San Antonio in the Early 1800s

When Napoleon fictionally arrives at San Antonio in Napoleon in America, he finds an insecure and impoverished outpost in the sparsely-populated Mexican province of Texas. In the early 1800s, San Antonio was made up of the military presidio of San Antonio de Béxar, the civilian town of San Fernando de Béxar, and the religious-Indian settlements of several Franciscan missions. What follows is a look at how San Antonio appeared to early-19th-century visitors and residents. But first, some background.

The origins of San Antonio

Map of San Antonio in the 1800s

The Villa and Presidio of San Antonio de Béxar together with the Franciscan Missions, 1713-1836. Source: Library of Congress

Spain conquered Mexico in the 1500s and called it Nueva España (New Spain). Although Texas was considered part of New Spain, it was not until the late 1600s that the Spanish began to establish a permanent presence there. In the 1680s, they established several missions along the Rio Grande. These were intended to convert the indigenous tribes to Christianity, teach them the Spanish language and customs, introduce Spanish farming methods, and encourage settlement. In 1690, the Spanish founded two missions in eastern Texas, with the additional aim of warding off incursions from the French in Louisiana.

In 1691, General Domingo Terán de los Ríos, the first governor of Spanish Texas, embarked on a trip to explore the province and set up additional missions. He was accompanied by 50 soldiers, 10 friars and three lay brothers. The missionaries were led by Damián Massanet, a Franciscan priest who had assisted in the creation of the eastern Texas missions. On June 13, the expedition reached a Payaya Indian village called Yanaguana along a river in south-central Texas. As it was the feast day of St. Anthony of Padua, Massanet named the site and the river “San Antonio de Padua.”

In 1718, Spain decided to start a settlement in San Antonio. This would provide travelers with a way station on the long route between the Rio Grande and eastern Texas. Texas Governor Martín de Alarcón travelled to the area with 72 people – including soldiers and their families – and a considerable amount of livestock.

Under the guidance of Father Antonio de Olivares, the group constructed a temporary mission out of brush and mud on the west side of the San Antonio River. They then built a presidio, or fort, to protect the mission. The mission, which by 1724 had been moved to the east side of the river, was named San Antonio de Valero. The presidio, located approximately half a mile away on the west side of the river, was called San Antonio de Béxar. Alarcón established a settlement called Villa de Béxar, near the headwaters of San Pedro Creek, for the soldiers’ families and other civilians. A bridge was built across the river. The missionaries and the Payaya Indians constructed a dam and dug a six-mile long irrigation ditch, known as the Acequia Madre de Valero, to divert river water for the mission’s use and for the irrigation of fields near the mission. This was later expanded into a network of irrigation ditches. In 1720, a second mission, San José, was established a few miles south of San Antonio.

The Spanish authorities hoped that more civilians would settle in Villa de Béxar. When this did not happen, Spain transported people from the Canary Islands, via Havana and Veracruz, to populate the area. These settlers – 56 people – arrived in 1731. A new town, called San Fernando de Béxar, was founded next to the presidio to accommodate them. Also in that year, three missions (San Juan Capistrano, San Francisco de Espada and Concepción) were relocated from eastern Texas to locations south of Mission San José.

In 1762, France ceded western Louisiana to Spain. Since there was no longer a French threat on the Texas border, Spain decided there was no longer any need to maintain Los Adaes, the Texas capital located just west of the Louisiana town of Natchitoches. The acting governor moved his headquarters and garrison to San Antonio. The settlers were also forced to march there. Thus, in 1772, San Antonio became the capital of Texas.

In 1793, San Antonio de Valero was secularized, meaning it ceased to be used as a mission. Its religious offices passed to the parish of San Fernando de Béxar. The mission’s lands, houses, tools and animals were distributed among the Indians who still lived there, the refugees from Los Adaes, and local residents.

Arrival of the Alamo Company

By the start of the 1800s, San Antonio was the largest Spanish settlement in Texas. Approximately 1,500 people lived in the town and presidio. In 1803, the garrison was reinforced with 100 mounted militia from La Segunda Compañía Volante de San Carlos de Parras (the Second Flying Company of San Carlos de Parras). Although the presidio of San Antonio de Béxar had never been walled in, the mission of San Antonio de Valero had been fortified against Indian raids. The new company used the abandoned mission for its barracks. Since the flying company had been stationed at the town of San José y Santiago del Álamo in the Mexican state of Coahuila, it was also known as the Alamo Company. The former San Antonio mission thus became known as the Alamo.

