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Tracing a Mission and Its People

painting of south texas native people
South Texas was populated by bands of native people who lived in temporary encampments and made their living by hunting and gathering. The Spanish hoped to transform these roving native populations into Christian citizens for European-type settlements on the frontier. Inset from painting by Frank Weir. Enlarge image
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drawing of spanish soldiers and missionaries
Spanish soldiers and missionaries played lead roles in securing the northern frontier of New Spain. Posted to presidios (forts) such as Presidio La Bahia, soldiers guarded the missionaries and native neophytes at Mission Espíritu Santo and helped establish permanent European-style settlements on the South Texas Plains. Image courtesy Mission Espíritu Santo State Historic Site, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Enlarge image

The Spanish turned their sights to South Texas during a critical time of expansion on their North American frontier. Following decades of unsuccessful treasure-hunting expeditions in the southwest, led by Coronado and others, they turned to colonization in the region as a means to ensure a steady supply of Indian labor and to repel incursions from the French. The particular pattern that emerged in the Spanish colonization process entailed the establishment of a mission, a fort or presidio manned by soldiers to guard the inhabitants, and a settlement, or villa, where the presidio staff, native peoples, families, and others lived. In many ways, this system was intended to have the character of Spain’s system of feudal estates.

In the early 18th century, northern New Spain was peopled largely by small, mobile groups of native hunters and gatherers, not the optimum population to establish a European-type settlement. The native peoples would first have to be converted—immersed in the ways of Christianity and Spanish citizenship, including instruction in trades such as farming, ranching, and weaving. In the process, these laborers would establish roots, rear families, and settle into towns —securing the Spanish hold in the area. They would also work the land and produce a wealth of products to benefit the Spanish treasury. Charged with shepherding this vision, Spanish soldiers and missionaries moved onto the frontier. A succession of missions was established, including three on the lower Rio Grande near present Guerrero, Mexico. One of these, Mission San Francisco Solano, was moved in 1718 to a site near the headwaters of the San Antonio River where it became Mission San Antonio de Valero (also known as the Alamo). Additional missions at this locale followed in rapid succession.

On the Texas coastal plains, more pressing needs arose. Selection of the first site for Mission Nuestra Señora Espíritu Santo de Zuniga was made in reaction to an expedition by the French explorer La Salle to the coast of Matagorda Bay, on lands claimed by Spain. Although La Salle's short-lived colony at Fort St. Louis was destroyed by coastal Karankawa in 1689, the Spanish elected to secure the region by establishing a military fort, Presidio La Bahia, on the site in 1721. Mission Espíritu Santo was founded nearby on the banks of Garcitas Creek.

Like the ill-fated French colonists, the Spanish missionaries and soldiers suffered mightily in the coastal location. The environment was harsh, and the Karankawa Indians, whom the Spanish hoped to serve, resisted the changes prescribed by mission life, becoming increasingly hostile to the friars and soldiers. Violence ensued, crops failed, and the friars began to look for a more favorable location for the mission.

Colorful glass beads were among the items brought by Spanish friars as gifts or exchange items for native peoples. These "trade beads" were uncovered at Mission Esprítu Santo at its fourth location in present-day Goliad. Photo by Monica Trejo. TARL collections. Enlarge image

The Mission Process

  • Missions were used as a means to exert control over native peoples, accomplished through a multi-step process:
  • Establishment of mission in area of "gentiles" (pagans, or peoples with no formal religion);
  • Redución: gathering and confining the native peoples of the area to the mission complex;
  • Conversion, or instruction in Christianity, as well as in agriculture, crafts, and Spanish citizenship. After completing this stage, native peoples were to be considered "gente de rasôn," or persons of reason.
  • map of the locations of Mission Espiritu Santo
    photo of the grasslands of the San Antonio River
    The gently rolling grasslands of the San Antonio River valley and areas nearby provided fertile range for the vast cattle herds established at Mission Espíritu Santo in its fourth location near present-day Goliad. Photo by Susan Dial. Enlarge image

