Spanish Exploration & The Colonial Era (1689-1820)

The Era of Exploration

Early contact between native groups and Spanish explorers during the era of exploration was infrequent and poorly documented. While there is extensive evidence of interaction between these groups throughout south Texas, it appears that present‐day San Antonio was not explored until 1689 when the Spanish crown sent General Alonzo (Alonso) de León on an expedition to the area (Fox and Cox 1989; Fox 1997; Wade 2003). The earliest journey across the land eventually known as Texas was the well known trek of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca between 1528 and 1535 (Rogers and Harris 2012: 50). This journey did not approach central Texas or present day San Antonio; however, and it would be another 150 years before the Spanish made another attempt to assert their title to the region.

Route Of Alonso De Leon

Route of Alonso de Leon in 1690

Beginning in the 1680s, the Spanish initiated a series of expeditions, or entradas, into Texas to combat French intrusions into the region (West 1905: 200). In 1686, Alonzo de León led the first land expedition seeking to expel the French from their colony at Fort St. Louis. He led four expeditions in search of the colony between 1686 and 1689 before finding the ruins of the French settlement on the banks of Garcitas Creek in April of 1689 (Casis 1899; Chipman 2013a; Robbins 1998).

The following year, de León and his chaplain on the previous missions, Fray Damián Mazanet, founded the first Spanish mission in Texas along the Neches River near present day Nacogdoches. The route they took on the journey from Mexico to the mission site would eventually become the Camino Real or Old San Antonio Road, and their successful expedition set the stage for the subsequent emergence of San Antonio as a stop for travelers en route from Mexico to East Texas (Robbins 1998). Like other early roads in the region, it was based upon long used Native American trade routes and identified by the Spaniards through their reliance on Native American guides (Foster et al 1999).

Immediately following the fifth de León expedition, the first governor of the Province of Tejas, Domingo Terán de los Ríos, undertook another entrada. The Spanish government authorized the mission to confirm the French had been pushed out of the region, to establish additional missions among the East Texas Indians (Hatcher 1932: 3), and to “make a record of the geography, plants, animals, and native peoples” they “encountered along the route” (Rogers and Harris 2012: 52). Governor Terán was accompanied by Fray Mazanet, and both men kept diaries of the trek. Terán and Mazanet followed the same route as de León as far as the Hondo River, before veering further north and passing through the vicinity of present day San Antonio. The two men were the first to visit and name the location (Foster et al 1999).

In early 1693, the newly appointed governor of Coahuila Gregorio de Salinas Varona was charged with resupplying the mission established by his predecessors.

They had been unable to sustain themselves during their first year and were in desperate need of supplies. As Varona had been part of at least two of de León’s entradas, he generally followed the route de León and his Native American guides had taken to East Texas. His main contribution to Spanish-era road development occurred on the return trip when Salinas “…cut a path directly from the Colorado River crossing near La Grange to present San Antonio.” He then established “a more practicable link from San Antonio to the Frio River, later known as the Pita Road” (Foster et al 1999). At least five subsequent expeditions used Salinas’s new route from San Antonio.

Another important accomplishment of the Salinas entrada was his confirmation of the “widespread use, by a variety of tribes, of the old Indian trade route through Texas that was adopted by the Spaniards.” Examples cited in his diary include members of the Quem, Pacpul, Toho, Sana, Emet, Cava, Tohaha, Tejas, Juman, Cibola, and Cantona tribes (Foster et al 1999), many of whom were settling in Central Texas during this period to avoid encroachment by both the Spanish and other Native American groups.

The Spanish mission experiment in East Texas was not successful for a variety of reasons. Principally, the imminent French threat to the region dissipated, negating the need for frontier protection in the form of mission outposts. Additionally, the attempts to convert and subdue the Native American residents of the missions were not completely successful. These factors coupled with crop failures spelled the end for the east Texas missions. They were officially abandoned in October of 1693, and “Fray Mazanet himself plied the torch to the building that served as the first mission in Texas” (Rogers and Harris 2012: 55).

In the intervening years, the province of Texas was in effect abandoned by the Spanish. This pattern of neglect changed in 1707 amid rumors of French activity in Spain’s East Texas holdings. During a war council in Mexico City, officials recommended reconnecting with the Tejas Indians both to encourage them to refuse French trade and to promote the concept of missions in the region. Under these auspices, an expedition led by Fray Antonio de Olivares (Commissary of the Holy Cross of Queretaro), Fray Isidro Espinosa (missionary in charge of the Mission San Juan Bautista on the Rio Grande del Norte), and Captain Pedro de Aguirre (commander of the Presidio of Rio Grande del Norte) left Mexico in 1709 accompanied by 14 soldiers. Fray Espinosa kept a diary of the expedition (Rogers and Harris 2012: 55; Tous 1930b).

