About the Missions – A Short History

Goals and Challenges

mission-beill-in-wallTo 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 Pueblo Revolt

The true birth of the Texas missions dates to the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.  After three generations of repression, pueblo Indians in 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.

San Antonio

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.

Goliad

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 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.