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[graphic text] San Antonio Missions National Historical Park
Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo
Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

After Cortes's conquest of Mexico in 1519, the Spanish moved north in search of further riches and potential converts. In present-day Arizona and New Mexico they established missions to work with peaceable American Indians and presidios (forts) to control hostile ones. In the late 1600s the French, already in Canada, explored the Mississippi River to the point where it emptied into the Gulf of Mexico. This expansion posed a threat to Spain's territory and Spain responded by extending its settlements into what is now Texas, thereby creating a buffer between the wealth of Mexico and French Louisiana. The Spanish established themselves in Texas by using the same system they had established in Arizona and New Mexico. Through missions, presidios, and an adjoining civilian community (a villa), missionaries and soldiers Christianized and Hispanicized the native population. During the 18th century, the Spanish established a chain of missions along the San Antonio River. These missions became the foundation for the city of San Antonio.

The San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, administered by the National Park Service, incorporates four 18th-century missions and their acequias, or irrigation systems. The Mission Trail extends eight miles and connects these historic places. The goal of the missions was to spread the Catholic faith among the native inhabitants and to serve as a buffer against expansion by foreign invaders. The missions were primarily religious centers where the Coahuiltecan Indian population was instructed in the Catholic religion and taught European beliefs. Four Spanish frontier missions are preserved here. They include Missions San Jose, San Juan, Espada, and Concepción. Established in 1978, the park encompasses approximately 819 acres, containing many cultural sites along with some natural areas.

Mission Concepción
Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

Mission Concepción (Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purisima Concepción de Acuna) was constructed c.1740 to 1755. The church building remains in essentially original condition and is the oldest unreconstructed stone church in the United States. The interior wall paintings in the convento (missionary quarters), depicting religious symbols, architectural elements, and geometric patterns, are rare surviving elements from this early mission period. Originally founded in 1716 in what is now eastern Texas, the mission was one of six developed by Franciscans to serve as a buffer against the threat of French incursion into Spanish territory from Louisiana. After a tenuous existence and several moves, the mission was transferred to its present site in 1731. Mission Concepción, a National Historic Landmark, is located at 807 Mission Rd. in San Antonio .

The church at Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo, known as the "Queen of the Missions," was constructed between 1768 and 1782. Founded in 1720, the mission was named for Saint Joseph and the Marqués de San Miguel de Aguayo, the governor of the Province of Coahuila and Texas at the time. It was built on the banks of the San Antonio river several miles to the south of the earlier mission, San Antonio de Valero (also known as the Alamo). Its founder was the famed Father Antonio Margil de Jesús, a very prominent Franciscan missionary in early Texas. Constructed of limestone, the church has two domes, a tower, an elaborate Baroque facade and an intricately carved Rose window. In addition to the magnificent church, the mission compound consists of several restored and reconstructed buildings, including quarters for the native inhabitants, a mill and granary. Mission San José National Historic Site, the largest of the Texas missions, is located at 6539 San Jose Dr. in San Antonio.

Mission San Juan Capistrano
Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

Mission San Juan Capistrano, located at located at 901 Graf Rd. south of Military Dr. near the junction of Mission and Villamain roads in San Antonio, was established in 1731 and underwent several building periods. The complex has the traditional plan of buildings and walls surrounding a central courtyard and includes the ruins of the second church (1756 to 1764) and the third church (post-1762), the foundations of some of the residential quarters, a convento (missionary quarters), granary foundation, well, and a residence (c.1824). San Juan, a self-sufficient community established on rich farmland along the banks of the San Antonio River, supplied produce throughout the region.

Mission San Francisco de la Espada is the southern-most of the San Antonio missions. Founded in 1690 as San Francisco de los Tejas near present-day Weches, Texas, this was the first mission in Texas. In 1731, the mission transferred to the San Antonio River area and renamed Mission San Francisco de la Espada. A friary was built in 1745, and the church was completed in 1756. The mission was established in 1731 and was used by James Bowie, William Travis and the Texas army as a stronghold against the Mexicans during Texas' struggle for independence. Ruins of the mission walls, a granary, a convento (missionary quarters) and a fortified tower also remain. The mission's kilns are the only known lime kilns in Texas that survive from the Spanish Colonial period. The mission has been rebuilt throughout its history and is currently being restored by the Archdiocese of San Antonio. Mission San Francisco de la Espada is located at 10040 Espada Rd. off of Mission Rd. west of US 281 in San Antonio. Mission San Francisco de la Espada, within San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, is the subject of an online-lesson plan produced by Teaching with Historic Places, a program that offers classroom-ready lesson plans on properties listed in the National Register. Mission San Francisco de la Espada has also been documented by the Historic American Buildings Survey.

[photo] Mission San Francisco de la Espada
Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

The Espada dam and Aqueduct came from the missions' need for irrigation for the crops necessitated an elaborate system of acequias, or irrigation ditches, to channel water. The Spanish constructed seven acequias, five dams, and an aqueduct, using American Indian workers. This system extended 15 miles and irrigated 3,500 acres of land. The Espada Aqueduct was constructed in 1745 by Franciscans to serve the mission lands of Espada. It is the only remaining Spanish aqueduct in the United States. The Espada Aqueduct, a Espada Aqueduct, within San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, is the subject of an online-lesson plan produced by Teaching with Historic Places. To learn more, visit the Teaching with Historic Places home page. It is also a National Historic Landmark, and is located on Espada Rd., east of US 281, near Mission de la Espada in San Antonio.

Guadalupe Center Espada Aqueduct
Photos from the National Historic Landmarks Collection, courtesy of J. Oliver

The missions were important to agricultural production. Each had a ranch for raising the sheep, goats, and cattle that supplied necessities like meat, wool, milk, cheese, and leather. The entire cattle industry, from ranching to the driving of cattle across long distances to markets, was developed in Mexico during the two centuries prior to the establishment of San Antonio. The Spanish also established necessary industries such as weaving, iron working, and from every period of the missions' history. A wide range of sculptural and painted decoration survives, illustrating how these arts developed on the frontier.carpentry; these were important to the maintenance of the entire military and political structure of the eastern portion of the Spanish American frontier. Mission-trained artisans and workers provided a principal source of labor and finished goods in a region at the far end of a long and expensive supply line reaching up from the south. Today the San Antonio missions are among the few relatively intact examples of the colonial missions in the Southwest. They contribute to the architectural record of this era as well as displaying well preserved examples of building styles.

Learn More about the San Antonio Missions National Historic Park from the park's website.

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