Like the Salinas Varona expedition of 1693, the Espinosa-Olivares-Aguirre expedition of 1709 visited the site of present-day San Antonio. The group was very “impressed with the land and availability of water,” naming the San Pedro Springs, and noted it would be a good place for a settlement. They also attempted to reconnect with the Tejas Indians in East Texas; however, they were unsuccessful in this regard.

The immediate effect of the entrada was to “delay the reestablishment of missions in East Texas,” but it also “lent a favorable impression of lands along the San Antonio River” that had a direct impact on the establishment of settlements in the area in ensuing years (Chipman 2013b; Tous 1930b).

After the unauthorized appearance of French explorer Louis Juchereau de Saint-Denis in 1714 at Spanish outposts on the Rio Grande River, the Spanish government decided to permanently reestablish the East Texas missions and to construct a presidio there to protect against further French encroachment. Captain Domingo Ramón was appointed to lead the expedition, and he was accompanied by Father Espinosa as well as a 65-member force “including 8 married soldiers who brought their families with them to settle in east Texas” (Rogers and Harris 2012: 58; Robbins 1998: 89). The presence of women and children on the journey made this entrada unique. The expedition was also distinct in that it included three Frenchmen, one of whom was the recently accused and exonerated criminal Saint-Denis who served as a guide.

The company reached San Pedro springs on May 14, 1716, and Espinosa was much more impressed with the San Antonio River than he had been on his 1709 journey. He noted in his diary how clear and sweet the water was and how abundant the fish were. He also specifically identified the location as a prime spot to establish missions and villages (Tous 1930a; Rogers and Harris 2012). Though the expedition continued on to East Texas where they established four missions (San Francisco de los Tejas, Purísima Concepción, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, and San José) and a presidio near present day Nacogdoches (Foik 1933; Robbins 1998), Espinosa’s praise for the San Antonio area was heeded by Governor Martín de Alarcón in 1718. Alarcón undertook another entrada in that year specifically to establish a mission and presidio on the San Antonio River and to deliver supplies to the missions in east Texas. Spain’s primary goals in establishing a settlement in San Antonio were to provide travelers “an intermediate point on the long route between…[the missions]…in eastern Texas and those on the Rio Grande” and to provide defense “against any further French designs on the Matagorda Bay region” (Hoffman 1935: 4).

Alarcón and his company of 72 persons (including soldiers, their families, a master carpenter, a master mason, and a master weaver) crossed the Rio Grande and began their trek to San Antonio on April 9, 1718. In addition to supplies, some of which were destined for the East Texas missions, the caravan included “cattle, sheep, goats, chickens, six droves of mules, and 548 horses” (Hoffman 1935: 23). The group reached the first springs of the San Antonio River (which is actually San Pedro Creek in the current vicinity of San Pedro Park) on April 25, and Father Olivares who accompanied the Alarcón expedition founded the Mission of San Antonio de Valero (the Alamo) at its original location on May 1, 1718. Four days later, the commander founded the Villa de Bejar and the associated presidio “approximately three-fourths of a league upstream from the mission” (Hoffman 1935: 23).

Olivares had been appointed to head the missionary effort, and had been in conflict with Alarcón since the entrada’s inception in 1716. Olivares would later claim sole responsibility for the founding of Mission San Antonio de Valero, but despite the conflict and early hardships, the settlement the men co-founded represented “the real beginning of the permanent occupation of Texas” (Clark 1976: 87).

Image Sources

  • Alonso De León's Last Expedition into Texas in 1690, Map, n.d.; ( : accessed July 10, 2015), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History,; crediting Hardin-Simmons University Library , Abilene, Texas.


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

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

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

Puebla Polychrome from excavations conducted in 2014 at the Plaza de Armas (site of 1722 Presidio de Bexar)

San Luis Polychrome

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)

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)

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

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).

Image Sources

  • Alamo Acequia. Office of Historic Preservation Files.
  • “Plan of the Presidio of San Antonio de Bexar in the Province of Texas, 1722”. Map collection. Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives Commission.
  • Puebla Polychrome Ceramics. Office of Historic Preservation Files.
  • San Luis Polychrome Ceramics. Office of Historic Preservation Files.
  • Vesicular Basalt Mano Fragment. Office of Historic Preservation Files.
  • Subdivision, Civil Engineer, Plat Book 2, 1840-1884. City Engineer Records, 1840- 1973, Box 8.5. City of San Antonio, Office of the City Clerk, Municipal Archives & Records.
  • San Juan Acequia. Office of Historic Preservation Files.
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