Mission San Jose

"The Missions and Mission System in Texas"

The story of New Spain, or more aptly Spain's exploration, conquest, and colonization of the New World of the Western Hemisphere, begins on the Iberian Peninsula. The Moors of Africa invaded Spain in 711 A. D. and rapidly conquered almost all of the peninsula except for the northernmost region of the Cantabric Mountains. From this mountainous base the Spanish people began fighting back beginning about 800 A. D. This fight to regain control of their homeland would be a protracted one - the entire peninsula would not be recovered from the Moorish invaders until 1491 with the retaking of Granada.

The reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula would have a definite impact upon Spanish activities in the New World during the next several hundred years. First, the epoch provided the Spanish with a frontier experience, as they ever so slowly, region-by-region, pushed the Moors southward. During the process, the Spanish developed an effective method for seizing, controlling, and digesting land on a shifting frontier. Small bands of individuals, called companas, were used for the reconquest of Iberia rather than a large national army under governmental direction. The companas were private ventures prompted by the prospect of financial betterment - whatever they captured or looted in the process of taking land back from the Moors was theirs to keep, minus a fifth turned over to the Spanish crown as tribute. Second, the Reconquest conditioned the Spaniard for intercultural contact and relations. The Spanish got used to dealing with people of different colors and cultures, a habit that would be important to their New World activities. Third, the Reconquest gave the Spanish people experience in a missionary effort. While Roman Catholic churchmen were undoubtedly interested in the Moors' salvation, the majority of Spaniards saw the church as an integral part of the Reconquest. They sought to christianize the Moors not just for salvation's sake but to compliment their military efforts and as a way of consolidating their gains. If the Moors could be converted from Islam to Christianity, perhaps they could be more easily controlled. One source of friction between the different peoples would be removed. While religion would play a role in Spain's activities in the New World, it was not the dominant motive. Spaniards came to the New World primarily in the search for wealth - not for adventure, not in the name of an imperial nation, nor to missionize. While all of these would play a role, the quest for wealth was the most important.

Christopher Columbus discovered the New World in the search for riches. He was searching for a sea route to India and Asia which, by reducing prohibitive overland transportation costs for traders, would greatly increase their profits. The Western Hemisphere, however, got in the way. Nonetheless, Columbus and the Spanish found wealth in the form of New World gold and silver. On repeated voyages during the 1490s, Columbus explored the Caribbean, plundering the riches of the natives, and later enslaving them to mine more gold and silver. Given this first glimpse of the New World and the wealth that it had to offer to both companas and the Spanish crown, new expeditions were mounted.

Hernan Cortez, leading a compana of five hundred and fifty men, conquered the entire Aztec nation on the mainland of present-day Mexico between 1519 and 1521. Cortez and his men, despite being greatly outnumbered, had all the trump cards. The Aztecs were awaiting the return of a legendary god. Before they realized that Cortez was not that god, he had gained the upper hand, allying himself with and using other Indians who were mortal enemies of the Aztecs. The Spanish also enjoyed a monopoly of firearms, horses, and Old World diseases for which the New World natives had no immunity. Soon the Aztecs were enslaved, forced into the slow death of life in the mines.

The experience was repeated between 1531 and 1535 by Francisco Pizarro against the Incan civilization of present-day Peru in South America. By the middle of the sixteenth century, shiploads of New World gold and silver were plying the waters of the Atlantic Ocean on their journey to Spain. Between 1500 and 1650, the Spanish shipped back no less than 200 tons of gold and silver from their empire in the Western Hemisphere.

While the central and southern regions of the hemisphere produced wealth and glory, the northern regions held only disappointment and failure. The first Spanish contact with Texas probably came in 1518, when Juan de Grijalva explored the Gulf coast for the Spanish government. Two years later Texas was visited by Alonzo Alvarez de Pineda, also exploring by ship along the coast. Whether anyone from either of these expeditions actually came ashore is unknown. In 1528, however, Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca and several other survivors of the shipwrecked expedition of Panfilo de Navarez landed their crudely constructed rafts somewhere on the upper Texas coast. Most scholars believe that the place de Vaca called La Isla de Malhado, or Misfortune Island, in his journal was what we call Galveston Island.

The term "misfortune island" is understandable. While de Vaca and other crewmen, including a Moorish black named Esteban, survived, they were quickly enslaved by native Indians. These were probably the fierce Karankawas. De Vaca slowly gained acceptance as a shaman or medicine man, practicing what scant medical knowledge he possessed as a European commoner. After several years, the small group of Spaniards finally managed to escape, wandering across the interior of the land in search of other Spaniards. Their long journey carried them through Central Texas, the Big Bend, Chihuahua, and Sonora. They eventually stumbled into a Spanish outpost on the Gulf of California fascinating their countrymen with rumors of Seven Cities of Cibola, cities of Indians laden with gold and silver. These unsubstantiated rumors, which de Vaca repeated in reports to the Viceroy and King, convinced the Spanish to mount a full-fledged search.

