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
University of Texas, Texas Beyond History




El Paso Mission Trail

My long-range plans call for finding a book publisher interested in my Texas history blogs. With that goal in mind, I’m expanding my Texas coverage with a series of West Texas and Panhandle stories. This blog post was to be about the founding of the oldest Spanish mission in Texas and the first thanksgiving in the United States, both of which I thought had occurred near El Paso, a city on the far western edge of Texas. Immediately, I uncovered a wide range of stories that I have decided to share.

We often think of Spanish activity in Texas getting underway when the Frenchman René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de LaSalle landed on the Texas coast in 1685. Concern that the French might have an eye on Texas prompted the government of New Spain to construct six missions in East Texas to Christianize the Indians and to serve as a buffer against encroachment from the French in neighboring Louisiana. In fact Spanish explorers started coming into Texas at present-day El Paso in the early 1580s, a century before the East Texas missions were built.

King Phillip II of Spain made Don Juan de Oñate the governor of New Mexico, before the territory

Don Juan de Onate

Don Juan de Onate

had been conquered. In search of riches, adventure, and political power Oñate personally financed an expedition, or entrada, meant to “pacify” the natives in New Mexico. He assembled 400 soldiers, 130 families and thousands of head of cattle, sheep, and other livestock. In early 1598 Oñate led his entourage on what he thought was a shortcut across the Chihuahuan Desert in Northern Mexico in search of a pass through the mountains into New Mexico. In late April, after four days of walking without food or water, the desperate travelers reached the Rio Grande where Oñate claimed all the surrounding land for King Phillip II of Spain. A few days later, they met native people who called themselves Manos, “peaceful one.” The friendly Indians led the Spanish to the place where the Rio Grande cut through the mountains forming El Paso del Rio del Norte—the pass of the north—the Spanish entryway to the West. The Mansos, who wore very little clothing, provided fresh fish for the Spanish and received clothing in return. Oñate invited the Mansos to be guests at a feast on January 26, 1598, celebrating the travelers’ amazing survival. The huge display of wild game and other food stuffs from the expeditions’ supplies created a feast of thanksgiving, which seems to be the second to be celebrated in the present United States. The first thanksgiving is claimed by St. Augustine, Florida, where on September 8, 1565, the Spanish explorer Pedro Menendez held a feast of thanksgiving with the Timucua.

The entrada moved on into New Mexico, but when scouting parties failed to find gold and silver,

Acoma Pueblo

Acoma Pueblo

Oñate’s troops began demanding payments from the Pueblo population. The Acoma pueblo refused to comply and in 1599 the Acoma Wars ended with Oñate’s orders to kill 800 people, enslave another 500, and cut off the left foot of all men older than twenty-five. Numbers of amputees vary from twenty-four to eighty. The young women were sent into slavery. Oñate continued his exploratory travels as far as present Kansas, returned to found the town of Santa Fe, and was finally called back to Mexico City in 1606 to answer for his conduct. Although he was tried and convicted of cruelty to the Spanish colonists and to the natives, he was later cleared of all charges.

His treatment of the native peoples set the pattern of Spanish cruelty that continued until the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 when the natives rebelled against their overlords. The Pueblos drove out the soldiers and the Spanish authorities, killed twenty-one Franciscan priests, and sacked mission churches. More than 400 Spanish colonists and 346 native people were killed, which sent hundreds of Indians and Spanish fleeing for their lives to the south. The Tigua (Tiwa) people were among the refugees who reached safety at the Paso del Norte. In order to serve the displaced population, Franciscan friars established the first mission and pueblo in Texas, Corpus Christi de la Isleta, in 1682 on the south bank of the Rio Grande. That same year Nuestra Señora de la

Ysleta Mission

Ysleta Mission

Concepción del Socorro was established for other native people who had fled from the Pueblo Revolt. Over the years, the Rio Grande flooded many times, changing course, and moving the communities that grew up around the missions to both sides of the river, even isolating them for a time on an island between two channels of the Rio Grande.

Socorro Mission

Socorro Mission

Despite the construction of the Spanish missions, the Indians from New Mexico brought their own way of life with them, and continued to control the political and economic activities of the new mission communities. The Franciscan friars were allowed authority only over the Indians’ spiritual life.

Into this mix of missions, native peoples, and Spanish settlers, San Elizario settlement was established, and the Presidio de San Elizario was built in 1789 to protect the area missions and the travelers on the Camino Real (Royal Highway) that ran from Mexico City through Paso del Norte to Santa Fe. While it was never a mission, the presidio boasted a chapel to serve the military personnel.

San Elizario Chapel

San Elizario Chapel

Today’s Ysleta church was completed in 1907 and the Isleta community was annexed into El Paso in 1955. The present Socorro Mission was completed in 1840, replacing the 17th-century structure destroyed by Rio Grande floods. The current church retains many of its original decorative elements, including the original beams, or vigas, which were salvaged from the old flooded church. Both missions and the San Elizario Chapel are on the El Paso Mission Trail.

El Paso Mission Trail

El Paso Mission Trail

Texas’ First Settlers: Canary Islanders

After the Frenchman René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle missed the mouth of the Mississippi where he planned to establish a colony and landed instead in 1685 on the middle Texas coast, the Spanish Colonial government became concerned about the French encroaching on Spanish Texas.  The worry led to constructing missions in East Texas with the aim of Christianizing the Indians and establishing a buffer to keep the French in Louisiana from coming into Texas.  After years of little success in converting the Indians and finally moving all the missions out of East Texas, the Spanish 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.

Canary Islands

Canary Islands

Originally the Spanish crown planned to move 400 families from the economically distressed Canary Islands 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 from the Canary Islands 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 coast. As they followed the route laid out for them by the Spanish government up through the center of Mexico, they

Route through Mexico

Route through Mexico

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 pueblo “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.  As continued harassment from marauding Comanche, Apache, and other roving tribes made it difficult for farmers to work in their fields and sometimes even cut off communication with authorities in New Spain, the lines of differences began blurring between the groups and a cohesive community emerged as they banded together against the outside threat.

Church of San Fernando

Church of San Fernando

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.

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.

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 remains of Davy Crockett, William B. Travis, and Jim Bowie who died at the Alamo.  Today, the cathedral

Marble coffin said to hold remains of Alamo heroes

Marble coffin said to hold remains of Alamo heroes

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

San Fernando Cathedral


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


 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.