Spanish Texas —Part II

In 1718, the Spaniards situated their new mission midway between the East Texas presidios and the “way-station” mission at San Antonio de Valero near the San Antonio River —150 miles northeast of Coahuila. This was Tonkawa territory [1].  At first, the San Antonio mission was unimportant —serving as no more than a backup to the main effort further east.  The Spaniards sited two additional missions near the coastal end at Rosario and Refugio.

In planning these missions, the Spanish considered the native populations surrounding them. Only one of these missions survived, however, and none achieved their primary directive: to reduce Indian culture and increase Spanish power.  The Tonkawa refused to accept Christianity much less Spanish serfdom —and why should they? Meanwhile, the French were busy displaying their skills in providing insight to the Indians as to what the Spanish had in store for them —and one thing more: the Tonkawa had the power to resist.  The French sold the Indians firearms.

The fact of French traders circulating among native populations infuriated the Spanish, whose policy it was to deny firearms to Indians.  Still, the Spanish were powerless to do anything about the French, and St. Denis continued to exercise his considerable influence over the Hasinai, which kept them from adopting Spanish ways.  So effective were St. Denis’ policies that even years after his demise, French traders continued to maintain them.  Meanwhile, measles, smallpox, and other European diseases took a heavy toll on the natives.  By the middle of the eighteenth-century, the Caddo Hasinai were in rapid decline; in another 50 years, they had almost completely disappeared —unwittingly killed by those who came to save their souls.

Tonkawa 001

The Tonkawa consumed their enemies.

Mission San Antonio de Valero never attracted any Indians at all.  The Tonkawa adopted a policy of ignoring the Spanish.  In order to utilize Indians for labor, Spanish friars had to import them from Coahuila, but these were a lazy lot and their spirit already broken. They would stay and work for as long as there were gifts —and when fed— but even when they had received their food and gifts, they often melted away —or died.  In the southeast, the Karankawa also concluded that the Spanish were bad medicine.  They too fled back into the coastal marshes.  They sent clear messages to the Spaniards by killing them at every opportunity. They too avoided European settlements.

It is true that Spanish settlements took hold near Nacogdoches, but these were based on a small number of Spanish/Mexican settlers who constructed small, struggling communities. Without Hispanicized Indians, Spanish missions could not flourish and more to the point, Spain’s refusal to establish legitimate trade with their French neighbors stunted economic growth and forced the missions to depend on New Spain for resupply.  What the Spanish wanted, of course, was the best of all possible worlds; a purely Hispanic province in Texas, from which all profit accrued to their own interests, never once realizing that a robust trade with French settlements would foster an interest in colonial adventurism and increase their profits.

Mission San Antonio de Valero 1785In the same year that the Spanish founded Mission San Antonio de Valero, the French established the settlement of New Orleans.  San Antonio had a distinct advantage over the other missions: its location.  San Antonio was closest to New Spain and situated near a flowing river. Approaching the settlement from the south, San Antonia was an oasis appearing out of a bleak desert.  The area offered abundant irrigation water, rich pasture land, plentiful building stone, and access to useable timber.  San Antonio, situated just below the Balcones Escarpment, had a mild, dry, healthful climate, with pleasant winters and bearable summers —and because San Antonio was not unlike the climate of Spain, its location was attractive to Spain’s priests and soldiers.  Moreover, San Antonio did not have to (regularly) contend with hostile Indians.

Spain’s decision to construct San Antonio de Valero was no accident.  St. Denis stopped there with his Spanish cohorts, noting in his journal that it was an ideal place for a settlement.  Initially, the Spanish intended the mission as a way-station between New Spain and the East Texas missions that St. Denis also inspired. The friars who established Mission Valero were Franciscans who had served at several locations in northern Mexico before the Marqués dispatched them across the Rio Bravo del Norte [2] into Texas.  When the Franciscans arrived, they brought with them a considerable number of Coahuiltecan, giving them the advantage of having a pool of incorporated Indians to perform labor and who were able to communicate to others the benefits of the Spanish-Indian life style.

Juchereau St. Denis 001

Juchereau St. Denis

In the aftermath of St. Denis’ arrest and escape from Mexico in 1721, Marqués Valero strengthened San Antonio by incorporating it into the province of Coahuila.  He sent 54 soldiers to construct a strong presidio, named San Antonio de Béxar (also Béjar) after the Duke of Béjar, a brother of the Marqués de Valero (killed while fighting against the Turks).  Even though the construction of the fort was incomplete, energetic friars finished a series of stone missions along the river.

