The Church of the Mission San José

5 San Antonio Missions: Explore the Rich Colonial History of Texas

Including the famous Alamo, you’ll find five colonial Spanish missions along the San Antonio Missions Trail in San Antonio, Texas. You can visit them all in one day, though if you are in San Antonio longer, you can take another day for the Alamo.

Though missions are not my favorite places to visit, they are intriguing. So, when my family visited San Antonio, I suggested a visit to the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.

The Different – and Divergent – Stories of The Missions

Missions, like all historical places, have several stories to tell.

The stories of the San Antonio Missions, similar to the ones of Tumacacori in Arizona, represent several different points of view.

They include the stories of the 17th Century explorers, the Native American groups of the Southwest, and the Spanish colonists. Each of these groups has a different story to tell.

Intertwined to them all, we also have the stories of the landscape, all of it offering a portrait of early colonial times, with their human and natural history.

The Stories of Spanish Missions in the Americas

No matter where they are, Spanish missions represent a dark page in the history of the Americas.

Built to convert the indigenous population, and “bring progress to a savage land”, they hurt the land and the indigenous people, no matter where they were built.

Not only did they force indigenous people to give up their own beliefs, and replace them with new ones, to dress and behave in ways unnatural to them, they also hurt the landscape.

And I am not talking about the buildings themselves; They also brought plants and animals that did not belong in these parts of the world.

Every time I visit a mission, be it in Mexico, Arizona, or Texas, I can’t help but wonder about the arrogance of the early Spanish missionaries.

What kind of mindset gave them the idea that their beliefs were the only right ones?

Or, did they just use their religion to conquer and control the indigenous population? They “gave them” a new religion, new homes, a new way of life, never mind the fact that they already had a culture that worked for them.

Regardless of how wrong it was, they built these missions that still stand witness to history. And, for better or worse, I believe it’s good to visit them. Maybe we can learn from the mistakes of history, and not repeat them.

the largest of the San Antonio Missions: Mission San José

Stories of the San Antonio Missions

The missions were communities, fortified villages, with farms and ranches, dominated by a church. Similar to all Spanish missions, the main purpose of the Missions of San Antonio was to convert native population to Catholicism and teach them how to live like Spaniards. But in this case, they had several extra reasons.

Native People of the Area – Before the Missions

Before the missions, the area of Southern Texas was home to indigenous people the Spanish collectively called Coahuiltecans. However, they were not a homogenized group, but rather several, culturally diverse nomadic groups.

They were nomadic hunter-gatherers. Moving from place to find sources of food often only available seasonally they carried their possessions on their backs.

Considering what we know now, I feel we should have learned from them, not the other way around. They had a life-style adapted to resources and climate, they lived with the land, without trying to conquer it.

They lived in small, autonomous groups, with no political unity, though occasionally they gathered in larger groups. Since they lived in a warm climate, they wore little clothing. Their seasonal campgrounds consisted of small circular huts with frames of bent poles covered with woven mats.

Most of their food came from plants they ate raw, though they also used open fire pits for occasional cooking.

They got much of their protein from pecans that grew in the area. Gathering them in the fall, they stored them for use in all seasons.

The groups living near the river also had fish as their major protein source.

But their major food source, as well as a reason for community events, was the prickly pear cactus.

In the summer, during the prickly pear ripening season, different groups gathered together in south-east of San Antonio, where this cactus is abundant. They interacted with each other, and feasted together during these events.

They cooked the bulbs and root crowns of several agave varieties, and made flour from ground mesquite beans.

It sounds to me that they had it all figured out; They knew how to live off the land, without hurting it unnecessarily.

However, Southern Texas, where they lived, is still desert. And some years food sources are scarce, so they might have welcomed some of the new ideas the Spaniards introduced.

First Encounters With the Spaniards

The Indigenous people first encountered Spaniards in the early 1530s, when Cabeza de Vaca and four of his companions who survived a Florida expedition passed through their land. Although this encounter had no lasting effects, the following few centuries proved much worse for them.

Conflicts between the Spanish settlers and the Native tribes started around 1580 and continued through the 17th century. During this time, Spanish settlers enslaved Natives when they could. Eventually, they replaced slavery with the encomienda system, used by Spain in all conquered territories.

