Early Investigations of the San Antonio and Other Missions in Texas: A Historical and Archeological Review
Curtis Tunnel, Director
Texas Historical Commission
I would like to begin by echoing what Father Janacek had to say, that the creation of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park I think I got the name right is a dream come true for a great number of people who labored for decades to try to bring that about. I am pleased to have had a very small part in that undertaking.
I think the Missions Park is just a small focal point for our extensive Hispanic heritage in Texas.
I would like to give you one little hot tip here before I start. Yesterday afternoon I signed a letter announcing a grant of $50,000 from the Historical Commission for restoration work at the Missions and if the Post Office does their usual good work, you will have that letter within a couple of weeks.
I got up real early this morning, after staying up late last night and listening to the Texas Playboys down at Aquafest play San Antonio Rose. I could not resist staying up late for that. I got up real early this morning and sat down to make some notes and list some Spanish Colonial sites in Texas that I have done various kinds of work at through the years and have some stories to tell about.
Well, it turned out that my list got down to 30 different sites. Obviously, in the time allotted to me, I cannot do a very good job of telling a story about every one of those so I am going to be selective and pick a few and maybe at some future time I can bend your ear about some others.
Back in the late '50's, I worked with a man named Ed Jelks, who is an archaeologist and who had been interested in Spanish sites for many years. He had worked down at Falcon Reservoir when it was being built and had worked on some Spanish sites there and he first introduced me to various kinds of Spanish artifacts and sites and the importance of these sites.
He and I spent a great amount of time in the late '50's, early '60's, visiting and looking for a variety of Spanish Colonial sites across Texas. We came to the conclusion that two of our most important Spanish Colonial sites in Texas lie just across the Rio Grande in Mexico and just across the Sabine in Louisiana. Perhaps someday we will annex those sites.
In the early '60's I got a phone call I was working at the Texas Memorial Museum, and I got a phone call from out at Real County and the people said, "We have just taken some machinery and graded out the site of Mission San Lorenzo. We stacked all the rocks and everything and now we are going to rebuild it. What should we do next?"
I said, "Well, don't do anything right now and I will come out and look at it."
I went out and they had done just exactly that. They had leveled a very important Spanish Colonial site occupied in the 1760's, but fortunately they had stopped a few inches above the floors of most of the buildings. Working with Dr. Newcomb, we got a small grant and in those days, $2,000 went a long ways. The University of Texas gave us $2,000 and we went out and hired the Falcon Brothers there in Campwood and proceeded over the next few months to do extensive excavation there at Mission San Lorenzo de la Santa Cruz. We recovered a great amount of information about that site which was only occupied for a very brief period in the 1760's.
Another early site that I visited and was fascinated with I got a call from Maury Maverick about 1965 and he said, "I know a family down in Guerrero at San Juan Bautista and I am going down there and thought you might want to go along."
I said, "Yes, I sure do." We went down and spent the night and had a very pleasant trip there in San Juan Bautista. We stayed in a house that had a viga that said, "Viva Fernando, rey de las Españas." I could hardly believe that things like that I had been looking at ruins of Spanish Colonial sites all those years and I could hardly believe the condition of those buildings.
The next morning we got up early and they brought in a wagon hitched behind a team and we got in that and they took us down to the ford across the Rio Grande. There is a beautiful rocky ledge there, natural ford, and there is a big stone, natural stone, that has been set up by this crossing as a it looks like a flood marker or something. Most of the people that came into Texas during the Spanish period came across that ford.
I enjoyed very much visiting and photographing and looking around the site of San Juan Bautista.
I have spent many days searching for the site of San Clemente out on the Río Conchos and the Río Colorado unsuccessfully. I hope someday some of you will follow through and will find that site.
I did go one time I got a call from Ike Connor up at Texas Tech, a historian, and he said, "I have found Mendoza's Bastion out on the San Saba."
I said, "I will meet you out there." We went out and sure enough, there was a big rock alignment and some little circular features and he was convinced; he announced this was Mendoza's Bastion.
We did some archeological investigation and I told Ike, "Well, my best conclusion is that this was probably the place where they kept the horse herd from Presidio San Sabá," which is a little ways down the river.
