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Visiting the Spanish Missions in Texas

Robert Nicholson is a member of the California Mission Historical Society and the California Mission Walkers, and an amateur historian.

Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo

Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo

Texas has a long and fascinating history rooted in the Spanish missions and the settlements that grew around them. Visiting the missions and enjoying their peaceful beauty is a great way to learn a bit about the history of Texas.

History of Texas's Missions

The first mission in what is now the state of Texas, Mission San Clemente, was constructed in 1632. The mission was abandoned after just a few months due to the presence of hostile Apache Indians, but a new mission was built on the site in 1682.

Others followed in quick succession: Mission Corpus Christi de la Ysleta, Mission San Antonio de Senecú, Mission Nuestra Señora de la Limpia Concepción de Los Piros de Socorro del Sur, San Francisco de los Tejas, and Mission Santísimo Nombre de María, all built between 1682 and 1690. The Spanish continued to build missions in Texas until 1793, when Mission Nuestra Señora del Refugio was completed.

There were at least 28 missions built in Texas. Unlike the 21 Spanish Missions in California, most of the Texas missions failed, and the location of many is lost to time; even records from the period are scant.

There were several reasons for the high rate of failure:

  • Texas was truly a frontier; it was difficult to supply the missions. Unlike the California missions, which were built near the coast, the Texas missions relied on supplies brought overland.
  • Much of the land was arid, and it was hard to establish crops and herds.
  • The missionaries had a poor understanding of Texas geology. Several of the missions were built on flood plains near the Rio Grande and were subsequently destroyed by seasonal flooding.
  • There was a constant threat from the Apaches, who were generally hostile to the missionaries.

To overcome these difficulties, the Spanish learned to build clusters of missions in close proximity, along with presidios (military forts), so that the missionaries and soldiers could aid and support one another.

Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Acuña

Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Acuña

Goals of the Missions

The Franciscan friars who established the missions were hoping to convert the native people to Catholicism.

They were supported by the Spanish government, which provided soldiers to defend the missions and occupy land in Texas. The Spanish feared that French settlers and soldiers would move westward from Louisiana into Texas. These fears proved to be groundless, but were nevertheless used as a justification for establishing a military presence.

Unlike many European settlers on the East coast, the goal of the Spanish was not to kill the natives or drive them from their lands. Rather, they hoped to convert the local Indians, teach them European methods of agriculture and building, and assimilate them as Spanish citizens.

In this, they were much less successful than the later missionaries in California. The natives in Texas were hostile to the missionaries, and the heavy-handedness of the Spanish soldiers often provoked conflicts and open warfare.

The Spanish persevered, however. Some of the missions survived and prospered, and communities of Spanish settlers and native converts grew up around them, giving rise to some of the state’s largest cities—including El Paso and San Antonio.

The mission system even gave rise to the famed Texan cattle business. By 1778, Mission Nuestra Señora del Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga had over 40,000 cattle!

The mixture of Indian and Spanish cultures can be seen today in language, place names, crops, food, and architecture.

Mission Nuestra Señora del Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga (Mission Bahia)

Mission Nuestra Señora del Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga (Mission Bahia)

Visiting the Spanish Missions in Texas

Many of the Texas missions failed and were abandoned. In some cases there are ruins and active archeological sites; in others, even the location of the mission has been lost.

However, there are a number of Texas missions that survive today, either as active Catholic Churches, or as State Historic Parks

San Antonio

The San Antonio area has the greatest number of well preserved and in some cases reconstructed missions. There are four missions within just a few miles, including Mission San Antonio de Valero (the mission at the Alamo).

There is also a beautiful stone church, completed in 1755, at Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Acuña. Some of the mission buildings were damaged in 1835 during the Battle of Concepción, in which Texas revolutionaries under James Bowie defeated Mexican troops.

The Alamo

The Alamo

El Paso

There are three surviving missions in the El Paso area. The architectural style of these missions is quite different from the others in Texas. They were originally established by missionaries and native converts fleeing from Indian uprisings in New Mexico.

On of the missions, Mission Corpus Christi de la Ysleta, is the oldest continuously operating church parish in the United States.

Mission Corpus Christi de la Ysleta - the oldest surviving parish in the United States

Mission Corpus Christi de la Ysleta - the oldest surviving parish in the United States

Goliad

The Goliad State Historical Park features two beautifully restored missions: Mission Nuestra Señora del Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga and Presidio La Bahia.

Weches

Mission Tejas State Park, near Weches, features a reconstruction of Mission San Francisco de los Tejas, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.

Make Time to Visit the Missions

When travelling in Texas, be sure to include the Spanish missions in your itinerary. They provide a fascinating look at the early history of European settlement, long before the birth of the United States or the state of Texas.

The churches, grounds, and architecture are a beautiful tribute to the dedication of the missionaries, natives, and settlers who built the state’s first communities.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Robert Nicholson

Comments

Liz Westwood from UK on October 22, 2019:

This is a well-written and interesting article with great illustrations. You document an interesting period of history.