A Little San Antonio History, Part 1 (Most Likely)

This weekend Wurstfest starts in New Braunfels, Texas.  If it doesn’t rain, we’re planning to go.  This reminds me that I haven’t given you much of the history of San Antonio. Trust me, the Wurstfest/San Antonio connection will become apparent.  At least, that’s the plan.

Prior to 1718, the only residents of what is now San Antonio were nomadic bands of Native Americans, primarily the Payaya.  I live uphill of a creek and was told that Native Americans used to camp on my land. Sure enough, I found, not an arrowhead, but a genuine, for-real stone age tool in my back yard.

On June 13, 1691, a group of Spaniards traveling through Texas discovered a river.  They named the river for the saint whose feast day it was, Saint Anthony of Padua.  These Spaniards left and others arrived later, on April 13, 1709.  They arrived somewhere near where San Pedro Springs Park is today and promptly named the springs for a saint whose day it wasn’t.  Surprises the heck out of me.  Among the choices of April 13 saints, for those playing at home, were San Martín, San Carádoco and San Urso de Rávena. Maybe the friars just didn’t like any of those choices.

As an aside, my ex and I used to watch Sliders and in one episode they arrived in a world that was virtually indistinguishable from their home world and they settled back in and lived for a while and Quinn kept noticing tiny differences.  They were finally convinced when, after some time (I seem to recall it had been months) they saw that the Golden Gate Bridge was blue.  My ex and I were incredulous because the Alamo is ubiquitous around here.  There’s just no way you could live here for months or whatever without ever seeing a picture of the Alamo.  If the parapet were a different shape, it’d be pretty obvious to a careful observer within days, if not hours, and the Alamo is not nearly as iconic as the Golden Gate Bridge.

Anyway, that was just in aid of saying that there may well be parallel worlds where San Pedro Creek, San Pedro Springs Park, and the major road known as San Pedro Avenue are all “San Martín” or something.

These Spaniards were apparently just passing through as well, because the next contact the natives had with Spaniards was May 1, 1718, when the friars established a new mission, San Antonio de Valero, near the San Pedro springs.  They apparently chose the original Spanish name rather than sticking another saint, in this case, likely San Jose Obrador or San Orencio or something, on the area (just wait, there’ll be another new saint eventually).

This mission, which would eventually become the Alamo, moved around a bit before finally settling not too far from the San Antonio River in what is now downtown San Antonio.

Two years after the founding of the Alamo, the Franciscans founded another mission in San Antonio.  This was Mission de San Jose y San Miguel de Aguayo.

In 1731, San Antonio experienced something of a population boom.  First, three more missions moved to the area from East Texas.

One was Mission San Francisco de la Espada (for those who speak Spanish, yes, it does mean “St. Francis of the Sword,” and no, we don’t know why it ended up with that name). San Francisco de la Espada, known locally as “Mission Espada,” was actually the first Spanish mission in Texas, founded in 1689. Another was Mission San Juan Capistrano (not the one in California), which was founded in 1716 as San Jose de los Nazonis. The third was Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Acuña, which is a mouthful, and is generally known locally as “Mission Concepción.”  Mission Concepción, which is my personal favorite, was founded in East Texas in 1716.

Then, the King of Spain sent 400 colonists from the Canary Islands to San Antonio they had set out in 1730 and finally arrived in 1731.

All of this settling of the area was in aid of one thing:  outdoing France.  France had a foothold in what is now the United States, and Spain and France had something of a rivalry going. Spain didn’t want to be outdone, so they decided that the fastest way to win was to cheat, by turning the natives into Spaniards.  One drawback to this plan was that by law all Spaniards had to be Roman Catholic.  So, rather than sending Conquistadores and all of that, they sent Franciscan friars to build missions and convert the natives.

People still ended up dead, tragically.  Germ theory was still years away at this point.  People believed that disease was caused by something called a “miasma,” so it was something of a surprise when all of their new converts started getting sick and most of them ended up dying.

The Canary Islanders formed the settlement of San Fernando de Bexar, and their parish church is now San Fernando Cathedral.  As San Fernando de Bexar, grew, and merged with the settlement called San Antonio, it attracted settlers from elsewhere.  The earliest were Anglos from the United States, who moved in once Mexico was independent from Spain in 1820.  German settlers followed in the 1840s.  The Germans were led by Prince Karl of Solms-Braunfels, who founded a settlement in New Braunfels, to the northwest of San Antonio (this is where the connection to Wurstfest comes in).  At about the same time, a group of French immigrants came in with Henri Castro and founded a town called Castroville to the west of San Antonio.

