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" . . . [In the 17th century] tales of riches spurred early Spanish explorers northward across the
Rio Grande . . . As dreams of wealth faded, the Spanish concentrated their efforts more fully
on the spreading of the Catholic faith among frontier Indians . . . Franciscan missions served both
Church and State . . . For the Indians the missions offered sanctuary from their enemies . . ."
- from the brochure "San Antonio Missions" published by the National Park Service


By now you've surely figured out that I have other interests besides trail running, mountain climbing, photography, and writing -- the focus of much of my last three years' web journals. Since my Granny Knees preclude me from running and racing as much as I have in the past (or completing another journey run, darn it), you'll see an increasing number of entries about travel, history, architecture, and other topics that interest me. Even in the first journal during our Appalachian Trail Adventure Run, Jim and I managed to find a bit of time to absorb local history and culture and share some of that online.

And that's what we're doing in San Antonio between two of our ultra races, Across the Years and Rocky Raccoon. We may as well expand our knowledge of this magnificent country of ours as much as we can while we're on the road, eh? Learning is fun at any age, and we're trying to keep our brain synapses connected as we get older!

Entrance to a whole new world at Mission San Jos

Jim's a "history buff" from Day One. Not me. I did fine in history classes in high school and college, but it was an exercise in memorizing facts to ace the tests -- and then I promptly forgot not only most of the details, but also most of the important connections between various events. Ohio history, American history, world history . . .  it was just never interesting or relevant to me until I started traveling after college.

By now I'm also a history buff like Jim. It's so much more fun to learn about an event where it happened than it is to only read about it in a book. (That's one reason parents should take kids to lots of "educational" places when they're growing up, instead of just "entertainment" venues.)

I must say that the old Spanish missions in San Antonio have grabbed my attention. Not only do I love the architecture and layouts of the various missions, but the whole history and culture surrounding them intrigues me. I'll do my best to stick to the facts here and try to leave out my personal feelings about the arrogance of countries, cultures, and religions that try to impose their beliefs on other people . . .

Oops! Sometimes it's hard not to editorialize.


All of the information I'm presenting in this entry is from San Antonio Missions National Historical Park brochures and web site. This organization is part of the National Park Service. When I quote material from the brochures or web site, I'll put it in italics.

Your typical tourist shot of this mission

The National Park Service maintains and preserves the mission sites through cooperative agreements with the Archdiocese of San Antonio and the state of Texas. The mission churches continue to be active centers of worship in their communities and the public is invited to attend services. Otherwise, they are available for self-tours nearly every day of the year.

The Historical Park consists of four Spanish frontier missions and other cultural sites that were part of a massive colonization effort by Spain across the Southwest in the 17th, 18th, and 18th centuries. We visited all four missions, which are strung out along the San Antonio River on the "Mission Trail" for seven or eight miles south of downtown. Guided tour buses are available but we drove ourselves, visiting three missions one afternoon and the fourth on another day. You can spend hours at each one, or zip through fairly quickly.

Map of the Mission Trail, too small to read but maybe
you can see where the missions are located.

The missions were fairly easy to find following signs and Park Service maps. I was expecting more of a scenic corridor since the map shows green NPS land between the three most southerly missions, but the route is mostly on surface streets that are rather busy and sometimes go through unattractive areas.

There is also an eight-mile hike and bike trail that connects the missions; it is sixteen miles out and back. We didn't run or ride on it this time but we probably will the next time we're there.

Our first stop was at the Historic Park's visitor center near Mission San Jos. That was a good plan. We picked up brochures, looked at the exhibits, and watched a 25-minute orientation film about the missions, which enhanced our experience at all four missions.

There are ranger-guided tours at each location but it was faster and easier for us to go alone and at our own pace. We picked up mission-specific brochures at each location and read them as we walked around . The pamphlets have diagrams and photos that explain what you're seeing. You can also get all this information at the downtown Visitor Center near the Alamo. The introductory film and all the brochures are in both English and Spanish.

I will scatter photos from the four missions throughout this essay, then show pictures from each one separately in the next entry so you'll have a better idea of what's special at each location.


The blurb at the top of this entry pretty much sums up why the Spanish built these missions: they wanted to extend their domination into as much of what is now the Southwest part of the United States as they could, and when their initial dreams of fortune faded they concentrated on spreading the Catholic faith among the native hunter-gatherer tribes of Indians collectively known as the Coahuiltecans (kwa-weel-tekens).

