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San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

San Antonio, Texas

Mission San José Church

Mission San José Church
Courtesy of Steven Martin, Flickr's Creative Commons

In the 16th century, Spanish missionaries and soldiers began moving north out of the Valley of Mexico to found missions and presidios. The Spanish Empire extended its claim in the New World to the land along the San Antonio River, the present day site of the City of San Antonio, converting American Indians to Christianity, acculturating them to the European lifestyle, and making them Spanish citizens. The San Antonio missions played a major role in all aspects of Spanish colonial frontier life as they related to religion, the military, culture, and agriculture. The Franciscans established the first mission in San Antonio, the San Antonio de Valero Mission, also known as The Alamo, in 1718. A second mission, Mission San José, was constructed two years later a few miles downstream from Mission Valero. About a decade later, three other missions, which had first been in East Texas, were relocated to San Antonio. The park includes four of the missions in San Antonio-- Espada, Concepción, San José, and San Juan and parts of the irrigation systems that supported the missions the Spanish erected to help defend, settle, and expand the Spanish frontier into Texas.

This highly significant group of cultural resources brings alive the history of Spanish and Hispanic Texas and the American Indians with whom the Spanish interacted and documents the far-reaching effects of the missions. The park provides visitors an up-close look at the architecture, art, and sculpture of the Spanish colonial period in Texas and an opportunity to learn about the Spanish and the American Indians at the missions. Over time, as American Indians and the Spanish and later Hispanic settlers learned to live and work with each other, their traditions blended to create the distinct culture that is still integral to the American Southwest.

The Spanish founded their first mission in Texas in 1690 near present-day Weches, Texas and named it Mission San Francisco de los Texas. By 1731, the mission moved to the San Antonio River area where it was renamed Mission San Francisco de la Espada. The mission's friary was built in 1745 and its church finished in 1756. Today, the mission is partially in ruins, but its historical records offer great insight into the mission lifestyle, which resembled Spanish villages and culture, sustained by the work of American Indians. The Spanish taught the Coahuitecan Indians, who had a hunting and gathering culture, skills in farming, carpentry, and weaving to help feed and clothe the mission residents, and construct mission buildings and other structures.

The dry climate of southwest Texas made irrigation crucial for growing the crops that would ultimately determine the success of the new missions. Missionaries and Indians built seven gravity-flow ditches, five dams, and an aqueduct in order to distribute water from the San Antonio River over a 15-mile network that covered 3,500 acres of land. Constructed between 1731 and 1745, Espada Aqueduct is the only remaining Spanish structure of its type in the United States. The San Antonio community continues to use both the Espada Mission church and the aqueduct. The missions each had an acequia. This system of irrigation ditches was used to channel water from the river to the orchards and fields where crops such as corn, beans, squash, melons, cotton, sugar cane, apples, peaches, and grapes were grown.

Espada Aqueduct
Espada Aqueduct
Courtesy of the National Park Service

Originally founded in 1716 in what is now eastern Texas, Mission Nuestra Senora de la Concepción de Acuna was one of the missions authorized by the Spanish government to serve as a buffer against the threat of French invasion from Louisiana into Spanish territory. In 1731, the Franciscans transferred the mission to its current site in the San Antonio River area. The mission church, which took 20 years to build and was dedicated in 1755, remains today as an iconic image of the architectural style used in Texas during the Spanish occupation. Concepción is of great significance because it was the headquarters of the Father President, who was the chief proprietor of Texas’ Queretaro missions.

Mission Concepción stands proudly as the oldest, best-preserved stone church in the United States. The massive old stone church in the Mexican Baroque style has two identical bell towers that mark the corners of the church’s entryway. Supporting the entrance door are two columns, with a stone cross above the doorway. The walls of the limestone building are four feet thick, and inside the church, painted on the walls’ plaster or stucco, are still visible colonial decorations or frescos. The overall design of Concepción is in the shape of a crucifix. The vaulted roof has a dome. Recent research suggests the placement of windows was a deliberate attempt to illuminate the two side altars on specific feast days. Still present at the property, its convento influenced the design of most mission convents built throughout California.

The Mission of San José, known as the “Queen of the Missions,” was the largest of the San Antonio Missions and was viewed as the model among the Texas missions. The successful Mission of San José served as the area's social and cultural center and contained about 350 Indian converts at its height. The mission, through the help of the Native American converts, sustained the community with extensive agricultural fields and herds of livestock. By the 1920s and early 1930s, this once thriving mission had fallen into disrepair. Through the help of the San Antonio Conservation Society and the Federal Government's Works Projects Administration, the mission underwent extensive restoration and was rededicated in 1937. The reconstruction of San José during this time demonstrates the nation’s devotion to conserving the missions of San Antonio. The remaining segments of the church, convent, mill, and granary that the missionaries completed in 1782, offer a selection of frescos and sculptures that are examples of the style of the stonework that the nation’s southwestern territories developed during the late 18th century.

Mission San Juan de Capistrano
Mission San Juan de Capistrano
Courtesy of the National Park Service

Mission San Juan de Capistrano was originally founded in east Texas in 1716 to serve the Nazonis Indians; however, the mission proved to be unsuccessful and the Spanish moved anything transportable to the present mission site in San Antonio in 1731. The mission structures on this second site date from 1756 and include San Juan de Capistrano’s church, friary, and granary. The historical records and archeological studies of this mission have provided great insight into understanding the development of the mission.

Mission San Juan de Capistrano has two restored Indian quarters that the Indians built within the mission compound. The Indian homes consisted of jacales or huts, which they made with adobe--a mixture of mud and straw they baked together and used as bricks. The San Juan missionaries benefited greatly from their American Indian neighbors, who provided the mission with cultivated food crops and game. These products eventually helped other missions and presidios, and as the farm produced a surplus of food, San Juan's economy began to thrive through a successful trade network that stretched from Mexico to Louisiana.

Visitors to the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park are welcome to tour the site's four historic Spanish missions and enjoy the interpretive exhibits at the park visitor center located in Mission San José. Visitors can also tour the gristmill and aqueduct at Mission San José. The four mission churches within San Antonio Missions National Historical Park are active Catholic parishes that hold regular services.

Plan your visit

San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, a unit of the National Park System, is composed of four missions located in separate locations in San Antonio, TX. Click for the National Register of Historic Places file: text and photos. Mission San José and the visitor center are located at 6701 San José Dr. Mission Concepción is located at 807 Mission Rd.; Mission San Juan is located at 9101 Graf Rd., and Mission Espada is located at 10040 Espada Rd. All sites at the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park are open daily from 9:00am to 5:00pm, except on Thanksgiving Day, December 25, and January 1, and during special services such as weddings and funerals. There are no admission fees. For more information, visit the National Park Service San Antonio Missions National Historical Park website or call 210-932-1001.

The Espada Aqueduct and Mission Concepción have been designated as National Historic Landmarks. Many components of the National Historical Park have been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey, including the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park Site Plan, Mission Espada, Mission San José, Mission Concepción, and Mission San Juan. The San Antonio Missions are also featured in the National Park Service South and West Texas Travel Itinerary and in the Places Reflecting America's Diverse Cultures: Explore their Stories in the National Park System Travel Itinerary. San Antonio Missions National Historical Park is also the subject of the online lesson plan, San Antonio Missions: Spanish Influence in Texas. The lesson plan has been produced by the National Park Service’s Teaching with Historic Places program, which offers a series of online classroom-ready lesson plans on registered historic places.

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