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Places Reflecting America's Diverse Cultures
Explore their Stories in the National Park System
San Antonio Missions National Historical Park
San Antonio, Texas
In the 16th century, Spanish missionaries and soldiers began moving north out of the Valley of Mexico to found missions and presidios. The Spanish empire extended its claim in the New World to the land along the San Antonio River, the site of the City of San Antonio. They converted American Indians to Christianity, acculturated them to the European lifestyle, and made them Spanish citizens. The Spanish Franciscans established the first mission in 1718 and built five missions along the San Antonio River within 13 years.
Eventually, as American Indians and the Spanish and later Hispanic settlers learned to live and work with each other, their traditions blended to create the distinct culture of the American Southwest. Today, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park preserves the history of Spanish Texas and the American Indians with whom the Spanish interacted when they arrived. The park includes four Catholic missions the Spanish erected along the San Antonio River-- Espada, Concepcion, San José, and San Juan.
Mission San Francisco de la Espada was the first mission the Spanish erected in Texas. The original Mission San Francisco de los Tejas was founded in 1690 and is partially in ruins today. In 1731, the Spanish moved the mission to the San Antonio River. At Espada, historical records offer great insight into the mission lifestyle, which resembled Spanish villages and culture and was sustained by the work of American Indians. The Spanish taught the Indians skills in farming, carpentry, and weaving to help feed and clothe the mission residents, and constructed mission buildings and aqueducts. The Spanish also taught the natives a specialized system of agriculture through an irrigation method using Espadas, aqueducts that are still in use today. The San Antonio community in Texas continues to use the Espada mission church and the aqueducts.
Known as the “Queen of the Missions,” Mission San José, the largest of the San Antonio Missions, underwent extensive restoration supported by the Federal Government in the 1930s. The preservation of San José, which demonstrates the nation’s devotion to conserving the missions, is an example of the many social and economic programs of the Works Projects Administration during the Great Depression. The church, convent, mill, and granary the missionaries completed in 1782 have original stonework, frescos, and sculptures for visitors to view.
Mission San Juan de Capistrano was originally in east Texas but the Spanish moved the mission to San Antonio in 1731. San Juan de Capistrano’s church, friary, and granary on this second site date from 1756. The mission's historical records and archeological studies have provided great insight into understanding the development of the mission. San Juan is the only one of the San Antonio Missions to have arches in its structural design. Constructed around 1772, the arches continue to raise questions about the reasons why the missionaries decided to fill in the arches that were once open.
Mission San Juan de Capistrano also has two restored Indian quarters the pueblo Indians built within the mission compound. The Indian homes are jacales or huts made with adobe--a mixture of mud and straw baked together to make bricks. The San Juan de Capistrano missionaries benefited greatly from their American Indian neighbors, who provided the mission with food and game. Because a surplus of food was available to supply other missions and presidios, San Juan's economy began to thrive through a successful trade network that stretched from Mexico to Louisiana.Visitors to San Antonio Missions National Historical Park can tour the four historic Spanish missions and enjoy the interpretive exhibits in the visitor center at Mission San José. The grist mill and aqueduct at Mission San José are other attractions. The four mission churches within the park are active Catholic parishes that hold regular services.