The history of Mission San Juan began in the woods of East Texas. In 1716, Mission San José de los Nazonis was established to serve the Nazonis Indians. However, the mission was not successful, and whatever was transportable was moved here. On March 5, 1731, the mission was reestablished on the east bank of the San Antonio River and renamed San Juan Capistrano.
Despite the new location, the mission still had to contend with adversity. Epidemics of smallpox, measles, and other European disease swept through the mission, causing much suffering and death among the native inhabitants. Early on, bands of raiding Apaches and later Comanche terrorized the community. At times, when food was bountiful and danger was low outside the protective walls, some of the mission Indians left, returning to their hunting and gathering way of life.
Political problems also arose. As governing power figures in the area changed, so did support for the mission. Still, the mission persevered and grew. By 1762 there were 203 Indians residing at Mission San Juan. The mission included a granary, textile shops, and Indian houses made of adobe with thatched roofs. One government inspector wrote in 1767, “. . . overseers or administrators are not needed. . . . The Indians themselves take care of work in the cloth factory, carpenter shop, forge . . . and attend to all of the work that is to be done in the town. They are industrious and diligent and are skilled in all kinds of labor.”
Church at Mission San Juan
One task that the community could not accomplish, however, was the construction of a new and larger church, which began in 1772. This effort may have been a part of a plan to completely renovate the east side of the mission compound. The intended design of the building probably included a vaulted ceiling over the nave and a dome over the sacristy. A lack of Indian labor prohibited the completion of the project, and construction halted in 1786.
- San Juan Acequia
Using a system which has its roots in the ancient Middle East, Rome, and the great Indian civilizations in Mesoamerica, the irrigation ditch was built to water the nearby mission lands. This means of irrigation was adopted by later Anglo-American, German, and Italian settlers in South Texas. The San Juan Acequia has been restored to use for watering the Spanish Colonial Demonstration Farm.
- San Juan Dam
The dam was a key element of an irrigation (acequia) system. Each mission had its own system of irrigation ditches to supply water from the San Antonio River to the farm fields. Water was diverted from the river to the ditches or acequias by means of such dams.
A portion of San Juan's weir dam is still in existence, but not open to the public.
- San Juan Labores
Stretching for several miles above and below the mission, the labores (farm lands) were designated specifically by the Spanish authorities for crops. In most years a surplus was harvested, which was sold to the presidio and in other nearby markets.
By the mid 1700s, San Juan, with its rich farm and pasturelands, was a regional supplier of agricultural produce. The National Park Service recaptured this role with the return of water to the San Juan Acequia to irrigate the Spanish Colonial demonstration farm. Remnants of the long narrow fields can be seen traveling down Villamaine Road.