The history of Mission San Juan Capistrano is similar to that of two other nearby missions in that it was relocated to the San Antonio area from East Texas in 1731. Its purpose was also similar to that of the other missions, namely to convert Native American groups to Christianity, assimilate them into Spanish society, and promote settlement in the region. In addition to its early history, the mission compound itself was constructed in a form typical of other San Antonio-area missions, including a church and plaza surrounded by a defensive wall formed from stone Indian quarters. The compound included other ancillary structures such as a granary, convent, workshops, and other storage facilities (Bell and Jackson 1971; Ivey and Thurber 1983).
Early construction on the mission grounds was temporary in nature as the residents cleared agricultural land and constructed a system of acequias or irrigation canals that used water from the San Antonio River to irrigate fields. By 1756, the mission’s first church was completed in addition to a convent building and a stone granary. The Indian quarters were still temporary at this time, and archeological evidence suggests they were in the traditional Native American form of jacales. Jacale homes were constructed of upright posts plastered with adobe to form the walls and had thatch roofs. By 1762, accounts indicate a second church building was under construction, though the Native American converts were still living in temporary housing (Bell and Jackson 1971).
Archival evidence suggests that Mission San Juan was never as successful as its counterparts. One reason was that the Spanish government did not allot the mission sufficient lands to cultivate food and to engage in ranching activities. The mission was also subject to repeated Apache raids, which reportedly occurred more frequently there than at other missions. Its peak period of development occurred between 1756 and 1777, and it was partially secularized along with the other missions in 1794 (Bell and Jackson 1971).
During the nineteenth century, the mission suffered an extended period of abandonment and neglect. The remains of a circa 1824 house built within the walls of the compound after secularization indicate it was used for residential purposes, but there is little evidence of specific efforts to stabilize or preserve the Spanish Colonial-era buildings during the period.
Instead, stabilization and restoration would have to wait until the Works Progress Administration efforts of the 1930s and a subsequent rehabilitation program undertaken by the Archdiocese of San Antonio in 1967. Efforts to preserve, restore, and provide access to the facility continued into the late twentieth century, particularly after the mission was included in the National Register of Historic Places-listed San Antonio Missions National Historical Park in 1978 (Ivey and Thurber 1983).
Today the complex includes the ruins of the second church (constructed between 1756 and 1763), the standing third church (constructed post 1762), the walls surrounding the compound, foundations of some of the original Indian quarters, the foundations of the former granary building, the convent, a well, and a residence built on the property during the 1820s after the facility was secularized. This circa 1824 dwelling represents the only remaining example of the types of residences constructed in the mission compounds during this period (Bell and Jackson 1971).
In addition to the architectural significance of the remaining buildings on site, Mission San Juan’s primary contribution to the historic record was based on archeological investigations conducted at the site during the twentieth century. These investigations, when coupled with the mission’s outstanding archival records, have revealed more about historic development patterns and the process of mission-building in Texas than similar work at any of the other mission compounds.
For more information about the history of the mission and how to visit the site, see the National Park Service website and the Texas State Historical Associations Handbook of Texas Online. The Library of Congress also maintains a digital collection of documents, photographs, and drawings that provide additional information about Mission San Juan.