A Short History of San Antonio, part I (general Texas history)

The Texas Folklore Society had its annual meeting in San Antonio, Texas this year and I thought I would write a few paragraphs describing the history of San Antonio. Unfortunately, this has gotten way out of hand. I’ll call this the first of two posts.

San Antonio is most famous as the city where the Alamo Mission is located, the site of a several battles that figured in the Texas Revolution.

Spanish colonization worked best in regions where the natives were tied closely to the land. Conquistadors such as Coronado, Cabeza de Vaca, de Soto and Ponce de Leon marched over much of what is now the Southern US searching for the seven cities of gold (Cibola), and perhaps the fountain of youth.

The Spanish were able to plant colonies in Florida and New Mexico, but the territories between them, now constituting the heart of the southern United States, that is, what are now the US states of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, were more resistant.

When conquering a foreign people, it eases things if they are tied to the land by the practice of farming. The eastern half of the United States, that is, everything east of the center of Texas, is well suited to the production of corn, and I have no doubt that when Columbus arrived in the New World in 1492, most of this land was intensely farmed and suitable for Spanish colonization.

The Spanish arrived in New Mexico very early and found a plentiful farming culture, the Pueblo Indians. They established Santa Fe in 1515. At this time the Indian population was still high, and with the local dependence on farming, the Spanish conquest took hold.  Other than a revolt in 1680-1692, the Spanish or Mexicans kept control of New Mexico until the Mexican-American war of 1848.

Mexico and New Mexico are separated from the fertile lands in the eastern part of Texas by the deserts of West Texas. The absence of water prevented this region from being farmed, and it was largely immune to Spanish colonization. By the time the Spanish arrived in east Texas, European diseases had sufficiently reduced the population density that farming was abandoned for the far more exciting and interesting life of the hunter, and these regions were also no longer easily colonized.

Because of these demographical and cultural changes, Spanish colonization in Texas required the importation of settlers rather than the far simpler conquering of already established societies. Most of these colonization efforts failed. San Antonio was one of the few that succeeded: the Spanish imported residents of the Canary Islands to found San Antonio in 1691.

The regions that were on the northern border of Spanish colonization are called the Spanish Borderlands.  The eastern end of the borderlands were adjacent to lands controlled by Indians with a very long tradition of raiding neighbors for goods, women, and honor. When the Spanish moved in, they inherited these low grade wars. What’s more important, they introduced the technology of the horse to the Indians and this enabled much easier hunting of bison on the great plains. The horse also allowed much more effective raiding.  It should be mentioned that the use of horse in this way is by far the easiest in regions without trees such as these plains.  So part of the reason for setting up the colony at San Antonio was to protect the regions farther south.

The Mississippi river drains most of the central part of the United States. It is navigable for most of its length with only one waterfall, about 50 feet in height, in Minnesota. With the French in control of the northern watershed of the Mississippi, and with their colonization effort largely consisting of setting up trade routes, it was natural that they would take an interest in the mouth of the Mississippi, which enters the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana, a few hundred miles east of the Sabine river, the border between Texas and Louisiana.

Spanish worries about the French colonies in Louisiana were alleviated in 1763 when France signed over Louisiana to the Spanish as a result of the Seven Years’ War. Their worries began again in 1800 when the (secret) third treaty of San Ildefonso returned Louisiana to the French. Napoleon, in return, sold Louisiana to the United States in 1803.

Having the United States on its northern border was a far more worrisome prospect for the Spanish. Texas was very thinly populated. The population of the United States was growing at one of the highest rates ever seen on the planet. Furthermore, Anglo settlers from the US had already settled the Piney Woods regions to the east of Texas and had a culture (corn farming) that would naturally extend into Texas.

The failure to colonize East Texas left the Spanish in a difficult situation. If they ignored the situation, immigrants from the US would eventually move into the territory and alienate it. The uncivilized region allowed pirates and irregular privateers like the Laffitte brothers and various filibusters to operate on the coast. At a time that Spain faced revolts in its Latin colonies, this was a big problem.

Faced with the ongoing problems, Spain decided to make a deal with the devil and to invite Anglo farmers into Texas. Each deal was set up by an empresario who advertised the property in the United States and took responsibility for relations with the Spanish government in the colony.  The deals typically required the settlers to become Spanish citizens (later Mexican), swear an oath of allegiance to the government, to convert to the official religion, Roman Catholicism, and to work the land in return for ownership.

Land prices were a small fraction of prices in the US. In addition, to sweeten the deal, the Spanish agreed that the settlers would pay no taxes or church tithes for the first 10 years. Since the settlers paid no taxes, the Spanish government did not provide any services. The same applied to the church. This left the settlers to their own devices. They could not legally be married without undertaking an arduous and risky trip to the Spanish end of the state. It also meant that the settlers’ children did not learn Spanish. East Texas slowly became Anglo.

 In part II, we begin with the Mexican revolution, independence from Spain, and its reverberations in the Anglo farming communities of east Texas.


Filed under History, Texas

4 responses to “A Short History of San Antonio, part I (general Texas history)

  1. Pingback: Book Report: The Search for Eldorado, John Hemming « Mass

  2. Fred


    I think you have captured the intended purpose of a blog. Personal, straight forward and initially unchartered. The Texan stories are interesting to me as I spent 3 years of my teens in Del Rio and one year in Copperas Cove intermittently from 1969 – 1976. Your tick post reminded me of the chiggers and many other critters I experienced in the desert and hill country during these years while in the Scouting programs. Maybe you could put a category list in your sidebar. i.e. book reviews, Texas, insects (bees, ticks, red ants), etc.

    To a refreshing blog,

  3. carlbrannen


    Many of the conquistadors never left the American southwest and you now find their descendants living in the area, some with their last names still spelled the same as so long before. This was pointed out to our class when I took calculus in high school. Eventually I’ll write up a memorial post, but with the news still fresh in my mind it is just a little too sad.

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