The system might have seemed better than slavery, but in some ways it was worse. The Spanish, as conquerors could use the labor of the conquered non-Christian people, without calling them slaves. In theory, they rewarded the laborers with certain benefits. Usually this “benefit” was the Catholic religion.

Though all these conflicts and hurt the Native population, it was the smallpox and measles that decimated them. These epidemics were frequent, starting in 1636-36, followed by others every few years.

So, by the time the Spanish established the missions, the Coahultecans saw them as one of the lesser bad things. Besides food and board, the missions offered them protection from the Apache, Comanche, and Wichita raiders.

The Missions

Spain originally established the San Antonio missions around 1690 in East Texas, where it felt threatened by the French from Louisiana.

However, with few people to run them, the missions failed at their original locations. So, in the 1700s, Spain relocated them near the San Antonio River.

The first one relocated into the area in 1718, was the Alamo, or mission San Antonio de Valero.

Noticing a large native population nearby, Fray Antonio Margil de Jesús established a second mission in 1720, south along the river, San José. By 1731, they relocated three more, Concepción, San Juan, and Espada.

For about half a century, between 1745 and 1780, these missions seemed successful. But in a land they didn’t belong, they couldn’t last longer than that.

The five missions housed about 1,200 Indigenous people, who basically maintained them. However, life was not easy for them.

Repeated attacks of the Apache, and later the Comanche tribes caused the communities to retreat behind walls. Within the Mission’s walls, the living quarters were unhealthy environments for the native population.

Disease followed, reducing their numbers. Dissatisfied with their lives there, many of them “ran away” or “deserted”.

Between diseases and deserters, the number of Indigenous people declined until the missions no longer had enough people to sustain them.

By the time the missions near San Antonio were secularized in 1824, the Coahuiltecan culture and their way of life disappeared. Whatever remained of them was integrated into the Spanish-speaking mestizo community.

Visiting the San Antonio Missions

Witnessing signs of this history was the reason we set off to explore the San Antonio missions.

Like it is for everyone who ever visits San Antonio, our main destination was the Alamo. But what we didn’t count on was the number of visitors the famous mission gets.

We tried getting a timed entry two days before our San Antonio day trip from Austin, but were not successful. Fortunately, this didn’t mean we couldn’t enter the grounds, but we couldn’t visit the church.

Since we had no timed entry for the Alamo, and we were ready to explore before they opened, we started our missions tour with the Mission Concepcion, the first stop along the Mission Road.

Mission Concepción

Mission Concepcion in the early morning sun
Mission Concepcion in the early morning sun

The Mission de Concepción is one of the smallest of the San Antonio missions. Little more than the church itself, it didn’t offer a large area to explore. And since we were there in the morning, we shared it with few other visitors.

The facade looked very much like many others we’ve seen in Mexico. And with good reason, since they were built around the same time.

The oldest unrestored stone church in the US, Mission Concepción. Relocated in 1731, it took about 15 years to build. Dedicated in 1755, still looks much like it did over two centuries ago.

According to the descriptions, colorful geometric designs covered its surface In its heyday, though the patterns faded over the centuries. Except in a few of the rooms, where we could still see several original frescos.

Remains of frescoes in Mission Concepcion
Remains of frescoes in Mission Concepcion

Showcasing the Spanish Colonial architecture, the mission is the work of craftsmen recruited from Mexico. Thick walls, twin bell towers, vaulted dome roofs are only several of the features. Besides the mission builders, the native residents provided labor for the building.

Mission San José

In the courtyard of Mission San José
In the courtyard of Mission San José

Our next stop is by far the largest of the San Antonio missions. Featuring a massive church dominating an enormous courtyard surrounded by buildings on four sides, Mission San José is also called “Queen of the Missions”. Besides the Alamo, it is also the most visited.

History

Father Margil de Jesús, a seasoned Franciscan missionary, founded the mission in 1720, after visiting the Alamo.

He found three Native groups that wanted to come and live there, and he appointed their leaders as governor, judge, and sheriff of the new community. By the time they started building the church, they had about 350 Native people living in the 84 two-room quarters.

They helped build the massive Spanish colonial style limestone church, starting in 1768 and finished in about 1782.

Indigenous People’s Lives At The Mission

The whole reason for the existence of these missions was to convert indigenous people into Catholic, tax-paying subjects of the King of Spain.

The idea of an easier life led these people to voluntarily live in the missions and fully change their lives. Or to try doing it, at least.

