San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

After nearly two weeks with our friends in San Antonio, we said ‘goodbye’ to the metro mix and headed west on I-10 for 300 miles or so, then turned left and headed south another 100 miles.  That was last Tuesday, and that trip brought us to the middle of nowhere outside of Big Bend National Park, right on the Mexican border in southwest Texas.  We love the remote campground we found just outside the park, but as the picture shows, it is so remote that Verizon hasn’t seen fit to provide cellular service out here, and the campground’s Internet service has been intermittent at best.  Unfortunately, this has translated into some delays in connecting, and thus posting.  

Mission Concepcion
Charley's "home" outside Big Bend NP

Before I share our Big Bend adventures, I wanted to catch up on three other national park units we visited, all within an hour of San Antonio, while we were there. I didn’t want to spend a lot of time writing about these places at the time because I wanted to visit as much as I could with Jackie and her family, but I have been able to catch up on these three different park units in the evenings while here in Big Bend, so I share them with you now:


During the late 1600s and early 1700s, Spain was looking to extend its dominion northward from the land we know today as Mexico.  To do so, they began to establish missions in what we now know as Texas, offering food, shelter, and protection to Native Americans in exchange for their conversion to Christianity and their loyalty to Spain. 

Mission Concepcion

Groups of hunter-gatherer Indian bands, collectively referred to as Coahuiltecans (kwa-weel-tekens), had been living on these grassland plains for thousands of years, but about this same time found their nomadic lifestyle and gentile ways being threatened by warring Apache and Comanche Indian tribes who were encroaching on their territory from the north.  These Spanish missions provided sanctuary from their enemies, so many of these dwindling bands sought refuge in mission life. 

While “Cross and Crown” were provided, along with protection inside the missions’ massive stone-walled compounds, Franciscan friars also taught skills such as more sophisticated farming and gardening, spinning and weaving, iron forging, masonry, soap and candle making, and pottery. But in return, these Indians were subject to strict religious, social, and moral discipline, and in most cases, their tribal cultural and ethnic identity were destroyed.

Espada Mission - these missions were built like a big compound

Some Coahuiltecans fled from the missions to return to their old life, but most accepted Catholicism and actively took part in this new mission society. Missions were strong throughout the mid-1700s, but by the 1780s, they began a decline in both population and activity.

Diseases that were introduced by those foreign to them decimated many of the natives, and by 1824, with dwindling numbers and less of a need for them, these missions were secularized, with the land redistributed to the mission inhabitants and the churches transferred to secular clergy.

Today, five of the six missions along the San Antonio River still remain.  The most well-known is the Mission San Antonio de Valero, known today as the Alamo.  (See my “Remember The Alamo!” post.)  Operated by The Daughters of the Republic of Texas, this is an independent shrine of Texas history.  One of the missions was built over as the city of San Antonio was being developed, but thanks to those who saw the value in preserving such historically significant places, the other four missions that are located south of the city along the river are now protected and operated by the National Park Service.  Each of the four remaining missions includes a church which still operates as an active Catholic parish.

Mission San Jose
Mission San Jose

Mission San José is the largest of the missions, thus gaining the reputation as the Queen of the Missions. It is also where the primary NPS Visitor Center is located, and it is the one that has been most fully restored. This mission, together with its surrounding fields, sustained a thriving community of Indians and Spaniards which numbered 300 at the height of mission operations. The church and convento were the center of life at this mission that was started in 1782.

Within the walls, Indians lived, worshipped, and attended classes; outside the walls, they tended fields, orchards, and livestock. A granary within the compound stored enough maize to supply the population of the mission for an entire year.

Mission Espada is the oldest of the East Texas missions. It was the first one we visited as it was the furthest south; 11 miles south of San Antonio. Like the other missions in this area, Mission Espada was located along the San Antonio River where acequias, or gravity flow ditches could be built to route the flow of the San Antonio River for use to irrigate crops on which these missions depended.

Mission Espada

Self-sufficiency was an important element of missions, as well, so like the others, this mission developed a solid economy by teaching the Indians vocations such as weaving, blacksmithing, carpentry, masonry, farming, and ranching. Espada was the only mission that made bricks, and these are still visible today. This simple, remote, pastoral mission made it my favorite of the four in the park system.

Beautiful Espada Mission church
Espada Mission church
Mission San Juan

Mission San Juan Capistrano was originally San José de los Nazonis in East Texas, then in 1731, it was moved to its permanent home on the east bank of the San Antonio River, a few miles north of Mission Espada. Its fertile farmland and pastures made it a regional supplier of produce with peaches, melons, pumpkins, grapes, peppers, corn, beans, sweet potatoes, squash, and sugar cane all coming from the orchards and gardens outside the compound walls.

In 1762, it was recorded that Mission San Juan’s herds numbered 3,500 sheep and nearly as many cattle. These missions were not only self-sufficient, but they supported settlements and the nearby presidio with their commerce, as well.

Inside the San Juan Mission compound
San Juan Mission Compound

Mission Concepción is another of the missions that started out in East Texas but was transferred here to San Antonio in 1731. A quarry just outside the mission compound provided rock that the Indians broke apart to build this new mission, and today it is one of the oldest original stone church buildings in the United States. Mission Concepcion showcases the extravagant beauty of original wall art that remains some 250 years after the church was constructed.

Mission Concepcion

Colorful geometric designs that once covered the church’s exterior surface have long faded, but visitors can still see light remnants of the pigments that were applied to wet lime plaster which absorbed the color. Inside, these frescos were better preserved as they were protected from the outside elements. The photos below show this beautiful mission wall art.

Mission Concepcion
Mission Concepcion

The eternal and abiding missions of San Antonio were far more than just churches; they were communities of Spaniards and Native Americans who, for more than a half a century, had thriving economies which were important foundations for the city of San Antonio.  Franciscan friars gathered these native peoples, converted them to Catholicism, taught them to live as Spaniards, and helped maintain Spanish control over the Texas frontier.  Today these historic missions are elegant reminders of the contribution of Indian and Hispanic peoples to the history of the United States.