Spain wasn't the only country trying to colonize the American continent. France was encroaching from Louisiana in the late 1600s. In 1690 Spain established six missions in eastern Texas to help prevent France from getting a foothold in "their" territory. When they decided they needed a mission between there and the missions in New Spain (present-day Mexico), they built San Antonio de Valero in 1718 -- later renamed the Alamo.

Current entrance to Mission San Jos through the thick, protective wall

Spanish explorers already knew how fertile the San Antonio valley was but it wasn't until the Franciscan friars noted the large population of Coahuitecan Indians in the area that they decided to establish several more missions along the river. In 1720 Fray Antonio Margil de Jesus founded San Jos y San Miquel de Aguayo, now known simply as Mission San Jos. As the missions in eastern Texas failed because of disease, drought, and hassles with the French, three more were moved to the San Antonio river valley in 1731. These five missions and a presidio (fort) became the most successful concentration of Catholic missions in North America.

The symbiotic relationship between the Spanish "invaders" and the frontier tribe around the future San Antonio area, the Tejas Indians, is interesting. Each culture became dependent on the other and both apparently benefited. Although some of the natives fled so they could retain their own culture, most welcomed the sanctuary provided by the missions and became assimilated into the Spanish colonial society. It wasn't long before their ancient living habits were forever altered.

The system was great for a while, but gradually became obsolete.

"The missions flourished between 1747 and 1775, despite periodic incursions by Apache and Comanche Indians. Military support was always inadequate; the Spanish trained the Christianized mission Indians to defend their communities. After 70 years the need for the missions diminished due to the effects of European diseases, acculturation, and intermarriage. By 1824 the San Antonio missions were secularized -- their lands redistributed among the inhabitants and the churches transferred to the secular clergy."

"The Spanish missions helped form the foundation for the city of San Antonio. The modern San Antonio community early recognized their significance, and since the 1920s has worked to preserve them. Today these missions represent an almost unbroken connection with the past. Carrying the legacy of generations of American Indians and Hispanics, they live as active parishes."

Some of the singers preparing to enter Mission San Jos to present a concert.

Even though the churches are still used today, all of the missions on the "Trail" are protected, historic sites open to the public. The missions are often used for weddings, funerals, concerts, and other events. We saw a couple in wedding finery being photographed at one of the missions, and at another a large group of costumed singers (above) was waiting outside for their grand entrance to a concert they would be giving in a few minutes.


Although the Spanish colonization of the West was exploitive, the Franciscans reportedly governed in a gentle manner compared with the leaders of many other aggressive cultures throughout history. In their church role, the friars pledged to protect the Indians as they converted them to the Catholic faith. "They [the Franciscans] also assisted the Crown as explorers, cartographers, diplomats, scientific observers, and chroniclers. But their primary task in the New World was to aid in extending Spanish culture to whatever lands the Crown claimed."

Life at the missions was highly regimented for the indigenous neophytes, people newly converted to Christianity. They pretty much forfeited their entire culture. Not only did they have to forsake their own religious beliefs and attend mass three times a day, they also changed their diet, clothing, and names. They had to learn new languages (both Spanish and Latin), take on new jobs, and pledge allegiance to the Spanish government. Talk about culture shock!

But I have to point out that the Coahuitecans / Tejanos apparently did this voluntarily. They were not prisoners or slaves, although they did a lot of the physical labor. They participated in the governance of the missions and they were given land when the missions were secularized later on. From what I've read, it appears they were treated with respect.

Old loom used to weave cloth at Mission Espada (displayed in museum on site)

What else did the Indians gain from their labor, obedience to the Crown, and indoctrination to Christianity? Food, shelter, and protection, no small benefits at the time. They also learned valuable vocational skills needed for economic self-sufficiency. They worked the fields, orchards, and gardens; tended livestock at distant ranches (the only one remaining, Rancho de las Cabras, can be toured near Floresville, TX); mined the quarries, forged iron, and learned stonecutting, masonry, and carpentry skills to build the structures and protective walls around the missions; fished and hunted; wove and spun cloth; sewed clothing; cooked; and made soap, candles, and pottery. They also learned to use European firearms to protect their communities from the Apaches and Comanches, something they had problems doing on their own before the Franciscans arrived..

One of the legacies of the missions is the acequia system of irrigation. Water is life, and water is scarce in this part of Texas. The Spaniards and Indians built seven gravity-flow ditch systems with five dams and several aqueducts along the San Antonio River for water to drink, power mill wheels, bathe in, and irrigate crops. The Espada Aqueduct, built in 1745, still diverts river water today. It is the oldest Spanish aqueduct in the country.  

