruction of some of the missions.
Beyond practical skills necessary for survival, the missions often taught reading and writing, music, and even art. Some of the missions featured beautiful frescos, and others were renowned for their musicians and choirs.
The missions were hard-working, vibrant communities that gave rise to Texas culture.
Fun and Interesting Facts about the Spanish missions in Texas
What mission is recognized as the oldest continuously operated parish in the State of Texas?