Visit of the Pike expedition

San Antonio, Texas, 1849

San Antonio, Texas, by Seth Eastman, 1849. Source: Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Gift of Maxim Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Watercolors and Drawings, 1800–1875

In 1807, US Army Lieutenant Zebulon Pike visited San Antonio as part of his exploratory travels through western North America.

St. Antonio…is situated on the head waters of the river of that name, and perhaps contains two thousand souls, most of whom reside in miserable mud-wall houses, covered with thatch grass roofs. The town is laid out on a very grand plan: to the east of it, on the other side of the river, is the station of the troops. (1)

Pike estimated the total population of Texas at 7,000. “These are principally Spanish creoles [people of Spanish descent born in the Americas]; some French, some Americans, and a few civilized Indians and half-breeds.” (2)

On their arrival, Pike and his companions were met by Antonio Cordero, the acting governor of Coahuila and Texas, and Lieutenant Colonel Simón de Herrara, governor of the province of Nuevo León. The latter was temporarily in Texas to patrol the Louisiana frontier and improve Texan defences. Pike stayed at the home of Governor Cordero.

In the evening his levee [reception] was attended by a crowd of officers and priests. After supper we went to the public square, where might be seen the two governors joined in a dance with people who in the day time would approach them with reverence and awe. … When we left St. Antonio, everything appeared to be in a flourishing and improving state, owing to the examples and encouragement given to industry, politeness and civilization by their excellent Governor, Cordero, and his colleague Herrara; and also to the large body of troops maintained at that place, in consequence of the difference existing between the United States and Spain. …

About two, three, and four miles from St. Antonio are three missions, formerly flourishing and prosperous. These buildings for solidity, accommodation, and even majesty, were surpassed by few that I met with in New Spain. The resident priest treated us with the greatest hospitality, and was respected and beloved by all who knew him. He made a singular observation relative to the aborigines who had formerly formed the population of those establishments under charge of the monks. I asked him what had become of the natives. He replied that it appeared to him that they could not exist under the shadow of the whites, as the nations who formed those missions had been nurtured and taken all the care of that was possible, and put on the same footing as the Spaniards; yet they had, notwithstanding, dwindled away, until the other two [missions] had become entirely depopulated; and the one where he resided had not more than sufficient to perform his household labor. From this he had formed an idea that God never intended them to form one people, but that they should always remain distinct and separate. (3)

Regarding the “morals and manners” of the Texans, Pike observed:

Cordero, by restricting (by edicts) the buffalo hunts to certain seasons, and obliging every man of family to cultivate so many acres of land, has in some degree checked the spirit of hunting, or wandering, life which had been hitherto so very prevalent; and has endeavored to introduce, by his example and precepts, a general urbanity and suavity of manners which rendered St. Antonio one of the most agreeable séjours [stays] that we met with in the provinces. (4)

Pike wrote that there were 988 soldiers in Texas the time, 388 of whom were at San Antonio. “The militia (a rabble) are made somewhat respectable by a few American riflemen who are incorporated amongst them; they are about 300 in number, including bow and arrow men.” (5) He noted the religion was “Catholic, but much relaxed.” (6) He also observed that the residents traded with Mexico (via Monterrey and Monclova) for merchandise, and with New Orleans (via Natchitoches) for contraband. In return, they provided coins, horses and mules.

A Spanish governor’s report

A Mexican Adobe House, San Antonio

A Mexican Adobe House, San Antonio

The year after Pike left, a new governor of Texas arrived. Manuel María de Salcedo was an infantry officer who had been born in Spain, had served in the Canary Islands, and had lived in Louisiana, where his father had been the Spanish governor from 1801 to 1803. Salcedo was living in Spain when he was appointed governor of Texas. Salcedo, his New Orleans-born wife, and their daughter arrived in San Antonio in November of 1808.

