LOST SPANISH MISSION

The Santa Cruz de San Sabá Mission, built in 1757, is the only Spanish mission in Texas destroyed by Native Americans. The destruction was so complete that it took 235 years for archeologists to finally confirm the site on the banks of the San Sabá River about 120 miles northwest of San Antonio.

Franciscan padres in San Antonio dreamed of constructing a mission in Apache territory and putting an end to almost perpetual warfare with the tribes. In addition to converting the Indians, reports of silver and gold deposits encouraged ideas of developing mines, building villages, and using the Indians as laborers.

The Apaches came to a peace ceremony in 1749 and asked the Franciscans to construct a mission in Apacheria. The tribes wanted Spanish protection from their mortal enemies, the Comanches, and other northern Indians. The Padres and Spanish officials, believing that the tribes wanted to be converted, struck out on three expeditions into Apache Territory looking for a suitable site. The San Sabá River valley offered the potential for irrigation farming.

Always worried about the cost of every endeavor in its Texas province, Spanish officials finally authorized the new endeavor after three other missions closed and their religious ornaments and furnishings became available. The final incentive came with an offer from a wealthy owner of Mexican silver mines who agreed to fund the cost of up to twenty missionaries for three years providing that his cousin Fray Alonso Giraldo de Terreros be placed in charge of the enterprise.

Col. Diego Oritz Parrilla was appointed commander of the San Sabá presidio, and the march to the new site began on April 5, 1757. About 300, including 100 soldiers and six missionaries, arrived on April 17 with 1,400 cattle and 700 sheep. To their dismay they found no Apaches waiting to join the mission.

The Padres, concerned about soldiers molesting Indian women at the East Texas missions, convinced Commander Ortiz to build the Presidio on the opposite side of the river and about four miles from the mission–– a fine distance for keeping soldiers away from to the Indian neophytes, but not so handy for protecting the mission.

By mid-June, not a single Indian had come to the mission. Then, to the Padres’ delight 3,000 Apaches who were heading north to hunt buffalo and fight Comanches, camped near the mission. The Indians ignored the missionaries’ overtures, but when they departed, they left behind two of their group who were sick and promised that upon their return they would join the mission. By this time, three of the original six missionaries had given up and returned to San Antonio.

With the arrival of winter, rumors circulated of northern tribes gathering to fight the Apaches and destroy the mission. The Padres did not understand that despite Apaches having never entered the mission, it appeared to many tribes, including the Comanches, that the Spanish were siding with their bitter enemies.

On February 25, 1758, Indians stole fifty-nine horses, and Parrilla Ortiz led soldiers in pursuit, only to discover hostile Indians all over the countryside. Ortiz retreated to the mission and tried unsuccessfully to convince Father Terreros to move the remaining three missionaries and thirty-three others to refuge in the Presidio.

On March 16 as the mission went about its morning routine, 2,000 members of tribes that may have come from as far away as Louisiana, managed to enter the compound and despite attempts to appease them with tobacco, trinkets, and finally horses the slaughter began. Many of the Indians used European guns at a time when most Indians fought with bows and arrows or hatchets. Father Terreros and seven others were killed, while one missionary and about twenty occupants escaped to the Presidio. The attackers killed almost all the animals, including the cattle, and set fire to the stockade.

The Indians moved on to the Presidio but when they could not lure the soldiers outside the fortress, they departed on March 18. After less than one year, the Santa Cruz de San Sabá Mission had come to an end.

The following year in September, Ortiz Parrilla led 600 soldiers and Apaches in a failed attempt to punish the warriors for the attack on the mission. They were discovered before they reached a Wichita village on the Red River and endured heavy losses––fifty-two dead, wounded, or deserted––before Ortiz ordered a retreat.

The Spanish government insisted that the San Sabá Presidio remain open despite the superior power of the plains tribes. Many soldiers asked to be transferred and despite the Presidio being rebuilt in limestone and surrounded by a moat, the soldiers faced death if they ventured out of the compound.

