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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Indianola: Gateway to the Southwest

Ghost town of Indianola. Diorama created by Jeff Underwood, Philip Thomae photographer, Courtesy of the Calhoun County Museum, Port Lavaca, Texas

Ghost town of Indianola. Diorama created by Jeff Underwood, Philip Thomae photographer, Courtesy of the Calhoun County Museum, Port Lavaca, Texas

Waves lap the sunbaked shell beach of a ghost town that never should have been.  Despite its locale at near sea level, people built the thriving seaport of Indianola that rivaled Galveston as a major shipping point on the Texas coast.  Its shore became the landing site for thousands of Germans escaping poverty in the old country; its port served as the debarkation point for military personnel headed west to protect settlers from marauding Indians; and its wharves hosted tons of gold and silver from the mines in Northern Mexico destined for the mint in New Orleans.

Long before Indianola sprang up on the flat, treeless shore overlooking Matagorda and Lavaca bays, the future of Texas took shape as the result of events that occurred there.  In 1685 the Frenchman, René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, missed the mouth of the Mississippi River where he had planned to establish a colony and sailed another 400 miles to the central Texas coast.  He moved his ships through the treacherous sand bars and shifting currents of Pass Cavallo, the opening from the Gulf of Mexico into Matagorda Bay.  The Spanish Colonial government was so inflamed by LaSalle’s presence that it sent eleven land and sea expeditions in search of the intruders.  When the Spanish found LaSalle’s abandoned Fort St. Louis in 1689, the Frenchman had been dead for two years—murdered by his own men.  Nevertheless, the Spanish began constructing missions and presidios along the eastern border of Texas, intending to convert the Indians and provide a bulwark against French incursions from Louisiana.

One hundred years before Mexico won its independence from Spain, the Spanish padres built a mission and presidio on the site of LaSalle’s Fort Louis.  The Indians were not receptive, which forced the Spanish to move the facilities two more times before finally settling about fifty miles inland at present Goliad.

The calm waters of the inland bays encouraged the dream of protected ports.  John Linn, a Victoria merchant, established a warehouse on Lavaca Bay in 1831 that grew into Linnville a port that served, along with Galveston, as a major point of entry for goods coming into Texas.  Tragedy struck in August 1840 when 1,000 Comanches, including warriors and their families, furious at what they regarded as insulting and cruel treatment by white authorities at the Council House meeting in San Antonio the previous March, swept down across the Texas prairie stealing horses and murdering.  When they reached the shore at Linnville, they killed a few and captured two women and a child before the startled residents escaped into boats and sat helplessly offshore as they watched their town pillaged and burned. The attack, the largest against any U.S. city, became known as the Great Comanche Raid.

The next chapter in the saga of Matagorda and Lavaca bays began in Germany in the 1840s where a group of twenty-one noblemen, seeing an opportunity to ease the political unrest sweeping the country; to reduce the overcrowding of peasant farmers; and to make a fortune for themselves, organized the Adelsverein or Society for the Protection of German Immigrants in Texas. The Adelsverein appointed Prince Karl of Solms Braunfels, a fellow aristocrat, as the emissary to lead the settlers to the new land.  When Prince Karl landed in Galveston to complete plans for the colony, he discovered that the 9,000-acre site the noblemen had purchased was too far west of Austin and San Antonio for colonists to get supplies; it occupied land that was too poor for farming; and it lay in the middle of Comanche territory.  Before Prince Karl could make other arrangements, four shiploads of Germans were dumped on the cold shell beach at Indian Point, an empty spit of land jutting into the waters where Matagorda and Lavaca bays converge.

In the coming weeks this blog post will tell the story of the development along the coast of a new port city that welcomed German immigrants, hosted two shipments of camels, and thrived economically as war clouds began to form.

LA SALLE LEGACY

Two years after his death in 1687, explorer, fur trader, Frenchman, and visionary René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle deserves credit for the government of New Spain’s decision to construct missions in East Texas.

The story springs from the massive colonization and exploitation of the New World by powerful European countries.  Although Norse explorers reached the Canadian mainland as early as A.D. 1000, Spain, beginning with Christopher Columbus in 1492, undertook the most aggressive campaign of colonization, spreading after 1500 from the Caribbean islands to the interior of North, Central, and South America.  Although Portugal acquired what is present Brazil, the Spanish didn’t have serious competition until the 17th century when the English, French, and the Dutch began their incursions into the New World.

