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 site of the City of San Antonio. They converted American Indians to Christianity, acculturated them to the European lifestyle, and made them Spanish citizens. The Spanish Franciscans established the first mission in 1718 and built five missions along the San Antonio River within 13 years.
Eventually, 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 of the American Southwest. Today, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park preserves the history of Spanish Texas and the American Indians with whom the Spanish interacted when they arrived. The park includes four Catholic missions the Spanish erected along the San Antonio River-- Espada, Concepcion, San José, and San Juan.
Mission San Francisco de la Espada was the first mission the Spanish erected in Texas. The original Mission San Francisco de los Tejas was founded in 1690 and is partially in ruins today. In 1731, the Spanish moved the mission to the San Antonio River. At Espada, historical records offer great insight into the mission lifestyle, which resembled Spanish villages and culture and was sustained by the work of American Indians. The Spanish taught the Indians skills in farming, carpentry, and weaving to help feed and clothe the mission residents, and constructed mission buildings and aqueducts. The Spanish also taught the natives a specialized system of agriculture through an irrigation method using Espadas, aqueducts that are still in use today. The San Antonio community in Texas continues to use the Espada mission church and the aqueducts.
Dedicated in 1755 and completed in 1760, Mission Concepcion remains today, offering an image of colonial architecture during the period of Spanish occupation in Texas. Of the four San Antonio missions in the park, Concepcion is of great significance as the command center of the Father President, who was the chief proprietor of Texas’ Queretaran missions. The old stone church consists of 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 Concepcion is in the shape of a crucifix. The still standing convent or convento influenced the design of most mission convents built throughout California.
Known as the “Queen of the Missions,” Mission San José, the largest of the San Antonio Missions, underwent extensive restoration supported by the Federal Government in the 1930s. The preservation of San José, which demonstrates the nation’s devotion to conserving the missions, is an example of the many social and economic programs of the Works Projects Administration during the Great Depression. The church, convent, mill, and granary the missionaries completed in 1782 have original stonework, frescos, and sculptures for visitors to view.
Mission San Juan de Capistrano was originally in east Texas but the Spanish moved the mission to San Antonio in 1731. San Juan de Capistrano’s church, friary, and granary on this second site date from 1756. The mission's historical records and archeological studies have provided great insight into understanding the development of the mission. San Juan is the only one of the San Antonio Missions to have arches in its structural design. Constructed around 1772, the arches continue to raise questions about the reasons why the missionaries decided to fill in the arches that were once open.
Mission San Juan de Capistrano also has two restored Indian quarters the pueblo Indians built within the mission compound. The Indian homes are jacales or huts made with adobe--a mixture of mud and straw baked together to make bricks. The San Juan de Capistrano missionaries benefited greatly from their American Indian neighbors, who provided the mission with food and game. Because a surplus of food was available to supply other missions and presidios, San Juan's economy began to thrive through a successful trade network that stretched from Mexico to Louisiana.
Visitors to San Antonio Missions National Historical Park can tour the four historic Spanish missions and enjoy the interpretive exhibits in the visitor center at Mission San José. The grist mill and aqueduct at Mission San José are other attractions. The four mission churches within the park are active Catholic parishes that hold regular services.
San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, a unit of the National Park System, is composed of four missions located in separae 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 Concepcion 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, Christmas, and New Year’s Day 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.
Mission Espada and Mission Concepcion 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 Concepcion, and Mission San Juan. The San Antonio Missions are also featured in the National Park Service South and West Texas 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.