A Lot More to Remember Than the Alamo
Of all there is to see and do in San Antonio, the Alamo is probably the most remembered. Scores of articles and blog posts have been written about the famous San Antonio icon, but it is only one of five missions that flesh out a rich history for early San Antonians. Today, you can visit these mission easily in a loosely connected idea called the Mission Trail. In the 18th century, the Spanish empire established five Catholic missions along the San Antonio River for two main reasons:
- to extend its dominion northward from Mexico
- to convert the native population to Catholicism.
What remains of the largest concentration of missions in North America provides an interesting look into Texas' history. Today's Mission Trail links four of the missions: Concepción, San José, San Juan and Espada with its nearby aqueduct. The fifth is the Alamo itself – changed over the years but firmly fixed in the minds of history buffs as the fateful scene of a battle that helped secure Texas’ independence from Mexico. These missions were not only churches but communities as well for the early Native Americans of what is now Texas.
The first mission established in San Antonio, the Alamo (originally named San Antonio de Valero) served as a way station between east Texas and Mexico. Already 100 years old when it fell in the famous Battle of the Alamo, it still evokes a feeling of awe for its visitors who walk its halls in reverence. Today it sits in the heart of the city as an often-photographed church façade, still beside the Long Barrack, now a museum where relics of its inhabitants and their belongings are housed. Although the Alamo and grounds look small, as they stand now, it was really the hub of San Antonio in its day.
Traveling south on the Mission Trail, whether on foot, by car or on its miles of bicycle trails, one next encounters Mission Concepcion. Arguably the most beautiful of the missions it looks much like it did almost three hundred years ago. In those early years, religious festivals were held as a motivation for the Native Americans to replace their traditional rituals with the ideals of
the Catholic friars from Spain. Remnants of original wall and ceiling paintings in the surviving rooms of the mission's convento have been conserved. Exhibits lead visitors through the grounds and into various quarters set up as they were at the time of the mission's inception. The site also features a visitor contact station and sales area. As if to prove to its visitors that years have not changed matters, regular church services continue to be held, as in its early days, at 10:00 a.m. each Sunday.
A couple miles further south on the trail, Mission San Jose, the current National Park Service visitor center headquarters for the missions, is known as the “queen of the Missions” and is the largest of them. Founded in 1720 by Fray Antonio Margil de Jesús, Mission San José became the largest Texas Mission. After early setbacks, 300 inhabitants were sustained by the vast fields and herds of livestock. The church's carvings are among its most notable features and the famous “Rose Window” is considered one of the finest pieces of Spanish Colonial ornamentation in the country. Other features are the convento area and the stairway to the belfry and choir loft – each of the 25 risers was hand-hewn from a single live-oak log and constructed without nails or pegs. Also featured is a granary with flying buttresses, a gristmill, restored defensive walls and quarters.
Still further south the trail leads to Mission San Juan. Its fertile farmlands allowed it to be self-sustainable; its chapel and bell tower are still in use today even though originally founded in 1716. It was later moved to its current location on the San Antonio River in 1731 and became a supplier for farm produce for much of the region. These mission grounds boast a self-guided nature trail.
The southernmost mission, Mission Espada, my personal favorite, has a unique feature, an acequia, or irrigation system that was used to transport water to the fields, part of which includes the still working Espada Dam and Aqueduct. The Espada Aqueduct, which carries water from the San Antonio River across Piedras Creek, continues to feed the original mission irrigation system. Espada Dam, built between 1731 and 1740, is the best existing example of the four Franciscan-designed dams and is still in use today. Many have called it a marvel competing with modern technology.
A trip to San Antonio is not complete with at least a couple of these missions,
but who could choose? I’ve done the trip by car but keep telling myself that a bicycle trip on the Mission Trail would be so perfect. It’s definitely on my list. An aside for pet lovers: although pets are not allowed in the buildings they are permitted on the trail and grounds as long as they are held or leashed.
The Alamo is separately operated and maintained but the other four missions are in the National Park System. Link to their site here and peruse the wonderful photo gallery from which the above pictures were taken. Photos of the Alamo can be found at their official website at http://www.thealamo.org. Note: lower your speakers, there’s a battle going on there.
— Note from Marlan — I'd like to thank Teri Blaschke of Hidden Valley RV, who wrote this WONDERFUL and well written article. I have read it several times and now I need to go visit these missions by San Antonio and I really don't know when I'll get that done! Thanks again Teri – great article.
Teri Blaschke, the guest writer of this article, is part of an operator team of the family owned Texas RV Park, Hidden Valley RV Park, specializing in making San Antonio memories for its RV guests for 40 years. She authors a blog at http://hiddenvalleyrv.blogspot.com