Initially, the Spanish contingent consisted of friars, soldiers, and four (4) settlers.  By 1726, the settlement had a non-population of two hundred men, women, and children.  As for the Indians from Mexico, they demonstrated no great interest in performing labor.  But what occurred in San Antonio after 1718 is vital to understanding the history of Spanish/Mexican Texas.  It illustrates all the virtues and inherent faults of Spain’s colonial efforts in North America.

Spanish religious orders had hundreds of years of experiences working alongside the Spanish military.  Consequently, when the Franciscans of San Antonio de Valero requested a Spanish garrison, they made it very clear they wanted a qualified contingent.  The friars wanted men of pure Spanish race, possessing high moral character, and married.  To avoid more “mixed blood” on the frontier, they wanted the families of these men to accompany them.  The settlers, too, must be of high character for otherwise they might have a bad effect on efforts to Christianize local populations.

I can only imagine the look on the face of the Marqués de Valero when he received these demands. How would it be possible to create a garrison of men wholly comprised of saints?  Even if that were possible, all Mexican soldiery was mercenary —men who became soldiers in order to escape a worse fate.  As with the Romans 1,500 years earlier, the Spaniards learned that employing mercenaries resulted in the loss of martial devotion found among gentleman warriors.  Over time, “gutter Spanish” and “so-called Spaniards” replaced the noble fighters. As a result, military discipline in the Spanish army was considerably worse than within other European armies.  The conquistadores had always been an undisciplined lot, but they made up for this through their military fanaticism.  By this time, however, disciplinarians like Coronado were long dead.

Franciscan FriarsThe Franciscans of San Antonio de Valero were not at all pleased by the quality of the garrison they finally received from Mexico City. Half of the soldiers arrived unmarried. Most of those who were married left their families in Mexico and none of the soldiers were “pure blood” Spaniards. Worse, the soldiers fell into one of three categories: half-breeds, outlaws, or no-accounts.  The friars responded to this affront by keeping their Indians away from soldiers, even to the point of refusing to allow mission Indians to serve the soldiers.  This was the reason construction of the presidio was unfinished.  The relationship between military and mission deteriorated further when the friars isolated Indian women away from the soldiery.

Neither was there any harmony between the church and its flock: the Coahuiltecan, while not resistant to conversion, was an unwilling worker.  These Indians required an inordinate amount of supervision from the friars, who had other things to do.  Indians didn’t understand the point of disciplined work.  In Indian culture, life was simple: in fat years, everyone eats; in lean years, everyone starves.  In any case, the Indians exhibited no ambition, no “joy in their work,” and this frustrated the high-energy friars.

But there was something more going on among the Indians.  They too began dying from European diseases.  Their birthrates decreased.  Completely overwhelmed by Spanish civilization, the Coahuiltecan became a broken people.  With their old ways destroyed, they became completely apathetic to life in the Spanish mission system.  Their choices were these: work to death, become a fugitive, or die at the hands of hostile Apache.  Death was the only escape these Indians had.

By 1750, the Spanish had constructed five missions in the San Antonio area.  And, while each of these employed around two hundred Indians, there was never a second generation of mission Indians.  Each of the friar’s successive ten-year plans failed.  At no time did any Church official re-think what they were doing.  Some of the best minds of the Spanish Empire investigated the situation in Texas and concluded that the missionary effort was failing.  Despite this, the Church’s influence prevailed.  The one consistency of the Church throughout this period was its steadfast refusal to accept reality.  Rather than facing up to the effects of incorporation, they instead blamed the Indians.  This trend became an important symptom of the decline of Hispanic society.

The Spanish settlers requested by the Franciscans finally arrived in 1731.  It was a group of ten families, among them five newly-weds. They arrived from the Canary Islands —fifty-six Spaniards in all, subsidized by the Crown.  Historians believe they were people exiled to the Canary Islands from Spain because they were political radicals.  It was life in those barren islands that may have induced them to volunteer for the Texas frontier —at a time when almost every Spanish civilian in Mexico declined to go to Texas.

In addition to generous financial subsidies, the King was pleased to honor them with the status of hidalgo [3] (Fijo d’Algo), translated from old Spanish meaning the son of someone important. The designation was a genuine title of breeding, held by him and his descendants in perpetuity.  It was a measure of how desperate the Crown was to settle the frontier.  It was also a huge mistake.

