Mission San Juan Capistrano -- Spanish Colonial Missions of the Southwest Travel Itinerary

Mission San Juan Capistrano

Mission San Juan Capistrano
San Antonio, Texas

Coordinates: 29.331749,-98.455788
Discover Our Shared Heritage
Spanish Colonial Missions of the Southwest Travel Itinerary

Mission San Juan Capistrano with prickly pear in the foreground.
Mission San Juan Capistrano with prickly pear in the foreground.

NPS photo.

Originally founded by Franciscan missionaries in 1716, the eastern Texas Mission San Juan Capistrano was transferred in 1731 to its present location in San Antonio, about 12 miles from The Alamo. In 1756, the stone church, a friary, and a granary were completed. A larger church was begun, but was abandoned when half complete, the result of population decline. Today the mission is administered by the National Park Service and the Archdiocese of San Antonio. Visitors can explore the park's exhibits, old stone mission church, and well-preserved irrigation system that fed the mission's fields.
Mission San Juan Capistrano Excavation
View across quadrangle during Works Progress Administration (WPA) excavation in the 1930s.

Courtesy of the National Register of Historic Places.

Beginnings in East Texas

In 1716 in the woods of East Texas, Mission San José de los Nazonis was established to serve the Nazonis Indians. The mission was not successful, and whatever was transportable was moved to the current location on the San Antonio River. On March 5, 1731, the mission was reestablished on the east bank of the San Antonio River and renamed San Juan Capistrano. In the new location, 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, threatened 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 practices, much to the chagrin of the Franciscans.
Feeding the mission community

San Juan, like other Spanish missions, was intended to be a self-sustaining community. Within the compound Indian artisans produced iron tools, cloth, and prepared hides. Orchards and gardens outside the walls provided melons, pumpkins, grapes, and peppers. Stretching for several miles above and below the mission, the labores (farm lands) were designated specifically for crops by the Spanish authorities. In most years the harvest yielded a surplus that was sold to the presidio and in other nearby markets. Beyond the mission complex Indian farmers cultivated maize (corn), beans, squash, sweet potatoes, and sugar cane in irrigated fields. Over 20 miles southeast of Mission San Juan Capistrano was Rancho de Pataguilla, which, in 1762, reported 3,500 sheep and nearly as many cattle.

Political problems arose, and as governing power figures in the area changed, so did support for the mission. Still, the mission persevered and grew. By 1762, 203 Indians resided 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."
Mission San Juan Capistrano
San Juan Capistrano altar, restored in 2011. Statues from left to right: San Francisco de Asis, San Juan Capistrano, Virgin Mary

NPS photo.

Their products helped support not only the San Antonio missions, but also the local settlements and presidio garrisons in the area. By the mid-1700s, San Juan, with its rich farm and pasturelands, was a regional supplier of agricultural produce. With its surplus San Juan established a trade network stretching east to Louisiana and south to Coahuila, Mexico. These relationships helped the mission to survive epidemics and Indian attacks in its final years.

The Church

San Juan Capistrano's church, friary, and granary on the second site date from 1756. The mission's historical records and archeological studies have provided great insight into understanding the development of the mission. San Juan is the only one of the San Antonio Missions to have arches in its structural design. Constructed around 1772, the arches continue to raise questions about the reasons why the missionaries decided to fill in the arches that were once open. One task that the community could not accomplish was the construction of a new and larger church, which began in 1772. The 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. By the late 18th century the native population declined severely, and the lack of Indian labor prohibited the completion of the project. Construction halted in 1786.
Tierra Sagrada Mission San Juan Capistrano
Ruins of unfinished church from 1780

Photo by Travis Witt. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

San Juan Acequia and Dam

Using a system with 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. Later Anglo-American, German, and Italian settlers in South Texas adopted this means of irrigation. The National Park Service plans to recapture this role with the restoration and return of water to the San Juan Acequia, for irrigating the Spanish Colonial Demonstration Farm. Remnants of the long narrow fields can be seen traveling down Villamaine Road. The San Juan 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.

What You Can See Today

Today San Juan is one of the four Spanish missions that San Antonio Missions National Historic Park and the Archdiocese of San Antonio have preserved and share with visitors. The other missions include Mission San José, Mission Espada, and Mission Concepción. The main visitor center is located at Mission San José, and it is recommended that visitors go there first to get oriented to the park. The park is open daily. There is no admission fee, and rangers and docents offer visitors free tours of the mission sites.

Plan Your Visit

Mission San Juan Capistrano 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 San Juan Capistrano is located at 9101 Graf 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.
Many components of the National Historical Park have been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey, including Mission San Juan. 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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