Proceedings of the Second Annual Mission Research Conference
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Identifying the San José Acequia and the Need to Preserve its Existing Parts: An Exercise in Archival Research
Richard Garay, Archival Specialist
San Antonio, Texas

I am just going to pull my maps and I am going to speak from some maps I have constructed. — Can you see from there, most of you? I may need just a little bit of help.

The San José acequia is one of the longest of all seven acequias that we have here in San Antonio. Over 263 years ago, the need for irrigating the crops at Mission San José became a high priority. The Franciscan friars who established the early Missions built one of the most remarkable systems of irrigating canals, or acequia, which means irrigation canal.

Considering the times and the hardships under which they labored, the Franciscans, when one stops to picture the harsh character of the frontier wilderness in which these friars had to survey for a suitable location for their acequia, it is astounding. A previous speaker referred to a big thicket. In San Antonio, this was largely a big thicket as well.

How these friars could possibly go up the river two or three miles above each Mission and find the proper spot at which to divert the water from the river into the canal and then maintain a proper gradation for the water to continuously flow, you have to just walk the original portions that are left of our river to imagine the skill that that required.

To this present day, in one of our acequias water is still flowing, based on where these friars chose to locate the acequia, and that was the Espada ditch.

They dug seven, as I said, major acequias and at least one other which was a minor acequia, the Acequia de los Moches. It was down there near La Villita.

There were some very large lateral branches that extended from the main or madre ditch, and some of these laterals can still be identified today. One down there by Mission Concepción and several down there near Military Drive.

These early inhabitants of San Antonio were guided by some very skilled priests and religious brothers, in each instance with remarkable accuracy, and they trenched out each acequia. One of the speakers, I forget who it was, spoke of oxen pulling a specific type of plow. That is how they did them. The oxen broke the biggest part of the dirt and the Indian laborers came behind them with walnut shovels, because they moistened in dirt and they shoveled with walnut shovels because with walnut wood — mud does not adhere to it, it slips off easily.

In each instance, these priests were able to define the location best suited to draw water. The acequia at San José — the one specifically today that we want to look at — dates from around the year 1724. Now, everybody knows Father Marion Habig's writings and what he tells us of the early Franciscan missionary, Father Nuñez de Haro. Father de Haro is the builder of the first site and second site and the third site, in fact, of Mission San José.

Father de Haro is probably the one who chose the site where the dam was located, and I will point that out to you. General Pedro de Rivera, during his inspection of the northern frontier from 1724 through 1727, speaks of Mission San José. He indicates that there was an abundance of crops that were watered by this acequia. The San José ditch had its origin just inside, just north of the old city limits which would be present day Octavia Street which runs east of South Flores. That was the city limit until on or about 1913.

Remnants of the old wing-type diversion dam survived up until 1958 when the river rechanneling project was undertaken by the United States Corps of Engineers. They redredged and rechanneled what people now, who are not old enough to remember the original river, call the San Antonio River. What we have now is just a big drainage trench outlined in pink on my map here (indicating).

Ecologically speaking, as most of the speakers today have been describing, this was a disaster to the ecological balance along the banks and vicinity of the original river. One just has to go to the banks of the new rechanneled river today and count the number of dead trees and you do not have to be an ecologist to know that a dead tree has suffered the loss of water. You will be amazed how many dead trees there are. The water table, you must imagine, was about 45 feet higher on the original San Antonio River than it is now in that big drainage ditch that we now call the river. It was dropped too low beyond the reach of most of those beautiful trees and so they all died.

I have never been able to find the environmental impact study that they did before they dredged the river. I do not believe one was done. Now, all these things may seem like something we have no control over, but being an environmentalist or conservationist or preservationist, whatever you might call yourself, we need more of you. Just recently I was able to head off, with the aid of the Bexar County Historical Commission and with the intervention by the San Antonio Missions National Historical group people, the city's attempt to destroy an existing remnant of our San José Acequia that I will describe to you on the map.

