Bexar County is located in an area that has long been the site of human habitation. Archeological artifacts from the Clovis culture recovered in the region suggest that hunting and gathering peoples established themselves in the region more than 10,000 years ago. During historic times, the area was occupied by the Coahuiltecans, Tonkawas, and Lipan Apaches.
The first Europeans to explore the region came with an expedition in 1691 led by Domingo Terán de los Ríos and Fray Damián Massanet, who evidently reached the San Antonio River near where San Juan Capistrano Mission was later founded. Nearby they found a group of Payayas living on the riverbank. The Indians, as Massanet recorded in his diary, called the place Yanaguana; he, however, renamed the site San Antonio de Padua to celebrate the memorial day of St. Anthony, June 13. The next group of Spanish explorers, an expedition led by two Franciscans, fathers Antonio de San Buenaventura y Olivares and Isidro Félix de Espinosa, and a military officer, Pedro de Aguirre, did not reach the area until April 1709. Much impressed by the setting and the availability of water, they noted that the area might make a promising site for future settlement. In 1714 Louis Juchereau de St. Denis crossed the region on his way to San Juan Bautista. Espinosa again visited the site in 1716 on his way to East Texas with the expedition of Domingo Ramón and this time recommended San Pedro Springs as a mission site. Near that spot, in May 1718, Martín de Alarcón led the expedition that founded San Antonio de Valero Mission and San Antonio de Béxar (or Béjar) Presidio, named for Viceroy Balthasar Manuel de Zúñiga y Guzmán Sotomayor y Sarmiento, second son of the duke of Bexar. By the end of the winter of 1718 numerous Indians of the Jamrame, Payaya, and Pamaya groups had joined the mission. In 1720 Fray Antonio Margil de Jesús founded San José y San Miguel de Aguayo Mission a short distance to the south.
Another mission, San Francisco Xavier de Naxara, was established in 1722, but proved unsuccessful and was merged with San Antonio de Valero in 1726. In 1724 the San Antonio de Valero mission compound, which had originally been located at the site of the present-day Chapel of Miracles south of San Pedro Springs, was moved to Alamo Plaza. In 1731, after the removal of the missions from East Texas, three additional missions–Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Acuña, San Francisco de la Espada, and
San Juan Capistrano–were founded along the San Antonio River. During the 1720s the Spanish population of the area was about 200, including fifty-three soldiers and their families and four civilians with their families. On March 9, 1731, fifty-five Canary Islanders arrived at Bexar, and the villa of San Fernando de Béxar became the first municipality in the Spanish province of Texas. The five missions, together with the presidio and the villa of San Fernando, constituted the most important Spanish concentration in Texas. By the mid-1730s the total population of the area was some 900, including 300 Spanish and 600 Indian converts. An epidemic in 1738-39 devastated the missions, killing perhaps three-fourths of the Indian population. At Mission San Antonio de Valero alone, only 182 of 837 Indians who had been baptized survived. By 1740, however, the missions’ populations began to recover. The number of converts at the five missions reached more than 500, as many of the indigenous Coahuilatecan peoples living in the region fled to them as a refuge from the Apaches and Comanches.
The missions developed as self-supporting communities, each ringed with farmland irrigated by a comprehensive system of acequias, or irrigation ditches. Crops included grain, cotton, flax, beans, sugarcane, and vegetables. Each of the missions also maintained sizable herds of cattle, sheep, and goats on extensive ranchlands located around Bexar. Governor Manuel M. de Salcedo described Mission Concepción’s ranch in 1809 as comprising some thirty-eight square miles and extending east and northeast from the mission to Cibolo Creek. An inventory in 1756 recorded that the Concepción ranch had 700 cattle, 1,800 sheep, and large herds of goats and horses.
Both the missions and the villa of Bexar were subject to sporadic attacks of Apaches and Comanches; nearly a quarter of the Spanish who died between 1718 and 1731 were reportedly victims of Apache attacks. A truce was signed with the Apaches in August
1749, but occasional attacks by Comanches and Apaches continued well into the nineteenth century.
In 1772 the government offices of Spanish Texas were moved from Los Adaes to Bexar, and some of the East Texas settlers also moved. Nonetheless, Bexar remained a small frontier outpost, as Father Juan A. Morfi described in a report of the late 1770s, with “fifty-nine houses of stone and mud, seventy-nine of wood, all poorly built without a preconceived plan. The whole town,” he continued, “resembles a poor village rather than the capital of a province.”
