Defending King and Empire in San Antonio
On 8 May 1791 the citizens of San Fernando de Béxar, as the chartered town we now call San Antonio was then known, addressed a petition to the Commandant General of the Interior Provinces, the military-political jurisdiction of which Texas was a unit. Governor Manuel Muñoz had issued an order calling for the removal of the civilians’ horses from the company herd. Not only was this a break in tradition, but it exposed the impoverished citizenry to great hardship. They asked to be relieved of the burden of guarding their horse herd, except for those times when the company went on campaigns, scouting expeditions, and other royal business. The reasons they gave for their request were familiar to every governor and other royal officials who had had the misfortune of dealing with Bexareños for over a half century. They were a miserable lot of wretched unfortunates, who had little on which to maintain themselves other than their limited plantings and personal labor, the result of the many years “that the enemy Indians have pursued and harassed us, for which reason we have not been able to raise our heads above water.” The request did not mean, however, that they were not willing undertake other services “to the last drop of our blood.” The commandant general, sympathetic to their plight, granted them their request and ordered Governor Muñoz to allow the integration of the civilian herd, including tame mares, into the military caballada (horse herd).
Ten years earlier, in his monthly military report, then governor Doming Cabello, wrote an account of an event—one of many over the decades—that supported the truthfulness of the citizens’ petition noted above. The lone survivor of a Comanche ambush of a patrol out of the Fuerte del Cíbolo, a post on the road between San Antonio and La Bahía, led a rescue party to the site of the skirmish. There, according to Cabello, they found the troop “leaning against trees, their scalps missing and their fingers and noses cut off. But they must have put up a good fight, for fifty spent cartridges were found and the lips and teeth of the soldiers were black with powder, and from the evidence it seems they must have killed some Indians.” Shortly after, Cabello received a summons for help from Ensign Valdez, who while out on patrol from the Cíbolo post felt threatened by a superior force of Indians. Retired Ensign Baltasar de los Reyes Pérez offered to lead the rescue party, which consisted of 37 soldiers and 45 citizens. They set out at 11 p.m. and managed to join up with Valdez early the next morning, but could not catch the Indians. On the way back they found the bodies of José Flores and Melchor Ximénez, who had stayed behind hunting for a cow when Valdez left Cíbolo.
The Cíbolo post had been established ten years earlier, in March 1771, as a result of increased hostilities in the countryside. A temporary respite from Comanche, Apache, and Norteño raiding in the late 1760s had led to the reoccupation of a number of civilian ranches in the valleys of the San Antonio and its tributaries east of town. Renewed hostilities as far as La Bahía had brought the rancheros to request of Governor Barón de Ripperdá that he provide a guard so that the ranchers could plant their fields. The result was the construction of a stockade at the site of Vicente Alvarez Travieso’s Rancho Las Mulas, where, “because of the great danger, only one horse per man should be taken.” The arrangement was to last until it was once again safe for each ranchero to return to his lands and fields.
A decade before that, in June 1762 the townspeople of San Antonio joined the missionary at Espíritu Santo in complaining about Apache depredations to the new governor, Angel Martos y Navarrete. “The Apaches are stealing our horses and slaughtering our cattle and oxen in the vicinity of the presidio and town with such audacity that they almost take no precautions. If a group from the town goes to the rancherías (Indian villages) and spots livestock with known brands, not only do the Indians not return them, but they laugh at us since our forces are so weak.”
The correlation between Indians and presidio, and the survival of San Antonio had been made clear yet another ten years earlier, in June 1750, during an investigation on the desirability of moving the presidio to a site on the Pedernales River in support of a new mission for the Apaches. Although Fray Mariano Francisco de los Dolores of Mission Valero agreed that the transfer would result in the ability of the citizenry to move into the countryside to farm and raise cattle, conditions in town did not permit the move. The citizenry was poor, lazy, and dependent on the supplies provided to the presidio for their sustenance. Béxar’s town council agreed, stating that the town counted no more than fifty or sixty vecinos (citizens), not all of them armed. “If the presidio were moved, not onehalf the citizenry would remain, because of all who would follow it, because it is the only commerce this country has.”
