Mexican Texas: San Antonio in 1828
By: Dr. Bruce Winders, Alamo Director of History and Curation
Officially founded in 1718, San Antonio had existed for more than one hundred years when Mexico declared its independence from Spain in 1821. Always considered a significant outpost on the Spanish frontier, the town maintained its role as a garrison town, population center, economic hub, political seat, and strategic crossroads after Tejanos declared their allegiance to the newly established nation of Mexico. For administrative purposes, Béxar was located in the district of Béxar in the department of Texas in the state of Coahuila y Tejas.
Residents of Béxar were known as Béxareños. Most could trace their roots back to the town’s original settlers either as Native American converts or presidial soldiers. European Spaniards had also been introduced into the community with the arrival of settlers from the Canary Islands as well as others who had made their way to Texas individually. An 1806 census revealed Béxar had “a population of 5000 souls.” However, by 1834 the population had dropped to 2,400 — less than half of its previous high. The cause of this drastic reversal was turmoil brought on by Mexico’s ten year struggle of independence that provoked a brutal Spanish response to revolutionary activity in Texas. When seen in this light, Mexico’s desire to boost the region’s population through colonization seems a logical step.
Jean-Louis Berlandier, a scientist with the army sent to survey Texas, provides a glimpse of Béxar in his 1828 report. He first describes the site of former Mission San Antonio de Valero, noting,
An enormous battlement and some barracks are found there, as well as the ruins of a church that could pass for one of the loveliest monuments of the area, even its architecture is overloaded with orientation like all the ecclesiastical buildings of the Spanish countries. In the barracks of that mission lives a presidial company, long since come from [Coahuila] from a presidio called Alamo de Parras, which has retained its name in Texas. . . . Composed of some one hundred houses, the quarters of the Alamo is considered as part of San Fernando de Béxar. It is subject to the same authorities, and is separated on by the river.
He then describes the settlement on the other side of the San Antonio River, writing,
Ciudad de Béxar resembles a large village more than the municipal seat of a department. . . . The streets of Béxar are not very straight, . . . Two large squares, separated from each other by [San Fernando] church and some houses, do not draw the travelers attention at all. The houses are for the greater part jacales [huts] roofed with thatch. The better ones are of a heavy and course construction, and the larger number have fireplaces — in a word, there are already hints of a region laying outside the tropics.
Despite his rather lackluster description of Béxar proper, the town served as an inviting oasis to visitors glad to reach the halfway point on the road connecting the Rio Grande settlements to the Texas-Louisiana border.
Interestingly, visitors observed that Béxareños’ interaction with people from the United States already had begun to produce a discernible cultural variation. Berlandier noted, “Trade with the Anglo-Americans, and the blending in to some degree of their customs, make the inhabitants of Texas a little different from the Mexicans of the interior, who those in Texas call foreigners and whom they scarcely like because of the superiority which they recognize in them.” John Chambers Clopper, a visitor from Pennsylvania, expressed the opinion that the residents of Béxar “must rapidly improve with their increasing intercourse with the Americans.”
Both men had concluded that Tejanos such as those living in Béxar had more in common with their American neighbors than they did with their countrymen further to the south. The coming political discord that resulted in the Texas Revolution in 1835 would put the loyalty of the Béxareños to the test.