After the secularization of the missions in 1793-94, they gradually became satellite civilian communities under the authority of the town of Bexar. The mission lands were distributed to the few remaining Indians and the increasing number of Spanish settlers; most of the better land nearest the settled areas was controlled by the town’s elite, which was made up of the descendants of the original Canary Islanders and presidial soldiers. The complex network of irrigation systems that had been operated by the missions was partially abandoned, and by 1815 the amount of irrigated farmland had declined markedly.
Despite the downturn brought on by the secularization of the Spanish missions, San Antonio de Béxar continued to be an overwhelmingly agricultural community. Subsistence farming was the rule. The largest number of cultivators worked small family plots, though many farms were also worked by tenant farmers or day laborers. The elite landowners increased the size of their holdings after the secularization of the missions, and some of the largest ranchers exported horses and cattle to Coahuila or Louisiana.
During the late colonial period, Bexar continued to serve as the capital of the province of Texas as well as the main shipping point for supplies headed for Nacogdoches and La Bahía. Between 1811 and 1813 the city was also center of revolutionary activity against Spanish rule. In 1811 a former militia captain, Juan Bautista de Las Casas following the lead of Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla in Mexico, mounted an insurrection in Bexar that quickly spread throughout the province of Texas. Las Casas’s band of followers,
which included the poorer soldiers and civilians of the lower social stratum who resented the rule of the Spanish elite, scored early successes, arresting the governor and his military staff and seizing the property of the most ardent royalists. On March 1, 1811, however, some of the conservative military officers and clergy supported by the
isleños (aristocratic decedents of the original Canary Island settlers), staged a counterrevolution. Las Casas was captured in Chihuahua and executed, and his head was salted and shipped in a box to Bexar for display on Military Plaza in an attempt to dissuade others from taking up his cause.
After Las Casas’s death, the leadership of the insurrectionists fell to Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara, who led an army of Mexican revolutionaries and sympathetic Americans from Louisiana that seized San Antonio in the spring of 1813 and proclaimed Texas an independent state. But in August, royalist forces commanded by José Joaquín Arredondo succeeded in routing the insurrectionists and restoring order. Arredondo’s victory was followed by a period of reprisals that included confiscation, detentions, and executions; in San Antonio alone, loyalists shot 327 supporters of the rebellion.
In the wake of the rebellion, the population of Bexar and the surrounding region fell markedly and did not begin to grow again until the end of the decade. By 1820, however, Bexar had some 2,000 inhabitants, with slightly more females (1,021) than males (973); several hundred more lived on ranches in the outlying countryside. During the 1830s the population again increased slightly, although the number of inhabitants in Bexar declined as more town dwellers moved out to adjoining farms and ranches.
Soon after the first Anglo-American colonists came to Texas in 1821, San Antonio became the western outpost of settlement. In 1824 Texas and Coahuila were united into one state with the capital at Saltillo; a Department of Bexar was created with a political chief to have authority over the Texas portion of the state. During the late 1820s and early 1830s increasing numbers of American settlers began moving to San Antonio, though the city remained preponderantly Mexican at the beginning of the Texas Revolution.
In late October 1835, Texas volunteers laid siege to the city, which was garrisoned by the Mexican army under Martín Perfecto de Cos. On December 10, after fierce hand-to-hand fighting, it was occupied by Texan forces (see bexar, siege of). San Antonio was retaken by government forces commanded by Antonio López de Santa Anna during the battle of the Alamo on March 6 of the following year. After the subsequent defeat of Santa Anna’s army in the battle of San Jacinto, the city was reoccupied by Texan forces,
but the area, claimed by both sides, continued to be fought over. In March 1842, six years after Texas independence, Mexican general Rafael Vásquez briefly occupied San Antonio, and in September of the same year, Adrián Woll led another Mexican invasion force that seized the city.
Because of the uncertainty posed by the frequent invasions, San Antonio and the surrounding area were largely depopulated. Many settlers fled during the Runaway Scrape of 1836 or during subsequent attacks, and did not return in large numbers until after Texas joined the Union. As late as 1844, San Antonio had only some 1,000 residents, nine-tenths of whom were of Mexican descent.