Misson San Lorenzo de la Santa Cruz

Mission San Lorenzo de la Santa Cruz was a short-lived Franciscan mission established for the Indians at a large spring on the upper Nueces River in what was then the northern border of New Spain. Founded in 1762 by Franciscan missionaries, San Lorenzo was built for Lipan Apaches in hopes of pacifying their attacks along the northern frontier and as a way of maintaining Spanish control in the face of threats by the French. The Franciscan friars also hoped to christianize the Indians they brought into their fold.

Although it operated for a scant nine years, the Spanish fathers, along with Indian laborers, accomplished a massive construction feat at the wilderness outpost, erecting, in several stages, more than 14 buildings of adobe and limestone situated around a plaza. The complex included a church, sacristy, granary, cabins for the Indians, bastion, and a series of irrigation ditches for the nearby fields.

With the exception of hand-wrought iron nails, all the building materials were made from local resources, including adobe mud, limestone blocks, oak and juniper timbers, lime made from local limestone in a nearby kiln, and sand, gravel and cobbles from the nearby Nueces River. The buildings and outer walls proved to be sufficiently strong to hold back repeated attacks by Comanches and other Indians. According to historic accounts, the Lipan Apaches at the mission were highly impressed with the granary, seeing it as a place to take refuge during Indian attacks.

The mission,however, was small, never officially sanctioned, poorly supplied, and unsuccessful in converting Lipan Apaches. Nine years after it was founded, the mission was burned and abandoned. The adobe structures began to deteriorate rapidly, although visitors, including historic Indian groups, continued to camp at the site. Between 1857 and 1861, the site served as a temporary U. S. military outpost known as Camp Wood.

When archeologists from the Texas Memorial Museum began investigations at the site in 1962, they found that most of the walls of the mission had fallen into low mounds of crumbled adobe. Once excavations began, the archeologists uncovered hundreds of tons of construction and midden debris and found that most of the floors were intact.

Although a relatively small number of people occupied San Lorenzo for less than a decade, a large quantity of pottery was used, judging from the thousands of sherds left at the site. Many of the ceramic vessels came from far afield—majolica from Puebla in central Mexico, olive jars from Spain, glass beads from Venice, salt-glazed stoneware from England, faience from France, and porcelain from the Orient. As archeologist Curtis Tunnell observed, “Even this poor mission, one of the smallest and most remote of outposts, benefited from the world-wide trade network of eighteenth-century Spain.”

A surprising finding of the archeological investigations was that the Lipans, having been exposed to European influences for nearly 200 years, still practiced a number of native crafts and traditions. The trash middens inside the Indian quarters were littered with chipped stone tools—small knives, and scrapers—and a quantity of stone tool making debris. Archeologists also found a small amount of crude, locally made Indian pottery similar to that made by earlier Plains Apache groups of the Dismal River Aspect ( Nebraska and northern Plains areas).

Under the church floor, archeologists found the burials of 17 Indians, 11 of whom were women and children—possibly the victims of a smallpox epidemic that ravaged the mission in 1764.

Credits and Sources:

This section is derived, and partially abstracted from, A Lipan Apache Mission: San Lorenzo de la Santa Cruz, 1762-1771, by Curtis D. Tunnell and W. W. Newcomb, Jr. Images are from TARL records and collections.

Tunnell,Curtis D. and W.W.Newcomb, Jr.
1969 A Lipan Apache Mission: San Lorenzo de la Santa Cruz, 1762-1771. Bulletin of the Texas Memorial Museum 14, University of Texas at Austin.


Handbook of Texas Online: Mission San Lorenzo de la Santa Cruz

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drawing of church
The church at Mission San Lorenzo de la Santa Cruz, as interpreted by artist Hal Story based on archeological findings. Click to enlarge.
photo of diorama
Life at Mission San Lorenzo de la Santa Cruz. Diorama created by the Texas Memorial Museum depicting activities of Indian and Spanish occupants at the 1760s frontier outpost.
drawing of compound
Plan of the mission compound, drawn after archeological investigations. Structures 1, 11, 12, and 14 are living quarters; Structure 2, church; Structure 3, unidentified; Structure 4, storage area; Structure 5, sacristy; Structures 6 and 9, convent; Structure 8, stable; Structure 10, granary; Structure 13, kitchen.
photo of gunflint
Chert stone gunflints such as these were probably made by Apache flintknappers, although there are accounts of some Spanish soldiers on the frontier who became adept at making their own flints. Photo by Susan Dial.
photo of corn
Charred corn and opuntia (prickly pear) tuna seeds recovered from the site.
plan map
Plan of Structures 11 and 12, likely quarters for the Indians.
photo of ceramics
Examples of ceramic sherds. A number were from vessels made at points far afield, including the distinctive blue and white, tin-enameled majolicas from Puebla, Mexico, faience from France (top right), glazed earthenware utility vessels, and hand-thrown plainwares (bottom) possibly made by Indians somewhere in Mexico. Photo by Susan Dial.
photo of excavations
Aerial view of the site, taken during excavations. The Nueces River is in the background with spring-fed tributary at right.
photo of metal
Spanish traces in the wilderness. In addition to metal tools for construction and farmings, excavators found an array of decorative and practical implements of brass and copper. From left, top row, scissors, thimble, hawk bell, or “tinkler,” military button, ornament, and lead ball. On bottom row, belt buckle and heart-shaped glide. Photo by Susan Dial.
photo of granary
The flagstone floor and lower adobe brick walls of the granary (Structure 10) are clearly exposed in this photo, following excavations. Investigators found a quantity of charred corn kernels and bone in a large crack in the base of the south wall.
photo of stone items
Ground stone items likely used by the native inhabitants of the mission. A, flat stone disc; b, end of a cylindrical mano, or hand-held grinding stone; c, end of rectangular mano; d, edge of flat metate; e, tubular stone pipe (with drawing of interior cavity to its left). All of the items except for the stone disc are of an igneous rock not found in the Nueces canyon.