Scott Ball / Rivard Report
By an agreement between sister city mayors, the original founding documents of San Antonio and Bexar County have arrived here from Guadalajara in time for Founder’s Day on Thursday, the third day of San Antonio's Tricentennial Commemorative Week.
The handwritten, bound parchment “Expediente relativo a la erección de la Villa de San Antonio de Béjar, hoy gran ciudad de San Antonio Tejas” of 1733 will be on display for dignitaries at Thursday evening's Founder’s Day Gala at the Henry B. González Convention Center.
Then beginning on Monday, May 7, the documents will go on display to the public at the Texas A&M University-San Antonio's Presidio Gallery in the Bexar County Archives Building downtown.
During Mayor Ron Nirenberg's visit to Guadalajara in February for the Sister Cities summit, he and Guadalajara officials agreed in principle to have the documents transported from their home at the University of Guadalajara to San Antonio for the city’s Tricentennial celebration.
Cynthia Teniente-Matson, chairman of the Tricentennial Commission and president of Texas A&M University-San Antonio, said that the 15-page volume is a transcription of written correspondence between the Viceroy of New Spain and the “governor of Texas or New Philippines,” detailing how the new village should be laid out according to strict Spanish custom, down to exact measurements of the church plaza, home plots, and farming land.
A translation of the document’s opening passage describes the site:
It is very beautiful, and given these circumstances, the settlement may enjoy the most pure breezes and also the waters which flow from the two naturally formed springs or fountains on a slightly elevated hill located a short distance to the northeast of the presidio of Béjar.
“These documents are significant in that they provide historical documentation for the establishment of our wonderful city, and timely in that they will be here for Commemorative week and the Founder's Day event,” Matson wrote in an email to the Rivard Report.
Shahrzad Dowlatshahi, chief of protocol for the City’s International Relations Office, put the documents in their broader Spanish context, describing the span between 1718, when the Mission San Antonio de Valero was established, to 1731, when the municipality was decreed. “According to the Law of the Indies,” she said, “every settlement started with a presidio and a mission. The municipality would be established once the other two were in place.”
When the documents arrived via private courier at Texas A&M University-San Antonio, Archives and Special Collections Manager Leslie Stapleton began poring over them. Thanks to a 1991 book by Juan López Jiménez that contains a comprehensive translation of the original papers, which has accompanied the documents and will also be on display, Stapleton was able to read through the correspondence detailing the day-to-day progress of laying out and building the village, and planting corn.
The documents were largely practical, she explained, with “explicit instructions on how to lay out the town, exactly how much land is to be given to each [Canarian settler] family, how the town should be set up in a square around the [San Fernando] church,” and for establishing communal lands around the plaza. The town was originally called Villa de San Fernando.
“Originally, the streets were to be straight,” Stapleton said, and “they were that for a while, but of course we messed that up later,” she said, laughing, referring to today’s variously angled downtown streets.
Marion Oettinger, the San Antonio Museum of Art's Curator of Latin American Art, reflected on the significance of seeing such original documents firsthand. Oettinger spoke of their practical value, and deeper meanings.
“Once you get to the promised land,” Oettinger said of the Canary Islanders who had arrived in 1730, “you establish and lay out the city limits” and other practical matters, he said.
Later, Oettinger said, “these documents become the touchstone, the legal document that says the city is the bona fide creation of the Spanish government. There is a certain innate quality to documents that are written for a purpose as important as determining where people are going to make their home.”
“I’m not sure they all realized that San Antonio would establish the legs that it did, because everything was so tentative in those days,” Oettinger said of life in frontier country. “The longer they [settlers] stayed there, the more invested they became.”
That, he said, “is where I think these documents take on a real, meaningful power.”
The Presidio Gallery is free and open to the public Monday through Friday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. The founding documents will be on display through September, along with other original documents pertinent to San Antonio’s long history, including a copy of the 1836 Declaration of Independence of the Republic of Texas.