Proceedings of the Second Annual Mission Research Conference
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Research on the Landscape of the San Antonio Missions: Reflections a Year Later
Joel Gunn, Ph.D.
Environmental and Cultural Services, Inc.
San Antonio, Texas

It seems this is the day for reminiscence. Gil asked me to make a retrospective look at the historical and cultural landscape study which is nearly a year gone now and I have decided to use the occasion as incentive to prepare a paper for publication drawn from the Landscape Study which is for the most part a sort of cultural study in the economic anthropology of the Missions or economic geography of the Missions.

The paper, as I envision it now, will have two parts. The first part will deal with the interaction of the environment and Missions and the second part will have more to do with the cultural backgrounds of the people who came to the Missions and how that influenced their manipulation of that environment and eventually the form of the Missions.

I will just briefly discuss some of the first part of the paper. We found a number of things that I think are of importance to the Missions and I reveal quite a bit about the people who established and built them. They, for instance, built the Missions near to, but not on, important agricultural land, at least agricultural land as defined by their particular agricultural perspectives. On the other hand, they avoided building the Missions on vertic soils; that is, soils that have montmorillonite clays in them that expand and contract with moisture. That bit of foresight probably accounts in part for the fact that the Missions are still standing today.

There are a lot of other things about the establishment of the Missions, where they are located and so on, that are important to understand. For instance, they did not simply come in and build the Missions. The establishment and building of a Mission was in many cases nearly a two-decade experiment in where to locate the Missions. First attempts place all the Missions within 50 to 100 meters of water. They soon found out that would not work because of flooding in certain areas; they were forced to move some of them away from the flooded plain of the San Antonio River.

They also worked on the irrigation canals. The Mission had to be in proper relationship to a set of fields that could be irrigated from a choke point in the San Antonio River. It was a complicated systemic process that had to be worked out.

They had a building program that went along with this. They did not immediately build buildings; they lived in less impressive structures until they decided exactly where the Mission was going to be and then they built rock structures.

The thing that I would like to discuss in some detail with you today comes from the paleographic studies of documents from the Mission period. There was an Early and Late Mission Period, which are best separated by about 1760. At least climatically those two periods are very different. The earlier one is rather warm and probably conducive to the Spanish type of agriculture and after 1760 conditions deteriorated quite a bit toward a colder regime which was what we know climatically as the Little Ice Age. I think that some of the more interesting things about the study had to do with how that change of conditions affected the Missions.

Another aspect of the environment that pertains is the valleys contained a soft sandy soil that was easily worked. Immediately adjacent to those soils were uplands which have clays, and are much more difficult to work than the Blackland Prairies.

Into this physical setting came the ideas about how Missions should be constructed and lived in from a number of sources. The most obvious was the Spanish, who initiated the concept of the Missions. Their architectural roots stemmed from one of the melting pots of Europe.

During the reported history of Spain, it has received influences from Romans, Moors, and medieval religious orders, to name a few. This includes landscaping and agricultural methods, of course. The Moors played the preeminent role in laying the groundwork for post-Middle Age of Spain's technology.

Particularly important were the irrigation systems whose character shows Roman influence and contains elements as old as the Mediterranean agriculture itself in the Near East. This influence is particularly observed with the use of a scratch plow, a two-oxen affair with a metal tip which more disturbed the soil than plowed it, in the sense of modern agriculture. Such a plow is adapted to the softer soils of the Mediterranean basin.

By the time of the Missions, the mold board plow had been used in the tougher clay soils of Central and Northern Europe for a thousand years. It required eight oxen and was therefore best adapted to use by communal organizations of farmers who could combine their respective yokes of oxen.

The proximity of the clay terraces and the sandy valley bottoms at San Pedro Springs in San Antonio offered the missionaries a discreet set of choices between existing European technologies. The fact that they wholly opted for the scratch plow in irrigation must reflect in part their Mediterranean heritage. Also, the previous experiences of the Spanish in the New World are largely to the south and west in arid environments.

At the time the Missions were established, the warm and dry climate of the early Mission period favored the extension of these techniques into the San Antonio area. On the other hand, mold board-style argiculture was a viable option in Texas soils. The mold board plow and related techniques in farming the hard clays of blackland prairies came with Ango settlers almost exactly a century later. Methods ranged from the classic plow of four yokes of oxen, to crude plowing, which consisted of loosening the soil in some fashion and then chopping seed holes with an axe. Because clay soils hold water longer, irrigation systems are not a necessary component of the Ango system.

You have here two different systems, one adapted to more arid conditions, and one adapted to moister conditions. I think that if you examine the times when those two modes of operation flourished, perhaps you can suggest that the Early Mission Period was a much better time for the arid land, Spanish-type agriculture with the scratch plow and irrigation. When the Angos appeared in the South Texas area in the early 1800s, it was apparently a much moister and cooler period and their techniques were probably adapted to that altered situation.

Some of the ups and downs of the Spanish and Anglo settlements in the area should perhaps be examined in the light of those developments.

