Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The San Antonio missions

Yes, that's "missions" with a lowercase "m". If you were hoping to find a post about the baseball team... well, you're on the wrong blog.

I decided that I should take my friend on a sort of historical tour of San Antonio while she was visiting me. We were supposed to visit the Alamo on the first day of her visit, but due to a misunderstanding of the driving directions... well, we ended up at the missions instead. On a cold, rainy day with one jacket and one umbrella between us. But we still had a good time.

There are five missions in the San Antonio area, all of them built by the Spanish along the banks of the river. We visited the two best-preserved missions -- San José and Concepcion. Here is their story:

Spain claimed Texas as part of its territories from the early 1500s until 1821. However, they didn't pay much attention to colonizing the area until the late 1600s, when France began encroaching on New Spain's territory. In 1690, Spain sent missionaries to East Texas to build missions where they would convert the natives to Catholicism and a Spanish way of life while staking Spain's claim to the region.

In order to help send supplies to the missions in the East, the Spaniards built a new mission alongside the San Antonio River to serve as a waystation. They named it San Antonio de Valero -- now known as the Alamo. The importance of the Alamo in Texas history is going to be explained in the next post.

The next mission to be established was San José. It was founded in 1720 by a Dominican friar who wanted to convert the local natives (the Coahuiltecans) to Christianity and confer Spanish citizenship upon them. Then the missions in East Texas began to fail, and the Concepcion, San Juan, and Espada missions were moved to strategic locations on the San Antonio River. Nowadays they're in the San Antonio city limits, but back then none of them were (although the town was visible from the Alamo).

The Coahuiltecans were a peaceful hunter-gatherer people, but they had a big problem: the Apache and Comanche tribes, who often attacked them. They were also starting to fall victim to European diseases. These two reasons, plus the prospect of a steady supply of food, help explain why they let themselves be converted and brought to live at the missions.

At the missions, each extended family (20 or so people) was given a two-room space to live along the mission walls. Some crops were grown within the mission, and there were stone, igloo-shaped ovens at each of the four corners of the walls. Each mission had an elaborate irrigation system known as an acequia (and they're still there today).

The missions flourished until the end of the 1700s, when disease and increasing attacks by the Apache and Comanche caused their decline. One by one, they were abandoned. Now they've been partially restored, and they're part of the San Antonio Missions National Historic Park. Recently they've started restoring the intricate paintings on the exterior and interior of the mission churches. They were done mostly in red and yellow (Spain's colors) and blue (the Fransiscans' color).

Pictures to come tomorrow...

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