In 1691, when Europeans began exploring the area of present-Day San Antonio, they encountered indigenous people known as the Payaya. The Papayaya called the local river yanaguana, meaning “refreshing waters”. The Spanish newcomers arrived on the feast day of Saint Anthony of Padua and therefore decided to call the place San Antonio in his honor.
The Spanish only began settling the area about a quarter of a century later, and in 1718, construction began on what are today San Antonio’s greatest historical attractions – Mission de San Antonio de Valero, better known as the Alamo, and the Presidio San Antonio de Bexar. Over time, catholic missionaries and families arrived in larger numbers from Spain-held territory. San Antonio was designated as the capital of the province of Texas, a status that continued after Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821.
San Antonio became the focal point for tensions between Texans, as Anglo settlers of Texas were then called, and their Mexican rulers, and was the site of several skirmishes between the Mexican army and local Texan forces. After the siege of Bexar in December 1835, approximately one hundred Texans under the command of James C, Neill’s occupied the Mission de San Antonio de Valero in San Antonio. (The mission acquired the name “Alamo” in the early nineteenth century because it was located in a grove of cottonwood trees, and in Spanish, alamo, means “cottonwood.”). Neill’s forces were subsequently provided with modest reinforcements by men commanded by Jim Bowie and Lieutenant Colonel William B. Travis. With them came a few civilian volunteers who included famed frontiersman and former US Congressman Davy Crockett.
Then in February 1836, one thousand five hundred Mexican soldiers under the command of General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna marched on San Antonio as part of Santa Anna’s campaign to reassert Mexican control over Texas. On the morning of March 6, 1836, a historic battle took place between Santa Anna’s forces and the 189 Texians who occupied the Alamo. In the confrontation that ensued, Mexican troops used sustained cannon fire and waves of assaults to drive the defenders back into the interior of the building. Despite offering heroic resistance, the Texian defenders were killed down to the last man. Historians have estimated that before they died, however, they inflicted about six hundred casualties on Santa Anna’s troops, a number equal to more than one third of his total force.
Although the battle of the Alamo was a defeat for the Texians, it ultimately played a pivotal part in Texas’ struggle for independence from Mexico. A little more than a month later, on April 21, 1836, eight hundred Texians under the command of Sam Houston suprised a Mexican Army of about one thousand six hundred men led by General Santa Anna near what is today the city of Houston. What ensued has become known as the Battle of San Jacinto. With a cry of “Remember the Alamo!” Houston’s men defeated Santa Anna’s army in a mere eighteen minutes and took the Mexican General prisoner. In exchange for his release, Santa Anna signed a treaty with the Texians recognizing Texas’ independence.
The Republic of Texas lasted from 1836 to 1845, after which the United Sates annexed the territory and granted it statehood. The Mexican-American War, which lasted from 1846 to 1848 took a great toll on San Antonio, reducing its population to just eight hundred people. The town quickly rebounded, however, reaching fifteen thousand inhabitants by 1860.
After the American Civil War, San Antonio prospered because of the cattle trade. In the twentieth century, the town became home to businesses associated with the oil and gas industry, automobile manufacturing, and several military installations. San Antonio now receives more than thirty million visitors each year, many of whom are tourists drawn to this historic city by the attraction of its most famous historical site, the Alamo.
Traces of a Colonial Past
The Alamo inspires intense reverence on the part of Americans, and a visit to the site suggests why this is. There is something about this unimposing building, perhaps aided information given by the well-trained guides, that speaks to one of the foundations of the American story: personal sacrifice made in the name of liberty and independence.
All that remains of the former Mession de San Antonio de Valero is a modest stone church, a long barracks building, and a few stone walls behind which the brave defenders gave up their lives resisting forces nearly eight times their size. Today, the Alamo, is the centerpiece of tourism in San Antonio, and visitors can see crowds of people milling about in the plaza in front the old mission and the sidewalks around its walls, posing for photographs, or standing in line to join one of the guided tours offered there.