In 1809, Salcedo wrote a detailed report on the province of Texas. He counted the population in the Spanish settlements at 3,122, seventeen hundred of whom lived in the San Antonio area.

The industry of these inhabitants is non-existent because neither have they had nor do they have elements for it. And one even marvels at how the most of them cultivate their lands without the necessary farming tools by substituting for them as best they can, how some have built houses without artisans and how others suffer the rigorous cold and hot weather in those homes that they have made with sticks and shed-roofs of straw, and lastly at how in this poverty they have been able to dress themselves and their families, since this province has no other port of entry than that of Veracruz distant more than five hundred leagues. The soil is capable of producing anything that is planted, particularly cotton, indigo, tobacco, cochineal, wheat, corn, etc. with other product native to the country, such as viperina, sassafras and other medicinal plants most abundant in it. …

At present this province has six missions, two of them without a missionary; and in all of them combined is the extremely small number of three hundred and forty-three souls. The system seems useful and good; but in my opinion it is much too slow and perhaps of little value. The Indians who come to the mission are not attracted because faith has entered through their ears but through their mouths by dint of gifts and food to eat. Those who are there hardly understand Spanish. They repeat the doctrine like automatons. It, therefore, would be better to bring them into missions with considerable population and with frequent friendly intercourse, for if one works only with the parents it is absolutely impossible to make them accomplished in our language and in the understanding of religious principle. (7)

San Antonio during the Mexican War of Independence

The Mexican War of Independence began in 1810 with an uprising led by a Mexican-born Catholic priest. In 1811, Juan Bautista de las Casas, a retired militia captain, led a revolt at San Antonio. He arrested Governor Salcedo and proclaimed himself the head of a provisional government. The revolt was crushed by royalist counter-insurgents. Las Casas and his associates were executed and Salcedo was reinstated.

The following year, Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara, a Mexican merchant and blacksmith, traveled to the United States seeking support for an invasion of Texas to support the independence movement, something that was contrary to the US Neutrality Act. He gained the ear of former US Army lieutenant Augustus Magee. They gathered a force in Louisiana, crossed into Texas, and captured Nacogdoches and La Bahía, where Magee died of illness. The royalists (Spanish loyalists) under Governor Salcedo and Colonel Herrera (the same one Pike had met) retreated toward San Antonio. They were defeated at the Battle of Rosillo Creek – also known as the Battle of Rosalis – on March 29, 1813. On April 1, Salcedo unconditionally surrendered San Antonio. Gutiérrez formed a provisional government and condemned Salcedo, Herrera and 13 other royalist officers to death. They were tied to trees and executed; the corpses were mutilated and left unburied. On April 6, Gutiérrez declared Texas independent of Spain.

Royalist forces under General José Joaquín de Arredondo marched north to reclaim Texas for Spain. On August 18, 1813, they destroyed Gutiérrez’s army at the Battle of Medina. Arredondo executed prisoners and left their corpses hanging in trees. He then rounded up the families of the rebel soldiers and had some of them publicly executed in the plaza of San Antonio. His men pursued those who tried to flee to Louisiana. Many were shot, or rounded up and escorted back to San Antonio, where the women were imprisoned and put to work grinding corn and making tortillas for Arredondo’s troops.

Texas statesman José Antonio Navarro (the nephew of José Francisco Ruiz) wrote in 1841 about the “fatal year of 1813” in San Antonio:

[M]ore than 25 prisoners were suffocated in close quarters in the month of August with over 400 placed in very small dimensions….dozens put to death each day…. [T]here was a tyrant named Corporal Ribal of the Vera Cruz regiment who by force of the lash terrorized the whole city…. [H]e governed with absolutism over the prisoners, and when the sun’s rays were hidden and the dark night closed round, many officers & soldiers met with their friend, the guardian, to be treated each one of them to the victim (woman) that he might think proper to assign them for that night, upon which, each one of those monsters would satiate his lasciviousness, and then turn her over to the Guardian Acosta, to continue the day following in the work of the tortillas for the soldiers. It is due to justice, however, to say that there were among these prisoners many heroines who struggled arm to arm against addressing & resisted the delivery of their persons to the commands of that infamous jailor; this class of heroines never would consent to stain their honor, but they had to suffer the torment of cruel & daily lashes. [T]here are yet surviving in Béxar some of these matrons…. I know two of them, one of whom for having opposed herself to the iniquitous treatment of the said Acosta, he bound and hung up a public spectacle …stripping her even of her underclothes and leaving her nakedness an object of public gaze. Arredondo knew all that passed, and when in his court of officers any of these cruel anecdotes would be cited, a pleasant smile would close the scene. During three months [of] tyrann[y], very few families escaped. (8)

