Mission San Antonio de Valero: An Overview

by Dr. Bruce Winders, Curator & Historian at The Alamo

An artist rendition of Mission San Antonio de Valero

The site now known as the Alamo began its existence three hundred years ago this month. Originally named Mission San Antonio de Valero, the mission was founded by the Spanish near the headwaters of the San Antonio River on May 1, 1718, The mission served several pressing needs for officials of New Spain. First, Spain needed settlements in Texas to defend against French encroachment from Louisiana. Second, the missionary staff of San Antonio would create the loyal population needed to hold Texas by converting local indigenous people into Spanish subjects. Thus, the conversion process benefited both the State and the Catholic Church by saving souls while at the same time transplanting Spanish culture to the Texas frontier. Some indigenous people, caught between the three-way advance in the area by the Spanish, the Apache, and the Comanche, viewed the Spanish as allies against these aggressive nomadic bands. By agreeing to adopt a mission lifestyle, Indian converts now had access to horses, weapons, shelter, and a more reliable food supply.

The Alamo’s mission era lasted three-quarters of a century (1718–1793). Relocated in 1719, and again in 1724, the mission compound was finally situated on the east bank of the San Antonio River overlooking an oxbow or meandering river bend. It was moved there in order to make better use of the river as a resource. The personnel of the Presidio de Béxar and the small civil population would draw water for irrigation from the west bank while the mission would draw water from the river’s east bank. The first structures at the mission were temporary huts of adobe brick and jacales made of wooden pickets driven into the ground. Living quarters, workshops, and granaries took priority in building. Gradually, a rectangular compound emerged, the center of which is still marked out by modern-day Alamo Plaza. By the mid-1740s, an attempt was made to replace the adobe church, but the stone structure meant to take its place collapsed. The current church, begun 10 years later, was still not finished when the mission was closed in 1793.

Archeological investigation at the site has revealed evidence of what life at the mission was like. The buildings had hard packed earthen floors. Numerous pieces of pottery (both imported and of local manufacture) have been recovered. Flints and glass projectile points show that the inhabitants of the mission still relied on hunting. This is also supported by the fact that large quantities of deer, rabbit, and other game animals have been identified. Additionally, large numbers of fish and turtle bones show the connection between the mission and the nearby San Antonio River.

Recent preservation work inside the church has shed light on the artistry that went into making the building visually appealing to the missionaries and their converts. Although the church apparently never had a permanent roof during the mission period, a cleaning of the interior walls has uncovered evidence that they were once plastered and decorated with frescoes. The designs include representations of flowers and pomegranates as well as a number of geometric figures. Evidence of the following pigments has been discovered: red, brown, black, green, and blue. Although artisans were brought to the mission to provide their expertise, local residents assisted in the work, learning a craft along the way.

The mission’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 campos santos. The missionaries did more than minister to souls — they taught the converts how to be self-sufficient as envisioned by the Spanish. Lessons included ranching, farming, and irrigating. Weaving, brick making, blacksmithing, carpentry, and stone work were also taught. The converts also learn how the Spanish intended the emerging community to be governed. The purpose of this training was to prepare the converts to manage their own town or pueblo once the missionaries left. With secularization, the mission inhabitants received titles to their own land and houses, tools, seeds, stock, and other items to help them make the transition into Spanish society. These converts and their descendants would form a significant part of the emerging community of San Antonio de Béxar.

The mission era ended because (1) the French no longer threatened Texas and (2) the process of conversion had run its course. Instead of abandoning the old mission compound, Spanish officials found a new use for it as a military barracks and outpost. Soldiers were transferred from the presidio across the river. By 1803, additional reinforcement arrived in the form of La Segunda Compañía Volante de San Carlos de Parras, whose hometown was Alamo de Parras in Coahuila, Mexico. The move was permanent, prompting the soldiers to bring their wives and children with them to their new post. Soon the old compound was know by a new name — the pueblo of the Alamo Company, eventually shortened to just “the Alamo.” The site served as the quarters of the Alamo Company for more than thirty years. One notable change did take place though: Mexico achieved its independence from Spain in 1821 and the soldiers of the Alamo Company swore allegiance to the newly formed nation of Mexico and its Federal Constitution of 1824.

