Early development in San Antonio, including at the first site of Mission San Antonio de Valero, was temporary in nature and was influenced by many factors including geography, proximity to water, and defensive concerns. For example, the Mission San Antonio de Valero was originally located on the west side of the San Pedro Creek approximately a mile south of San Pedro Springs. At this time, the mission complex included a temporary brush arbor chapel and huts or jacales occupied by Native American and Spanish residents (Habig 1977: 25; de la Teja 1995; Fox et al 2002). The mission was relocated to the east side of the river approximately a year later purportedly because the land was more fertile there and more conducive to irrigation (Habig 1977: 25). This iteration of the mission, which was likely located in the vicinity of present day La Villita, was destroyed by a severe storm in 1724. At that time, the complex “consisted of huts and a small stone tower” (Ramsdell 1959: 16). After the storm, the missionaries relocated the mission to its current location in Alamo Plaza. An inspection in 1727 indicated 273 Native Americans resided there at that time. A stone convent was under construction, though they were still holding church services in a hut. The residents had been primarily engaged in constructing a 2.5-mile-long irrigation ditch (Ramsdell 1959: 16; Chipman 1992: 130).
Reconstructed segment of the Acequia del Alamo at the Mission San Antonio de Valero (The Alamo)
Similarly, the Marqués de San Miguel de Aguayo, governor of Coahuila y Texas, relocated the presidio and Villa de Bexar to a new location downstream along San Pedro Creek at the current location of the Spanish Governor’s Palace, an original presidio building, in 1722 after the original complex was destroyed by fire. At least sixteen of the soldiers’ huts had been destroyed along with a storehouse containing 700 bushels of corn and other essential supplies. The new presidio, or fort, included adobe buildings constructed in an enclosed square as well as an irrigation ditch fed by the San Pedro Springs.
Plan of the Presidio of San Antonio de Vexar in the Province of Texas, New Philippines, six leagues from Coahuila, whose fortifications were marked out by the Marques de San Miguel de Aguayo
The facility accommodated approximately fifty three soldiers and their families, who were known as pobladores, as well as several civilian residents (Ramsdell 1959: 19; Cox 2005: 23). The fortified, “fireproof” presidio included “four bastions, 75 varas apart,” and was further expanded by Governor Fernando Perez de Almazán who “carried out the building of the wall, ramparts, warehouse, officers’ and soldiers’ houses” in the presidio. Alamazán paid for the construction out of his own pocket (Chabot 1929: 26). The presidio, now known as Military Plaza, was in a line with the Mission San Antonio de Valero, which could be accessed by a ford in the river “slanting from present Navarro Street to Villita Street.” The ford was known as “El Portero” or “the Horse Pasture,” and continued to be used for generations by San Antonio residents (Ramsdell 1959: 19). Artifacts found during archaeological investigations in 2014 date to the 1722 presidio.
Puebla Polychrome from excavations conducted in 2014 at the Plaza de Armas (site of 1722 Presidio de Bexar)
San Luis Polychrome from excavations conducted in 2014 at the Plaza de Armas (site of 1722 Presidio de Bexar)
Fragment of a vesicular basalt mano (grinding stone) from the excavations conducted in 2014 at the Plaza de Armas (site of the 1722 Presidio de Bexar)
The Spanish government authorized the establishment of another mission, Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo, in 1720. The original location of this mission is not known with certainty, but it is believed to have been approximately 5 miles south of the Alamo on the east bank of the San Antonio River near the present location of Mission Concepción. By 1724, the original mission site included an irrigation ditch and temporary buildings (Clark et al. 1975). Mission San José relocated again between 1724 and 1727 to an unknown location on the west side of the river and was finally established in its current location some time prior to 1730.
The same year that the original San José Mission was founded, Governor Aguayo authorized the establishment of “an unsuccessful and short-lived mission” known as Mission San Francisco Xavier de Najera south of the Alamo. The mission was officially established in 1722 but was abandoned only four years later when its inhabitants were absorbed into Mission San Antonio de Valero. The mission’s original location is still unknown (Cox 2005: 29), but archival research supports that the first site may be where Mission Concepcion was built in 1730.
Three additional missions were relocated to San Antonio from East Texas in 1730. These missions, including Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de los Hainai (now known as Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción), San Francisco de los Neches (now known as San Francisco de la Espada), and San José de los Nazonis (now known as San Juan Capistrano) (Fox and Cox 1989) are all standing today. Mission Concepción was established between Mission San Antonio de Valero and the new location of Mission San José de Aguayo. Missions Espada and San Juan were assigned lands further south, and though they all developed at different paces, all were functioning at full capacity by the mid-eighteenth century.