Talk of bringing the Apaches to the light of salvation and civilization had been going around among missionaries for over a decade by the time the Pedernales plan was proposed. In fact, much of the debate centered on whether Béxar’s settlers were not making things tough on themselves because of their treatment of the Indians. Lipan attacks in the late 1730s finally drove Captain Joseph Urrutia to organize the first of three campaigns into Apache territory in the winter of 1739. The expedition was roundly condemned by Fray Benito Fernández de Santa Ana, who claimed that the time of year and the lack of discipline among the soldiery only served to increase the hostility of the Indians. Moreover, “it is ridiculous that these same persons should claim certificates as servants of the King our Lord, when they were interested in what I have stated, and had greater hopes of a considerable prize of horses, hides, and Indian men and women to serve them.”
Horses, settlers, and soldiers— they had been part of the mix from the very beginning of San Fernando, a decade before Urrutia’s campaign. Having taken stock of the Canary Islanders who had just arrived in Béxar after more than a year-long journey from their homeland, Captain Juan Antonio Pérez de Almazán could only scratch his head in wonderment. He provided lodgings for the settlers in the most comfortable dwellings available in the presidio, despite the hardship caused to the soldiers’ families. Then, signaling his disapproval of the whole affair, and “considering the exhausted condition of the settlers, their inexperience with the weapons used against the Indians, and their lack of horsemanship to hinder their usefulness on the watch, I therefore placed the horses of the settlers with those of the company.” Thus were presidio and town joined, a tradition started, and San Antonio’s career as a military town cemented.
One last decade-long step back in time brings us to the beginning of our story in the earliest days of San Antonio, when it was a fledgling community not yet completely settled into its permanent site. In 1721 the Marqués de San Miguel de Aguayo was in the midst of his reorganization of the province, making sure that it was sufficiently strong to hold off further French incursions from Louisiana and Indian depredations from the interior. A year earlier, the first documented Apache attack on the settlement had taken place—the killing of two men out searching for missing horses. Aguayo felt the Lipan Apache menace so strong that he increased the garrison by over twenty enlisted men, bringing troop strength to 54 officers and men.
It was the failure of the 1690-1693 religious occupation of Texas, which had been based on the Franciscans’ exaggerated hopes of converting the Hasinais into loyal Christian Spanish subjects, which served as good lesson for the 1716-1718 permanent settlement of the province. Texas would no doubt be a religious province, but it would also be a military district. The mission and the presidio would work hand in hand, just as they had come to do throughout the colonial Mexican far north. It was from that religious-military tradition that San Antonio was born. It was the tradition on which the occupation of California would take place fifty years later.
The upper reaches of the San Antonio River held a number of natural advantages as a site for a missionary-military complex to serve as a waystation between presidios San Juan Bautista del Río Grande and Nuestra Señora del Pilar de Los Adaes. To a greater degree than other Texas streams the San Antonio River was fit for irrigation. The area held plentiful supplies of timber and rock for construction and nearby prairies offered an abundance of grazing land. During a 1709 exploration Fray Isidro Espinosa was effusive in his praise for the area; returning to the site in 1716 as part of the expedition headed for the occupation of east Texas, he sounded even more like a real estate agent in his description of the locale’s potential, praising the abundance of useful plants, animals, and fish. A veteran of northern Mexico’s arid environment, he was laudatory of the aquatic resources: “its copious waters . . . are clear, crystal, and sweet.”
Finding a location for the military-religious complex was the easy part. It would prove much more difficult to turn the post into a flourishing settlement. Governor Martín de Alarcón founded Mission San Antonio de Valero and Villa de Béxar at the beginning of May 1718, but the villa, or town, never developed. Working alongside mission Indians and the few retirees who stayed on after fulfilling their enlistments, soldiers cleared fields, dug acequias (irrigation canals), and erected homes and other buildings. Some of the younger men married from among the daughters of the older soldiers, or found spouses among the presidio families at Los Adaes or La Bahía, but others had to go in search of their wives outside the province. Although the thirty or so soldier-settlers of the Alarcón expedition were joined by those recruited by Aguayo, and later in the 1720s by a few more, it soon became clear that Texas offered no incentives to civilian colonization.