Over the following years, San Antonio suffered from its isolation, the small size of its population, attacks by the Comanches and Apaches, and a chronic lack of money. While the descendants of the original Spanish and Canary Island settlers formed an elite, controlling the best farmland and living in stone houses near the main plaza, most residents were poor, engaged in subsistence farming, and living in mud and thatch huts. Problems were compounded in July 1819, when heavy rains led to a massive flood on the San Antonio River, destroying homes, corrals, a new bridge connecting the town to the Alamo, and anything that was not strong and secure. Many residents rebuilt on higher ground, east of the river, in the area known as La Villita.

San Antonio in 1828

Mexican Jacales

Mexican Jacales, by James Gilchrist Benton, 1852. Source: Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas

In 1821, Mexico gained its independence from Spain. José Félix Trespalacios became the first governor of Mexican Texas. Since Texas was underpopulated, the Mexican government granted permission to Stephen Austin and other Americans to start colonies in the province. In 1824, Coahuila and Texas were united into a single state, with the capital in Saltillo. San Antonio was demoted to the seat of government of the new Department of Texas.

In 1827, Mexico sent an expedition to survey the boundary between Texas and the United States and to catalogue the natural wealth of Texas. The commissioners visited San Antonio in March of 1828. Jean-Louis Berlandier, a native of France, was the expedition’s botanist and zoologist. Describing the former mission of San Antonio de Valero, he wrote:

An enormous battlement and some barracks are found there, as well as the ruins of a church that could pass for one of the loveliest monuments of the area, even if its architecture is overloaded with ornamentation like all the ecclesiastical buildings of the Spanish countries. In the barracks of that mission lives a presidial company, long since come from…a presidio called Alamo de Parras, which has retained the same name in Texas. It is to be regretted that those who founded San Fernando de Béxar did not join it to the presidio of the Alamo, located on a much more favorable site. Convinced of the dangers which another flood could produce, recent authorities have several times proposed establishing the town there. Composed of some one hundred houses, the quarters of the Alamo is considered as part of San Fernando de Béxar. It is subject to the same authorities, and is separated [only] by the river. (9)

Berlandier then described the town.

The streets of Béxar are not very straight, not only because of the windings of the river which flows to the east of the houses, but also because that admirable regularity characteristic of every town founded by the Castilians in the New World was disregarded there. Two large squares, separated from each other by the [San Fernando] church and some houses, do not draw the traveler’s attention at all. The houses are for the greater part jacales [huts] roofed with thatch. The better ones are of a heavy and course construction, and the larger number have fireplaces…. The inhabitants are gay and not very hardworking, and the dance is the chief amusement among the lower classes. Most of the families are linked to the military of the presidial companies, and it is to the great defect in the organization of these troops that the lack of agricultural progress observable in the region should be attributed. These soldiers, continually in the wilderness, or going from one presidio to another, cannot devote themselves to laboring in the field. They content themselves with their pay, albeit this reaches their hands only after a thousand detours. The most comfortably off of the private citizens at the Mexican presidios are not lovers of farming; I have often seen them go elsewhere, sometimes even to the Anglo-American colonies, to seek the grain necessary for their subsistence. They much prefer to carry on a wretched trade, in which they have an infamous monopoly, to the detriment of the poor people…. When they are reproached for their indolence, they allege that the Indians do not allow them to go out to cultivate the fields, which is partly true. But what I have never understood is why, although there are well-watered lands about the houses and the missions – even inside the presidio – one sees no planting there, whereas, moved by a principle of laziness, they go to sow de temporal [dry farming] fields of corn six or seven leagues from the dwellings (in localities truly exposed to attacks by the indigenes), solely in order not to have to take the trouble of watering the fields. …