Turning to the Missions themselves, one might expect that the landscape design of the grounds of the Missions would show European influence, like the courtyards and fountains and plants. However, limited evidence indicates that the courtyards of the Missions were utilitarian in character, containing chicken coops, horse pens, and so on. Such designs were no doubt concessions to the facts of frontier life. Horses were the primary target of the northern Indians as they came into the area to hunt livestock. It may have also been a factor of the incomplete status of the Missions during their active history.

In spite of such conditions, San José drew praises as one of the most beautiful Missions. San José was the wealthiest and most successful of the Missions and it may be that unrecorded embellishments of the grounds existed. The priests' quarters were frequently finished first and one might speculate that their grounds were attended to, but no evidence has yet emerged to confirm this.

The people who lived in the Indian quarters and worked in the shops at the Missions were quite another matter relative to their cultural heritage. Through the lives of the Missions, there was a continuous influx of Indians from South Texas and these included the so-called Coahuiltecans. They were the earlier inhabitants of the regions, who appear to have arrived around A.D. 1200. The Apaches arrived later as did the Comanches. They all held in common a Stone Age culture which was nowhere more apparent than in the archeology of the Missions.

Excavations of the Missions have shown that the Mission Indians used stone tools as a matter of course in their daily lives. This may reflect in part the difficulty of obtaining metal on the frontier. Metal tools were reworked and recycled in the blacksmith shops until they were worn away.

Inventories of the Mission shops show that at one time there were three hammers among seven shops. On the other hand, the Indians were skilled in the making and the use of stone tools and materials from their manufacture were plentiful in the San Antonio creeks and the outcrops of the Edwards plateau limestones.

Rather than being a dying art, the manufacture and use of stone tools was a dynamic and evolving process during the Mission period. Long triangular stone points were developed during the Mission period, perhaps emulating the metal knives of the Spaniards. The Coahuiltecans were reported to have used a short, powerful bow. The presence of wild game in the bone collections from the Missions excavations suggested bows and arrows and wild game continued to be a part of the diet and practice of the inhabitants.

Scrapers and cutting tools for skinning and processing made of stone are frequently found. The Indians may have even assisted the Spanish in their more modern technology by making gun points for them.

The Indians were not entirely conservative in their technological outlook. They immediately adopted metal and ceramic containers imported or locally manufactured by the Spanish, apparently containers of Spanish origin which were superior to anything the Indians possessed.

With regard to historic sequences of the Missions, the individual Missions were not founded at the same time, nor did they develop in concert. They are, however, parallel between the development of the various Missions. The sequences of development can be discussed in general. The first priority of a new Mission was to establish a workable irrigation system, and I discussed that a minute ago and do not need to reiterate that.

A study of the demographic data provided by Father Habig shows that the structures of Missions changed radically over their active period. The early period before 1760 when the Missions were being founded and growing, as characterized by rather normal demography, adults and children in reasonable proportions. The later period reveals a shift toward an older population. Studies of the Missions populations shows a remarkably high infant and child mortality rate, so any disruptions of normal reproductive processes can be expected to cause problems.

As I reported above, there were considerable disruptions in Mission life beginning in the 1760s, due to direct and indirect effects of the notable climatic change. Inspectors' reports before that time note the Missions humming with activity, lands, gardens, ranches, and so on.

During the 1760s the scene changes. The records show substantial concern for military preparations. At San José the Indians practiced military drills every day and considerable interest is expressed in the armaments of the Missions. By the late 1760s, many of the ranches had to be abandoned and looms were no longer mentioned in the reports. There were barely enough people, or not enough people, to care for the gardens and fields. Military drills were no longer mentioned, although guards were posted.

There was an aging of the population. Only those persons who remembered the prosperous years of the Missions remained to tend their decline. What population there was at the Missions was augmented by Europeans and mulattos.

Some kind of disease, perhaps respiratory in nature, is reported almost every other year during the 1780s which, according to Governor Caballo, was related to the cool and wet winters. Naturally, other factors were involved in the decline of the Mission. In 1785, the Spanish governor of New Mexico concluded a treaty with the Comanches which shifted the interests of the Spanish government away from San Antonio, the center of control for the northern Indians. This resulted in the reduction of military staff and competence of administrators in San Antonio.

Also, secularization of the Missions began in the 1770s which appears to have changed the course and momentum of the Missions. These actions, combined with deterioration of the environment from the perspective of the Mission system of agriculture in a wide way appears to have weakened the Spanish presence in South Texas and prepared the way for Anglo settlers with another technology better adapted to that cooler and wetter Little Ice Age conditions.

It is of interest that impetus to Anglo settlement west of the Appalachians is also in part related to climatic change. Very cool climate in the first quarter of the 1800s, especially 1816, the co-called year without summer, convinced many to look for land in the central lowlands of North America and in the south. Probably a lot of that momentum ended up in San Antonio, naturally.

Joel Gunn, Ph.D.
Environmental and Cultural Services, Inc.
San Antonio, Texas
Photo courtesy of Environmental and Cultural Services, Inc.

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Last Updated: 24-Apr-2011