In 1762 a mural, The Destruction of Mission San Sabá, believed to be the first painting to depict a historical event in Texas, was commissioned by the wealthy miner who had funded the endeavor. It is believed the unsigned work was done by Jose de Perez who relied on accounts of firsthand witnesses.

In 1769, Presidio San Sabá was finally closed, over ten years after the fall of the mission it had been built to protect.

An added footnote: Soon after James Bowie of later Alamo fame married the daughter of a wealthy Spaniard living in San Antonio, Bowie made two unsuccessful expeditions in search of the Lost San Saba mine. Not to be deterred by Bowie’s failure, stories have continued to appear in newspaper accounts all over the country of miners who are sure they have found the site of the vast Spanish gold mine.

“The Destruction of the San Saba Mission in the Province of Texas and the Martyrdom of the Fathers Alonso de Terreros and Joseph
Santiesteban”
University of Texas, Texas Beyond History

 

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A Way Station on the Rio Grande

The Chihuahuan Desert hugging the Rio Grande in far West Texas was a killing field for Spanish explorers, Apaches, Comanches, white scalp hunters, and freighters daring to travel between San Antonio and Ciudad Chihuahua. Apache and Comanche raids into Mexico—killing

Fort Leaton State Historic Site

hundreds, stealing thousands of livestock and capturing women and children—resulted by 1835 in the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora offering a bounty for scalps. The prices ranged from $100 for braves to $50 for squaws and $25 for children under fourteen. Once the scalp dried, it was difficult to tell whether it had belonged to an Indian, a Mexican, or a white person, which encouraged the wholesale slaughter of anyone caught in the region. The financial panic of 1837 left miners in Northern Mexico and pioneers moving west in need of money. Scalp hunting brought in more cash than most men could make in a year.

The Indian raids decreased during the Mexican-American War (1846-48) as U.S. soldiers chased Indians when the army wasn’t busy fighting the Mexicans. However, after the war, the Indian attacks increased and the price per scalp inflated to $200—a quicker profit than heading to the California gold fields.

In 1848, after the Rio Grande was officially marked as the international boundary between Texas and Mexico, Ben Leaton, a freighter who had been augmenting his income by working as a scalp hunter, realized that a trading post on the Rio Grande would be a prime location on the Chihuahua Trail. Jefferson Morgenthaler, author of The River Has Never Divided Us writes that Ben Leaton selected a site for a trading post three miles downriver from Presidio del Norte (present Presidio) and by bribing local officials, he produced forged deeds to the land where Mexican peasants had farmed for generations.

Fort Leaton

Interior, Fort Leaton

Leaton, at the point of a gun, ran the Mexican farmers off of a tract of farmland that was five miles long and over a mile wide. Their protests to Mexican authorities went unheeded because the land was no longer part of Mexico. Then Leaton set about building a fortification that would serve as his home, trading post, and corral. He constructed his forty-room fortress with eighteen-inch thick adobe walls that paralleled the river for 200 feet and formed an L-shaped stockade. Walls and parapets, topped by a small cannon, enclosed the structure. Giant wooden doors opened to admit teams and wagons to the fortress that became known as Fort Leaton, the only fortification between Eagle Pass and El Paso. While Fort Davis was being built eighty miles to the north, the U.S. Army used Fort Leaton as its headquarters and continued over the years to use the site as an outpost for its military patrols.

Morgenthaler writes that the first group of Texans to reach the new trading post was a seventy-man expedition in October 1848, under the leadership of the famed Texas Ranger Jack Hays. The group was charged with opening a trading route between San Antonio and Chihuahua. Depending on an inaccurate map and an incompetent guide, the entourage had gotten lost and arrived half-starved. Leaton welcomed them while they regained their strength, and he sold them horses and supplies for the remainder of their journey. Although they returned to San Antonio without completing the expedition, the Chihuahua Trail soon opened to a steady stream of freighters passing Fort Leaton.