We also found some 19th century fort artifacts from Fort McKavett and it may have been reused by the soldiers from Fort McKavett. I said that would be my guess, rather than this being related to the Mendoza Expedition.
Well, Ike went ahead and eventually published his story about Mendoza's Bastion and he said the archeologists came out and did investigations, but he did not go on and say what my conclusion was about that particular site.
Presidio Ahumada, which lies down at the mouth of the Trinity River I got a call one time from Mr. Clay, an amateur historian in Houston. He had found a map in the British archives that clearly showed the location of Presidio San Augustíne and Mission La Lúz there at the mouth of the Trinity.
I went down and almost everything that could happen to a site had happened to that one. An Interstate highway went through it; they had dug some big pits for fill there on the highway. There were seven big pipelines carrying various petroleum products all through the site area. In spite of all the disturbance, we were able to find hundreds of Spanish artifacts and demonstrate conclusively, archeologically, that this was the site of Presidio San Augustíne de Ahumada.
I will skip down and I am trying to be selective, which is kind of hard to do.
One of our early investigations in San Antonio was at Mission San Antonio de Valero when the Daughters of the Republic of Texas were going to put in a sprinkler system. We asked them to let us go in and do some archaeological work. John Greer, Mardith Schuetz were involved in that early work there. At that time I had begun working for the State of Texas under the State Building Commission and Admiral Neiman was head of it.
He said, "Look, to survive with something like an archeological program in state government, you have got to do something spectacular."
The Alamo came along right at the right time and we did some excavating and did find extensive deposits just full of all kinds of artifacts, going back to the first Colonial occupation. We also found adobe foundations and other things of importance there.
Of course, eventually we also did archeological work at Mission San Juan. The Archdiocese was going to do some restoration work with O'Neil Ford's firm and Mardith Schuetz wanted to do the archeological work. Well, we went and talked to Archbishop Fury and I told him, "I have about $4,000 that we could put into archaeological work there." He was kind of taken aback and said, "Well, people are always coming after money, but no one has ever come and said they have got some money they were going to put into the Missions." He was very supportive of that early archeological work at Mission San Juan.
We also did limited archeological work at San José and Concepción looking for the wall across the road over there. I am very pleased to know that that street is finally to be moved outside the compound at Mission Concepción.
Dan Scurlock and John Clark were some of the archaeologists that worked on those sites. We did very limited work at Mission Espada and, of course, worked beneath the floors at San Fernando Cathedral when they took up some of the terrazzo floors. Dan Scurlock did work there and found interesting artifacts and part of an adobe foundation. A de la Garza coin and various other things were found there at San Fernando. There was quite a bit of involvement here in San Antonio.
Jumping back around to some other parts of the state, in the late '60's we got involved down on Padre Island with the 1554 shipwrecks. You all remember that Jerry Sadler controversy. You know, that incident led in part to the creation of the Texas Antiquities Committee and that Committee has been in court with Platoro ever since then. They are still in court at the present time on the suit over materials recovered from those shipwrecks.
The state eventually went in and recovered extensive collections from a second wreck and I hope you all have seen those in an exhibit that traveled around. That collection has now been placed with the Corpus Christi Museum and will be placed on permanent exhibit there at Corpus Christi.
The case with Platoro has been appealed to the United States Supreme Court and we will know sometime this fall if it will be heard by the Supreme Court.
As a result of part of the work on the shipwrecks I can tell you some interesting stories about the work on those also, but I do not have time right now. We became involved in recovery of documentary type of information from various archives. I remember one memorable trip made with Father Leutenegger and Pete DeVries and Monsignor Janacek and I think perhaps Father Habig we all went down to Mexico and took a microfilm camera to microfilm documents in Zacatecas and Queretaro. The first gas station we stopped at over there at midnight that night the electric window went down and refused to come back up. It died down in the door.
Well, it was pouring rain so we went the rest of that trip with a Pemex box taped over that window on that side of the car. We went down and worked long hours, all hours of the night and day, microfilming and untying bundles of documents and microfilming them there at Zacatecas and then at Celaya, which is where much of the historic documentation of the Queretaro archives is located.
