Texas History 101

The Alamo is a symbol of Texas’s independence, but it also was part of the largest concentration of Catholic missions in North America.

Remember the Alamo! Remember that the Alamo was once called Mision San Antonio de Valero? Many Texans forget that the Alamo was part of the largest concentration of Catholic missions in North America. The Alamo and four other missions, some of which were moved from East Texas, were developed along the San Antonio River in the mid-1700’s. No famous battles took place at the other four missions—the San Juan Capistrano, the Concepcion, the San Jose, and the San Francisco de la Espada—but they also have a place in our state’s history.

Spain wanted to bring Catholicism and its colonial influence up from the interior of Mexico to the new territory of Tejas, so it developed a system of missions, where converted Indians lived in an enclosed area and grew crops, raised cattle and other animals (some missions had separate ranches for this function), and attended many religious services—usually three a day. The rigid structure of daily life reinforced the goals of both the Spanish crown and the Franciscan brothers who ran the missions: build loyalty to Spain and the Catholic Church.

The missions as a system were designed to be self-sufficient, and some individual missions, like the San Juan Capistrano, sold their surplus on the trading route, which extended from New Orleans to Coahuila, Mexico. More importantly, the missions provided a defense system against raiders, many of them non-converted Indians.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the missions had seen their heyday dismantled by a lack of military support from Spain, an epidemic of European diseases, and a sharp increase in hostility from Apache and Comanche tribes. In the early 1790’s Spain gave up on the missions, made them secular, and allowed the converted Indians to farm the lands on their own. By 1836, the year of the Battle of the Alamo, the mission buildings were in disrepair and far from the working religious communities they had once been.

In the early 1840’s, the Republic of Texas concluded that the Alamo Church and any other mission buildings belonged to the Catholic Church. It wasn’t until the early-1880’s that the Catholic Church sold the last remaining piece of Alamo property to the State of Texas. In 1905, Clara Driscoll and the Daughters of the Republic of Texas took over custodial care of the Alamo. In 1978, the Archdiocese of San Antonio along with the National Park Service created the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, which includes the San Juan, the Concepcion, the San Jose, and the Espada. Mass can be attended at all of the missions except the Alamo, which today serves as a shrine to Texas’s independence. The San Antonio Missions National Historical Park visitors center is open year-round from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (except certain holidays).

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