THE 1983 SEARCH FOR MISSION SAN ILDEFONSO, MILAM COUNTY, TEXAS
Jimmy L. Mitchell, PhD
Region Six Vice President
Texas Archeological Society
During the 1983 Texas Archeological Society (TAS) Field School at Rowe Valley, northwest of Taylor, Texas, a group of TAS members, headed by Dr. Kathleen Gilmore of North Texas State University (and 1983 President of the TAS) conducted field work along the San Gabriel River in Milam County in an attempt to locate and document Missions San Ildefonso and Candelaria as well as the garrison and Presidio. Mission San Ildefonso was located through surface artifacts (majolica fragments, Indian pottery fragments, a brass side plate from a French musket); the location is further southeast than previously thought, at least a mile from the present state historical marker (1936). Several possible sites of Mission Candelaria and the Presidio were examined but none are yet confirmed through artifactual evidence. The possible location of the garrison barracks was identified near the river where several majolica fragments were recovered. Testing was limited by time and a dense crop growth; further testing will probably be done this fall when the crop has been harvested or during the next TAS field school in June 1984.
Last year at the first Annual Research Conference on the San Antonio Missions, the role of avocational archeologists was discussed with reference to Spanish Missions research (Mitchell 1982). In that report, I noted that the avocational archaeologists of southern Texas, and those in the state society (the Texas Archeological Society) were a potentially valuable resource which could and should be used in research on the Spanish Missions of Texas. In this paper, I would like to report on one small project undertaken by members of the TAS which was reasonably successful and which has improved our knowledge of the short-lived San Xavier complex of missions.
The San Xavier missions were founded in January 1746 along what is now called the San Gabriel River in central Texas. In 1745, several groups of Indians appeared in San Antonio requesting that Father Mariano de los Dolores y Viana establish a mission in their country. Father Mariano, along with several mission Indians and soldiers, met Indians of the four groups along with the Cocos on January 7, 1746, at a site along the San Gabriel. By January 19th, he had laid out a church and wrote enthusiastically of the natural abundance of wildlife and plants in the area. Over the next several years, he and others worked to establish three functioning missions in the area.
The San Xavier complex included Mission San Francisco Xavier for several groups related to the Tonkawa (according to a letter from Father Benito to the Marqués de Altamira), Mission San Ildefonso for the Orcoquisacs, Bidais, and Deadose, and Mission Candelaria for the Cocos and their relatives from the Texas coast (Gilmore 1982:5); a Presidio was also approved, to be built to the west near Apache Pass to protect the missions; it was to be manned with 48 soldiers.
These missions ultimately failed, and by August 1755, the people living in the missions had been removed to San Marcos (including 40 Indian neophytes). I will not detail the tragic history of this noble enterprise here (see Bolton 1915; Castaneda 1939; or Gilmore 1969 for a history of the missions). The very rich promise of the San Gabriel area was lost due to drought and human errors; the majority of the Indians who had sought the establishment of the missions drifted back to the wild or to other missions (such as Rosario). In any case, by the end of 1755, the area was abandoned.
Over the centuries, the exact location of the San Xavier Missions was lost. A number of historians recorded the existence of the missions but could only approximate their location (cf Bolton 1915). During the Texas Centennial in 1936, several markers were placed along the San Gabriel in the general area of the missions, but apparently no field excavations were undertaken to verify the exactness of the locations.
In the 1960s, Kathleen Gilmore worked in the area and using a combination of historical data and current topographical features, was able to identify Mission San Francisco on the Felton Farm (X-41 MM 1) in Milam County (Gilmore 1969: See Figure 1). Systematic testing confirmed the site and demonstrated the relationship of Mission walls and a number of burials. Thus, the exact location of this mission was documented through converging evidence from historical data, topographic features, and Spanish Mission period artifacts, as predicted by Gilmore's model (Gilmore 1969). The artifacts recovered included majolica sherds, red burnished ware, beads, mission arrow points, French gunparts, and the burials. Time and the funding available did not permit a confirmation of the other mission sites at that time.
In 1982, the Texas Archeological Society conducted its summer field school at Rowe Valley, about ten miles upriver from the Felton Farm Site. The TAS work at Rowe Valley was focused on the excavation of a late Toyah Phase occupation along the San Gabriel, which probably dates between 1650 and 1750; to date no Spanish artifacts have been recovered at the site which suggests that it probably predates Spanish penetration of this area. Excavations revealed two discrete Toyah occupations and an earlier Austin Phase level as well; the 1982 work was so successful that the group returned to the site in 1983 to continue the excavation.