"Living in the Mission San José" - in the museum
“Living in the Mission San José” – in the museum

They had to change everything about their former lives: their diet, clothing, religion, culture, even their names, learn Spanish and Latin, and new vocations.

Their new roles and duties in the mission included religious instruction, and were required to worship three times a day. They started their day with sunrise mass, then had a meal of corn mush and jerky, both things they normally did not eat before.

After breakfast, men worked as laborers in the fields, carpenters, masons, blacksmiths, and similar jobs, while women prepared food, cleaned, and raised children.

They wore Spanish-style clothing that had to be extremely uncomfortable and hot in the Texas desert.

Children were taught religious studies until noon, when everyone had to go to mass again, before eating lunch, the main meal of the day.

After lunch, during the hottest time of the day, activities subsided, but then everyone returned to church for the evening mass before dinnertime.

Architecture

The Mission San José’s church is the most elaborate and most beautiful of the San Antonio missions.

The carvings and colorful frescoes adorning the elaborate doorway and the inside of the church originally served a functional purpose as well. Franciscan missionaries used them to communicate the concepts of Christianity to the population whose language they did not speak.

Six saints are carved over the main entrance of the church, within an elaborately carved setting. On the highest spot among these statues is San José (Saint Joseph), the patron saint of the church – and mission. Others include San Francis de Assisi, founder of the Franciscan order, and several others.

The new world’s representation of the Virgin Mary, called Our lady of Guadalupe, holds a central place, right above the doorway.

Represented as a native peasant, she was the first New World Saint, and the patron saint of the Americas. Introducing her into the list of saints was probably the best thing the Franciscans could have done to covert locals. Since she looked like them, they could relate to her on some level, making the transition feasible.

The Rose Window, and The Legend of Its Creation

The Rose Window at the Mission San José
The Rose Window at the Mission San José

An unusual architectural feature adorns the side of the church. Called Rose Window, it has a tragic love story associated with it, though this story is most likely a legend, and has nothing to do with reality.

A great example of Spanish Colonial ornamentation in the United States, the Rose Window’s sculptor and significance is a mystery. But such a beautiful, elaborate window was bound to inspire a love story.

According to legend, Pedro Huizar, a carpenter and surveyor from Spain, carved it as a monument to his sweetheart, Rosa, who was lost at sea on her way to join him.

Visiting Mission San José

Mission San José. photo credit: Leanne Fromm
The church of the Mission San José. photo credit: Leanne Fromm

Fully restored to its original design, Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo, has several rooms open besides the church. I walked though several of the living quarters before exploring the church and its immediate surroundings.

The first room I entered was the bastion, a round room with several tiny windows for guns, built for protection agains raiding Apaches and other tribes.

Near it, several rooms are open to the public, reconstructed living quarters, giving us an idea of how indigenous people lived in the mission.

At the far end of the courtyard, the church dominates the view. Near it, the Convento was a residence for the missionaries and provided room and board for visitors.

Naturally, the church is the highlight of the visit, and, like everyone else, we spent most time exploring it.

Behind it, outside the mission walls, we visited the grist mill, then returned to walk through the exhibits in the building adjacent to the church.

Mission San Juan

Mission San Juan. photo credit: Leanne Fromm
Mission San Juan. photo credit: Leanne Fromm

Farther away from the city, in a more rural setting Mission San Juan Capistrano has a different vibe. In fact, it felt like part of Mexico.

The church here is small, and it has fewer living quarters. Quieter, it seems to reflect a more serene way of life.

The mission’s whitewashed walls and a smaller church surround the inner courtyard. Once a self-contained community, now it stands empty except for the few visitors who walk through it but don’t linger.

Reading about it, I understood the more subdued nature of this mission: in this case, it was agriculture, outside of its walls that made it successful.

The fertile soil near the San Antonio River with the reliable water supply was great for farming. They grew corn, beans, chilies, melons, cotton, sugar cane, and squash here. They often had surplus crops they traded with other missions and settlements.

Mission San Francisco de Espada

Mission de Espada
Mission de Espada

The last mission we visited on this Mission Trail was, in fact, the first mission built in Texas. Founded in 1690, Mission Espada moved to its present location along the San Antonio River in 1731.

Even farther from the city, this mission was silent and peaceful.

