The Alamo’s Origins: Mission San Antonio de Valero
By: Dr. Richard Bruce Winders, Alamo Director of History and Curation
Years before it became the Alamo that visitors know today, the site had a different name: Mission San Antonio de Valero. Father Antonio de San Buenaventura y Olivares, a Catholic missionary, first saw the headwaters of the San Antonio River in 1709 when he visited the area. Tasked with overseeing several struggling missions ministering to the Coahuiltecan Indians along the Rio Grande, Olivares believed the springs would make a perfect site for extending missionary efforts in Texas. He returned to the area in 1718, and on May 1 founded Mission San Antonio de Valero. Another missionary, Father Damián Massanet, had already christened the San Antonio River when he stopped at its headwaters in 1691 on the feast day of St. Anthony. Olivares added Valero to the saint’s name as a way to honor the Marqués de Valero of New Spain.
Like all Spanish missions, San Antonio de Valero served both the Catholic church and the Spanish crown. Spain needed a physical presence in the form of settlements to counter French encroachment into Texas. In order to help accomplish this task the missionary staff of San Antonio converted local indigenous people into Spanish subjects. The conversion process saved souls while also transplanting Spanish culture to the Texas frontier. Some indigenous people welcomed the Spanish as allies against nomadic bands that chose to continue their life outside the mission. By agreeing to adopt a mission lifestyle, converts had access to horses, weapons, shelter, and a more reliable food supply. For some indigenous people, abandoning their former way of life and entering the mission seemed a good trade-off for the protection and stability they gained.
The Alamo’s mission era lasted three-quarters of a century (1718–1793). Relocated in 1719, and again in 1724, the mission compound ultimately rested in its current location on the east bank of the San Antonio River overlooking an oxbow, or meandering river bend. Temporary huts of adobe brick and jacales made of wooden pickets driven into the ground served as the first structures at Valero. Living quarters, workshops, and granaries took priority in the building of the mission. Gradually, a rectangular compound emerged, the center of which is marked out by modern-day Alamo Plaza. By 1740, one Spanish official remarked that the walled compound offered better protection against attacks than any of Texas’ three permanent presidios (forts). The current stone church began to take shape in the mid-1750s, but remained uncompleted when the mission closed and became the responsibility of the secular or regular clergy in 1793.
The mission formed an insular community or town known as a pueblo. The missionaries served both as teachers and priests. The villagers consisted of a frequently changing Indian population, often with families and individuals in various stages of conversion. Life at San Antonio de Valero followed a regular daily routine. The residents rose in the morning, said prayers, ate breakfast, went to work in the fields and workshops, stopped for lunch, rested, returned to work, ate dinner, said more prayers, and then retired for the night. Into this schedule, the missionaries inserted lessons on religion and civics designed to help speed the process of creating Christians and Spanish subjects. No work took place on Sunday or other religious days so the residents of the mission could attend mass and engage in communal activities involving singing, dancing, and music.
Valero’s population rose and declined through the years with a peak number of 328 in 1756. Mission records indicate that nearly 1,000 indigenous converts were buried in the mission’s campo santo (cemetery). Despite the missionaries’ efforts to make the Indians who came into the mission stay, a troubling number left the mission and returned to their previous way of life, either temporarily or permanently.
Archeological investigations at the site have shed light on specific aspects of life at the mission. The buildings had hard packed earthen floors. Flints and glass points show that the inhabitants of the mission hunted. This is also supported by the large quantities of bones from deer, rabbit, and other game animal found at the site. Additionally, large numbers of fish and turtle bones show the connection between the mission and the nearby San Antonio River. Numerous pieces of pottery (both imported and locally manufactured) have also been recovered.
Recent preservation work inside the church has revealed the artistry that went into the building. Although the church never had a permanent roof during the mission period, a cleaning of the interior walls has uncovered evidence that workers plastered and decorated them with frescoes. The designs include flowers and pomegranates as well as a number of geometric figures. Evidence of red, brown, black, green, and blue pigments have been found. Although artisans were brought to the mission to provide their expertise, local residents assisted in the work, learning a craft along the way.
Several factors contributed to closing of Mission San Antonio de Valero. In 1787, royal officials formalized a suggestion made seven years earlier that the king claim all unbranded cattle as property of the Crown. The presence of hostile Comanche and Apache Indians prevented the residents of Valero and the area’s four other missions from conducting their annual round ups. Thus, many of the cattle on their ranch lands remained unbranded. The loss of title to their livestock created a financial hardship for the missions.
Furthermore, a 1792 report on Valero and the other area missions deemed the future of the missions unnecessary because no suitable candidates for conversion existed within an approximately 150 miles radius and that the population of the missions themselves had declined and were unlikely to rebound. The author of the report further claimed that the residents of the missions had been converted and most spoke Spanish and were otherwise indistinguishable from the soldiers and civilians who lived at the nearby Presidio de San Antonio and Villa de San Fernando. The missionaries at Valero had done what had been asked of them and it was time for them to go elsewhere.
The missionaries at San Antonio de Valero did more than minister to souls — they succeeded in teaching a number of the converts how to be self-sufficient based on a European model. The lessons taught included ranching, farming, and irrigating. Mission residents also learned weaving, brick making, blacksmithing, carpentry, and stone work. The converts also learn how to govern their own community. With secularization in 1793, the mission inhabitants received titles to their own land and houses, tools, seeds, stock, and other items to help them transition into Spanish society and become contributing members of the growing town of San Antonio de Béxar.
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