Béxar resembles a large village more than the municipal seat of a department. There is no paved street and no public building. Trade with the Anglo-Americans, and the blending in to some degree of their customs, make the inhabitants of Texas a little different from the Mexicans of the interior, who those in Texas call foreigners and whom they scarcely like because of the superiority which they recognize in them. In their gatherings, the women prefer to dress in the fashion of Louisiana, and by so doing they participate both in the customs of the neighbouring nation and of their own…. Unfortunately for the creoles [locally-born descendants of the Spanish] of Texas, the agricultural industry which they have shown in our times is so wretched that a monopoly over them by the American colonies founded in this department is to be feared. Several times have Béxar and Goliad gone to seek grain and cattle in these colonies. They cannot vie in any respect with those industrious colonists, much more hardworking than they, who are supplied with implements useful to their labors. If the creoles have some well-built wagons, they are very few; in general, on seeing them one would believe oneself to have gone ten centuries backwards in the elementary and necessary arts. …

In regions where man struggles with the land, it is only when cultivation is extended and perfected that herds multiply. In Texas the inhabitants find themselves in completely opposite circumstances, for the raising of domestic animals on the immense plains covered with pasture is completely independent of the progress of agriculture. I agree that the great obstacle to the prosperity of the herds is the presence of the indigenes who steal or kill them. Nevertheless, those errant and nomadic tribes – enemies of the sedentary arts and of peace and [who are] continually at war with one another – raise horses. Lastly, the foreign colonies have had to overcome the same obstacles and today are full of such animals as oxen, cows, horses, pigs, etc. (10)

Views of an American visitor

Military Plaza, San Antonio, Texas 1857

Military Plaza, San Antonio, Texas, 1857

Joseph Clopper, a young trader from Cincinnati, also visited San Antonio in 1828, a few months after the boundary commissioners had left. Clopper described entering San Antonio from the east.

We come to a Spanish fort and magazine commenced some years since and left unfinished – this stands on the summit of the circular ridge within one mile of San Antonio commanding a view of the town and the vast plain on which it stands. From this spot San Antonio has a very striking resemblance to one of Uncle Sam’s handsomest and largest country villages….. [The traveller] comes to a little canal…watering beautifully verdant and flourishing fields of corn, enters a regular avenue of huge cotton wood trees…. On the right stands a massy pile of ruins…one of the strongholds…in which the Royalists in 1810-11 sought refuge from the avenging fury of the Patriots who battered down the mighty walls with their cannon. It is now a garrison. A few yards before him he sees the exceedingly serpentine San Antonio, coming winding around the town and gliding by…. He looks with mortification and disgust at the order of architecture which suddenly presents itself on his left. He crosses the little river and beholds the same wigwam style of building which constitutes the principal part of the town.

He proceeds on, finds that the streets intersect each other very irregularly, presently enters the public square…in the centre of which stands the church – a large clumsy stone building…. It has a steeple of the same materials, very well modelled of octagonal form. In this is hung 2 bells kettle-toned and of different sizes. These have their tongues tied with ropes and made to bellow most horribly by two barbarous boys who stand close by and jerk these engines of torture to the utter dismay and confusion of the astounded stranger perhaps 40 times per diem. …

In the midst of this square the traveller stands and contemplates the buildings around him. He had before entering been disgusted with their dwellings that [he] first met, being formed of branches of the musquite tree set up endways in all the zigzag varieties of their growth, having the interstices daubed with mud. These hollow squares are then thatched over with the swamp flag and stand ready to receive their inhabitants, who carry in a few chests, a palate or two, and some dried skins and the mansion is furnished. But the public square presents to the stranger’s eye a more solemn picture. Each side is formed of one unbroken solid wall except where the streets pass through. These walls have doors at neighbourly or family distances opening into what may more properly be termed cells than rooms, as few of them have windows. None indeed have sashes nor is there a pane of glass in the town. They seem more like port holes than windows, having bars like a prison grate, or dark shutters. … The roof is invisible from the outside – is formed of huge cedar logs as rafters on which are laid small boards. These beams have a descending inclination from the back walls outwardly so as to rest upon the front walls about two and a half feet below their height. The roof is then covered with a cement from 8 inches to a foot in thickness, from off which the rain is conducted by wooden troughs passing through the walls and projecting 3 or 4 feet into the square. Through this square and the heart of the town runs a canal for the purpose of watering the garden lots….

