History & Culture

Young female archaeology student screens dirt for artifacts with Mission San Jose Indian Quarters in the background.
Mission history is studied through written records, artifacts, oral histories, and more.

NPS Photo.

Established over 300 years ago, Mission San Jose survives as an artifact of the Spanish Colonial period. Four Spanish colonial missions and their associated features make up San Antonio Missions National Historical Park today.
 
Reconstructed limestone horno dome in foreground with limestone Mission San Jose church in background.
While the missions in San Antonio were being established in the early 18th century, European colonization affected most regions of North America. British, French, and Spanish groups occupied major sections of the already densely populated North American continent. Indigenous groups in South Texas, referred to by the Spanish as 'Coahuiltecans,' felt the affects of colonization in other parts of the continent before the missions were even established along the San Antonio River. As Indigenous groups to the north and east moved south due to colonial pressures in their own ancestral lands, Coahuiltecan groups felt the impacts as their land, water, and food resources dwindled.
 
Red Yucca buds with a blooming prickly pear in the background.
Red Yucca flower buds with blooming prickly pear cactus behind.

NPS Photo

Before the Spanish colonial era, hundreds of small native bands inhabited these South Texas lands for thousands of years. The culturally diverse groups of Indegenous bands that lived on these lands are often now referred to under one homogenueous group, Coahuiltecan. This name was given to them by the Spanish based off the geographical region they inhabited, Coahuila y Tejas. Many families of South Texas and nothern Mexico can trace their Indigenous roots back to these Coahuiltecan nomadic hunter-gather groups.

 
Birds eye sketch of Mission Espada Compound with wall enclosure and several buildings.
Mission structures housed entire communities along the San Antonio River.

NPS Photo.

Beginning in 1718, five mission communities formed along the San Antonio River. These missions were at the northern frontier of New Spain, a territory of the Spanish Empire. These Spanish colonial missions transformed local ways of life by introducing a new religion, farming, and settled communities.

Living quarters were built inside the missions, against the compound walls for the Indigenous neophytes and one or two Spanish soldiers. The church was the focal point of the missions and the missionary lived in the convento right next to the church. Workshops and storerooms dotted the central grounds. Outside the walls were the croplands and ranches, and the danger of competing groups.
 
 
Groups of visitors walk down the paved path at Mission San Jose.
These missions made a lasting impact on San Antonio culture. After generations, Native people who entered these missions some lost elements of their languages and religions. Parts of Native and Spanish cultures combined at the missions, fusing into South Texas culture. Components of Native and Spanish cultures can be found throughout the missions, in the frescoes, foods, clothing, and customs. This fusion of culture can still be observed in the surrounding modern community today.
 

First Person Documentation

The Spanish, both from the Church and the Government, were prolific and meticulous recorders of the events and activities that unfolded during their colonial period. While the National Park Service has access to many of these records, we know there are possibly thousands still waiting to be uncovered in the storerooms and archives of Spain and Mexico.Following are some of the reports that have been translated into English.
The originals in 18th century Spanish are available on microfiche at the park's headquarters.
 
Compare Pottery Artifacts
2 inch piece of brown bone-tempered pottery sherd sitting in the palm of a hand. 1 inch piece of white and blue ceramic sherd sitting in the palm of a hand
This bone-tempered pottery artifact is an example of pre-colonial technology found at Mission San Jose. NPS Photo
This European ceramic artifact is an example of early 19th century pottery found at Mission San Jose. NPS Photo
 
Female Park Ranger wearing mask holds a native plant fiber used for thread.
Park Ranger demonstrating native plant uses at the missions.

NPS Photo.

As you explore the missions, remember the stories of the people who walked these grounds 300 years ago. For some, a visit to San Antonio Missions National Historical Park is a somber time to remember the difficult changes that mission indigenous people underwent during the colonial period. For others, this is a time to celebrate excellent site preservation and our vibrant modern local cultures.
 

Historians continue to research and write about their findings as new material is found. Click here for edited portions, suitable for students, of Jake Ivey's Of Various Magnificence, the Architectural History of the San Antonio Missions in the Colonial Period and the Nineteenth Century.

Last updated: August 8, 2021

Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

Headquarters
2202 Roosevelt Avenue

San Antonio, TX 78210

Phone:

(210) 932-1001

Contact Us