When Inspector General Pedro de Rivera inspected the company late in 1727 he was generally satisfied with the military community: the garrison was well armed and disciplined, although the prices charged by the commander to his men were high; the Apaches, he believed, had been chastised to the point of submission. The soldiers may well have boasted to him of the successful 1723 campaign in which they had killed over thirty braves and captured many horses along with women and children. With the appearance of the regulations of 1729, based on Rivera’s recommendations for cost savings, Presidio de Béxar experienced a reduction in troop strength by ten billets, ironically producing the first substantial boost in the settlement’s civilian population.
Two other Rivera recommendations conspired to turn San Antonio into the center of Spanish activity in Texas. One had to do with the largely moribund missions of east Texas, which soaked up scarce financial resources. Rivera recommended reducing their number because the Hasinais were peaceful Indians who seemed willing to deal with the Spaniards without the intervention of missionaries. After a few months’ stay at what is now Barton Springs in Austin, three missions found a permanent location along the San Antonio River south of the existing communities. In early March 1731 missions Concepción, San Juan Capistrano, and San Francisco de la Espada joined the original San Antonio mission, Valero (now the Alamo), and another founded in 1722, San José y San Miguel de Aguayo, to form the Alamo chain of missions.
Rivera’s second recommendation echoed one that had been made by the Marqués de Aguayo upon his return to Coahuila: to foster the civilian settlement of the province, families from Spain or the Canary Islands should be encouraged to migrate. The king eventually approved the plan for the transfer of 400 families, but of these only fifteen eventually reached San Antonio. Seeing what he had to work with, Captain Almazán thought unworkable the order that the Canary Islands be settled in their own separate community. Instead, as stated earlier, he housed the new arrivals among the presidio families while he repared the area immediately east of the presidio as the site of San Fernando de Béxar.
The small garrison had its hands full. The garrison provided each mission with a guard of about three men. The community’s horse herd, as we have seen, itself required a substantial guard. Escort service—of the mail, of visitors entering or leaving the province, of civilians going to cut timber or to hunt—also reduced the number of troopers available at the garrison itself. When not otherwise occupied, the soldiers performed construction work around the presidio. Of the 43 men in the company, the commander could rarely count on more than a handful to be on hand, and these were usually the infirm or injured. Not surprisingly, Béxar’s commanders came to rely on civilians and mission Indians to supplement presidio troops. In the summer of 1745, following Captain Toribio de Urrutia’s campaign against the Apaches, the Indians mounted one of their most determined attacks on the settlement, which was saved only through the timely arrival of a militia composed of Mission Valero Indians.
A temporary peace with the Apaches was reached in 1749, following another campaign by Captain Urrutia the main purpose of which was to take captives for negotiation. In one of the most spectacular events to have taken place in the frontier community to that time, Apaches and Spanish colonials gathered around a large pit dug in the center of the military plaza, where the symbols of war—a horse, hatchet, lance, and arrows—were buried while settlers, Indians, and dignitaries danced to seal the peace.
The years of relative peace that followed led royal officials to repeat the mistake that General Rivera had made in 1727, the erroneous assumption that peace with the Indians was at hand and that the garrison could be reduced. As always short of funds, royal officials decided to populate the garrison being created to protect a new mission for the Apaches in part with twenty-two men from the Béxar company. The reduction of the garrison to twenty-one effectives, not counting the captain, not only posed a setback to the community’s growth, it forced the civilian population to take on a greater share of the defensive burden. It is during this time that an organized militia emerged, although, as might be expected, the citizenry always played down its ability to contribute to the community’s defense in order to restore the company’s fighting strength.