The traveller hears around him a confusion of unknown tongues, the red natives of the forest in their different guttural dialects, the swarthy Spaniard of a scarce brighter hue, the voluble Frenchman, a small number of the sons of Green Erin, and a goodly few of Uncle Sam’s nephews or half expatriated sons. (11)

Entertainments and cuisine

Clopper attended some dances in the town.

[F]andangos – waltzes and reels the principal forms of dance among them – [were] always performed in the streets. Men do not select their partners – this is more gallantly left to the ladies – the former placing themselves in a line on the floor and when the latter arise and face the object of their choice, it sometimes happens that two or more make the same selection and then there is a good deal of elbowing among the fair ones. There are always managers to regulate matters…. Delicacy forms but a small part of female character in San Antonio. … The men…are extremely ignorant in all the advanced arts of civilization – the majority not being able to read – they are astonishingly expert in the management of horses, not surpassed perhaps by any other people on the globe.” (12)

He also described how, on September 16, 1828, San Antonians celebrated the anniversary of the declaration of Mexican independence “with a great deal of order and unanimity and considerable enthusiasm of feeling.”

A stage was erected in the public square very much resembling a huge bedstead with a tester and curtains reaching down like drapery to the platform and made fast to the four posts at the tops of which were flying their own national flag, that of the United States, of Great Britain and of France – while that of Old Spain formed a carpeting for the staircase ascending to the stage. The soldiery and citizens, both ladies and gentlemen, paraded the streets in the afternoon. In the evening an oration was delivered from the stage by a priest. [I] was told it was an excellent and patriotic composition, but I though it badly delivered and apparently with but very little effect on the multitude. A large table was set covered with wines and other liquors, sweetmeats, etc. ‘pro bono public.’ The square was then [lit] up with lamps and candles and everything cleared off for the enjoyment of the ‘dearly loved fandango,’ five or six sets at it at once. Never before did I witness so large a collection of such happy beings. (13)

Clopper learned some Spanish and got to know some local families. He gave an account of their cooking techniques, including the making of tortillas.

Every family has in the yard an oven built in form of a cone solely for the purpose of roasting the heads, legs and tails of animals. On such occasions, all the connections round are invited, skins are spread on the earth, when these delicacies are thrown down in the centre of the waiting circles, and every one that is fortunate enough to have a knife makes a lively use of it till the whole head is fairly demolished and as many of the legs as can be possibly crowded after it. When they have to pay for their meat in market a very little is made to suffice a family. It is generally cut into a kind of hash with nearly as many peppers as there are pieces of meat. This is all stewed together.

The way in which they obtain their bread is worthy of notice.  They raise only Indian corn. This is soaked in lime or ley till the rind of the grain is taken off. It is then ground on a concave stone about 12 inches wide and 20 in length with legs cut to it 6 to 8 inches long, the hinder being somewhat longest so as to give the stone an inclination from the body of the grinder. A handful of corn is laid on this and masticated with another stone resembling a roller but cut so as to fit the concavity. This operation is always performed by the women, and in a kneeling posture. They generally go over it a third time. If they wish to treat their friends with very white bread the whole family gather round the pot of corn and grain by grain bite off the little black speck at the end of the germ. When the dough is already, a small portion at a time is taken and patted in the hands till thin as a flannel cake. This cake making operation is always accompanied with tunes and words that seem peculiarly to chime in with the patting ceremony. … These cakes are baked on sheet iron and when eaten hot with butter or gravy are very palatable – but soon get tough. They answer the natives for spoons with which they all dip into the same dish of meat and peppers prepared as above, one spoon not lasting longer than to supply with two mouthfuls when a new one is made use of. Very few families are supplied with the common necessary kitchen and household utensils – not even with chairs – sitting on skins spread upon the earthen floors of their dwelling. Thus live the commonality throughout the northern provinces of Mexico. (14)

