SAN ANTONIO, January 12 - The very first exploration of the San Antonio region occurred during the late 1600s and early 1700s.
Shortly, Mission San Antonio de Valero was founded by Father Antonio Olivares. Actually, the church’s beginnings are much older. Its roots originate in Mission San Francisco Solano established in 1700 south of the Rio Grande near today’s Eagle Pass, Texas. It was moved to San Antonio to improve native American Christianization.
Bexareños are the first pioneer settlers to make their home around the new Presidio San Antonio de Béxar. Then, in 1731, with the arrival of 15 Isleño families (about 50 people), the village was formally established as Villa San Fernando de Béxar. Thus, young San Antonio quickly acquired three of the founding Spanish Mexican institutions of early Texas; mission, presidio, and villa.
Although the small hamlet proved to be viable as a start-up community, the safety and security of its inhabitants was a constant problem. By the late 1730s and 1740s, Apache attacks made any trip outside the unstable fortifications a life-and-death situation. Thoughts of survival occupied most of the settlers’ minds night and day. Some wished to flee, but the risks were too great to plan an escape. Every day life was grim.
The question was would San Antonio survive? The Crown kept operating costs to a minimum and so the Spanish Army’s ranks were thin. Military help was out of the question. Then, Father Benito Fernández de Santa Ana arrived on the scene.
Few details are known about the early life of Father Santa Ana. He was born in 1707 in Orense, Spain. Ordained a priest in 1731, he immediately embarked for New Spain and joined the Queretaro monastery. Soon, he was assigned to San Antonio where he managed church affairs in the entire region.
Father Santa Ana was an avid believer in befriending native Americans. He was convinced that with a kind, nurturing approach, indigenous families would join the missions to escape threats from stronger tribes. All he had to do was convince them their lives would improve by living in the missions. Regardless, recruitment of new believers was a worry he was trained to handle. What he was unprepared to deal with as the head cleric was ensuring the peace among his fellow Spaniards. Beside the clergy and the Mission Indios, there were three other distinct groupings of people: (l) the military stationed at the presidio, (2) the “locals” (Bexareños), and (3) recently arrived Isleños. Instead of pulling as a team, each faction pulled against each other.
First, the military. Extremely undermanned and underpaid, military leaders treated all indigenous people as enemies. Armed soldiers scared friendly natives from entering mission grounds and Father Santa Ana greatly disapproved of the heavy handedness. So, he went directly to the viceroy. Father Santa Ana was able to convince the viceroy that once native Americans were part of mission Christian life, they could contribute to the mission’s production of cattle, horses, and crops. The viceroy agreed and slowly, mission population increased.
As for Los Bexareños, they were a hardy cluster of families who had endured and suffered much eking out a living in their unfriendly surroundings. Having been informed they would soon be augmented with Isleño families, the Bexareños were at first cautiously optimistic. They assumed that they could now share their heavy load of clearing land, building their town, and tending vast herds of cattle and horses. That expectation quickly evaporated.
The few Isleños reporting to San Antonio were totally unprepared for life in New Spain’s northern frontier. Having been given the authority to officially organize the town by setting up its first Cabildo (town council), the Isleños faced trouble from the start. They had no idea they were expected to till land or plant their own crops, and they wrongly assumed that mission indigenous families would provide the labor in their newly awarded private lands. They were totally unprepared to tend to the needs of work animals, since they were fishermen, not ranchers. Worse, having been awarded gentry titles; they also treated local Bexareños as socially inferior. Their attitude didn’t sit too well with Los Bexareños, or with Father Santa Ana.
To be sure, the situation seemed hopeless as to the future of San Antonio. Nonetheless, Father Santa Ana was able to tie all the strings together and saved the young community. Step 1: He cleverly achieved a truce with the military commander. Step 2: He and the viceroy solved the dispute with the Isleños. Step 3: He used all his persuasive talents to force Isleño and Bexareño inhabitants to co-exist; and Step 4: Through Catholic Church rituals, he united Bexareños, Isleños, and native Americans as comadres and compadres by way of marriage and baptisms.
In summary, much has been written about the bravery of New Spain military commanders and famous explorers. They have earned their recognition. However, Texas was truly blessed to have Fathers Santa Ana, Francisco Hidalgo, Antonio Olivares, Antonio Margil, Juan Morfi, Alonzo Terreros, and many more as first administrators. Using what can only be described as an early version of the Army Corps of Engineers, they built the many historical structures still standing today that give Texas and the Southwest its world renowned Spanish Mexican flavor.
Acting as their own management consultants, the padres presented their projects to the viceroy. Once approved, they provided their own planners, engineers, architects, masons, carpenters, and painters. Practicing what they preached in humility, they hauled rocks and dug ditches alongside native American laborers. Mission padres were the first true Texas ranchers and their native American recruits, the first Texas cowboys. Readers must note that in addition to those extraordinary endeavors; the priests had to maintain their religious obligations -- conduct daily masses, minister to the sick, tend to their fields and herds of animals, and assure proper feed and care for mission residents (with little or no pay). What CEO of today would be up to the task?
Finally, the next time you visit the “Alamo”, honor it with its true name, Mission San Antonio (just like Missions San José and San Juan.) Equally, honor its true saviors -- the builders themselves. When you see, touch, and feel the magnificent structure’s thick walls, be aware that the blood, sweat, and tears of the padres and their native American apprentices are mixed in with the mortar. The Presidio is long gone, but Mission San Antonio still endures. ¡Que vivan las misiones; que vivan los padres; que viva Padre Benito Fernández de Santa Ana!
José Antonio (Joe) López was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and is a USAF Veteran. He now lives in Universal City, Texas. He is the author of three previous books: “The Last Knight (Don Bernardo Gutierrez de Lara Uribe, A Texas Hero),”; “Nights of Wailing, Days of Pain (Life in 1920s South Texas)”, and “The First Texas Independence, 1813”. Lopez is also the founder of the Tejano Learning Center, LLC, and www.tejanosunidos.org, a Web site dedicated to Spanish Mexican people and events in U.S. history that are mostly overlooked in mainstream history books.