The Spanish discovery of rich silver mines in Northern Mexico in the last half of the 16th century, led to settlements in the region.  When dreams of finding riches in present New Mexico and Texas did not materialize, Spanish interest lagged until England began exploring the New World.  The threat of competing empires prompted the Spanish crown to commission Juan de Oñate in 1595 to colonize present New Mexico.  When Oñate reached El Paso, he claimed for Spain all the land drained by the Rio del Norte (present Rio Grande). For almost 100 years as Franciscans established more than twenty missions in New Mexico and travelers made the journey through El Paso, the Spanish government ignored the interior of Texas.

All that changed in 1685 when Spanish officials heard that the Frenchman, René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle landed on the Texas coast.

La Salle began his adventures in 1666 at age twenty-two when, with a small allowance from his family, he sailed from his home in Rouen, France to Canada to join his brother Jean, a Sulpician priest.  La Salle worked in the lucrative fur trade, which led to his exploring the river systems connected to the Great Lakes and to his dream of establishing trading posts along the Illinois River and down the Mississippi.

Originally believing the Mississippi flowed into the Gulf of Mexico and offered a western passage to China, he canoed in 1682 to the mouth of the river, named the territory La Louisiane in honor of Louis XIV, and claimed all the lands drained by the river for France.

Upon his return to France in 1683, La Salle obtained the king’s blessing for a voyage to the mouth of the Mississippi to establish a colony, secure French Canada’s access to a warm water port for its fur trade, and challenge the Spanish Empire’s claim to all the land from the coast of Florida to Mexico.

La Salle departed France on July 24, 1684, with four ships and 300 colonists. Plagued from the beginning with misfortune–pirates captured one ship in the West Indies, and recent discoveries of early documents indicate La Salle’s “lack of geographical understanding” caused him to miss the mouth of the Mississippi and sail another 400 miles to Matagorda Bay on the mid-Texas coast.

As the expedition entered the mouth of the bay on February 20, 1685, the rough waters of Pass Caballo sank the storeship Aimable. Her crew and several disenchanted colonists returned to France on the naval vessel Joly.  Before La Salle’s colony moved off Matagorda Island, their numbers dwindled to 180.  Malnutrition, Indian attack, and overwork reduced their numbers even more after they moved inland and constructed Fort St. Louis on Garcitas Creek in present Victoria County.

The following October La Salle left Fort St. Louis to explore the region and determine his exact location.  Upon his return in March 1686 La Salle learned a winter storm wrecked La Belle, the colonists only remaining ship. Finally realizing the bay they entered lay west of the Mississippi, La Salle made two marches back toward East Texas into Hasinai, or Tejas Indian territory hoping to find the Mississippi and reach the fort he had established on the Illinois River.  On March 19, 1687, during his second march on which he took seventeen colonists with him, a dispute in a hunting camp resulted in the death of seven of his followers. Then one of La Salle’s own men asassinated La Salle.  Six of the survivors finally reached Canada and eventually returned to France to tell their story.

About twenty women, children, handicapped, and those out of favor with La Salle remained at Fort St. Louis. One of the children later recounted the story of all the adults being killed in a Karankawa attack around Christmas 1688.  Karankawa women saved the children whom the Spanish eventually rescued and sent as servants to Mexico.

When Spaniards learned of La Salle’s intrusion into Spanish Texas, they began the search–five sea voyages and six land marches–in pursuit of the French intruders.  They found the wrecked Belle and parts of Aimable on April 4, 1687, but it took another two years before Alonso De León discovered the destroyed settlement.

The French arrival in Spanish Texas, coupled with concern over French intrusion into East Texas from Louisiana, prompted Spanish officials to establish six missions in East Texas to Christianize the Indians, turn them into good Spanish citizens, and establish the region as a buffer against French Louisiana.  The first, Mission San Francisco de los Tejas opened in 1690 and lasted only three years before the padres fled.  The endeavor taught the Spanish about the land, the Indian culture, and convinced them future missions must be accompanied by presidios and civilian settlements.  The East Texas missions by 1772 moved permanently to San Antonio.

Today a statue of La Salle looks out into Matagorda Bay near the ghost town of Indianola and streets, cities, counties, hotels, causeways, and schools bear the explorer’s name from Texas to the Canadian provinces.

In 1995 the Texas Historical Commission led an archeological excavation in the muck of Matagorda Bay to raise La BelleHer artifacts, which the commission holds in trust for France, are displayed in nine Texas museums.  The wreckage of L’Aimable has not been found.