During the 1982 field school, Dr. Gilmore returned to the Milam County area to search for the other missions. Based on her preliminary results, a separate crew was assigned for the 1983 field school, to attempt to verify the location of the other missions and the garrison or Presidio. During a week in June of this year, our crew of five to seven workers visited a number of sites in Milam County in an attempt to locate and document the San Xavier missions. The target sites had been identified through a search of historical records, by plotting the distances given in a Mission period survey, and through Dr. Gilmore's model for the positive identification of Spanish historical sites. Our 1983 project involved both surface surveys and some subsurface testing.
I am happy to be able to report that we were able to locate Mission San Ildefonso through specific artifactual evidence. The site is on the Leyendecker farm on a hilltop overlooking both the San Gabriel and Brushy Creek valleys (see Figure 2). It is about a mile southeast and on the other side of Highway 908 from the 1936 historical marker purporting to be the location of this mission. We surveyed several fields around Mrs. Leyendecker's house which yielded evidence of relatively recent historic structures. However, in her garden, we located an excellent sample of Spanish period artifacts. These included a number of sherds of majolica pottery, several dark red burnished sherds, Goliad Indian pottery, a mission (or Guerero) arrow point (Hester 1980:106), a small piece of engraved brass (which was identified as a side plate from a French musket), and a variety of flint artifacts (scrapers, flakes, etc.).
Based on this evidence, we believed that we have confirmed the location of Mission San Ildefonso. Much of the site is not available for further investigation since it lies under the farm house and garage. Nonetheless, we have seen enough evidence to verify the Leyendecker farm as the site of San Ildefonso.
For the rest of the week, our crew surveyed sites and dug test pits to attempt to verify the location of Mission Candelaria or the Presidio. Based on local landowner reports, we visited a hilltop site with several lines of stones, which appeared to be the remnants of walls. Stone is rare in the San Gabriel river valley; these stones were a hard yellowish sandstone with some reddened areas. The material is definitely not native to the immediate area. These stone alignments were on the Dorthy Allison farm; Mrs. Allison remembered playing around the "walls" as a child. She was extremely cooperative and gave us permission to dig test pits to examine the area around the stones.
After two days of digging, we had located a hearth area and traced out several lines of stones through the dense undergrowth. No Spanish period artifacts were recovered and some modern artifacts were found approximately fifty to sixty centimeters below the level of the stones (an iron pipe, and several pieces of discarded scrap iron). Since these are definitely recent materials, we concluded that the stone alignments must be of relatively recent times, and we turned out attention to the river valley itself.
In a planted field near the river on the property of Mrs. Lenki, just off State Highway 908, we examined another site which shows considerable promise. Based on earlier work and our estimates of the Spanish survey data, this could be the location of the temporary garrison barracks used by the soldiers. A survey line was laid out at the edge of the field and shallow test pits (50 by 50 cm) were excavated at 25 meter intervals. Several fragments of majolica were recovered and one sherd of Indian pottery as well. The dense crop growth prevented more extensive testing and we ran out of time as well. Based on these preliminary findings, it is possible that we have located the garrison site; however, this needs to be confirmed through additional testing at a time when the crops have been harvested.
Based on one week's work during the 1983 TAS field school, we believe that we have located the site of Mission San Ildefonso on the Leyendecker farm, as well as the probable site of the garrison barracks on the Lenki farm. These findings need to be confirmed with additional evidence, when the sites become available for more extensive testing or excavation. Since the 1984 TAS field school will also be held at Rowe Valley, we are hopeful that additional surveying and testing can yield further data next summer.
Our short, one-week effort by a group of avocational archaeologists working under the guidance of Dr. Kathleen Gilmore, with the active support of the residents of this area of the San Gabriel River, proved valuable. You can not solve all archaeological problems in such a short period, but we have taken a big step forward in locating and documenting this important complex of Spanish Mission sites.
Bolton, H. E.
1915 Texas in the Middle Eighteenth Century. 1961 Edition, Russell and Russell, New York. Castaneda, C. E.
1939 Our Catholic Heritage in Texas, 1519-1936, Vol. 3, The Mission Era; The Missions at Work, 1731-1761. Von Boeckmann-Jones, Austin.
1969 The San Xavier Missions: A Study in Historical Site Identification. State Building Commission, Archaeological Program, Report No. 16.
1982 So Shall Ye Reap: The San Xavier Missions. La Tierra, quarterly journal of the Southern Texas Archaeological Association, Vol. 9, No. 1:3-10.
Hester, Thomas R.
1980 Digging Into South Texas Prehistory. Corona Publishing Co., San Antonio.
Mitchell, Jimmy L.
1982 Avocational Archaeologists and Spanish Missions Research. Paper presented at the First Annual Research Conference on the San Antonio Missions, August 7, 1982.
Last Updated: 24-Apr-2011