In 1540 a large, privately-financed expedition led by Francisco Vasquez de Coronado set out for the northern hinterlands. For the next two years Coronado searched across much of the continent of North American for Cibola. The Spaniards found the Grand Canyon, Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas Panhandle, and the Great Plains. The expedition was totally unprepared for the flatness, the monotony, the aridity, and the vast emptiness of the Plains. While the expedition would explore much of the continent, it never found what it was looking for - gold and silver. Coronado made the following observation in his report to the King following the expedition.

And what I am sure of is that there is no gold nor any other metal in all that country, and the other things of which the Indians had told me are nothing but little villages, and in many of these they do not plant anything, and do not have any houses except for skins and sticks, and they wander around with the cows (buffalo). To paraphrase Coronado: it is no place for Spaniards. There is no gold. The natives have no houses to plunder; they do not raise crops for tribute; they wander around and have absolutely nothing of value that we could take from them. Therefore, we have no further business in this country.

Another chief explorer of the northern regions fared even worse. Hernando de Soto was the richest man in the Spanish empire as the result of his financial sponsorship of the Pizarro expedition in South America. In 1536 he was made ruler of Cuba and Florida in return for loans he had made to the King. In 1542 he and his compana explored much of the southeastern area of North America in search of another rumored Indian area of gold and silver. None were found and de Soto died as the expedition reached the Mississippi River. Luis de Moscoso de Alvarado assumed leadership of the expedition. After an unsuccessful attempt to find Coronado on the Great Plains, he led the expedition back to Mexico with greater knowledge of the northern regions but with no gold and silver.

The contrast then between the northern and southern regions of New Spain was complete. For the rest of the Spanish period in America, the northern regions, including Texas, never received the attention nor attracted the settlers the southern regions did. The reason? The southern regions contained relatively civilized Indians by European standards. Furthermore, they had precious metals to appropriate while the northern regions held only hostile Indian groups with no gold or silver. The reports from de Vaca, Coronado, de Soto, and Moscoso led the Spanish, who claimed and asserted that they would defend these regions from all challengers, to believe they were not really worth the tremendous costs full development and colonization would entail.

Thus very little attention was paid to the North American region until the Spanish began to hear rumors through Indian tribes that white men speaking a different language than the Spanish had landed in the northern regions and built a fort. The Spanish immediately guessed correctly that the Europeans speaking a strange tongue were French. In 1685 an expedition under the leadership of an adventurer/explorer name La Salle landed at Matagorda Bay. There he and his men established a settlement and Fort Saint Louis. While La Salle would be killed by one of his own men and the fortification would quickly be destroyed by hostile Indians, the Spanish did not know this and feared that a full-scale French challenge to New Spain was beginning. Therefore, the Spanish made the decision to establish the mission system in Texas to protect the heartland from what they perceived as a French threat.

At the heart of the mission system, of course, was the desire of the clergy and many of the lay people of the Roman Catholic faith to convert the Indians of America away from their pagan religions to Christianity. It is important to understand that the Catholics of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries believed that if they did not convert and baptize the Indians, the poor wretches were bound to spend all of eternity being tortured in hell by Satan. They conceived it to be their solemn duty, then, to rescue the Indians from this certain calamity, to point them toward salvation, which they believed could only come by participating in the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church.

Converting Indians to the true faith, however, was not the only reason Spain promoted the mission system. In the seventeenth and eighteen centuries, when the mission system in Texas was established, there was a very close relationship between the church and state in the Spanish empire. Each supported the other in various ways. The state gave the Catholic faith a monopoly in religious matters. That is, it was the only church in the empire. The state moved against anyone who dared establish another religious organization. The government also collected the tithe for the church, ten percent of a person's income, and punished people who failed to pay faithfully. It also supplied its own funds at times to help the church in its work, especially if that work promoted the best interests of the government.

In return, the state often used the church for its own political and diplomatic ends. Church leaders were often brought into the government as advisors, officials, and ambassadors. They were the best educated people in the kingdom as a general rule. Also, the church sometimes used its considerable influence over its members to encourage patriotism - which sometimes meant fighting a foreign nation, especially if that nation was Protestant, as in the case of England.

There were, however, non-religious reasons for the establishment of the mission system in Texas. First, the missions would not only save the Indians' souls for eternity but would introduce them to Western European civilization. They would learn from the missionaries the rudiments of education, the practical arts and crafts of Spanish peasants, their language, and something of their law and government. Secondly, the Spanish sought to fulfill military purposes through the mission system dealing with threats, both real and imagined, from France. The Indians, once they had been Christianized and civilized by Spanish standards, would be trained in European warfare. They could then man the ramparts against the French enemy and help save the King's empire. Spanish soldiers would of course have a place in the scheme. But the government was wise enough to see that soldiers alone would not be sufficient to stem the tide. There was simply too vast a space to be protected, too many Indians to be subjugated, and the costs would have been prohibitive.