In 1731, immigrants from the Canary Islands arrived in present‐day San Antonio to establish a civilian settlement near the presidio. The settlement was known as the Villa de San Fernando de Béxar. King Philip V of Spain originally recruited 200 families from the Spanish colony of the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa to permanently settle Texas in 1723 (Cruz 1988). The King promised these potential settlers free passage to New Spain, free land, and the status of Hijos Dalgos (hidalgo), a traditional title of Spanish nobility (Figueroa and Mauldin 2005).
However, by March of 1731 a much smaller group of 16 families of Canary Islanders arrived in San Antonio. In July of 1731, Captain Juan Antonio Pérez de Almazán began to survey property for the villa beginning “from the place designated for the church” and in the process, laid out the community’s main plaza that would become La Plaza de las Islas, known as San Antonio’s Main Plaza today.
Plaza de las Islas (Main Plaza) in mid-19th century
The spot set aside for the center of government, or casas reales, was located on the opposite side of the plaza from the church (San Fernando Cathedral); all other lots surrounding the plaza were to be residential lots for the newly arrived Canary Islanders. The remainder of the land between the San Antonio River and San Pedro Creek was allotted as farmland for their use (Spell 1962).
Upon their arrival, permanent adobe structures began to replace the temporary structures constructed by presidio residents, thus forming the city’s first neighborhoods. The La Villita Historic District was one of the original areas settled in the years following the arrival of the Canary Islanders. The La Villita neighborhood developed into an upper‐class neighborhood by the early 1820s, and influential San Antonio residents continued to live in the community through the 1830s (Magruder 2010).
Life for early residents was very difficult. A series of epidemics decimated the Native American population several times during the mid-eighteenth century. For example, an epidemic in 1738 reduced the number of Native American converts at the San Antonio missions from 837 to 182 in that year alone (Ramsdell 1959: 16). The climate “was capable then, as now, of being torrid or cold, punctuated by periods of drought and danger of wind storms.” Food shortages were another constant concern, and conflicts between the mission residents and the Canary Island settlers “over the assignment of mission guards, the ownership and use of land, the loss of mission cattle, and the labor of mission Indians” are well recorded in historic records from the period (Chipman 1992: 137).
Despite setbacks caused by epidemics and Indian attacks, the missions continued to expand during the mid-eighteenth century (Ivey and Thurber 1983). Their expansion prompted development in the surrounding areas as small communities formed around the mission grounds. These communities were served by irrigation systems and provided services to mission residents. Remnant resources from the neighborhoods around Mission San José and Mission Espada, as well as the missions themselves and associated irrigation and agricultural resources were documented as important components of Mission Parkway Historic District listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Much of the Mission Trails hike and bike trail system is located within this district (Clark et al. 1975).
Irrigated agriculture began shortly after the Spanish initially settled the area in 1718. The system of irrigation ditches, known as acequias, was in part constructed by Native American converts living on mission grounds. The system of ditches diverted water from the San Antonio River and San Pedro Creek to agricultural fields and homes and continued to serve as the city’s water system for almost 200 years after its initial construction (Eckhardt 2013; Baker et al 1984).
San Juan Acequia at Acequia Park
Though the exact sequence and timing of their construction is not fully clear, construction of acequia systems began immediately after the arrival of the first settlers in the area. The original Alarcón expedition included Captain Alvarez Barreiro, “a member of the Royal Corps of Engineers and the expedition’s official engineer.” In addition to his other duties, he would likely have been tasked with “planning the placement of acequias” and overseeing their construction upon establishing a new settlement. According to contemporary accounts, at least one acequia was complete within two weeks of the settlers’ arrival in 1718.
Acequias were constructed to serve the relocated presidio in 1721 and to serve the short-lived San Francisco Xavier de Najera mission. Archeological evidence indicates that the Concepción (Pajalache) acequia was also constructed during this period. It likely served the original location of the San José mission and was expanded upon the relocation of Mission Concepción from East Texas in 1731. Acequia systems were also constructed for Missions San Juan and Espada, to serve the final location of Mission San José, and to irrigate the farmland of the Canary Islanders (San Pedro Acequia).