The Spanish Governor’s Palace, which is located at 105 Military Plaza, is the last surviving building of the Presidio de San Antonio de Bexar, and along with the Alamo, is one of the two original edifices constructed by the Spanish in 1718. The presidio was originally built about half a mile west of the Alamo, but by 1722, the Spanish viceroy had decided to relocate it closer to the Alamo. When San Antonio became the Capitol of Spanish Texas in the 1760’s, the presidio became both a fortress and the seat of the Spanish governor in the region.
The building that remains today was part of the presidio that became known as the Spanish Governor’s Palace. It is a single story building with a stucco exterior and an interior courtyard in the style of the patios one sees in building throughout Spain. Walking across the courtyard, past the fountain and then through the cool rooms of the palace with their flagstone floors and ornately carved furniture, one can almost see the ghost of Spanish soldiers leaning on their muskets and a bewigged governor signing decrees with a quill pen.
San Antonio’s colonial past comes even more vividly to life in the San Antonio Missions National Historic Park. The park, which is managed by the US National Park Service, is made up of four separate mission buildings, which are each located about two and a half miles away from the next mission. The Spanish established the missions between 1716 and 1731. In addition to serving as religious institutions, they were also intended to help stop French encroachment in the region.
The smallest of the four missions is Mission Espada. Located near the banks of the San Antonio river, the mission is approximately nine miles south of present-day downtown San Antonio. From Mission Espada, visitors can drive north toward the city to see the other three missions or cycle or hike along the trail that connects the missions.
Mission San Jose, the largest of the four missions, was founded by members of the Franciscan order in 1720. The structures imposing bell tower and it’s ornate stone facade earned it the name “Queen of the Missions.” The building fell into disrepair in the nineteenth century, but it underwent major restoration by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. Thanks to the protection of the US National Park Service, Mission San Jose and the other missions are preserved so that future generations can marvel at the majestic architecture left behind by the region’s first European settlers.
The River Walk
The San Antonio River has been a vital part of the city’s history since the town was founded in the early eighteenth century. The missions with which the city grew up were all founded on or near the river’s banks, and today, contemporary residents of San Antonio can enjoy leisure activities in the parks and trails that border the river as it winds through and beyond the city.
The paths along the stretch of river that loops through the center of San Antonio are known as the River Walk. This two and one half mile long pedestrian zone consists of paved riverside pathways that are line with restaurants, hotels and cafes. There are also bridges that cross the river to allow visitors access to both sides.
Development of what became the River Walk began in the 1920s as a way to intimate the frequent flooding caused by the San Antonio river. Over the decades, it grew into something more. During the past ten years, the River Walk was extended to a total of about fifteen miles, stretching from the Pearl District ( a historic neighborhood and culinary hub) and the San Antonio Museum of Art in the northern part of the city to the four missions located south of downtown San Antonio. Over time, businesses grew up along he River Walk’s downtown stretch, as well as other attractions, like the Bristol Western Art Museum, which can be accessed on Market Street.
The River Walk itself is a pleasant place to take a stroll or stop and lean on the flower-covered ledge of a bridge while admiring the view. Here, too, visitors will find narrated river tours of the city available. These bot tours carry people gently across the water and through the city as guides relate the story of San Antonio.
There are restaurants serving delicious food from across San Antonio, but the River Walk is a convenient place to sample the city’s culinary offerings. For American food, one might try the ribeye steaks at the Saltgrass Steak House, located at 02 River Walk, or a twelve-ounce T-bone steak at the Lone Star Cafe, which is located at 237 Loyola Street. Southwestern flavors are available at Ocho, which is located at 1015 Navarro Street. The restaurants has a two-level space with dining areas that open directly onto the River Walk. At Rita’s on the River, located on the River Walk at 245 East Commerce Street, visitors will find Tex Mex food “with Texas sized portions” in a casual atmosphere. Here too one will find an outside eating area available, where diners can munch their nachos and fajitas while enjoying the lovely surroundings.