Mission San Francisco de la Espada was established in San Antonio in 1731. Like two of the area’s other Spanish Colonial-era missions, it was relocated from East Texas, where it had originally been established in 1690, to serve members of various Coahuiltican groups residing in the area. Its purpose was similar to that of other Spanish missions in the region, namely to Christianize and assimilate Native American groups into Spanish society. It was located at the southern end of the established San Antonio mission chain, and its location was carefully selected to ensure access to agricultural land and to topography conducive to construction of a gravity-powered irrigation system (Ivey and Thurber 1983).
After the mission’s foundation, construction of permanent buildings on site was deemed less important than establishing an irrigation system and clearing fields for cultivation. The Espada Aqueduct and Acequia were constructed between 1731 and 1745 and are significant for their engineering qualities as portions of the system are still operational today. Permanent building construction followed, including a stone granary and sections of the church building. The Native American residents of the mission compound served as the primary labor source for construction of these resources as well as the buildings at the mission itself (Davis 2013; Bell and Jackson 1971).
The first decade was difficult for residents of the mission, due to the constant threat of Apache raids on the facility as well as the rampant disease spreading through the population. In 1737, all of the approximately 230 Native American residents of the mission complex abandoned the facility due to the high potential for Apache raids. Some eventually returned only to be further decimated by a smallpox epidemic in 1739. The population of the mission began to stabilize in the 1740s, and in that decade the most concentrated construction development occurred. In particular, the two-story convento or priests’ quarters was completed in 1740. At its peak period of development in the 1770s, the complex included a church, priests’ quarters, workshops, storage facilities, a friary, and Indian quarters all oriented toward a central plaza (National Park Service 2011; Bell and Jackson 1971).
The period also saw the transition of the mission complex from an open pueblo design to a fortified, walled compound. As at the other missions, the stone dwellings that served as Indian quarters were located along the perimeter wall. By 1762, three sides of the complex were lined with these houses. Construction continued on the site through the late eighteenth century, reaching a peak in 1790 when master mason Antonio Salazar constructed the espadaña (bell gable) on top of the church building.
This iconic feature is very similar to the one at Mission San Juan and includes a nonstructural wall displaying three bells on top of the church’s primary façade (Bell and Jackson 1971; Ivey and Thurber 1983).
The mission was partially secularized in 1794, at which time much of its agricultural land was subdivided between remaining Indian residents and the growing number of Spanish homesteaders who had arrived in the area in intervening years. Full secularization occurred in 1824, and that year marks an extended period of decline at the compound. The site served as a scene for a battle during the Texas Revolution but was then virtually abandoned until the arrival of Franciscan Father Francis Bouche in 1858. He was the first person to actively try to improve and preserve the mission and moved onto the property during the mid-nineteenth century (National Park Service 2011).
Other limited preservation efforts were initiated during the late nineteenth century; however, there were no large-scale efforts until the New Deal era of the 1930s. During that period, laborers associated with the Works Progress Administration and the Civil Works Administration worked under the guidance of renowned local architect Harvey P. Smith to restore and rebuild large portions of the original compound. Restoration efforts continued into the 1950s when the wall lines for the historic compound were delineated and the colonial period convento was reconstructed on its original foundation. Currently, the complex remains partially in ruins with some reconstructed and restored elements. Archaeological work has been done both at the mission itself and at its associated Rancho de las Cabras, located 30 miles southeast of the Mission. This ranch was established separately from the mission due to the damage the large animal herds at the mission were doing to local residents’ land (National Park Service 2011).
There are several additional websites that provide information regarding the mission’s history as well as how to access the mission site. These include the National Park Service website and the Texas State Historical Association’s Handbook of Texas Online. Additionally, the Library of Congress website includes a number of historic drawings, photographs, and other historical information about the complex.