One of the smaller ones, it still features the walls surrounding the inner courtyard, though it is not perfectly rectangular, like the other ones. Church, priest residence, and native living quarters, along with a granary fill the inner rooms.

This mission’s distinctive feature is the historic aqueduct, outside its walls, bringing water from the San Antonio River to the mission. It was the main reason they could grow peach orchards and vast fields of beans, corn, and melons in the area.

The Four Missions Are A UNESCO World Heritage Site

The four missions are all part of the San Antonio Missions National Park.

They are also included in a UNESCO World Heritage site for their universal value, the first and only site of this kind in Texas.

With this designation, the missions started getting more international visitors. And, with an increase in the number of visitors, it is even more important to keep the park sustainable.

Sustainability At The San Antonio Missions

The National Park System implements sustainability practices in most of its parks, as part of their Climate Friendly Park Program, established in 2003.

The program’s aim is to help the parks measure greenhouse gas emissions and reduce emissions, to educate the park staff and public about climate change and help individual parks develop programs to address sustainability challenges.

The San Antonio Missions National Historical Park is the first Texas unit of the National Park System to implement the program.

The most obvious think I noticed is the bicycle trail connecting all the parks. To encourage visiting the Mission trail by bicycles, it is easy to rent them.

Mission San Antonio de Valero, Famous as the Alamo

Mission San Antonio de Valero aka The Alamo at sunset. photo credit: Leanne Fromm
Mission San Antonio de Valero aka The Alamo at sunset. photo credit: Leanne Fromm

The most famous mission of San Antonio, in fact the most famous landmark in the city, the Alamo started out just like the other missions in the area. Relocated to its present place in 1724, it “served” the indigenous population for a few decades.

Though the mission itself started off in 1724, with its convent or priest’s quarter built right away, building the church only started in 1740.

Construction of this particular church was not going smoothly; in 1756 the arches of the vaulted roof and parts of the walls collapsed. Even though work resumed on the church soon after, it was never fully completed during the life of the mission.

As a mission, San Antonio de Valero would not have been famous.

However, its history started after its secularization. Secularization of the mission, in this case, in 1795, consisted in dividing up the land and goods of the mission among its residents. The mission at this point became a village, known as Pueblo Valero.

However, increasing threats from American and French colonists from Louisiana prompted Spain to send military troops to the mission, and eventually turn it into a fortress.

The Fortress Alamo

The first soldiers, known as the Alamo Company because of their hometown called Alamo de Parras, arrived to the old mission in 1803.

They converted the mission’s convento into barracks and established the first hospital in Texas on the second floor of the building.

The Alamo Company continued to stay at the mission for 32 years, until 1835, including the time of Mexico’s fight for independence from Spain.

Mexico won its independence in 1821. However, soon after, Texas started its own fight for independence.

The Texas Revolution started in October of 1835 and lasted til April of the 1836. Its most famous battle happened here, at the Alamo. Visiting it, you can learn all about it.

Visiting the Alamo

The most popular site in San Antonio, the Alamo is always extremely busy. I can’t say I enjoyed the visit, surrounded by crowds, but we walked through the mission grounds.

Since we could not get a timed entry ticket into the church, we skipped that, and instead, spent some time in the garden.

I enjoyed the Alamo much better at night, after closing time, watching the building lit up, but quiet, devoid of crowds.

If you want to enjoy a visit to the Alamo, try to go off-season, though I don’t know how much it would help. And make sure you plan ahead, and get a timed entry ticket at least a week before your visit. We tried two days before, and had no luck, even though we visited on a weekday. But, we were there during spring break, so that might have been a reason for the extreme crowds.

In A Nutshell – About the San Antonio Missions: FAQ

What are the 5 missions of San Antonio?


The 5 missions of San Antonio include:

1. Mission San Antonio de Valero, famous as the Alamo and

four other missions, included in San Antonio Missions National Park:

2. Mission San José, the most visited of the four, nicknamed the Queen of the Missions,

3. Mission Concepción,

4. Mission San Juan Capistrano,

5. Mission San Francisco de Espada

Which is the best mission to visit in San Antonio?

Most people, as well as historians will agree that the Mission San Antonio de Valero, better known as the Alamo, is the must-see mission in San Antonio.
However, Mission San José is spectacular, also worth a visit.

Which mission of San Antonio is the largest?

Mission San José is the largest of the San Antonio Missions. Nicknamed Queen of the Missions, it dates from 1790.

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