Then there are the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, a Roman Catholic religious order, also French, which have had a major impact on San Antonio, despite not being part of the breeding population. The first three sisters of the order to arrive in San Antonio arrived in 1869, where they proceeded to set up the first hospital in the growing city, which was located on the site where the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio (formerly known as Santa Rosa Hospital, and which was named for St. Rose of Lima, the first Catholic saint from North America) stands today.  The sisters also founded a school, which is now the University of the Incarnate Word.

Other city institutions with French roots include the Ursuline Academy (now the Southwest School of Art and Craft) and San Antonio’s basilica, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Little Flower, which started out as a Spanish church in the early 1920s, but which is dedicated to the French saint, Thérèse of Lisieux.

Over the next months/years I will probably go into all of these places (I just noticed that most of them are churches) in future posts, but I just thought I’d put a little bit out there on how San Antonio, a traditionally Mexican-American city, came to have so many people of different ethnicities whose families have lived here for centuries.

My Travel Memories: Washington, DC

I really need to return to Washington DC again. Alex and I went to D.C. in 2011, but I was only part-time at my job and hadn’t earned any vacation time yet, so we only had a long weekend.  As a result, we hiked up to the Lincoln Monument and did the tour of the Capitol building, but other than that, we stuck largely to the Smithsonian Institution that weekend.

My 1979 trip to Washington DC was probably the first time I took a subway (though I remember taking the “L” in Chicago when I was very, very little — I think it was when my dad’s brother first started dating the woman who eventually became my aunt). I was thrilled by the Metro.  The Metro stations were just awesome and the train was convenient and it was just one of the neatest experiences I had had pretty much ever at that point in my life.  In fact, my delight in the Washington DC Metro may well be part of why I am such a fan of public transportation nowadays (the fact that I can get to my destination without having to stop reading my book or put down my knitting is a plus, too).

We also went to Arlington National Cemetery.  Washington, DC was a planned city.  Originally both Maryland and Virginia gave up some land for the capital, which was a square more-or-less bisected by the Potomac River.  The government didn’t really do anything with the part of Washington that was on the Virginia side of the river, so  Virginia asked for that land back and got it.  Most, if not all, of that land is now part of the city of Arlington. Within Arlington, Virginia, is, unsurprisingly, Arlington National Cemetery. The centerpiece of Arlington National Cemetery is Arlington House, which is also the Robert E. Lee Memorial. The house was built by the step-grandson of George Washington, George Washington Parke Custis, whose daughter married Robert E. Lee.  Robert E. Lee considered Arlington House to be his home.

During the Civil War, the government confiscated Arlington House and its grounds in part to punish Lee for leaving the United States Army to lead the Confederate Army.  The grounds were turned into a military cemetery in 1864, and bodies were buried close to the house with a goal of rendering the house uninhabitable.  After Lee’s death, Lee’s son later sued the United States government and the Supreme Court ruled that the house had been illegally seized and the government ended up buying the house and land from Lee’s son. So, that’s why there’s a mansion in the middle of the cemetery.  The mansion was there first.

While at Arlington National Cemetery, we visited the Tomb of the Unknowns, and the graves of John F. and Robert F. Kennedy. The Eternal Flame on John F. Kennedy’s grave has been upgraded since our visit.

We didn’t do much of the Smithsonian, though I remember visiting the Air and Space Museum, the Natural History Museum, and the National Museum of American History (more on those museums once I get around to 2011).  We spent most of our time on the National Mall visiting the memorials.  We climbed up the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial twice, once during the daytime and once at night.  We also took the elevator to the top of the Washington Monument.  Some of the monuments that are there today, such as the Korean and Vietnam War memorials, weren’t there yet.

National Mall looking east
The National Mall from the Washington Monument looking towards the Lincoln Memorial, 1979.

My parents and I visited the White House, as well.  I seem to recall that we entered through the North Portico, and the light fixture there certainly looks familiar.  It looks like my memory might actually be accurate.  The White House website says that the North Portico was “(o)nce the principal entrance to the White House for both the family and the public.”  These days it looks like the visitor tours leave through that door. It was a house.  A very nice house, but a house.  Not so much with books and plants (the rose garden is supposed to be very nice, but I don’t think we spent much time there).

At some point we took a side trip to Mount Vernon, which was where George and Martha Washington lived.  It was another historic house. I do remember George and Martha Washington’s graves and being disappointed that so many of the outbuildings were reconstructed and/or replicas.