No record survives of any Indian attacks on Fort Leaton. Ben Leaton’s critics claimed he avoided attacks because he traded rifles, bullets, swords, tobacco, and whiskey with the Indians in exchange for stolen livestock, church ornaments, housewares, and Mexican captives. Leaton also served as a welcoming host, for a hefty price, to traders heading to Mexico and forty-niners on their way to the gold fields of California.

Leaton died in 1851 before charges could be brought by the Inspector of the Military Colonies of Chihuahua of “a thousand abuses, and of so hurtful a nature, that he keeps an open treaty with the Apache Indians . . . .” His widow married Edward Hall who continued operating the trading post. Hall borrowed money in 1864 from Leaton’s scalp hunting partner John Burgess. When Hall defaulted on the debt, he was murdered, and the Burgess’ family moved into the fort. Then, Leaton’s son murdered Burgess in 1875. The Burgess family remained at Fort Leaton until 1926.

A private citizen bought the fort and donated it to Presidio County; however, inadequate funding kept the old structure from being properly maintained. Eventually, the structure was donated it to the state, and it was restored and designated in 1968 as Fort Leaton State Historic Site.

Sitting among the lechuguilla, ocotillo, creosote bush, and candelilla of the Chihuahuan Desert, the old fort welcomes visitors seven days a week, except Christmas.

Tales of Fort Leaton

The Chihuahuan Desert hugging the Rio Grande in far West Texas was a killing field for Spanish explorers, Apaches, Comanches, white scalp hunters, and freighters daring to travel between San Antonio and

Fort Leaton

Fort Leaton

Fort Leaton

Fort Leaton

Ciudad Chihuahua. Apache and Comanche raids into Mexico—killing hundreds, stealing thousands of livestock, and capturing women and children—resulted by 1835 in the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora offering bounties for each scalp of $100 for braves; $50 for squaws; and $25 for children under fourteen. Once the scalp dried out, it was difficult to tell whether it had belonged to an Indian, a Mexican, or a white person, which encouraged wholesale slaughter of all stripes of travelers who dared enter the region. The financial panic of 1837 left miners in Northern Mexico and pioneers moving west in need of money. Scalp hunting brought in more than most men could make in a year.

The Indian raids decreased during the Mexican-American War (1846-48) as U.S. soldiers chased Indians when they weren’t busy fighting the Mexicans. However, after the war, the Indian attacks increased and the price per scalp inflated to $200—a quicker profit than heading to the California gold fields.

Fort Leaton

Fort Leaton

In 1848, after the Rio Grande was settled as the international boundary between Texas and Mexico, Ben Leaton, a freighter who had been augmenting his income by working as a scalp hunter, realized that a trading post on the Rio Grande would be a prime location on the Chihuahua Trail. Jefferson Morgenthaler, author of The River Has Never Divided Us, writes that Ben Leaton selected a site for a trading post three miles downriver from Presidio del Norte (present Presidio).  By bribing the alcalde (mayor) and former alcalde of Presidio, he produced forged deeds to the land where Mexican peasants had farmed for generations.

Leaton, at the point of a gun, ran the Mexican farmers off of a tract of farmland that was five miles long and over a mile wide. Their protests to Mexican authorities went unheeded because the land was no longer part of Mexico. Then, he set about building a fortification that would serve as his home, trading post, and corral. Leaton built his L-shaped, forty-room fortress with eighteen-inch thick adobe walls that paralleled the river for 200 feet, forming a stockade at the base of the L. Walls and parapets enclosed the structure. Giant wooden doors, topped by a small cannon, opened to admit teams and wagons to the fortress that became known as Fort Leaton, the only fortification between Eagle Pass and El Paso. While Fort Davis was being built eighty miles to the north, the U.S. Army used Fort Leaton as its headquarters and continued to use the site as an outpost for its military patrols.

