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In the beginning, it was the water that drew the first occupants of the San Antonio area. Long before the first Spanish explorers passed through the area in 1691 and 1709, native Indians were drawn to the freely flowing San Antonio and San Pedro Springs. Primarily hunter gathers, lasting traces of their presence is sparse, therefore, the recorded history of San Antonio as known today begins with the founding on May 1, 1718 of Mission San Antonio de Valero by Father Antonio Olivares near San Pedro Creek. Four days later, a military presidio was founded nearby. These outposts shared a dual role, to convert and domesticate the free roaming Indians of the area and to serve as halfway station/supply point for other Spanish missions in East Texas. Several years later, both the mission and the presidio had been relocated a few miles farther to the south in the area surrounded by a great bend of the San Antonio River (which was thereafter destined to become the heart of today’s downtown San Antonio).
Continuing difficulties in defending their outposts in the east against further incursions by the French led the Spanish to bolster and expand their presence in San Antonio. In 1720, Father Antonio Margil established Mission San Jose y San Miguel de Aguayo to serve bands of Indians that were rivals to the 1st area mission. In 1731, three more missions, Nuestra Senora de la Purisima Concepcion de Acuna, San Juan Capistrano, and San Francisco de la Espada were founded. Also that year, 55 immigrants from the Canary Islands arrived to form the settlement of San Fernando de Bexar. An extensive acequia system was also begun to supply water to the missions and their farmlands. While only fragments of the system still exist today, the Espada Acequia remains intact and functioning. This segment includes the historic Espada Dam (with a reverse curvature that stands against conventional wisdom) and the aqueduct, built to carry the acequia water over Piedras Creek. Today, Missions Concepcion, San Jose, San Juan, and Espada, their adjacent land, and the Espada Acequia and Aqueduct are connected via the Mission Trail and comprise the San Antonio Missions National Historic Park. A Visitors Center is located at Mission San Jose, which is known as the “Queen of the Missions”.
The missions never supported a very large native population. While the Indians sought a steady supply of food and refuge within the protective mission walls from other hostile roaming bands, this contact also exposed them to European illnesses, decimating their numbers. The friars efforts to indoctrinate their charges in the ways of Christianity also conflicted with their own centuries old spiritual beliefs.
While the missions continued to struggle, the Spanish presence in the Villa of Bexar expanded with the 1749 establishment of the presidential captain’s house (today known as the Spanish Governor’s Palace) and the 1758 completion of San Fernando de Bexar Church (which later became a cathedral). By 1795, all the missions had been secularized and San Antonio de Valero had been converted into a military barracks. In 1803, a Mexican cavalry unit from Alamo de Parras moved into the old church buildings and the structure acquired the nickname by which it is known today.
By 1780, San Antonio’s population had passed 2,000. Between 1813 and 1824, it endured the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution which entailed several changes of authority until Mexico finally established its independence from Spain. Following the war, the population continued to swell with immigrants from the United States increasingly outnumbering those from Mexico. Tensions brought on by the difference in governmental structure and denial of rights by the new Mexican government were typical of the region and the time. Simmering differences led to occasional skirmishes until the Texas Revolution finally broke out in October, 1835 with the first shots fired in Gonzales, some 70 miles distant. In December 1835, the Siege and Battle of Bexar forced the surrender of Mexican forces commanded by General Martín Perfecto de Cos. Cos and his troops were allowed to return to Mexico after he signed a pledge not to return.
Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna was so incensed upon Cos’ return that he immediately mounted an invasion force that marched through South Texas in an unusually bitterly cold winter, arriving in San Antonio on February 23, 1836. The Texan forces that had driven the Mexican forces from the area in December had largely disbanded, leaving only 150 or so to defend the town. They hurriedly took up positions in the Alamo compound and sent messengers out seeking reinforcement. Thirty-two volunteers from Gonzales responded, but other expected reinforcements never arrived, leaving a force of less than 200 to defend against an army numbering several thousand. The story of the resulting 13 day siege and climatic battle waged by the defenders against overwhelming odds on March 6th is well known and inspires visitors from around the world today as the Alamo remains the number one visitor destination in Texas.
The long range effect of the battle is more difficult to measure. Santa Anna’s preoccupation with the Alamo certainly allowed the fledgling Texan Army under Sam Houston to organize, train, and retreat before finally defeating the Mexican Army at San Jacinto (near present day Houston) in April of that year. Had the Alamo defenders not held out and exacted such an extreme toll, Houston’s army might well have been over run and Texas’ hopes for independence stymied. A strengthened Mexico might well have held on to Texas and a huge segment of the Southwest, including New Mexico, Arizona, and California.