Mission San Francisco de la Espada -- Spanish Colonial Missions of the Southwest Travel Itinerary

Mission San Francisco de la Espada. By Zereshk (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Mission San Francisco de la Espada
San Antonio, Texas

Coordinates: 29.317886,-98.450172
Discover Our Shared Heritage
Spanish Colonial Missions of the Southwest Travel Itinerary

Mission Espada Chapel Interior
The mission remains an active Catholic parish.

Photo by Travis K. Witt, 2010. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Southernmost of the San Antonio missions, Mission San Francisco de la Espada is neither as elaborate nor as large as the other missions in the San Antonio Missions National Historic Park, but its unique history and well-preserved acequia system set Mission Espada apart. Beginning in 1731 Mission Espada became a hub of agricultural activity on the west bank of the San Antonio River for Spanish, Mexican, and Coahuiltecan Indian groups such as the Pacao, Borrado, and Mariquita. During this time, an extensive irrigation and aqueduct system was built and has continually been in use since. Plagued by raids, desertion, and disease, the mission never grew very large, and it began to be secularized in 1794, a process that was completed by 1824. Its purpose no longer to convert native peoples, the mission became a local parish for Spanish and Mexican settlers and later a Catholic school. Extensive restoration and rebuilding have kept the buildings of the former mission in use through the 20th century, and today, Mission Espada is cared for by the Archdiocese of San Antonio and the National Park Service.
Moving the Mission

Visitors now see the chapel of Mission Espada looking as if its old stones had always been there, however in its first few years, the mission was transplanted several times. Lack of interest from local peoples and geopolitical considerations made the first attempts to establish missions in east Texas unsuccessful. The mission that would later become Mission Espada was originally established on May 24, 1690 as Mission San Francisco de los Tejas near what is today Nacogdoches in east Texas by Franciscan missionaries from Querétaro, Mexico. After three years, the mission was abandoned and moved 10 miles away in 1716, only to be moved again along the Neches River in 1721. In 1730 an agreement with France resulted in the closure of the eastern Spanish presidio that protected several missions in the area. Without the presidio's defense, the eastern cluster of missions was a ripe target for raiding. By 1731 Mission San Francisco de Espada, along with its sister missions, was moved again to its present location along the San Antonio River.
Mission Espada Aqueduct Texas
Mission Espada Aqueduct, San Antonio, TX.

Photo by Chris Light, 1998. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Building Mission

Espada A Spanish mission was more than a church —it was a self-sustaining agricultural community. Franciscan missionaries sought to make life within mission communities closely resemble that of Spanish villages and Spanish culture. The American Indians who lived at the mission learned and became adept at new trade skills. As plows;farm implements;fabric;and gear for horses, oxen, and mules fell into disrepair, the Indians wove cotton and wool and practiced blacksmithing, soon becoming indispensable and noted for their skill. As wattle-and-daub buildings were replaced with more permanent structures, mission occupants learned masonry and carpentry skills under the direction of craftsmen contracted by the missionaries. Those workers built the double-arched stone aqueduct along Piedras Creek. The acequias were constructed to feed fields that grew corn, cotton, beans, melons, and squash. Thirty miles south was the Rancho de las Cabras, where Indian vaqueros cared for the mission herds of cattle, sheep, goats, horses, and oxen. Apache raiders frequently threatened the mission stealing livestock. As a defensive measure, a wall was built around the main mission buildings and mission Indians received training in how to defend the complex.
Postcard ca. 1901-1907. Mission San Francisco de Espada, San Antonio, Texas
Postcard ca. 1901-1907. Mission San Francisco de Espada, San Antonio, Texas

Raphael Tuck & Sons, Texas Historic Postcards Collection. Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries. UH Digital Library

Many of the American Indians at the mission were from Coahuiltecan groups. "Coahuiltecan" is a modern geographic grouping that refers to diverse, small hunter-gatherer groups that moved seasonally in the South Texas Plains. Tecame, Pacao, Borrado, and Mariquita tribes were a few of the groups that came to live at Mission Espada. Initially missions had offered Coahuiltecans a source of protection from Apache raids and access to new resources, however life at the missions had plenty of challenges. Small pox and measles hit the San Antonio missions in the epidemic of 1739 and the population at Mission Espada fell from 120 to 50, the result of death and desertion. By 1745 the number was up to 204, but would decrease in the following decades.

