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By Michelle Ong

Spanish missionary activity occurred from 1682 to 1793 in an effort to protect New Spain, while converting Native Americans and utilizing agriculture to sustain Spanish exploration. From the late 17th century to early 19th century, forty-four Franciscan missions were established in Texas.

Mission Concepcion
Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción has stood in San Antonio since the mid-1700s. Photo by David Campbell.

Fernando del Bosque led one of the first expeditions in April 1675. He explored the area of present day Edwards County, investigating the situations among the natives. He met several groups interested in Christianity and recommended the establishment of three missions. Four missions were subsequently established in New Mexico.

The largest mission concentrations were in San Antonio and El Paso. Four missions were initially established on the right bank of the Rio Grande. In 1682, San Antonio de Senecú was established to serve the Piro Indians. San Antonio was Spain's major Texas outpost and was occupied by the Coahuiltecans. On June 13, 1691 an expedition led by Governor Domingo Terán de los Ríos arrived at the village of Papaya Indians and named it San Antonio de Padua. In 1718, Martín de Alarcón, Fray Antonio de San Buenaventura y Olivares and a group of Canary Islanders established mission San Antonio de Valero, later known as the Alamo. San Antonio de Béxar was established a few days later. The mission was named after the Prince of Asturias, who became King Ferdinand VI. Five missions were sequentially established along the San Antonio River to form the city of San Antonio including Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo in 1720 by Fray Antonio Margil. In 1731, colonists from the Canary Islands established the Villa of San Fernando de Béxar. San Antonio became the capital of Spanish Texas in 1773.

In 1682 the mission and pueblo of Corpus Christi de la Isleta was established a few miles east of El Paso in present day Ysleta to separate a number of Indians from the Tiguex pueblo.

In 1703, presidio San Juan Bautista in Guerrero, Coahuila, Mexico, thirty miles from Eagle Pass, Texas was established to become the gateway into Texas.

The Spanish government directed New Spain to send more missionaries and strengthen the missions. A presidio was built in East Texas. In 1721, Marqués de San Miguel de Aguayo and Father Antonio Margil de Jesús lead an expedition to reestablish the six missions and fort and build a new presidio. In 1729, the East Texas presidio closed, leaving three missions vulnerable. Priests moved the missions to San Antonio in 1731.

Other missions were established on the San Gabriel River after Ramón and Aguayo's expeditions through present day Milam County and a request by Indians to establish a mission in the 1740s. The missions served the Cocos, Deadose and Tonkawas. In 1746, Father Mariano Francisco de los Dolores y Viana established more missions at the San Gabriel River. They were later transferred to the San Marcos River in 1755.

The missions in East Texas had little impact on the Hasinais who were uninterested in conversion. The missions were more successful with the Coahuiltecans. Thousands were baptized and educated in new vocations.

Two other missions and a presidio were founded in Goliad during the 1740s and 1750s.

In the late 1740s, a mission on the San Sabá River was established to serve the Lipan Apaches. Franciscans believed religious instruction would help end the attacks inflicted on San Antonio. The Apaches agreed to the mission as a means to ally with the Spanish against the Comanches.

José de Escandón led an expedition attempting to expand to the northern frontier. The Viceroy of New Spain chose Escandón as governor of the new province called Nuevo Santander, later known as Tamaulipas. Escandón sent seven expeditions into Nuevo Santander in 1747 including two that explored Texas. He established twenty-three towns and eighteen missions with two in Texas. In May 1755, Tomás Sánchez established Villa Laredo.

In 1756, Colonel Diego Ortiz Parilla led an expedition northwest of San Antonio with Father Alonso Giraldo de Terreros to establish missions for the Apaches. They were also lured by riches with reports of potential mineral sources in the San Sabá. Missions at San Marcos were transferred to the San Sabá near present day Menard. Indians including Comanches raided the mission. The Indians again raided the presidio on March 1759, using bullets acquired from trading with the French.

Colonel Ortiz Parilla led a force against the Indians and French. After brief skirmishes, Parilla reached a Taovaya Wichita fort flying the French flag located in present day Montague County. After a failed invasion, the Spanish retreated toward the San Sabá. Rabago y Terán replaced Parilla's command. He maintained the missions at the San Sabá and established two new missions on the upper portions of the Nueces River in present day Real County. These missions were later destroyed.

In 1765, King Charles III appointed the Marqués de Rubí to conduct a tour of the presidios on the northern frontier. Marqués de Rubí recommended changes that would leave San Antonio de Béxar and La Bahía as the only two missions in Texas. Other Indian attacks on the San Sabá presidio led to its closing. The population of East Texas was forced to move to San Antonio because of their vulnerability without a presidio. Some were allowed to return to East Texas, provided they establish a new settlement three hundred miles from Natchitoches. But during the next two years Comanche attacks and flooding convinced the settlers to move to Nacogdoches. The Spanish government finally sent troops to defend the town in 1795.

Although the Spanish missions were mostly unsuccessful, they showed Spain's firm bond with the Catholic Church and their execution of church affairs by establishing missions and defending them with presidios. The missions and presidios transformed the various native populations of Texans, even though most did not convert.

Most of the historic missions are gone, except those in San Antonio and El Paso, but their presence brought tremendous change to Texas.

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