I remember one time we had been working real late in the evening and we had been working long hours and so I walked out on a little balcony there in the convent at Celaya. I needed fresh air because we had been so steeped in the history of the documents. I looked down went out to get a little fresh air, and I looked down and there was a bright light and there was a bingo game going on right in the plaza. There were tables covered with all of these brightly colored things and a bright electric light hanging over it and the announcer was saying, "Everything in this bingo game is pure plastic." They were so proud and I thought of the contrast between the modern world there and the historic world that we were living in inside the convent.
Also, work was done in the Spanish archives by people like Sister Mary Christine Morkovsky and Dave McDonald who went and recovered various documents relating to San Antonio and the San Antonio Missions from the archives in Spain.
I could mention many other sites: Mission Rosario, Presidio San Sabá, Presidio La Bahía and Mission Espíritu Santo in Goliad, Fort San Luis and La Bahía down on the coast; Mission Valley, all of these sites we have done various kinds of investigations on through the years.
In the Presidio area, some of the early archeological work on Mission sites in Texas took place at some of the early these were Indian villages when the Spanish came there to La Junta de los Rios. They were very successful agricultural villages. We since have worked several times looking at it and investigating those sites. About six months ago we learned that one of them, believe it or not, was threatened by a housing development. It is kind of hard to think that outside of Presidio there is a housing development threatening a site, but that is the case.
Bob Mallouf, one of our archeologists, has been out there many times in the last few months and we are about to work out an agreement where those three very important Colonial sites will be donated to the state for permanent preservation as historic areas.
I have spent a lot of hours looking for the temporary sites of some of the missions at Barton Springs up at Austin, and never did find a single potsherd there. I looked at San Marcos and worked with Dr. Billy Poole, an historian there, and walked and looked and never found a single potsherd there, either. We also made an extensive search for Nuestra Señora del Pilar de Bucareli over where the old road from San Antonio to Los Adaes crosses the Trinity River. There was an extensive settlement there at one time, Spanish settlement, and I have looked and dug post holes and spent many hours. I also hired a crop duster to take me up and thought, well, maybe if I can't find it on the ground, I can see it from the air.
This crop duster took me up and we went over and he would put that plane right over on its side and say, "There, look down there," and I was trying to point my camera and take pictures. We took a lot of pictures around that area, hoping that something I also took infrared photographs, hoping something might show up.
All was to no avail. When we went back to land in this cropdusting plane, we came along and he turned up on the side and said, "There's our landing strip." Well, that little paved strip was about eight feet wide and about 200 yards long and he came down in this plane and when he started getting close to the ground the nose of the plane came up I think it was a Lindbergh model, where you could not see the strip, and he came down and the nose of the plane came up and he hit that little paved strip perfectly and stopped just as we got to the end of it.
I have a lot of confidence in cropdusters.
I will tell you one more quick story about Presidio Aqua Verde. I went there one time with a veteran of the 1910 Revolution, an elderly gentleman who took me over and after considerable work and many dirt roads and going through fences, we finally did find the site of Presidio Aqua Verde. The site was made up of beautiful ruins with mounds of debris as much as three meters in height and with Spanish pottery and everything all over, littering the surface.
The next day I wanted to get some aerial photographs there so I got a guy in Del Rio to take me up and he seemed real nervous about it. We took off and started for Aqua Verde and he stayed right about tree top height all the way over there. I kept thinking we were going to find a high mesquite tree and not make it over it, but we went over and did take some real nice photographs of the square plan of the Presidio with the bastions on the corners and it showed up very clearly from the air.
We came back again and he went right down to a mesquite tree top height, and came back in and landed. Well, there was a Customs agent waiting for us. I guess they thought we had made some kind of a run over to Mexico for a nefarious purpose, so they looked us over real carefully and I think that is what the pilot was nervous about.
I believe my time has probably expired. I have enjoyed reminiscing a little bit with you about our extensive and very important Hispanic heritage here in Texas. I hope that I will be able to visit with you again sometime in the future.
Last Updated: 24-Apr-2011