The mission system involved three major institutions - the mission itself, the presidio, and the pueblo.

The mission was much more than a simple chapel building in which religious services and training were conducted. It included housing for Indians, missionaries, and guests, shops and mills of various kinds, storage buildings, and surrounding all of these, fortified walls. Outside these walls a mission owned thousands, sometimes ten of thousands, of acres of land for pasturing the mission's extensive herds of cattle and flocks of sheep and for the cultivating of crops.

The first step in establishing a mission was to recruit - usually with the help of Spanish soldiers - local Indians willing to submit to religious teaching. Once inside, they were christianized and civilized from the Spanish perspective. Once trained, converts cultivated fields, tended stock, worked in mills and shops, or did other work, for, although the mission system was subsidized to a great extent by the Spanish government, each mission was expected to pay part of its expenses by the sale of surplus goods. A typical day in a Spanish mission would begin with a wake up at 5 am, followed by early morning worship in the chapel, then breakfast between 6 and 7am, four hours of labor in various capacities, followed by a mid-day meal and rest. This would be followed by another four hours of work, the evening meal, a period of religious instruction, a bit of free time, and then early to bed. The routine would repeat day after day with little variation save those necessitated by the changing of seasons.

The second institution was the presidio or fort. Such fortifications were located near one or more of the missions and existed to protect those associated with the mission effort from hostile Indians, and from possible attacks by Spain's European rivals. In addition, soldiers stationed at the presidios retrieved runaways, administered other discipline as needed, and helped teach various skills to the resident Indians. The soldiers who manned the presidios were paid 290 pesos a year for their labors. This low pay was sapped by commandants who overcharged the soldiers for supplies. Usually these soldiers received only a quarter of their pay in cash, most often late.

The soldiers and the priests did not always get along well with one another. One reason was that the soldiers were not always sympathetic to the objectives of the missionaries. From the perspective of the churchmen, they recognized the need for the presidio and the soldiers. They understood that force was a necessary element in bringing the Indians to Christianity. They, however, sometimes complained about the behavior of the soldiers and their commandants, but never took the attitude that they could get along without them.

The third institution was the pueblo or civil community. Such towns grew up around successful missions and presidios, as craftsmen, merchants, and others saw opportunities to ply their trades or professions with the priests, soldiers, and Indians. Most of the residents in such pueblos and the surrounding ranching communities were soldiers who had served their tours of duty on the frontera and decided to stay.

And so the Spanish moved into Texas in response to the perceived French intrusion. For the next one hundred and thirty years the mission system attempted to make Texas into a buffer zone for the heartland of New Spain. The most successful were the areas of San Antonio and Goliad or La Bahia. In San Antonio, one presidio protected the inhabitants of the growing community and its four missions - Concepcion, San Jose, San Juan, and Espada. Nearer the Gulf coast, Presidio La Bahia protected Missions Espiritu Santo and Rosario as well as the pueblos of Goliand and Victoria. Around these two sites the rudiments of cattle ranching on a vast scale. The least successful of the Texas missions were those located the furthest away from the heartland of New Spain and those among extremely hostile Indian tribes such as the Comanches and Apaches.

The story of the mission system in Texas was one of both successes and failures. It was a failure in that it failed to bring most of the Indians of Texas into the orbit of New Spain on a permanent basis. The Comanches and Apaches remained as implacable enemies ever and continued their raids against what few settlements the Spanish had established in North America as their period of empire drew to a close. The East Texas missions had failed to scare off the French. Yet there were successes. The missions laid the groundwork for future settlements in Texas. The few towns that had been established in Texas by the time Stephen Austin came to Texas in the early 1820s had been founded in connection with the missions - San Antonio, Goliad and Victoria, Nacogdoches, and the Rio Grande River region. Spanish padres, army commanders, and settlers explored the principal geographic features of much of Texas. Much of what became Texas in later years dates from the Spanish era and the mission system. While Spain would not be able to hold Texas or the rest of New Spain in the long run, it had founded this part of the New World and left its lasting imprint to this day and time centuries later.

The San Antonio Missions

San Antonio National Historic Park
Headquarters: 2202 Roosevelt Avenue, (210) 534-8833
Vistor Center: 6701 San Jose Drive, (210) 932-1001

San Jose y San Miguel de Aguayo

Read about it in the Handbook of Texas

Acequias - The Irrigation System

Read about it in the Handbook of Texas

Alamo Acequia

San Juan Acequia

Espada Aqueduct


Nuestra Senora de la Purisima Concepcion de Acuna

Read about it in the Handbook of Texas


San Juan Capistrano

Read about it in the Handbook of Texas


San Francisco de la Espada

Read about it in the Handbook of Texas