In the punitive expedition that followed the Comanche-Norteño attack on Mission San Sabá in 1758, a few soldiers and numerous civilians and mission Indians from San Antonio participated. The expedition proved a miserable failure and only served to make Béxar the target of the Apaches’ enemies, who now considered San Antonio’s population allies of their pache enemy. The result was an increasing level of violence that required the posting of temporary detachments from other presidios at Béxar to help manage the situation. The twenty-two men that Béxar had provided for the San Sabá presidio returned in 1769 when the viceroy approved their temporary posting. By 1773 San Antonio’s garrison could count on a permanent troop strength of eighty men, led by none other than the provincial governor, whose capital the viceroy officially moved to Béxar that year.
What happened? From its beginnings until the late 1760s the presidio had been a virtual fiefdom. Presidio commanders had almost complete autonomy in running their companies. They recruited their own men for enlistments of ten years, controlled the payrolls, faced only infrequent inspections, and meted out justice as justicia mayor in the jurisdiction—in San Antonio this last prerogative became a major bone of contention between the commander and the town council, which claimed that the king had granted its civilian authorities jurisdictional autonomy. In sum, the presidio system had evolved as an ad-hoc response to local circumstances in New Spain, and was neither part of the regular army nor a distinct unified command. Presidios came in all shapes and sizes, and while some were under the direct jurisdiction of the viceroy, others were under
the authority of the provincial governor.
In Béxar’s case command had actually become a family legacy. After the terms of the first two commanders, Juan Pérez de Almazán and Nicolás Flores de Abrego, the captaincy had passed to Joseph de Urrutia, an old frontier hand with personal knowledge of Texas’s Indians going back to the early 1690s. Following his death his son Toribio took command, and upon his retirement Luis Antonio Menchaca, Toribio’s nephew, assumed the post. It was Toribio who had built what is now called the Governor’s Palace, a building that served as both home and general store for the town until an independent civilian commercial sector developed in the 1770s. Because they controlled the payrolls, and because the payroll was converted into goods for issuance at elevated prices, the captains were the wealthiest men in town and ran stores that supplied the rest of the community. This state of affairs was so normal that when Toribio de Urrutia asked for retirement at full pay after thirty years of service, the viceroy’s advisor replied that although the law did not allow it without the king’s permission, he and his successor could split the salary since, “the advantages of the post will surely make someone take it up even under these conditions.”
The 1760s marked a turning point in San Antonio’s military history. Increased hostilities from Comanches and the Nations of the North created a need to address its long-term survivability. Viceregal authorities and the governor attempted to deal with the growing crisis by shuffling available resources around, with detachments from as far away as Nuevo Santander and Coahuila stationed at San Antonio for limited periods of time, but that was no solution. In 1766 Captain Menchaca found an opportunity to press the case for reinforcing San Antonio when Governor Navarrete instructed him to supply 10 soldiers and 35 mission Indians to an exploratory expedition to the coast. Menchaca refused to supply the soldiers and was unable to convince the missionaries to do likewise. His reasons reveal the state of defenses at Béxar in the face of growing Indian
hostilities. He was not responsible for the missionaries’ unwillingness to supply Indians—they argued that the Indians made their living from doing daily manual work and should be compensated for being drawn away from their labor for such a mission—he went on to state that he had only six men on hand, three of whom were on guard duty over the horse herd, and the other three on watch over the artillery. Although the company was composed of 21 men, with three stationed at each mission, and with no instructions to remove them, he could not see how he could carry out the order. Furthermore, the presidio, town, and missions were subject to constant Indian attack about which he could do nothing. The solution lay in increasing the garrison and having soldiers from La Bahía and Los Adaes temporarily stationed at San Antonio. The worst was yet to come, he warned, as Indians had stolen about 1,000 animals, and although the detachments he had sent out to track them down had failed, a group of mission Indians from San Jose had met up with four Comanches, whom they managed to kill. “So it is certain that the war with the Comanche will only grow worse.”
