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Determining the Facts

Reading 1: The San Antonio Missions and the Spanish Frontier

Spain's expulsion of the Moors and its decision to support Columbus's voyage of discovery, both of which took place the same year, opened a new world of possibilities. In the Americas, Spain soon began to use its soldiers to extend its domain, find wealth, and spread the Catholic faith.

After Cortes's conquest of Mexico in 1519, the Spanish moved north in search of further riches and potential converts. Though they failed to find gold and silver as they had farther south, in present-day Arizona and New Mexico they established missions to work with peaceable American Indians and presidios (forts) to control hostile ones.

In the late 1600s the French, already in Canada, explored the Mississippi River to the point where it emptied into the Gulf of Mexico. This expansion posed a threat to Spain's territory and Spain responded by extending its settlements into what is now Texas, thereby creating a buffer between the wealth of Mexico and French Louisiana.

The Spanish established themselves in Texas by using the same system they had established in Arizona and New Mexico. Through missions, presidios, and an adjoining civilian community (a villa), missionaries and soldiers Christianized and Hispanicized the native population. The Spanish hoped that with the help of these now-loyal Indians a relatively small number of men would be needed to defend the empire's frontier. Though created to observe and control French colonies in the Mississippi Valley and central Gulf coast, these operations later opposed other rivals. Between 1763 and 1776, the main challenge came from the English and their Indian allies; after 1776, from the United States and the Comanches.

One base for Spanish missionary and military operations in Texas developed around San Antonio. Two missions and a presidio were established in the San Antonio River valley between 1718 and 1720, and the Spanish added three new missions in the valley in 1731. A single presidio protected the five missions, which were closely grouped for two important reasons. First, the fields required irrigation and a system could only be set up along the valley's upper ten miles. Second, the threat of attack from northern Indians was constant, and the missions needed to be near the presidio and each other for mutual protection.

The missions were important to agricultural production. Each had a ranch for raising the sheep, goats, and cattle that supplied necessities like meat, wool, milk, cheese, and leather. The entire cattle industry, from ranching to the driving of cattle across long distances to markets, was developed in Mexico during the two centuries prior to the establishment of San Antonio. Spanish ranching as it was practiced in Texas formed the basis for the American cattle industry, which drew many of its original cattle from the mission herds. The Spanish also brought to the San Antonio valley a specialized method of farming that used irrigation. This system, which was extended by later settlers, was the foundation of the San Antonio economy for more than a century; portions of mission-built irrigation systems are still in use today in San Antonio and other parts of Texas.

The mission contributed to the economy in other ways. It established necessary industries such as weaving, iron working, and carpentry; these were important to the maintenance of the entire military and political structure of the eastern portion of the Spanish American frontier. Mission-trained artisans and workers provided a principal source of labor and finished goods in a region at the far end of a long and expensive supply line reaching up from the south.

Today the San Antonio missions are among the few relatively intact examples of the colonial missions in the Southwest. They contribute to the general architectural record of this era as well as offer examples of building styles from every period of the missions' history. A wide range of sculptural and painted decoration survives, illustrating how these arts developed on the frontier.

Questions for Reading 1

1. Why did the Spanish establish missions in Texas?

2. Why were the missions located so closely together? (Refer to Map 2 and compare your earlier suggestions with the reasons given in the reading.)

3. What agricultural system did the Spanish bring to the San Antonio valley? What other products came from the missions?

4. Why would the architectural design of the missions change over time?

Reading 1 was compiled from James E. Ivey and Marlys Bush Thurber, "San Antonio Missions National Historical Park" (Bexar County, Texas) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1983; and the National Park Service visitor's guide for San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.

 

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