Canary Islanders, Texas’ First Settlers

After years of little success in Christianizing the Texas Indians and turning them into good Spanish citizens, the colonial authorities realized that securing control of the vast area required more than missions and a military presence—civilians were needed to populate the province of Texas. By 1718 Mission San Antonio de Valero (present Alamo) and its presidio still lacked a civilian presence.

Originally the Spanish crown planned to move 400 families from the economically distressed Canary Islands, which lay off the northwest coast of Africa, to establish a civilian community near the Mission San Antonio de Valero and its presidio. The King of Spain intended to completely fund the move through Havana and on to Vera Cruz, including all the necessities for the journey. However, after six years of planning, the original numbers were deemed too large and the transportation too expensive. By the time the Islanders actually sailed for America in 1730, there were only twenty-five families, fifteen of whom stopped in Cuba and only ten traveled all the way to Vera Cruz on the Mexican Gulf coast. As they followed the route laid out for them by the Spanish government up through the center of Mexico, they stopped at places like San Luis Potosi and Saltillo where they received food and clothing. At Presidio San Juan Bautista on the Rio Grande they left their worn-out horses and continued their trek on foot to the banks of the San Antonio River. The journey of almost a year brought heartache, including deaths that left two widows as heads of large households and the three Cabrera children–Ana, José, and Marcos—whose parents died on the trip. Marriages along the way increased the entourage to fifteen families—fifty-six people—reaching their new home on March 9, 1731.

Each family received generous land grants, including the three Cabrera orphans. They named their town “Villa de San Fernando” in honor of the prince, Don Fernando, who became King Ferdinand in 1746. By August the Islanders, “Isleños,” had finished plowing and planting and had elected civilian officials to legally establish the first chartered civil government in Texas. Because of their position as the first civilian settlers, the Isleños had permission from the crown to carry the title of “hidalgo,” or son of noble lineage. For years they represented the political and socioeconomic elite of the community.

Tensions arose between the three communities—the Isleños, the military in the presidio, and the Franciscans in the nearby missions—over access to water, which had to be delivered by acequias or irrigation canals, the use of the land, and the management of livestock.

Indian attacks—Comanche, Apache, and other roving tribes—caused the lines of differences between the groups to begin blurring and a cohesive community emerged as they were forced to band together against the outside threat that made it difficult for farmers to work in their fields and sometimes even cut off communication with authorities in New Spain.

The Isleños laid the cornerstone in 1738 for the Church of San Fernando–the first parish church in Texas–and completed its construction in 1750. Over the years the church was enlarged and in 1874 Pope Pius IX named San Antonio a diocese with San Fernando as its cathedral.

San Fernando Church on the Plaza in the 1800s Wikipedia

San Fernando Church on the Plaza in the 1800s
Wikipedia

The first formal census, dated December 31, 1788, refers to the “Villa of San Fernando” and the mission and its presidio as “San Antonio de Béxar.” After Mexico won independence from Spain, San Antonio de Béxar served as the capital of the province and when Texas finally won independence from Mexico in 1836, the city became known as San Antonio.

Sarcophagus or marble coffin holding ashes of Travis, Bowie and Crockett. Wikipedia

Sarcophagus or marble coffin holding ashes of Travis, Bowie and Crockett.
Wikipedia

The dome of the original San Fernando Church served as the geographic center of the city and the point from which all mileage was measured to San Antonio. When Mission San Antonio de Valero (the Alamo) was secularized in 1793, its congregation became members of San Fernando. Finally in 1824, after missions Concepcíon, San José, and Espada were all secularized, their members joined the San Fernando parish. Jim Bowie married Ursula de Veramendi, daughter of the Governor of the State of Coahuila y Tejas at San Fernando in 1831. The Battle of the Alamo began when General Santa Anna raised the flag of “no quarter” from the tower of the San Fernando church. It is claimed that a sarcophagus or marble coffin at the back of the sanctuary holds the ashes of Davy Crockett, William B. Travis, and Jim Bowie who died at the Alamo. Today, the cathedral plays a major role in San Antonio as it continues to function as a religious institution while hosting symphonies, concerts, television specials, and the constant arrival of tour buses carrying visitors eager to see one of the oldest cathedrals in the United States that began as a parish church for Canary Islanders.

San Fernando Cathedral Wikipedia

San Fernando Cathedral
Wikipedia

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.

SPANISH SETTLEMENT IN TEXAS

Recently, I wrote about New Spain official’s sudden interest in Texas after they received word in 1685 that the Frenchman René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle landed a colony on Texas soil.  For the next four years the Spanish Colonial government sent eleven–five by sea and six by land–expeditions in search of the intruders.

When they finally discovered La Salle’s Fort St. Louis south of present Victoria, all the inhabitants were dead and Indians had captured a few of the children.  Fearing the French in Louisiana might move across the Sabine River into East Texas, the Spanish established Mission San Francisco de los Tejas near present Crockett  in 1690 with a plan of Christianizing the Indians and laying a buffer against the French.  The missionaries left under cover of darkness after only three years.

Over the next fifty years the Spanish made two more short-lived attempts to establish six East Texas missions.

Still worried about foreign aggression, the Spanish constructed Mission Señora del Espiritu Santo de Zuniga and la Bahía presidio on the site of La Salle’s abandoned Fort St. Louis, which they later moved to present Goliad—a strategic site intended to halt a possible invasion of the central coast at Copano Bay.

Each time European colonial governments showed interest in the New World, Spain moved into action.  Spain’s war with England, coupled with the English occupying Georgia in 1733, spurred new worries about invasion along the coast from Tampico in Mexico to Matagorda Bay on the Central Texas coast.  The answer seemed to lie in establishing villas and missions along the Rio Grande.  The viceroy of New Spain appointed José de Escandón as military commander and governor of the new province of Nuevo Santander, which spread from modern Tamaulipas, Mexico into Southern Texas.

Charged with establishing settlements and missions between Tampico and the San Antonio River, Escandón sent seven divisions in search of the most favorable locales for future villas.

Escandón’s lieutenants nixed colonizing the area around present Brownsville and Matamoros because the land appeared too low—subject to flooding.  Moving up the Rio Grande, Escandón found eighty-five families waiting at its confluence with the San Juan River.  On March 5, 1749, the colonizer named Camargo (across the Rio Grande from present Rio Grande City) as his first villa.  A nearby mission opened to convert the Indians who occupied jacales

Lehmer–1939–jacales

 circling the home of the missionary priestsNine days later Villa de Reynosa became the second settlement.

Finally, in 1755 Escandón established his last villa where Tomás Sánchez de la Barrera y Gallardo, one of Escandón’s captains, convinced him an old Indian ford on the Rio Grande offered a good locale for a villa.  Sánchez brought three families to make up the original settlement on his 66,000-acre land grant.  Present Laredo grew from that original ranch to become the largest and most successful of Escandón’s permanent Spanish settlements in Southwest Texas.

In 1767 a Spanish royal commission began granting land to individual colonists within the villas along the Rio Grande.  Due to the need for access to the river for transportation and irrigation in this near-desert region, the commissioners surveyed 170 porciones, rectangular strips of land about one mile wide fronting the Rio Grande and sixteen miles long, extending north away from the river for grazing cattle.  Over the years, larger, cattle-grazing grants, which spread north of the porciones and along the Gulf Coast, went to influential residents of Camargo and Reynosa.

Escandón, who is know today as the “Father of the Lower Rio Grande Valley” and his lieutenants founded twenty-four towns and fifteen missions on both sides of the Rio Grande.