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.