Spanish Missions

The Spanish Mission’s goal was to introduce the native people to the Spanish colonial empire, their Catholic religion, and different parts of their Hispanic culture. Missionaries would go to an Indian community and teach the people. These missionaries replaced the earlier Hispanic people who tried to control the Indians and make them slaves. The missions succeeded in the Spanish goals of developing political, economic, and religious expansion in America.

Franciscans, Catholic priests from the Order of Friars Minor, built all of the missions in Texas. They wanted to build Christian towns where property, labor, worship, political life and social relations were all supervised by the missionaries. The people would follow a structured daily routine that included prayer, work, training, meals, and relaxation. Once the community did not need support from the missionaries, they would become an ordinary colonial society. This transition was called secularization.

Colonial leaders and Franciscan missionaries tried to introduce the mission system throughout Texas between 1682 and 1793. All together there were 26 missions. Although most of the missions did not meet their goal, some did have some success, and all of them helped European roots in Texas.

From 1718 through 1731 five missions were established near the San Antonio River. The first was San Antonio de Balero [Valero, today known as the Alamo], followed by San José y San Miguel de Aguayo, Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción, San Juan Capistrano, and San Francisco de la Espada. These missions were successful in developing churches, workshops, fields, ranches and a social and religious life. By the late 1700s, the Indian residents of the San Antonio missions were speaking Spanish, living as Catholics, and even marrying local Hispanics.

Other missions, San Xavier Missions—San Francisco Xavier de Horcasitas, San Ildefonso, and Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria—lasted only from 1746 to 1755. They were unsuccessful due to inadequate military protection and bad weather. The few Indians who were left and the friars moved to the San Marcos River for a year and then to the Guadalupe River, until they abandoned the mission all together.

The Nuestra Señora de la Luz Mission, founded near the mouth of the Trinity River in 1756, was affected by unhealthy coastal conditions and inadequate support. The mission seemed to have a good relationship with the Orcoquiza Indians, the locals, and converted some of them. When military strategy said that the Spanish had to leave the area, the Franciscans did so very reluctantly, while the natives pleaded for them to stay.

The Karankawas, a native group of the southern Gulf Coast of Texas, were strong economically and were able to defend themselves. They accepted the mission life temporarily or on a seasonal basis. The original La Bahia Mission in 1722 was in the Karankawas own territory failed, as did the Rosario Mission in 1754. In 1789, the Franciscan missionary tried again. They were aware of the history of the Karakawas’ independent ways, so they offered a looser social organization. In 1793 Nuestra Señora del Refugio, the last mission founded in Texas, was established for the Karankawas. It used the same flexible approach.

In other areas, the Franciscans had to adapt even more. In 1682 the Indian mission towns of Corpus Christi de la Isleta, Nuestra Señora de la Limpia Concepción de Socorro, and San Antonio de Senecú (this last site is now within Mexico, not Texas) were founded by Tigua, Piro, Tompiro, and Tanoan people who had accompanied the Spanish in flight from the Pueblo Revolt in northern New Mexico. The Indians brought a developed cultural organization. The Indian authorities, with the approval of Spanish officials, got to control the economic and political life of their communities. The friars only controlled the spiritual portion. For a few decades there was also a mission effort among the Suma people gathered at Santa María de las Caldas in the El Paso district. The Franciscans claimed that they actually had to do all the work since the pastors stayed in the distant town of El Paso itself. Living side by side with their Spanish neighbors in these new settlements, the Indian mission communities were open villages, not the walled fortresses that you may see. By the nineteenth century the social exchange in these mixed Indian and Spanish towns resulted in complete Christianization and a great deal of cultural assimilation.

Missions in the self-sufficient Caddos in East Texas were not successful. An attempt to begin a mission along the Neches River in 1690-1693 (San Francisco de los Tejas and Santisimo Nombre de Maria) failed. The San Francisco mission reopened in 1716, along with five other missions - Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de los Hainais (later Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Acuña), San José de los Nazonis, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe in Nacogdoches, Nuestra Señora de los Dolores de los Ais, and San Miguel de Linares de los Adaes (in what is now Louisiana). These centers were small with just a chapel, a place for the missionaries to live and some homes that were built for Indians. The missionaries had to resign themselves with just visiting the villages and welcoming the Indians who visited them.

In 1730-1731, three East Texas missions moved to the San Antonio area because they were no longer protected. Louisiana changed from French to Spanish rule in 1763 and the missions closed there in 1773. When Nacogdoches was reoccupied as a Spanish civil settlement in 1779, an official mission was not built there. The Franciscans who worked there dealt with the settlers and interested Indians. Most Indians in that area did not practice the Catholic religion, but there were a few that adapted to the Spanish Catholic society. The East Texas missions ran very differently than those that were self-contained.

In the 1750s, the Lipan Apaches were beginning to lose ground to their enemies, the Comanches. The Apaches began to be friendly to the Spanish in Central Texas; they wanted military cooperation and even encouraged Spanish outposts in their territory. The short-lived missions attempted by Franciscans deep in dangerous Indian territory—Santa Cruz de San Sabá, in the vicinity of present-day Menard, and Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria del Cañón and San Lorenzo de la Santa Cruz in the upper Nueces River basin—became the target of attacks, including the disastrous annihilation of San Sabá Mission. The Apache responses to these missions demonstrated to Spanish eyes not only the Apaches' purely military motivations and lack of real interest in changing, but also their unreliability as allies. Colonial policy therefore shifted toward systematic war against the Apaches, who in turn continued to harass Spanish settlements. Later, during the tumultuous revolutionary decade of 1811–21, Lipans and Comanches engaged in a virtual war of attrition against Spanish settlements.

By the late 1770s the mission system fell out of favor as an important element of Spanish frontier strategy. In the first few years of the new Republic of Mexico—between 1824 and 1830—all the missions still operating in Texas were officially separated, with the exception of those in the El Paso district, which were turned over to diocesan pastors only in 1852.

Source: Spanish Missions
Copyright © Texas State Historical Association

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