    Timeline of Early Historic Events in South Texas

  • 1519- Spanish explorer Pinedo maps Texas coastline
  • 1528- Cabeza de Vaca shipwrecked off Galveston Island
  • 1685- French explorer La Salle shipwrecked on La Belle, establishes Fort St. Louis on Garcitas Creek
  • 1689- Karankawa attack Fort St. Louis, kill French colonists, take five children captive
  • 1689- Spanish explorer Alonso de Leon finds ruins of fort
  • 1719- Spanish establish Presido La Bahia at Espíritu Santo Bay
  • 1722-Mission Espíritu Santo established near presidio, on Garcitas Creek
  • 1725-Mission Espíritu Santo moved 10 leagues west, to Guadalupe River site, after violence between Spanish and Indians: 2nd location
  • 1726- Presidio La Bahia and Mission Espíritu Santo established at lower Guadalupe River valley (Mission Valley) near present-day Victoria: 3rd location of mission
  • 1749: Mission Espíritu Santo moved to lower San Antonio River site, near present day Goliad: 4th location
  • 1749- 1754- Franciscan missionaries establish Mission Rosario
  • 1779-First long-distance cattle drive in Texas. Cattle from south Texas mission ranches herded by Tejanos and Indians to Louisiana to supply Spanish troops fighting in support of American independence from British.
  • Ca.1830s- Mission Espíritu Santo secularized
  • photo of spanish colonial artifacts
    Examples of Spanish Colonial artifacts recovered from Mission Espíritu Santo in its final location, including blue and white majolica sherds, lead-glazed ceramic sherds, rusted fragments of a metal knife and scissors, and a religious medallion. TARL archives. Enlarge image
    photo of an artist
    An artist from Texas Parks and Wildlife Department carves a wooden statue for the church at Espíritu Santo. Striving for historical accuracy, interpreters based their work on religious art and statuary in Spanish Colonial missions and churches in San Antonio and in Mexico. Image courtesy Mission Espíritu Santo State Historic Site, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Enlarge image

    A Mission on the Move

    Plans were made to move both the mission and presidio roughly 10 leagues (30 miles) inland to the Guadalupe River valley. Here, the friars would work among the Aranama and Tamique Indians, who appeared more open to Christian teachings.

    In this area, two missions bearing the name Espíritu Santo ultimately were built, perhaps operating at the same time to serve the large numbers of Aranamas. The first mission, established in 1725, apparently was constructed in some haste in advance of the relocation of the presidio from the coast and even before the friars received official permission to relocate from the original site.

    A year later another mission as well as the presidio was built closeby, in an area along the Guadalupe River known today as Mission Valley. Once again the friars contended with a difficult environment as they struggled to establish a self-sufficient operation. Although their efforts to dam the Guadalupe and irrigate their crops were not successful, the mission group accomplished a system of dry farming that allowed for the vagaries of weather. Several small herds of cattle and other livestock were maintained.

    In 1749, however, political dictates led to yet another relocation. Mission Espíritu Santo was moved to what was to be its fourth, final, and most successful site, on the lower San Antonio River, near present day Goliad. Here, the mission cattle ranching operation reached its peak. Herds, by some accounts, reached 40,000 head. In the years to come, Mission Espíritu Santo, along with the Royal Presidio of La Bahia, and the town of La Bahia, was to become one of the most important settlements in Spanish Texas.

    Changes in Spanish laws, however, coupled with raids by hostile tribes, such as the Lipan Apache, brought ruin to the mission herds. By 1780, the cattle holdings of the msision had been reduced to barely one-fifth their former size. The spector of the mounted Apache, well-supplied with food without having to work, damaged the morale of the natives laboring in the mission. Increasingly the neophytes disappeared from the complex to join up with other groups. Disease continued to diminish their ranks as well. By 1786, only 116 people remained in the mission

    With mounting expenses and increasingly poor results, the colonial offces decided the cost of maintaining the missions was too great. A decree for secularization of the Texas missions was set forth on April 10, 1794. Although the mission was granted an extension of time to try to prepare its native flock for citizenship, there was little provided in the way of funding or administrative support, and the friars’ final attempt was unsuccessful. By 1830, there were no longer any Indians at Mission Espíritu Santo. Although the mission had lasted 109 years—longer than most other missions—the charge to Christianize the native peoples had not succeeded. From a larger perspective, the entire Spanish Colonial system had failed.

    Investigations and Restoration

    In the succeeding decades, the mission structures saw use as Aranama College, a school for men that lasted until the outbreak of the Civil War. Later, the site was used as Hillyer Female Institute. Ultimately, the school lands and buildings were taken over by the city and county of Goliad. Following a violent storm in 1886, the site fell into ruin. Walls crumbled, the stones gathered by area residents for use in other buildings.