Many Indians eventually chose to leave the mission, which proved a problem for both the Franciscans and the presidio officials. The missionaries relied on the native peoples to plant, harvest, and run the mission ranches. The priests would ask the help of the presidio captain to capture those who ran away. From the Spanish perspective, recapturing meant saving souls and ensuring the success of the new settlements, but from the perspective of the natives, leaving meant getting out of a situation that was no longer beneficial to them.
The Chapel

Unlike many of the adobe missions in New Mexico, Arizona, and northern Sonora, the San Antonio missions were made of stone. In 1745 the convento and a small chapel were built for the mission. Construction on a larger church began in 1762 but it was torn down in 1777 because it was structurally unsound. Originally intended to be the church sacristy, the small chapel became the location of services. The chapel's façade was relatively plain in comparison to the more elaborately carved facade at Mission Concepcion nearby. Although the Mission Espada chapel was never intended to be the primary church, it has a neat, three bell espadaña, or large false front that make the building appear more impressive.
Mission San Francisco de la Espada
Mission San Francisco de la Espada.

By National Park Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Toward the end of the 18th century the Spanish Empire was waning. Through the century, Comanche groups moved into the territory and their raids became a major problem for the missions. Disease and desertion also took their toll on Mission Espada and the other San Antonio missions. In 1794 Espada began the process of secularization, or the transformation to a parish community, but the mission was impoverished. Each of the remaining 15 families received land, but continued to share equipment and supplies. In 1826 a band of Comanche raided the cornfields and killed the livestock. The same year, a kitchen fire destroyed most of the buildings, though the chapel survived. Despite these challenges, people continued to make their homes here. The chapel remained a Catholic parish through the 19th century and eventually became a Catholic school and convent. During the 20th century, the buildings were partially restored and today are maintained and preserved by the National Park Service and the Archdiocese of San Antonio.

What you can see today

Mission Espada is part of the San Antonio Missions National Historic Park, one of four Spanish missions in the park that preserve the early history of Texas. The San Antonio Missions include features like Rancho de las Cabras and the Mission Espada Dam, the latter of which is still in use today. Agricultural practices the Spanish introduced at Mission Espada became the foundation for the farms and ranches of modern Texas. The main park visitor center is located at Mission San Jose, and it is recommended that visitors go there first to get oriented to the park's history before visiting the other sites. The park is open daily and docents and rangers offer visitors free tours of all the missions.

Plan Your Visit

Mission Espada is included in San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, a unit of the National Park System composed of four missions located in separate locations in San Antonio, TX. Click for the National Register of Historic Places file: text and photos. The main park visitor center is located at Mission San Jose, 6701 San José Dr. Mission Espada is located at 10040 Espada Rd. All sites at the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park are open daily from 9:00am to 5:00pm, except on Thanksgiving Day, December 25, and January 1, and during special services such as weddings and funerals. There are no admission fees. For more information, visit the National Park Service San Antonio Missions National Historical Park website or call 210-932-1001.
The Espada Aqueduct and Acequia has been designated a National Historic Landmark. Click for the National Historic Landmark file: text and photos. Many components of the National Historical Park have been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey, including the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park Site Plan and Mission Espada. The San Antonio Missions are also featured in the National Park Service The San Antonio Missions are also featured in the National Park Service South and West Texas Travel Itinerary, the Places Reflecting America’s Diverse Cultures: Explore their Stories in the National Park System Travel Itinerary and the American Latino Heritage Travel Itinerary. San Antonio Missions National Historical Park is also the subject of the online lesson plan, San Antonio Missions: Spanish Influence in Texas. The lesson plan has been produced by the National Park Service’s Teaching with Historic Places program, which offers a series of online classroom-ready lesson plans on registered historic places.
The San Antonio Missions National Historical Park has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Last updated: April 15, 2016


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