The town of San Antonio de Béxar grew in importance as the 19th century progressed. Its status as a frontier settlement was bolstered by the number of soldiers stationed there to guard against Indian attacks, escort supply trains, and intercept foreigners. Additionally, it was the political seat for Texas as well as a vital commercial center. Béxar, as it was then known, was also a critical crossroads for travelers headed south to northern Mexico or east to the United States. By the early 1830s, the town boasted a population of nearly 2,500 inhabitants, many who were the descendants of the areas Franciscan missions.

Life at Mission San Antonio de Valero

Life at the mission was highly regulated according to activities: Instruction, work, recreation, rest, planting, crop maintenance, harvest & shearing, cloth production and preparation for spring.

Life at the mission was arranged according to a hierarchy: Missionary, Supernumerary (Assistant Missionary), officers appointed by the Missionary, Superintendent (In charge of all temporal affairs & assigns duties), Assistant Superintendent (Aided in communication & in charge when needed), Fiscal (supervised personnel at the mission proper), Foreman (in charge of mission ranch), Overseer (Supervised work of women & children), Head Groom (in charge of mission horses), officers elected by the Mission Indians, Governor (one year term, judge and keeps peace), Mayor (one year term, assists the governor), workers selected jointly by the missionary and elected officials, cook for the missionary Carpenters Gardeners, Cowboys/Vaqueros Blacksmiths Fishermen (Lent), Shepherds Carders Field hands, Sheep Shearers Combers Musicians, Spinners Weavers Soap-Makers, Spanish Servants Hired by the Missionary, Saddlers Shepherds Blacksmiths, Cooks, Seasonal Workers Hired from the Presidio, Barber for the missionary Candle Maker Tailor, and Muleteer.

Tasks were usually assigned by gender, with men working the fields and ranches. Women were sent out at harvest only when their help was needed, otherwise their presence was believed to distract the men from their work.

Children were assigned tasks that included preparing cotton and wool for spinning and weaving.

Religious holidays were accompanied by fiesta and outings. Upcoming holidays were always announced at Sunday’s service.

Children were encouraged to learn Spanish.

Residents at the mission often formed a population of a mixture of seasoned converts all the way to newly recruited unbaptized Indians.

Not all residents adapted well to the regulation lifestyle and slipped away to rejoin nomadic bands of Indians. The missionary was obligated to either go after them himself or send soldiers to bring them back. Once an Indian had started the conversion process, his or her souls was believed to be in danger if the fellowship of the church was not restored.

One factor that drew Indians to the mission was the promise of a steady food supply. Meat included beef, fish, and mutton. Pecans provided an additional source of protein.

Vegetable included corn, squash, beans, and peppers. Fruit trees, which grew naturally along the river, were also available to be harvested.

The missionary would order livestock killed when as needed in order to manage the mission’s resources. Meat, produce, and salt were dispensed to the residents for cooking by separate households.

Clothing and other goods were dispensed to the residents on an annual basis. Extra stock was kept on hand, but was given out only when requested. The allotment usually included pants and shirts for men and boys; shifts, skirts, and chemises for women and girls; coats for elected officials to denote their higher station. Earrings, necklaces, and ribbon for women; knives and hats for men. Blankets and mantles were also given out.

Games involving balls were permitted among the men of the mission, but they were not allowed to play with outsiders due to their habit of gambeling their processions away. Horseback riding was an activity that was sometimes permitted. Dancing was permitted in the style of the Spanish fandango, but not the superstitious dances of the native in the wild.

Music, both choral and instrumental, were an important part of mission life.

The mission Indians at Valero were reported to be very proficient in the use of the bow and arrow. This was important because the Apache regularly raided the missions along the San Antonio River for horses and captives. In 1745, 100 armed mission Indians from Valero helped drive off an Apache attack on the presidio located across the river.