Clopper noted that the population of San Antonio was variously estimated as being from 3,000 to 5,000. This was probably an overestimate. He observed that the garrison consisted of 300-400 soldiers, and was kept up mainly for defence against the Indians, particularly “that very powerful tribe, the Comanches, who are supposed to be 6 or 7,000 warriors strong and are continually at war with the Mexicans in some part of the province of Texas.” (15)

The Texas Revolution

By the end of the 1820s, American colonists in Texas (known as Texians) outnumbered Texans of Mexican or Spanish origin (known as Tejanos). The new residents increasingly clashed with their distant Mexican rulers. The American colonists were primarily Protestants; Mexico’s religion was Roman Catholicism. Many of the colonists were slave owners; in 1829 Mexico abolished slavery. These and other issues, including a Mexican attempt to ban Anglo-American immigration to Texas, led a group of Texians to organize an armed resistance to Mexican authority.

In December 1835, Texian forces led by Ben Milam and Frank Johnson captured San Antonio. In response, the Mexican president, General Antonio López de Santa Anna, marched with a hastily-recruited army to San Antonio. The Mexicans besieged the Alamo – to which the Texian defenders and local residents had retreated – for thirteen days, starting on February 23, 1836.

On March 6, the Mexican army attacked the fort. Almost all of the defenders, including Texian commanders James Bowie and William B. Travis, were killed. Despite losing the Alamo, the Texas army led by General Samuel Houston, won the war. On April 26, Houston’s forces defeated Santa Anna’s army at the Battle of San Jacinto. Texas became an independent republic. Its capital moved from place to place before settling in Austin; none of them were San Antonio.

San Antonio in 1838-39

The Alamo, 1838

Sketch of the Alamo, by Mary Maverick, 1838

Mary Maverick, an American from Alabama who settled with her family in San Antonio in 1838, later wrote some recollections of her early years in the town.

June 29th, 1838, thirty-eight Comanches came into the edge of town and killed two Mexicans and stole one boy – on the 30th they killed a German and a Mexican. July 1st, the flag of Texas waves on the Plaza in front of the Court House, and a company of volunteers are assembling for pursuit of the Indians. Later, our company of volunteers fell in with a considerable party of Comanches, attacked them, killed two and wounded many others – but the wounded were carried off by the others, all of whom beat a hasty retreat. Our people captured all their horses and provisions.

The Mexicans of Mexico have not forgotten us. About this time, a party of Mexicans, 200 strong under Agaton, learing that valuable goods had been landed at Capano, and were being carted by friendly Mexicans to the San Antonio merchants, crossed the Rio Grande at Matamoras, captured the train and compelled the cartmen to haul the goods to the Nueces river where the cartmen were dismissed. Of the two Americans who were with the train when it was captured, one was killed and the other was wounded but escaped.

During July, 1838 many rumors from the west came to the effect than an army of centralists was marching to capture Bexar – also that the Comanche Nation had entered with the Mexicans and would act with them for our extermination. But in a day or two, it was ascertained that Aristo had pursued the ‘President of the Republic of the Rio Grande,’ General Vidauria, who having been defeated in battle had fled to Texas for refuge. Aristo turned back at the Nueces. … (16)

Early in February, 1839, we had a heavy snow storm, the snow drifted in some places to a depth of two feet, and on the north side of the house it lasted five or six days. Anton Lockmar rigged up a sleigh and took some girls riding up and down Soledad Street. Early in February, we moved into our own house, at the north east corner of Commerce and Soledad Streets, being also the north east corner of the Main Plaza (Plaza Mayor). …

The main house was of stone and had three rooms, one fronting south on Main Street and west on Soledad Street and the other two fronting west on Soledad Street – also a shed in the yard along the east wall of the house towards the north end. This shed we closed in with an adobe wall and divided into a kitchen and servant’s room. We also built an adobe servant’s room on Soledad Street, leaving a gateway between it and the main house, and we built a stable near the river.

We built a strong but homely picket fence around the garden to the north and fenced the garden off from the yard. In the garden were sixteen large fig trees and many rows of old pomegranates. In the yard were several China trees, and on the river bank just below our line in the De la Zerda premises was a grand old cypress which we could touch through our fence, and its roots made ridges in our yard. … It made a great shade and we erected our bath house and wash place under its spreading branches.