Interior, Fort Leaton

Interior, Fort Leaton

Morgenthaler writes that the first group of Texans to reach the new trading post was a 70-man expedition in October 1848, under the leadership of the famed Texas Ranger Jack Hays who was charged with opening a trading route between San Antonio and Chihuahua. Using an inaccurate map and an incompetent guide, the entourage had gotten lost and reached Fort Leaton half-starved. Leaton welcomed them while they rested and regained their strength. Although they returned to San Antonio without completing the expedition, the Chihuahua Trail soon opened to a steady stream of freighters.

No record survives of any Indian attacks on Fort Leaton, which may be explained by accusations that Ben Leaton traded rifles, bullets, swords, tobacco, and whiskey to the Apaches and Comanches in exchange for livestock, church ornaments, housewares, and captives from Mexico. Leaton also served as a welcoming host, for a hefty price, to traders heading to Mexico and forty-niners on their way to the gold fields of California.

Leaton died in 1851 before charges could be brought by the Inspector of the Military Colonies of Chihuahua of “a thousand abuses, and of so hurtful a nature, that he keeps an open treaty with the Apache Indians . . . .” His widow married Edward Hall who continued operating the trading post. Hall borrowed money in 1864 from Leaton’s scalp hunting partner John Burgess. When Hall defaulted on the debt, he was murdered, and Burgess’ family moved into the fort. Then, Leaton’s son murdered Burgess in 1875. The Burgess’ family remained at Fort Leaton until 1926.

A private citizen bought the fort and donated it to Presidio County; however, inadequate funding kept the old structure from being properly maintained. Finally another private citizen bought the structure, donated it to the state and it was restored and designated in 1968 as Fort Leaton State Historic Site.

Candelilla

Candelilla See attached blog above by aneyefortexas

Sitting among the lechuguilla, ocotillo, creosote bush and candelilla of the Chihuahuan Desert, it welcomes visitors seven days a week, except Christmas.

Ocotillo

Ocotillo, See the attached blog above by aneyefortexas

Manifest Destiny Marches Across West Texas

The end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, fulfilled the dreams of manifest destiny for many citizens and politicians as the United States acquired the land belonging to Mexico that stretched all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The following year, gold was discovered in California and the rush was on. Forts had to be constructed to protect the advancing surge of settlers whom the Apache and Comanche were not happy to see crossing their hunting grounds and their route into Mexico.

Henry Skillman received a contract in 1850 to carry mail from San Antonio to El Paso. On that first mail run Skillman used a Concord coach pulled by six mules and a company of eighteen well-armed men including Big Foot Wallace (Watch for Wallace’s story in next week’s blog). They established a stage stand in Limpia Canyon at the base of the Davis Mountains, and E. B. Webster, possibly the first white man in the area, remained at the site as the master of the stage station. The mail continued to go through, extending the route to Santa Fe and adding passenger service.

Historic Fort Davis

Historic Fort Davis

In 1854, Jefferson Davis the Secretary of War ordered a line of military posts along that southern route. The commander of the department of Texas selected Limpia Creek northeast of the mail station because of its “pure water and salubrious climate.” The string of forts stretched from San Antonio to El Paso, and Fort Davis became the name for both the town that grew up around the mail station and the new post. Settlers and adventurers by the thousands chose the southern route to avoid the snow and mountain terrain of the northern trails.

When Texas seceded from the Union prior to the Civil War, federal troops abandoned Fort Davis. The Confederates occupied it for only a year and then retreated to San Antonio after failing to take New Mexico.

When the federal troops returned in 1867, the garrison consisted mainly of white officers and black enlisted men of the Ninth and

10th Cavalry, Fort Davis

10th Cavalry, Fort Davis

Tenth U.S. Cavalry regiments and the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth U.S. Infantry regiments who were given the respectful title of Buffalo Soldiers by the Comanches. In a series of Apache raids the Buffalo Soldiers of Fort Davis fought several battles before the Apaches retreated to Mexico, and the fort settled into a quiet routine of protecting the cattlemen who began moving into the area.