    The mission at its second location also fell to ruin and was eventually leveled, becoming part of a city park in Victoria. For many years its status— whether a visita (interim location) or full-fledged mission—was a confused chapter in history. The site has recently been validated, however, through historical research and archeological investigations. Members of the Texas Archeological Society spent two weeks in 1997 and 1998 excavating that site, locally known as the Tonkawa Banks site.

    A few standing walls remain of the Mission Espíritu Santo in its third location, now on a private ranch. Situated on the banks of the Guadalupe, the ruin lies only a few hundred yards from an imposing modern house. The landowners, aware of the historical significance of the crumbling structure, welcomed archeologists to the site and hosted excavations by the University of Texas at Austin and by the Texas Archeological Society.

    The mission complex at the final, Goliad location was investigated archeologically during its 1930s restoration, resulting in the collection of numerous artifacts. Importantly, the site has undergone more testing in the past few decades by archeologists utilizing more modern techniques which have provided more substantive data about the mission residents.

    Today, the church and other buildings have been fully reconstructed and furnished to provide a glimpse of the site's colorful past. Interpretive exhibits detail not only life at the mission but aspects of the archeological investigations and restoration process that have helped bring the story to life.

    Learning from the Missions

    Spanish Colonial records are a rich trove of information and can provide important insights about what occurred at missions, presidios, and other sites in Texas in the past (It was by combing Spanish archives that the second location of Mission Espíritu Santo was validated.). Unfortunately, the records are often spotty and provide only the Spanish perspective. Archeology can address questions that are rarely answered in the historical records. For example, what changes in mission Indian material culture can be observed through time and what does this say about the acculturation process? Is there material evidence to suggest that certain aspects of native life were preserved or re-negotiated after long-term interaction with Europeans? And what evidence, if any, do we have for the impact sustained contact with native populations had on the lives of the padres and the handful of presidio soldiers that called this mission their home? By and large these are not questions that can be answered through a study of the historical documents. Herein lies the strength of historical archeology. Blended with historic research, much more can be revealed about the past.

    A second major thrust in mission archeology is aimed at understanding the layout and architecture of the sites. What has been found in several cases at historic sites is that the historical record, including maps and drawings, do not agree with the evidence in the dirt. Nor do they always address the earliest, often temporary, structures at sites. Archeological investigations often can serve to "peel back the layers," exposing a more complete and accurate history than what is found in records. At the second and third locations of the mission near Victoria, there were no maps or other sources of data about the structures or their arrangement. Excavations revealed sufficient information to reconstruct the mission layout at both sites.

    Following the Trail

    In the following sections we will track the complicated history of Mission Espíritu Santo and examine what has been learned through combining historical and archeological investigations at the three inland locations of the mission. (The mission at its original location, on Garcitas Creek near Matagorda Bay, will be featured in a separate, upcoming regional exhibit, “Early Peoples of the Coastal Plains and Marshes.”) We will also take a look at what life may have been like for both the native and Spanish residents of a mission.

    photo of bone and stone tools
    Signs of changing lifeways. Native peoples in the missions continued making traditional tools of bone and stone. They also learned to make new tools, such as chipped-stone gunflints for Spanish guns, using their ancient skills. Enlarge image
    photo of a diarama of mission life
    Mission Espíritu Santo saw a number of prosperous years at its final location near present-day Goliad. Image from diorama at Mission Espíritu Santo State Historic Site, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Enlarge image
    Plains Indian raiders, such as the Lipan Apache, terrorized the mission residents and wreaked havoc on the mission herds. The spector of the mounted Indians, well-supplied without having to work, was demoralizing for the mission Indians. Drawing by Hal Story. Enlarge image
    photo of the ruins of Mission Espiritu Santo
    Ruins of Mission Espíritu Santo at its third location (now a private ranch). The site, known as 41VT11, was excavated during 1997 and 1998 field schools of the Texas Archeological Society at the invitation of the ranch owner.
    Photo by Heather Smith. Enlarge image
    photo of the restoration process
    Mission Espíritu Santo at fourth location, in process of restoration, July 1933. TARL archives. Enlarge image
    The remains of a wall from the second location of Mission Espiritu Santo (41VT10, now in Riverside Park at Victoria) are excavated by members of the Texas Archeological Society in 1997. Lacking period maps or other descriptive data, excavations have shed much light on the layout of the mission compound. Enlarge image