Sign at Mission San Jos explaining how the grist mill worked (+ two photos below)




Early missions were built of wood or adobe and had no walls. Later, thick stone walls were built for protection against northern Indian tribes, making the missions resemble forts.

Outside of one of the remaining walls at Mission San Jos

Skilled craftsmen from Mexico taught the mission Indians how to build the walls and buildings within each community.

As you can see from the photos in this entry and the next, the churches and remaining structures look different at each mission. Basic Spanish architecture was modified by frontier conditions and what each village needed to serve its population. Intricate Renaissance and Moorish details blend with Romanesque forms and Gothic arches. The extremes in the size and complexity of the churches in the missions are shown here:

The church at Mission San Juan (a larger one was started but never finished)


The church at Mission Espada is similar but larger and more elaborate


 Mission Concepcin is the oldest (1755) un-restored stone church in America.


Stately Mission San Jos illustrates extraordinary Spanish colonial Baroque architecture.



It's somewhat amazing how many architectural details were incorporated into these churches and conventos / friaries (where the priests and missionaries lived), considering their remote locations. Here are some of the interesting archways, windows, and other details that I caught in pixels (and I can get a lot more by focusing in on some of the other shots I've taken).

The perspective of multiple arches is very appealing in the convento at Mission San Jos:

I'll show another shot of that from farther back in the next entry.

This photo is in a different direction from about the same vantage point, but looking left toward the church:

The shadows also add to the perspective and repetition in the photo above.

Then there's the famous "Rose Window," also found at Mission San Jos. Or is it "Rosa's Window?" There is some mystery about both the sculptor and significance of what is considered the best example of Spanish Colonial ornamentation in this country:

I quote, "Folklore credits Pedro Huizar, a carpenter and surveyor from Mexico, with carving the famous window as a monument to his sweetheart, Rosa. Tragically, on her way from Spain to join him, Rosa was lost at sea. Pedro then completed the window as a declaration of enduring love."

Details of one corner of San Jos's famous Rose Window

"A less colorful theory, but more likely, is that the window was named after Saint Rose of Lima, the first saint of the New World."

Whatever. It really is beautiful up close and in person. I like the romantic version best! It surprises me that more accurate records weren't kept, however.


Now get this:

"Amid their struggle to conquer the frontier of New Spain, the Franciscans planned extravagant beauty for the mission churches. Colorful murals covered both the exterior and interior of the church and the 'convento' (priests' residence) at Missions Concepcin and San Jos."

Artist's rendering of the colorful church entrance at Mission San Jos in the mid-1700s

A touch of elegance (albeit gaudy) in the wilderness! This is what the entrance to the church as San Jos looks like in 2008:

I like subtlety, so I prefer this to the original. That's at least as elaborate as the nearby Rose Window.

Around the corner, below the bell tower, some of the fresco work has been replicated for modern visitors (it's apparently not original "uncovered" art):


The Rose Window is just to the right of all that.


There are more examples of fresco on interior walls where the ravages of time and weather were less severe. Two hundred fifty years later you can still see some of the faded original frescos on walls inside the church and library at Mission Concepcin where art conservators have been uncovering them for the last twenty years:


The mission Indians learned the art of frescoing walls and ceilings from the Spaniards and Mexicans. Some of the designs highlighted architectural details; others hid construction flaws.

Although some were symbolic of the Catholic faith, most were simply decorative. Until art restorers uncovered the entire painting below in 1988, viewers for a century or more could see only one eye. Legend labeled it "The Eye of God" or "All-Seeing Eye." However, the second eye, a mustache, and goatee were revealed during the conservation work, leading experts to conclude that the symbol was not religious but rather a Spanish medallion. According to an NPS brochure about the frescoes, the meaning of some of the artwork that has been uncovered remains a mystery.

The mission art was apparently very impressive in its day, especially considering how remote the missions were at the time. It's a shame that so much of the art has faded into obscurity. I'm glad some of it has been restored. I really love the arty Renaissance appeal of these faded designs.

Ceiling design around a bell pull, left;  fresco on a wall in the sacristy, right

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

As you can tell from the photos in this entry, I am fascinated with the history, culture, art, architecture, and details of the churches and other mission buildings we visited. I encourage you to see them yourself if you're ever in the area. If you have only a couple hours, I recommend you do self-tours at both Mission Concepcin and Mission San Jos. Those two are the most complete and memorable.

Oh, and leave time for the Alamo, too! You simply can't visit San Antonio without seeing the Alamo, which was originally a mission, not a fort.

Next entry: photo tours of Missions Concepcin, San Jos, San Juan, and Espada

Glad I wasn't born in the 1700s,

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and Tater

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2008 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil