The Alamo is certainly San Antonio’s most famous landmark, perhaps even the most famous building in Texas, due to its pivotal role in the 1836 Texas Revolution. But the Alamo was built over a century prior as Mission San Antonio de Valero by Spanish settlers on the banks of the San Antonio River. Beginning in 1690, Spanish friars established missions in what is now East Texas as a buffer against the threat of French incursion into Spanish territory from Louisiana. The Alamo is a Texas state historic site, but right nearby, four sister missions, all still working Catholic churches, are protected by the National Park Service as the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.

This episode of the podcast follows four people connected to the Missions: a stonemason, a historian, a descendant, and a former church administrator. Their stories comprise Michael Nye’s “Four Voices” exhibit on display at Mission Concepción.

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The missions were built primarily by the native people of the area. As the Spanish Missions arrived, the Couchilticon people were suffering from disease, famine, and savage attacks from Apache tribes. The Franciscan Friars saw them as easy recruits and offered them a devil’s bargain. They could join the Mission, and be fed and protected, but they would have to give up essential parts of their being, converting to Catholicism and the Spanish way of life.

The missions flourished up until the 1780s, mostly through the work of the Couchilticon people. The Spanish had a caste system that said the further from Spain you were born, the less of a Spanish citizen you were, so it was hard to recruit Spanish settlers. Then Couchilticon were essential. They built these places and they are their legacy. Not only the churches but towering stone walls and arches, defense bastions, grain storage, apartments, and an aqueduct that still stands today – the only such structure in the US.

Mission San José

Raising livestock played an important role in mission life. The common lands between the missions were used for grazing. As herds grew, they began intruding into neighboring farmland and common lands, and eating the crops, so the livestock was sent to graze further away on ranchos in an area about 20 to 30 miles to the north and south of the missions along both sides of the San Antonio River.

Mission Indian men were taught to care for the livestock, and became known as the vaqueros. In a twist of the old-west cowboys and Indians trope the first real American cowboys, were actually Indians.

Increasing hostility from the Apache the Comanche, coupled with inadequate military support, caused the Mission communities to retreat behind the stone walls they built, and the never-solved problem of new European diseases reduced their numbers, and the missions slowly declined.

In the final years of the 18th century, Spain’s interests in the area waned, and support for the missions was eliminated. The five San Antonio missions were secularized, and the remaining native converts assimilated with nearby local populations or migrated to Mexico. But the churches lived on, and people lived at the missions for many more years.

Mission Concepción

The most intact and original of the five missions is Mission Concepción. It stands today nearly as it did in the 1700s, due to the fact that it was built directly on bedrock. The church walls are 45 inches thick; however only the inside and outside facings are of solid stone – between the two layers is a filling of small stones and building debris.

The San Antonio Missions National Historical Park was established on April 1, 1983, in partnership with the individual churches, still owned by the Archdiocese of San Antonio.

The San Antonio missions are unique in that they are one of the few National Historic sites that still play a major role in the regular lives of the people that call the churches their place of worship. Many of whom have descended from the Spanish, and from the Native Americans. These buildings, once shining white adorned with colorful frescos carry the whispers of the people who once lived there and who have worshipped there for centuries.

Michael Nye says that “National Parks connect our past to the present. Sometimes they illuminate natural landscapes while other times they amplify and honor historical events. Our Parks are agreements between generations, symbols of significance, care and deep reflection.”

“The stories from The San Antonio Missions represent divergent and significant points of view: 17th Century explorers – Native American groups of the Southwest – Early Texas history – Spanish colonization – Stone masons and builders of the Missions – Battles of opposing interest – There is also the point of view of the land and creeks and pecan trees and the deep blue South Texas skies above. The history of the Missions did not end in the 17th, 18th or 19th century. No. History is energetic and invites present participation. In every corner, every room, in every mission, light grows brighter or dims. New emerging voices and experiences bring life and breath into a larger understanding.”

Yes, when you visit San Antonio, you should visit the Alamo, but perhaps much more rewarding is a day or two spent touring the grounds of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, just 10 minutes south of downtown. The missions are all connected via a trail and parkway system along the San Antonio river that begins with Mission Espada on the south end and culminates in the center of downtown at the Alamo. Entrance is free, and the hours are generally from 9am to 5pm daily, but vary slightly at the different facilities. The park’s headquarters and visitor center is located at Mission San José, where you can see the park film, visit the gift shop, and take a ranger-guided tour. Parking facilities vary at the different sites, especially for large vehicles. Large RVs and tour buses can park in oversized parking at Mission San Jose, but won’t be so lucky at the other missions.

Our many thanks to Michael Nye for loaning us the audio interviews for this episode. You can hear the full audio of the interviews at Mission Concepción, along with his photographs of the interviewees. You can also view the photographs on the National Park Service website. Please also consider visiting Michael Nye’s website for info about more of his work.

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Music for this week’s episode is provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.