It’s clear from the countless impassioned debates about the Alamo’s future that any plan must respect its past. The Spanish found a place between two rivers, the San Pedro Creek and the San Antonio River, and decided it was a suitable site for a mission, Felix Almaraz, president of the San Antonio Historical Association, told a crowd of 100 people at the group’s meeting at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) Tuesday afternoon.
Everybody is familiar with the battle of the Alamo. The lecture by Almaraz focused on what happened during the Mission years.
Almaraz, history professor emeritus at UTSA, credits Padre Fray Antonio de San Buenaventura y Olivares as the catalyst in bringing civilization to San Antonio.
“Friar Olivares founded a group of Missions along the Rio Grande starting with San Juan Bautista in 1699,” Almaraz said. “It was followed by San Francisco Solano in 1700 and San Bernardo in 1702.”
These “Gateway Missions” led the way for further development in the Spanish Borderlands. “They were located near the present day town of Guerrero, Coahuila, about 30 miles south of Eagle Pass,” he said.
The new Christians felt they had been abandoned in the wilderness. “It wasn’t until 1703 they had their first baptism,” Almaraz said, “And 1704 before their cultural identity was recorded.”
Almaraz said the San Antonio River valley was chosen as a fulcrum to protect against constant French encroachment.
“The superpowers (France and Spain) pushed the missions into this desolated land,” Almaraz said. “The Spanish felt that if they vacated the northern lands, someone else would take it over.”
Such a broad view fit well with the Franciscan’s plan to convert more Indians. Friar Olivares explored the terrain for sites of future missions and recommended that the government authorize a location for a new religious outpost, one that would prevent French intrusion.
“The new viceroy studied the reports and recommended Olivares’ plan to close Mission San Francisco Solano and move it to San Antonio,” Almaraz said. “The converts would act as models at the new location.”
In April, 1718, Don Martin de Alarcon and Padre Olivares traveled northward to establish the mission settlement which would become San Antonio.
“In May 1718, they established Mission San Antonio de Valero,” Almaraz said. “Four days after the mission was founded, a presidio was built.”
The mission started a building program in the 1720s. “Some soldiers began to call their settlement a villa,” Almaraz said, “but it was not designated by the monarchy. A villa was a municipal community, it has a city council.”
In 1772, when San Antonio became the provincial capital of Texas, the Missions were still fulfilling their purpose. But by 1830, all the Missions in the area were secularized.
“Secularized does not mean failure,” Almaraz explained. “It means success. The purpose of the Franciscan Friars was to progress from mission to congregation.”
The Mission lands were deeded to the converts – but this created other problems. “The Bourbon Dynasty started a tax on cattle,” Almaraz said. “And since most trade was accomplished by barter, the residents had no money to pay their taxes.”
Spain had one setback after another. “It was a century of depression,” Almaraz said.
In 1841, the new government passed an act returning the sanctuary of the Alamo to the Roman Catholic Church. “Texas law made the Missions the property of the Bishops,” Almaraz said.
“We want to make sure our visitors understand that the Alamo represents the establishment of San Antonio, that there was a very important battle 100 years later, and that it’s still a part of the life of the city.”
On March 6 last year, the 179th anniversary of the fall of the Alamo, the City approved a process for the development of a comprehensive master plan for Alamo Plaza and established a 21-member Advisory Committee.
“The City has been working up a partnership with the General Land Office (who owns the Alamo) and the Alamo Plaza Advisory Committee to make a master plan,” Houston said. “Our goal is to connect our residents and visitors to the Alamo.”
The City wants to enhance connectivity to the river, surrounding neighborhoods and plazas, and other historic sites.
“We’ll do this by wayfinding and improving streets,” Houston said. “The State contributed $32 million to be used for restoration of the Alamo. And the City contributed $16 million for redevelopment of Alamo Plaza.”
The State and City master plan will include strategies for investment and management, implementation, interpretative elements, and a physical layout. According to the City Agenda Memorandum from Dec. 11, 2014, the plan will be presented to City Council for adoption in the summer of 2016.
Alamo Plaza has evolved from wilderness, to mission, to battleground, to major metropolis. Changes were initiated earlier this year when the Texas General Land Office took over operations from the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. More changes will occur since the missions were designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations this summer. The City will offer its input in the coming months.
Stay tuned. Mission San Antonio de Valero is not finished with its metamorphosis.
*Top image: Friar Olivares, founder of a chain of missions in the region, is honored with a statue in his birthplace in Spain. Photo courtesy This Day In Texas History.