From the king on down there was a growing realization that the entire frontier defense structure needed a serious overhaul, especially Texas, which had been the border province with French Louisiana, but the strategic importance of which had changed now that Spain had acquired the territory west of the Mississippi River. The man charged with evaluating New Spain’s northern frontier defenses was the Marqués de Rubí, a Spanish officer trained in the latest military techniques. His inspection took him from the Gulf of California to the Gulf of Mexico over a two year span, at the end of which he presented a bold plan that had major consequences for Texas, particularly San Antonio. Although he recommended that a presidio line be established at 30? north latitude, with all territory above that line be abandoned to the Indians, he also recommended that because of their importance Santa Fe and San Antonio be allowed to remain. Béxar came in for special attention, as Rubí recommended an increase in the size of the garrison, something that townspeople and commanders had been lobbying for since the removal of half the command in 1757. The additional troops would come from closure of east Texas presidios Los Adaes and Orcoquisac. The expanded garrison would be commanded by the provincial governor, who would now have his capital at San Antonio.
The changes officially took effect in 1773. Governor Juan María, Barón de Ripperdá oversaw the permanent expansion of the company to eighty men, and the establishment of the Cíbolo post. Rubí’s recommendations, incorporated into the Reglamento of 1772 and other decrees, for the first time addressed the presidios of New Spain as a system rather than as an ad hoc collection of semi-autonomous posts. The Reglamento called for each company to have a quartermaster, elected from among the officers of the company by the entire garrison. That officer would hold fiduciary responsibility for handling the payroll of the garrison, from which provisions and supplies were to bought. By taking the payroll and supply
functions away from the company commander, higher officials sought to end the rampant corruption and inefficiencies that ill-served royal interests. Each soldier was to receive part of his pay (which was reduced under the logic that given the reforms less would be more) in cash in an effort to boost the local economy and to encourage him to keep his uniform, equipment, and mounts, which in the past had often been sold to cover personal expenses. The regulations also called for regular drilling, including target practice, and inspections. On the bureaucratic side, company commanders were to make monthly reports of all military activities within their jurisdiction and maintain a monthly muster book stating the detail to which each member of the unit was assigned.
The reordering of the presidios was followed up by the creation of a new administrative unit for the frontier that would make communications and decision making more efficient. The Comandancia General de las Provincias Internas, although never the fix-all that the king’s ministers thought it would be, at least created a chain of command at the top of which sat an individual with intimate knowledge of frontier conditions and a zeal for the royal service. In the first decade of its existence, the comandante general’s most important actions were to plan a new strategy for dealing with the various autonomous tribes, particularly the multiple bands of Apaches that carried out depredations from the Sonora-Arizona border region to San Antonio and La Bahía.
For Presidio de Béxar the changes were profound. Although Ripperdá’s successor, Colonel Domingo Cabello, abolished the Cíbolo post, the challenges he faced in his administration, between 1778 and 1786, contributed to the further expansion of the presidio company. By 1781 the garrison had increased to 100 men and had been divided into two companies, one light cavalry and one heavy cavalry. The citizens’ militia was reorganized and supplied with standard weapons. And San Antonio became the center of negotiations with the various Comanche and Norteño bands. Campaigns from San Antonio and Santa Fe against the Apaches brought most of these bands under general control by the end of the decade.
The last decade of the eighteenth century was one of relative stability on San Antonio’s Indian frontier. Still, the presidio represented the settlement’s most important institution. Most members of the garrison were locals, some of them third or fourth generation soldiers of the company. Thus, the presidio was the Béxar’s most important employer, as it was the most important market. While in the early years the captain’s store, stocked from the profits the commander gained from managing the company payrolls, served the rest of the community, by late decades a number of full-time shopkeepers and artisans had the garrison and its dependents for regular customers. Recruits had always seen the presidio as an opportunity to escape the general poverty of Texas; enlistment protected soldiers and families from the instability of the local agricultural economy and most presidio work called for skills that young men already possessed—horseback riding, herding, reading Indian signs, construction. With a little luck and moderate habits, a soldier could stay relatively out of debt, yet know that in case of need the company served as an economic safety net.