The fort was abandoned in 1891, but the nearby town of Fort Davis, the highest town in Texas at 5,050 feet, began attracting wealthy Gulf Coast residents eager to escape the summer heat, and it developed into a tourist haven. When the

Restored Enlisted Barracks

Restored Enlisted Barracks

Kansas City, Mexico and Orient Railway proposed building a line through Fort Davis, the citizens refused, claiming the railroad would attract low-class people.

Congress designated Fort Davis as a national historic site in 1963. The adobe and stone buildings have been restored to their 1880 appearance

Fort Davis Panorama

Fort Davis Panorama

Politics and Salt Did Not Mix

Travelers driving east from El Paso may find it difficult to imagine the longtime controversies that took place in the shadow of the

Guadalupe Peak

Guadalupe Peak

majestic Guadalupe Peak rising from the desert floor. The tallest mountain in Texas soars 8,751 feet above its western flank where an ancient salt flat sprawled across 2,000 acres. The salt and gypsum formed dunes that flowed from three-

Dunes in the Salt Flat

Dunes in the Salt Flat

to sixty-feet above the desert landscape. This treasure, lying about 100 miles east of present El Paso, was so important for the region’s Native Americans that for centuries they viewed it as a sacred place where they secured salt for tanning hides, for use as a condiment, and as a preservative. Things began to change when the Spanish discovered the site in 1692 and the villages, such as San Elizario that developed along the Rio Grande near present El Paso, viewed the Salt Flats as common land to be used by all the peoples of the region. The Indians, especially the Apaches, did not welcome the intruders who defied Indian attack to gather the precious resource. Even after the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended Mexican-American War and drew Mexico’s boundary with Texas at the Rio Grande, the Tejano farmers and ranchers supplemented their meager incomes by selling the salt as far away as the rich mining regions in Northern Mexico where it was used in smelting the silver.

More problems arose after the Civil War when El Paso came under the control of prominent Republicans who tried to claim the Salt Flat and charge a fee for Mexican Americans to gather the salt that had been free for many generations. Meantime, Charles H. Howard, a Democrat, arrived in El Paso in 1872 with the intention of turning the Republican stronghold into a Democratic electorate. Howard was successful for a time, got himself appointed district attorney and worked against the Republicans and the “Anti-Salt Ring.” Then, Howard changed course, filed on the salt deposits in the name of his father-in-law, which infuriated the El Paso area Hispanics who felt besieged by the Republicans and the Democrats. When Howard had the sheriff arrest local Tejano men to keep them from collecting the salt, a group of enraged local citizens held Howard prisoner until he agreed to relinquish all rights to the salt deposits.

Eventually in frustration over the attempted control of their community and their economic future, the Tejano people of San Elizario, closed all the county government and replaced it with committees (community juntas). The Anglos, who numbered less than 100 out of a population of 5,000, called on the governor who sent a detachment of Texas Rangers. When the Rangers arrived in the company of Howard, a two-day siege occurred ending with the surrender of the Texas Rangers, the first time in its history that a company of Rangers surrendered to a mob. Howard and the ranger sergeant and two others were executed. The disarmed Rangers were sent out of town, the Tejano leaders fled to Mexico, and residents looted the buildings. Twelve people were killed and fifty were wounded. No one was ever charged with a crime.

San Elizario paid a hefty price for its demands: the county seat was removed to El Paso, the 9th Cavalry of Buffalo Soldiers re-established Fort Bliss to patrol the border and watch the local Mexican population, the railroad bypassed San Elizario, the population declined, and the Mexican Americans lost their political influence in the area.

By the 1930s, floods had deposited silt across much of the flats and salt gathering came to a halt. Today the ghost town of Salt Flats, which consists of a scattering of mostly deserted buildings, edges the highway. Scattered vegetation grows where silt covered the old salt beds, but barren white stretches still offer a glimpse of the precious early-day resource.

Lost Mission of San Saba

The Santa Cruz de San Sabá Mission, built in 1757, is the only Spanish mission in Texas destroyed by Indians.  So thoroughly was the destruction that it took another 235 years for archeologists to finally confirm the site on the banks of the San Sabá River about 120 miles northwest of San Antonio.