Despite the fact that their exact method of construction remains a mystery the “essential principal of redirecting water for human use had been established at least as early as the time of legendary Roman architect and engineer Marcus Vitruvius Pollio in the first century B.C.” (Cox 2005: 3). The Spanish had an extended history of using irrigated agriculture and would have made it a priority to have the tools and skilled labor necessary to facilitate their construction. The first part of an acequia system constructed would have been a “device to contain and direct the water into the channel, such as a diversion dam.” The main ditch, or acequia madre, would have extended from this structure (Cox 2005: 4). This main canal was intersected by distribution canals with sluice gates at points where water was needed to irrigate specific fields (Cox 2005: 5). Early land grants included not only property but the right to irrigate it. The standard water allowance specified in early deeds, known as a dula, was two days of water (Cox 2005: 8).
Elements of the original systems are still in use today. The most significant example along the Mission Trails hike and bike trail system is the Espada Aqueduct and Acequia. Originally constructed during the early eighteenth century to serve residents in the vicinity of Mission Espada (Heintzleman 1975), the ditch was finally bypassed by a flood control system in the 1950s. Nevertheless, efforts were made to preserve the flow in the historic system, and it “still flows vigorously today” (Guerra 1987).
The year 1763 marked the end of the Seven Years’ War, as well as the end of the French threat to Spain’s presence in the northern frontier. With France’s transfer of Louisiana to Spain in that year, Spain shifted priority to fortifying its settlements in Louisiana and California at the expense of existing Spanish settlements in east Texas. As a result, the east Texas populations were moved to Bexár, increasing the size and significance of San Antonio, and the city became the eastern extent of Spain’s northern frontier (de la Teja 1995). The population of San Antonio de Béxar also saw growth from the declining mission system in the eighteenth century as former mission residents settled closer to the community. By 1778, San Antonio’s population surpassed 2,000.
The missions began to decline in the 1780s, and a push for secularization emerged; however, the process was lengthy and occurred in two distinct periods. The first manifested in 1793 with the secularization of Mission San Antonio de Valero. The process was complete there by 1794, and the remaining four missions were partially secularized the same year (Fox and Cox 1989; Almaráz 1989: 6).
Secularization, the legal process by which the missions and their lands were transferred to private use, was the ultimate goal of the Spanish missionization process and signified that “the missions had achieved the goal for their initial establishment, namely the conversion of the natives” (Almaráz 1989: 56). After conducting a complete inventory of the mission property and taking a census of the inhabitants, “royal officials distributed the properties, including land, as equitably as possible among the families whose members received the social distinction of vecinos” or citizens (Almaráz 1989: 59). The irrigable lands were subdivided into 177‐acre labors (labores) and were transferred to individuals along with irrigation rights. The church buildings themselves were placed under the control of Mission San José and political oversight transferred to civil authorities.
Aside from Mission San Antonio de Valero, which was completely secularized by 1794, the four southern missions “underwent only partial secularization because state officials were unable to recruit diocesan priests” to take over the facilities. As a result, they remained under Franciscan control until 1824. Shortly after Mexico achieved its independence from Spain, “the succeeding national government mandated complete secularization” by that year. Unlike the first transfer of lands during the eighteenth century, this second episode was characterized by a lack of respect for the rights of the current inhabitants of mission property (Almaráz 1989: 56). As a result, many families who had resided there for generations lost their lands as a “minor land rush” ensued among a public anxious to acquire interest in the fertile lands along the San Antonio River. The population of the area was more diverse at this time as well, and the final secularization allowed many recent Anglo American immigrants to gain significant landholdings in the area. Examples of prominent early San Antonio families who acquired significant landholdings during this period include members of the Veramendi, Navarro, Ruiz, Huízar, Cortinas, and Leal families, among many others, along with Anglo immigrants like the Ashley and Pyron families, whose names still appear on roads constructed during the mid-nineteenth century that intersect with the current Mission Trails hike-and-bike corridor (Almaráz 1989).
Prior to the period of secularization, San Antonio comprised three distinct societies “the missions, a military garrison, and a civilian town.” During the period of initial settlement, these groups, including “friars and Indians, Mexican soldier-settlers, and Canary Islanders, promoted their own rights and desires instead of striving for “cooperation and unity.” Over time; however, the “realities of life on the frontier” unified these disparate groups into a distinct Tejano culture (de la Tejá and Wheat 1991: 137). This culture survived through the Mexican and Texas Republic periods and dominated social, economic, and political life in San Antonio until the period after the Texas Revolution. The reallocation of some of their landholdings among Anglo newcomers during the Mexican Republic period signaled the beginning of an extended period of marginalization as Tejanos were increasingly viewed with suspicion and gradually supplanted in political and economic spheres by their Anglo counterparts. Despite their contribution to both the Mexican and Texian revolution efforts, the group would eventually become foreigners in their native land (de la Tejá and Wheat 1991: 24; de León 1982: 10).