The early nineteenth century takes us into a complicated set of political and military transformations that would require an additional paper to explain. The Louisiana Purchase reestablished Texas as a border province with an acquisitive neighbor willing to work through area Indians to undermine Spanish authority. United States claims of Texas as part of Louisiana required a massive reinforcement of the province that brought hundreds of troops from throughout northeastern Mexico to Texas. In the midst of this, the Mexican War of Independence erupted and Texas’s military establishment blew with the winds of change, fighting both against and for royalist interests. By the time of Mexican independence in 1821, the progress that had been made in creating a sustainable society based on a relatively well-equipped military force and strategic consideration of Indian interests was in shambles. Independent Mexico was never equipped to properly restore the presidio system to its required strength and vitality and its feeble attempts to do so in the early 1830s made up one of the contributing factors leading to the struggle for Texas independence.
1. Representación hecha por el vecindario de esta villa solicitando la reunión de sus caballerías al situado de la tropa, Año de 1791, May 8, 1791, Bexar Archives, Center for American History, the University of Texas at Austin (hereafter cited asBA).
2. Estado de la fuerza efectiba. Feb. 28, 1781, BA.
3. Auto of Gov. Ripperdá, Feb. 24, 1771, BA.
4. Petition of Fr. Pedro Ramírez, June 6, 1762, BA.
5. Testimonio de los autos fechos sobre la reducción de los indios gentiles de la nación Apache a las misiones de los ríos de San Xavier de la provincia de Texas. Nov. 29, 1749, Audiencia de Mexico 92-6-22, Archivo General de la Nación de México, in Spanish Materials from Various Sources, vol. 90, Center for American History, the University of Texas at Austin (hereafter cited as SM).
6. Carlos E. Castañeda, Our Catholic Heritage in Texas 7 vols. (reprint; New York: Arno, 1976) 3:47.
7. Auto en que se da razón de haber hospedado a los isleños y otras providencias. Mar. 10, 1731, Provincias Internas vol. 32, pt. 2, SM vol. 727.
8. Unless otherwise cited, this paper is based on Jesús F. de la Teja, San Antonio de Béxar: A Community on New Spain’s Northern Frontier (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995).
9. Jesús F. de la Teja, “‘A Fine Country with Broad Plains—the Most Beautiful in New Spain’: Colonial Views of Land and Nature,” in Char Miller, ed., On the Border: An Environmental History of San Antonio (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001), 48.
10. Spanish jurisdictional nomenclature is rather confusing, which no doubt contributed to modern names of city and country. The district to which the city, presidio, missions, and outlying ranches belonged was called San Antonio de Béxar, as was the presidio. The chartered town, named in honor of the heir to the Spanish throne and the medieval saint-king, was San Fernando de Béxar. Each mission had its individual names, as did each ranch. For the sake of clarity, I will refer to the settlement as Béxar or San Antonio, identifying the specific entity—town, presidio—when necessary.
11. On the history of the presidio system see Max L. Moorhead, The Presidio: Bastion of the Spanish Borderlands (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1975).
12. El virrey de Na. España da quenta con Testimonio de haver concedido reforma a D. Toribio Urrutia Capitán del Presidio de Béjar y nombrado a D. Luis Menchaca. Aug. 11, 1763, Audiencia de Guadalajara 104-6-13, Archivo General de
Indias, SM vol. 42.
13. Diligencias que en virtud de no haber contribuido don Luis Menchaca los diez hombres y 35 indios que se le pidieron para el reconocimiento de las islas blancas que se cometió al coronel Parrilla, tubo a bien de practicar el gobernador de Texas con lo demás que en ellas se expresa. June 30, 1766, BA.
14. For the Texas War of Independence period see Jesús F. de la Teja, “Rebellion on the Frontier,” in Gerald E. Poyo, ed., Tejano Journey, 1770-1850 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996), 15-30; for Mexican-period San Antonio see Jesús F. de la Teja and John Wheat, “Béxar: Profile of a Tejano Community,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly 89, 1 (1985): 7-34.