Construction of the mission was a dream of Franciscan padres in San Antonio who believed a mission in Apache territory would put an end to almost perpetual warfare with the tribes.  Encouraged by a peace ceremony with the Apaches in 1749 and the Indians’ request to have a mission and a presidio to protect them from the Comanches, Spanish official sent three expeditions into Apache territory in search of a suitable site.  Several factors influenced the choice of the San Sabá River valley, including its potential for irrigated farming and the concern that rumors of rich veins of minerals in the area might attract the French if the Spanish failed to establish a presence.  Spanish officials, always concerned about the cost of every endeavor in its Texas province, finally authorized the new mission when religious ornaments and furnishings became available after the closing of three missions on the San Gabriel River.  And, a wealthy mine owner agreed to fund the cost of up to twenty missionaries for three years providing that his cousin Fray Alonso Giraldo de Terreros be placed in charge of the new mission.

With Col. Diego Ortitz Parrilla appointed commander of the San Sabá presidio, the march to the new site began on April 5, 1757.  A total of about 300, including six missionaries, arrived on April 17th with 1400 cattle and 700 sheep.  To their dismay they found no Apaches waiting to join the mission.  In an effort to satisfy concerns of the padres who feared the soldiers would corrupt their Indian neophytes, Ortiz Parrilla selected a site for the presidio on the opposite side of the river and about two miles from the mission.

By mid-June not a single Indian had come to the mission.  Then, to the padres’ delight 3,000 Apaches who were heading north to hunt buffalo and fight Comanches, camped near the mission.  After ignoring the missionaries’ overtures, the Indians left behind two of their group who were sick and promised to join the mission upon their return.  By this time, three of the original six missionaries had given up and returned to San Antonio.

With the arrival of winter, rumors circulated of northern tribes gathering to fight the Apaches and destroy the mission.  The missionaries seemed unaware that despite Apaches never one time coming to the mission, it looked to the Comanches like the Spanish were siding with their bitter enemies.  On February 25, 1758, after Indians stole fifty-nine horses, Parrilla Ortiz led soldiers in pursuit, only to find hostile Indians all over the countryside.  Returning to the mission, he tried unsuccessfully to convince Father Terreros to move the remaining three missionaries and thirty-three others to refuge in the presidio.

On March 16th as the mission went about its morning routine, 2,000 Comanches and other tribes that were enemies of the Apaches attacked the log stockade with some of the warriors using European guns at a time when most Indians fought with bows and arrows or hatchets.  Father Terreros and seven others were killed, while one missionary and about twenty others escaped to the presidio.  The attackers killed almost all the animals, including the cattle, and set fire to the stockade.

The Indians moved on to the presidio and when they could not lure the soldiers outside the fortress, they departed on March 18th.  After less than one year, the Santa Cruz de San Sabá Mission had come to an end.

The Spanish government, determined not to appear weak to the Comanches, refused to close the presidio.  In September 1759, Ortiz Parrilla was sent with 500 soldiers and Apache braves into Comanche country to punish the warriors for the attack on the mission.  After several brief encounters Ortiz found Comanches and other tribes on the Red River in a village flying a French flag and surrounded by a stockade and moat.  The Comanche had been warned of the Spanish approach and Ortiz suffered fifty-two dead, wounded, or deserted before he ordered a retreat.

The Spanish government insisted that the San Sabá Presidio remain open despite the superior power of the Comanche and other northern tribes who had firepower similar to the Spanish.  Many soldiers asked to be transferred and despite the presidio being rebuilt in limestone and surrounded by a moat, the soldiers were killed if they ventured out of the compound.

In 1762 a painting, The Destruction of Mission San Sabá was commissioned.  It is believed to be the first painting to depict a historical event in Texas.  In 1769, Presidio San Sabá was finally closed, over ten years after the fall of the mission it had been built to protect.

Destruction of the San Saba MIssion

Destruction of the San Saba MIssion