The World Heritage Missions and Mission lands in San Antonio occupy a bigger footprint than most realize. Local historians say most residents in Floresville, for example, do not know that Wilson County is home to historic ranch lands and building ruins that are part of the serial designation of the Alamo and four Missions.
Rancho de las Cabras, or Goat Ranch, was used to house goats for Misión San Francisco de La Espada which today is known simply as Mission Espada, the southernmost of the four Missions located on lands near the San Antonio River. Herders would routinely travel the 25 miles with just enough goats to Mission Espada to give residents an ample supply of cabrito, or goat meat.
The ranch was acquired from private owners by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in 1976. Officials contracted with the University of Texas at San Antonio archeologists to survey the property and ruins. The U.S. National Park Service assumed control in the '90s, and since then has allowed limited public access, usually one day each month. Upon arrival, Rancho de las Cabras doesn't look like much to the first-time visitor, but evidence of the 18th and 19th century inhabitants comes into focus with observation of the ranch lands. Large sand piles which blanket and protect non excavated ruins are visible. What lies beneath those piles awaits the work of archeologists in the coming years.
The Texas Beyond History website states: "The ranch was built in the 1750s after early San Antonio residents — Canary Islanders — complained that mission cattle were trampling their crops. Espada had large herds — as many as 1,150 head of cattle, 740 sheep, 90 goats, 30 horses and oxen, according to a 1745 report. To meet the resident’s demands, the friars arranged for the animals to be moved to mission grazing lands some 30 miles to the southeast, and appointed Indians from the mission to tend to their needs. Apparently, the herders and their families were left largely on their own, as long as the animals were well cared for and the designated allotment of animals was supplied weekly to meet the mission’s needs. Removed from the protection of the soldiers at Presidio San Antonio de Bejar, the native workers were vulnerable to attacks by Lipan Apaches and other hostile raiders."
During my ranch tour, I spoke with Sherry Rieck, a Floresville resident and local school district worker who was helping visitors aboard a bus shuttle to and from the Mission-era ranch. Rieck said she has lived in Floresville for 12 years, yet had never heard of Rancho de las Cabras. As I was departing with others on the tour, Rieck hollered, "Y'all have fun, we'll see you in the news."
Tambria Read, head of the Junior Historians at Floresville Independent School District, wants to elevate community awareness and pride.
"We want people to know about Rancho de las Cabras and we want people to know this little gem is here," she said. Tambria may have very well been the first teacher to administer a field trip to the site in 1994. "The county commissioner actually shredded a trail for the school bus to come in and we got to wander around." she said.
On Friday, officials from the San Antonio River Foundation, the National Park Service, and Floresville Mayor Diana Garza spoke to the crowd at Rancho de las Cabras. The H-E-B Tournament of Champions presented a $20,000 donation to establish educational programming at the ranch. River Authority board member and Wilson County native Darrell Brownlow said he envisions being able to access Rancho de Las Cabras by kayak via the San Antonio River. Darrell also mentioned that this site is one of only two known World Heritage ranch ruins in the Western Hemisphere.
What will become of Rancho de las Cabras is still unknown. After years of neglect, officials with the underfunded National Park Service have promised to create a master plan. A much-needed parks service visitor center is probably years away from realization, but the prospect of more public visitations, school field trips and education programs is encouraging for Wilson County officials.