Among Spaniards, birthright is a serious issue and probably taken far more seriously than anywhere else in Europe.  The Canary Islanders took their new titles completely to heart.  Being a hidalgo in Spain, or even New Spain, offered social advantages.  Importantly, this designation separated its recipients from the working class, but on the Texas frontier it ended up being a ridiculous situation.  Men of dignity did not perform common labor, but that is precisely why the Viceroy sent them to Texas to begin with.

The islanders arrived in the San Antonio region expecting to find a town, and a deferential population over which they might serve as part of the elite.  Instead they found no town; it was up to them to build one, plant crops, provide food to the missions, and accomplish all these things without the benefit of Indian labor.  They arrived as a privileged class totally without funds only to find that there was no one to support them.  In effect, the islanders became indentured servants and none of them liked it.  One of these men signed his name as follows:

Juan Leal Goraz, Spaniard and Noble Settler by order of His Majesty (Whom God Guard) in this Royal Presidio of San Antonio de Béjar and the Villa of San Fernando, Province of Texas, and present Senior Regidor of the said villa, also a farmer.

Unfortunately for the colony, Goraz and the others viewed their function in the same way. They performed no labor.  Instead of carving a flourishing community out of the wilderness, the hidalgos went native.  They became hunters, fishers, loafers, and in some cases, smugglers and thieves.  It was possible to raise a few beans without much effort, and Spanish cattle were omnipresent in the fields around Béxar.  The Spanish hidalgos could eat without great difficulty while enjoying the splendid climate amid beautiful scenery.

The two-sided conflict between missionaries and soldiers now became a three-sided war. The islanders wrote bitter letters to the Viceroy protesting the fact that the missionaries monopolized the best land, isolated Indians from performing labor, and allowed their cattle to roam untended.  The friars wrote letters, too.  They described the hidalgos as indolent and given to vice, unworthy of the blessings of the new land.  Neither were the Franciscans happy that the King had wasted 80,000 pesos to move the hidalgo to San Antonio; he ought to have given that money to the Church.

The battle continued as the settlers became spies for the viceroy in Mexico City: they reported that the friars weren’t getting anywhere with the Indians.  They wondered if someone might investigate what was going on within the missions.  The situation was bad enough that the hidalgos even demanded their own parish church and their own priest.

The concerns of the settlers were well-founded.  A few Indians became sufficiently Hispanicized to take up a life like that of the elite.  Over time, the friars forced more than a few soldiers to wed Indian women who were with child —and the mestizo community began growing.

The fact that the hidalgos married within their own circle soon resulted in cleavages in society. It was all part of the intricate class and caste of Spanish society.  Spaniards born in the old country outranked everyone else, even though they too ranked according to birth and station.  Next came criollos (also, creoles) of pure race who had the misfortune of birth within the colonies.  Below the Spanish elite was a complex range of mixed blood people, some classified as Spanish, but not treated as such.  Indians placed at the bottom of this complicated hierarchy.  Such designations may hardly have mattered in Mexico City, but systemic discrimination became a large issue in the small settlement of San Antonio de Béxar.  It was an isolated community in New Spain, a socially divided settlement prohibited from trading with French Louisiana by royal decree, an enterprise denied access to a labor pool needed to expand agricultural production.

The gem of Spanish Texas floundered.

(Continued next week)


  1. Burkholder, M. A. Spanish Empire, Encyclopedia of Latin-American History and Culture, 1996
  2. Thomas, H. Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, Columbus to Magellan, New York: Random House, 2003
  3. Maltby, W. The Rise and Fall of the Spanish Empire, London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2009
  4. Valencia-Himmerich, R. and Joseph P. Sanchez. The Encomiendas of New Spain, 1521-1555: Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991
  5. McKendrick, M. Spain: A History, New York: Horizon Books, Electronic Edition
  6. Phillips, Jr., W. D., and Carla R. Phillips. A Concise History of Spain (Second Edition): Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010, 2016
  7. Fehrenbach, T. R.Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans from Prehistory to the Present: Austin, Da Pao Press, 1968, 2000
  8. Liss, P. K. Mexico Under Spain: Society and the Origins of Nationality, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975


[1] Owing to their practice of cannibalism, the Tonkawa Indians were repugnant to both early settlers and other Indian tribes.

[2] In the United States, Rio Grande.

[3] The term may offer an interesting perspective to Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, the priest who became known as the “father of Mexican Independence.”

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
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3 Responses to Spanish Texas —Part II

  1. Andy says:

    Interesting article on the successes and failures (mostly failures) on the old missions in Texas. Well done.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Mexican California and the Bear Flag Revolt | Old West Tales

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