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Colonial America and the Other San Juan Capistrano

Mission Concepción

Mission Concepción at San Antonio Missions National Historical Park is one of the country’s oldest original stone churches. Photo by Jim Burnett

When we hear the term "Colonial America," locations west of the Mississippi aren't often the first to come to mind. Long before the Liberty Bell became a symbol of the United States, however, a story involving a European power other than Great Britain was already well underway in another part of our country.

Over 400 years ago Spanish expeditions began to explore land that is now the American Southwest. Beginning in the 16th century, missionaries, accompanied by a few soldiers, moved north out of the Valley of Mexico, founding missions and presidios (Spanish for "fort" or "garrison.) By 1718 this activity extended to the San Antonio River, helping form the nucleus of the future city of San Antonio itself.

San Antonio Missions National Historical Park in Texas was authorized on November 10, 1978, and preserves four 18th-century Spanish missions—San Juan Capistrano, Concepción, Espada, and San José—along with their outbuildings, surrounding landscapes, and the story of another American empire.

One of those names may sound familiar to you, but this is not the San Juan Capistrano immortalized in legend and song by the annual migration of cliff swallows. This San Juan Capistrano is even older than its California counterpart, and is part of the largest intact concentration of Spanish Colonial buildings in the United States today.

The fifth, and probably most famous of San Antonio's historic missions, is not part of the park. Unless you want to stir up a fight with the local establishment, don't ask when the feds are going take over control of the Alamo! That iconic structure is owned by the State of Texas and operated by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.

Wander the grounds in the park and you'll find an intriguing mix of Romanesque, Moorish, and Spanish baroque designs among walled communities with fortified towers. Provisions for defense were wise: threats to these frontier settlements included Apache and Comanche attacks.

The history of these sites dates back to 1720 and includes several items of special interest. The Rose Window at Mission San José is considered by some the premier example of Spanish Colonial ornamentation in the United States. Another popular attraction at San José is the oldest grist mill in Texas, which dates to 1794. The operating mill was restored in 2001.

The extensive art inside the buildings at Mission Concepción contains a blending of Christian, Spanish, and Native art elements. Experts restored original frescos on the convento walls and ceiling in 1988. Watch for them, along with ornately carved wooden doors and other fine details, as you explore these magnificent stone buildings.

One of San Antonio's best-known attractions is the Riverwalk, and although the highly developed portion of the river is limited to the downtown area, the waterway continues to flow southward for many miles. The river passes near the four missions, which are located on separate sites spread over a distance of about nine miles from the city center.

The cacti you'll see around the park didn't come from the garden department at Home Depot, and this part of Texas can live up to the stereotyped image of a hot and arid land. The water in the river was a valuable resource—and one reason this area was chosen by the Spanish when they began their settlement of the area. A section of the original river can be viewed from a short nature trail at Mission San Juan.

Although it's easiest to visit this park by car, it's also possible to see two of the four sites via public transportation from downtown, and a hike and bike trail connects all of the sites in the park with the center of the city. Download a copy of the park map to get a feel for the geography. If you're using your GPS system or web-based mapping for navigation, you'll want the physical address of each of the sites, or you can get driving directions from the park website.

A good place to begin your visit is the park's visitor center, located adjacent to Mission San José. An award-winning movie is shown at the visitor center on the hour and half-hour, beginning at 9:30 a.m. with the last show at 4:30 pm. Guided tours last about 45 minutes to an hour, and are offered on a regular basis.

This park is managed under a rather unusual but effective cooperative relationship. The NPS does not own the churches associated with the missions; they are still active parishes owned by the Archdiocese of San Antonio. The NPS owns and manages other historic structures within the park.

The four churches provide a continuous connection back to a time when San Antonio was only an outpost on the northern frontier of New Spain. Since the four mission churches within the park are still active Catholic parishes, they hold regular services. They are open to visitors during park hours at other times, unless special services such as weddings and funerals are being conducted.

The park is open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. except for Thanksgiving Day, December 25, and January 1.

Allow at least two hours for a visit, and you'll need more time if you plan to visit all four sites. If your schedule allows, try to come on a weekday in the spring or fall, when the weather is likely to be most pleasant, and the park less crowded. Find a quiet spot among the stone arches and dim passageways in these venerable stone structures, and listen for a few moments. The war cries of the Apache and Comanche were stilled long ago, and the dreams of a Spanish Empire have faded, but the voices of those early settlers are carried into the present by their direct descendants who still frequent these stately corridors and courtyards.


The modern history of this urban park and the current church / state relationships, as well as conflicts between local groups who claim the missions on religious, ethnic, and historical grounds, are as interesting as their colonial past. You can learn more about it in my 2004 book, Blessed with Tourists: The Borderlands of Religion and Tourism in San Antonio (University of North Carolina Press).

It's strange how the Southwest is ignored in high school history courses recounting the settling of what we now call North America. If the Pilgrims had landed at Santa Fe, they could have gone to church.

Rick Smith

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