The five standing missions in the San Antonio area were originally established and operated by two different Franciscan missionary colleges, those of Querétaro and Zacatecas. The two colleges seemed to be identical in their field method and mission design, and in fact the college of Zacatecas was established by Querétaro in 1707. However, in practice the two colleges demonstrated a number of differences, at least as far as their methods of keeping records.
A series of formal reports on the condition of Querétaran missions is available; but presently not available in any number for the Zacatecan mission, San José. Instead, letters and diaries of expeditions and inspections constitute the principal records. Formal inventories are available for all the missions, but again there are distinct differences. Major Querétaran inventories showed far more concern for construction materials, dimensions, and spatial arrangement, although both went into detail about furnishings and supplies in the rooms inventoried. The result is that the spatial layout of San José is somewhat more difficult to reconstruct than those of the Querétaran missions.
The physical facilities of the Querétaran missions reached their peak of development in the 1760s, not long before they were transferred to the care of the College of Zacatecas. San José, with the departure of the Queretarans in 1772, became the Father President’s mission for all Texas missions. It was in the process of building a new church and rebuilding the convento. From about 1780 the Franciscans began planning for the eventual secularization of the missions. They shifted emphasis from the religious structures of each compound to the more secular. Churches were finished in one form or another as best they could be, or left incomplete, but wheat mills and granaries were built new. With a large influx of Spanish settlers into the missions, additional housing was constructed at the southern missions, reflecting shifts in the populations of the San Antonio River Valley.
The change in priorities transformed the missions. Valero was given to the secular church in 1793, and the other four missions were made into doctrinas in 1794. The new church and rebuilt convento of San José had been completed, anticipating that this mission would become responsible for the other three and would keep its resident missionaries the longest. Concepción, the old Querétaran headquarters mission, fell between the currents of change at the other missions and began to stagnate.
All four doctrinas were inventoried during secularization in 1794, but there was a considerable difference in detail recorded at each one. San José was thoroughly inventoried, while the ex-Querétaran missions received noticeably less attention. The final secularization inventories of 1823-24, when the missions were all given to the archdiocese of Nuevo Leon, and the subsequent appraisals of mission buildings other than the church and sacristy in 1827, contain critical information for working out the plans of the missions in the colonial years. They are all quite good, but not all the missions have a full set of these records available.
In addition to written records, the four missions preserve a second set of data - in their physical remains, both above and below ground. The surviving structures vary considerably in their ratio of original construction to later renovation and reconstruction, and in the level of our knowledge of below-grade structural details from archaeology. Archeology at the four missions has not been conducted within any specific research guidelines. However, most of the work was carefully done and the structural information thoughtfully appraised. Some of the conclusions reached by various investigators have been questioned or disagreed with.
As a rule, the four Querétaran missions have a higher percentage of their subsurface remains known. The core information at San Juan and Espada is made up of measured drawings of subsurface investigations made by Harvey P. Smith in 1933. Smith recorded stone walls, but ignored adobe walls and traces of jacal wall trenches. He did not fully trace all the walls he found, but only recorded fragments as far as he traced them, and made no attempt to note any information about the apparent temporal relationships of these walls. Subsequent work by Mardith Schuetz at San Juan considerably upgraded information about the details of the archeological remains at that mission, and added much chronological information. Since Smith’s contributions, little of significance has been added to knowledge of Espada. However, this mission seems to have followed the least complicated development of the four missions, and Smith’s plans are sufficient to reconstruct its structural history with some confidence.
Smith’s work at Mission Concepción was limited principally to the area south of the present church and convento. Subsequent excavations, along with documentary research, were sufficient to permit a structural history of Concepción in approximately the same detail as those for Espada and San Juan, despite the lack of the 1824 secular inventory. Because of its broader significance as a result of the Battle of the Alamo, archaeologists have investigated Valero extensively, examining much of the surviving area of undisturbed mission structures, allowing a precise reconstruction of the plan of the mission and its convento rooms.
Mission San José presents greater difficulties in regard to archeological work. The greatest problem is that the measured drawings of the foundations actually found by Smith are not available. All that is available are the reconstruction drawings. If these followed the methodology used by Smith at San Juan and Espada, then they incorporate a number of structural details added by Smith to the original foundations. In other words, there is no way to tell Smith’s own ideas from actual structural traces in the reconstruction plans.
The various San José reconstruction plans made by Smith, and rough-penciled planning sketches apparently based on field measurements of foundations, do give us some information about wall traces other than those beneath the present reconstructed Indian quarters. Based on these drawings, Smith never carried out a comprehensive program of foundation tracing in the plaza itself as he did at San Juan and Espada. Subsequent archeology, especially by Mardith Schuetz, has added some further details in these areas. Because of this, far less is known of San José’s full plan than of the other three missions, resulting in a somewhat more uncertain structural history. The result is that we have only a random scattering of foundation fragments located in the plaza, and no coherent pattern can be made of them.