San José 1720-1755

No good descriptions of San José are available from the time it was established on its new site until 1755. Between ca. 1721 and 1755, the Franciscans and their charges built the first versions of the mission. The pattern was probably building the town first in jacal, then in adobe. Finally work on a permanent stone church, convento, and granary probably began in the mid-1720s, and the buildings were probably finished by about 1730. By the time of the first brief description in 1744, the first stone church and convento had long been in use. The acequia had been completed by June of 1724.

The First San José Church

Church 1 was the iglesia de terrado (church with a flat earthen roof). Examining the present church and convento indicates that a portion of church 1 survives today, incorporated into the west wall at the northwest corner of the convento, and that it apparently faced south. The survival of this section demonstrates that it was of stone.

This earlier church is fairly well described. The church measured about 35 varas [about 97 feet] long, 7 varas [about 19 feet] wide with transepts. There were four altars in the church, and a bell tower with four bells, two large and two small. A reference in 1757 to the replacement of roofing vigas confirms that the church had a flat earthen roof, not a vaulted roof. No mention was made of a dome over the transept crossing, and only a vaulted roof could support a dome. The sacristy had a cabinet for vestments, two small chests, and one large chest with a key. On one wall was a gilded niche, although no statue was mentioned as within it.

The Convento

Prior to 1755, There were only a very few brief references to the convento. Since the first stone church had been completed by 1744, it is likely that the convento was also of stone, and was a core portion of the present building. In 1749 Fr. lgnacio Ciprian said in passing that there was a convento con claustro serrado con cu porteria, a convento with an enclosed cloister with its entranceway. This reference to a cloister implies that the present ground level arcaded corridor had been built by 1749. This could have been the work of the master mason Antonio Tello in 1740-44. The lack of any references to a second story in these statements probably indicates that none had been built before 1749. A second story room was added between 1749 and 1755.

The San José convento probably had an enclosing wall, creating a convento compound. Evidence for such a wall can be seen in Fr. Dolores y Vianas statement that the convento had a circumference of about 411 feet with a cloister on the ground floor. Assuming a wall where the present garden wall now stands, and measuring along the exterior of the building excluding later construction, the convento has a circumference of about 416 feet. This close agreement within five feet with Dolores y Vianas estimate prompts us to accept the present convento and garden with an enclosing wall along the south side of the convento in the 1740s and l750s.

The 1755 inventory of the convento began with the introductory statement that it consisted of a ground-floor corridor and thirteen rooms. Two oficinas, a cell, and a kitchen on the lower floor and another cell on the second floor were described. A third oficina was mentioned in 1757, as well as a room that was repaired and became another oficina and the refectory. The remaining six rooms mentioned by Dolores y Viana as being in the convento may refer to such rooms as the porteria, the stairwell, probably a latrine, and three other rooms. The second story contained only one cell, and had no corridor.

The 1755 inventory was not as clear on furnishings and spatial orientation in the rooms as was the 1772 inventory. The first oficina inventoried, for example, contained a number of items such as hatchets, wax, sandals, and nails that were typically found in the missionary’s storeroom rather than the community storeroom, but no mention was made of any chests, cabinets, tables or shelves where these items were stored. The second storeroom contained community goods, for use in the field or to be distributed to the Indians. One item of interest was a pile of 50 costales, or gunnysacks, “between good and bad,” or somewhat worn out. These were undoubtedly spare sacks waiting to be used to store corn, beans, or wheat in the granary.

The cell on the ground floor had only a table and chair and several musical instruments, it apparently had no bed. The kitchen, inventoried next, had a good selection of pots, kettles, and skillets, but no mentioned of a stove or cooking arrangements of any sort.

The main cell on the second floor contained two tables, one with a drawer, four chairs, two stools, a bench, two beds, and a bookshelf holding twenty-five books, the titles and authors of which were listed. A quantity of typical office supplies were in this room, including paper, razors and their sharpening stones, a number of cups and plates, chocolate and its preparatory equipment such as chocolate beaters and pots, chamber pots, and the like.

The Pueblo

Few details about the other components of San José are available before 1755. The scanty references indicate that the acequia had been completed by 1724, and the fields were producing well. The description of the mission in the founding document for the first site of San José in 1720 may be a description of the actual layout of the mission on the present location a few months later. The mission was set up around a plaza with blocks and streets marked out on each side, so that the blocks each had a front of about 330 feet. On the north side, a site was selected for the church with enough room for the cemetery and convento. Sites were also selected for the other necessary buildings of the mission and the houses of the Indians. These elements marked out on the ground at the present site of San José about 1721 influenced the growth and change of the mission throughout its life, and are still locked into the plan of the reconstructed mission compound of today.

The first clear descriptions of the appearance of the pueblo appear in the reports of the 1750s. The reconstructed pueblo of today is completely different from the picture presented by these descriptions. From its establishment on the west bank about 1721 through about 1760, the pueblo of San José was an open village arranged in blocks or rows on streets. It had no enclosing wall or defenses other than the houses themselves. In 1749 Fray Ignacio Antonio Ciprian said that the houses of the Indians were of stone, arranged along the streets in such a way as to make the mission ‘a veritable fort.” The earliest detailed description of this layout is in the Dolores y Viana inventory of 1755. He refers to the pueblo as the “rancheria,” a word commonly applied to Indian villages or occupation areas in Central and East Texas: “Esta se compone de 84 casas depiedra en fbrma calles… [This is made up of 84 houses of stone forming streets …].

Edited excerpts from the original work “Of Various Magnificence” by Jake Ivey, NPS 2007
Chapter 5: The Structural History of San José y San Miguel de Aguayo, 1720-1900

Last updated: December 22, 2016

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