I was astonished when I went to review the National Register of Historic Places in Texas, of which there are 40 in Bexar County — this has been updated; this is the 1979 version of the National Register of Historical Places. None of the acequias are in it. Hangar Nine at Stinson Field is, but none of the acequias. The Espada aqueduct is, but not the Espada acequia.

Figure 1 — Sketch map of the Alazan, Upper Labor, Alamo Madre and San Pedro Acequias in relation to the city of San Antonio.

(click on image for a PDF version)

Figure 2 — Sketch of the approximate courses of the three lower Acequias on the San Antonio River.

That means that there is no state protection for what is left of any of our acequias. The first map I want to point out is 189 years old. When it was drawn, it was on orders of the Brigadier General Don Pedro de Nava who ordered the initial secularization of the San Antonio Missions and, of course, Valero Mission was permanently secularized then, in 1793 or '94.

At that time, they drew all of the acequias and the full length of them and all of the porciones or the apportionment that was going to be made of the Mission crop fields and Mission lands and land grants, one of them being a very big one, a very important one, belonging to Padre Gavino Valdez. His land grant, the northern, north-eastern boundary of his land grant, was the San José acequia. That was the northern boundary of his land grant. It extended all the way to León Creek. This grant comprised a lot of real estate.

Moving along, the other best map that I could locate that was of any value and could give credence to the importance of the San José acequia was Harvey P. Smith's map of the Depression years, 1934 through 1936. The map shows Concepción Mission right here, this little square, and then the distance from it to the dam and the origin of the San José acequia. He was off by over 225 feet, so if you want to try and locate the dam or the origin of the acequia based on this map, you would be off by too far. It also shows the Concepción acequia where it terminates at Riverside Golf Course today.

Now, I will just walk over to the big map. I outlined the original San Antonio River in blue and I put the metes and bounds of the river as best as I could find, as these are old maps.

Moving down along the rest of it, beginning at the Mission Road bridge all the way to the east side, the eastern curve of Roosevelt Avenue, just west of the granary there is 6,780 feet of acequia and all of this is just covered with dirt. However, the San José acequia is essentially gone when one gets to Southcross Street, Mission Road or to Roosevelt Avenue. These first almost 4,000 feet are intact; they are just covered with dirt. That is part of what is now the south part of the city-owned Riverside Golf Course.

Time being short, I will move quickly. This is just a blow-up of a very good scale of what is about 1,400 feet of acequia that surrounds — goes east from Roosevelt Avenue over behind the monastery at San José Mission all the way down to Napier Street. From there almost every inch of the San José acequia now is sadly gone. I drew it also, and there is 6,200 feet of acequia from Napier all the way to where the acequia re-enters the San Antonio River.

This is the scale and you can see the Mission very small, San José Mission, Napier. From here, it would have to be resurveyed because if you follow where Huizar Street is, that is where it sort of makes a loop and then goes south of Military Drive and it terminates back into the river at Mission Burial Park about 300 feet south of Military Drive.

This large drainage channel is what is now the San Antonio River. Now, 3,100 feet southwest of the southwest corner of Mission Concepción was the beginning of a 400-foot-long dam, the San José Dam. The acequia — I have blown this segment up to 60 feet to the inch and this is 100 feet to the inch. From the dam to the Mission Road bridge, we have almost 3,000 of acequia. Of those 3,000 feet, there is like 421 feet that has completely disappeared because of homes being on top of it and the like.

The Concepción arroyo is another important thing that has been rechannelized and all the early deeds and abstracts describe the distance to the dam from the Concepción arroyo and also the distance to the dam from Concepción Mission.

Now, this here is the 60-feet-to-the-inch blow-up that I made. If you were going there today and you wanted to see where the acequia was, this section here was threatened recently by this shaded area which is over 1,000 feet long. The shaded area is landfill. The city decided that they would put dirt there and they did. Now, when they come to remove this dirt they have to be very careful that they do not remove the remaining segments of our acequia. Before this unneeded landfill, there was essentially an undisturbed, original acequia and the original riverbed is also still there.

Richard Garay, Archival Specialist
San Antonio, Texas
Photo courtesy of Richard Garay

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Last Updated: 24-Apr-2011