Our neighbours on the east, Main or Commerce Street, were the De la Zerdas. In 1840, their place was leased to a Greek, Roque Catahdie, who kept a shop on the street and lived in the back rooms. He married a pretty, bright-eyed Mexican girl of fourteen years, dressed her in jewelry and fine clothes and bought her a dilapidated piano – he was jealous and wished her to amuse herself at home. The piano had the desired effect, and she enjoyed it like a child with a new trinket. The fame of her piano went through the town, and, after tea, crowds would come to witness her performance. One night Mrs. Elliott and I took a peep and we found a large crowd inside laughing and applauding, and other envious ones gazing in from the street.

Our neighbor on the north, Soledad Street, was Dona Juana Varcinez, and I must not omit her son Leonicio. She had cows and sold me the strippings of the milk at twenty-five cents per gallon, and we made our butter from this. Mrs. McMullen was the only person then who made butter for sale, and her butter was not good, although she received half a dollar per pound for it. Old Juana was a kind old soul – had the earliest pumpkins, a great delicacy, at twenty-five cents, and spring chickens at twelve and a half cents. She opened up the spring gardening by scratching with a dull hoe some holes in which she planted pumpkin seed – then later she planted corn, red pepper, garlic, onions, etc. She was continually calling to Leonicio to drive the chickens out of the garden, or bring in the dogs from the street. She told me this answered two purposes – it kept Leonicio at home out of harm’s way, and gave him something to do. She had lots of dogs – one fat, lazy pelon (hairless dog) slept with the old lady to keep her feet warm. …

This year [1839] our negro men plowed and planted one labor above the Alamo and were attacked by Indians. Griffen and Wiley ran into the river and saved themselves. The Indians cut the traces and took off the work animals and we did not farm there again. …

In November, 1839, a party of ladies and gentlemen from Houston came to visit San Antonio…. They were, ladies and all, armed with pistols and bowie knifes. I rode with this party and some others around the head of the San Antonio river. We galloped up the west side, and paused at and above the head of the river long enough to view and admire the lovely valley of the San Antonio. The leaves had mostly fallen from the trees and left the view open to the Missions below. The day was clear, cool and bright, and we saw three of the missions, including San Juan Capistrano seven miles below town. We galloped home down the east side and doubted not that Indians watched us from the heavy timber of the river bottom. (17)

In 1845, with the concurrence of the Texians, the United States annexed the Republic of Texas and made it a state of the Union. This led to the Mexican-American War, which lasted from 1846 to 1848 and ended in an American victory. During the last half of the 1800s, San Antonio finally experienced a period of peace and prosperity.

You might also enjoy:

Texas Governor José Félix Trespalacios

Stephen F. Austin, Founder of Anglo-American Texas

Texas Entrepreneur Ben Milam

Jim Bowie Before the Gaudy Legend

Texas Revolutionary José Francisco Ruiz

Advice to Texas Settlers in the 1830s

  1. Zebulon Montgomery Pike, Exploratory Travels Through the Western Territories of North America (Denver: W.H. Lawrence & Co., 1889), p. 332.
  2. Ibid., p. 333.
  3. Ibid., pp. 286, 290, 332-333.
  4. Ibid., p. 334.
  5. Ibid., p. 334.
  6. Ibid., p. 334.
  7. Nettie Lee Benson, “A Governor’s Report on Texas in 1809,” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. 71, No. 4 (April, 1968), pp. 611, 614.
  8. “José Antonio Navarro, 1795-1871” Sons of Dewitt Colony Texas, http://www.sonsofdewittcolony.org/Navarro.htm. Accessed May 19, 2022.
  9. Jack Jackson, ed., Texas by Terán, translated by John Wheat (Austin, 2000), p. 15.
  10. Ibid., pp. 15-17.
  11. “J.C. Clopper’s Journal and Book of Memoranda for 1828,” The Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association, Vol. XIII, No. 1 (July 1909), pp. 69-71.
  12. Ibid., pp. 71-72.
  13. Ibid., p. 73.
  14. Ibid., pp. 73-74.
  15. Ibid., p. 75.
  16. Rena Maverick Green, ed., Memoirs of Mary A. Maverick (San Antonio, 1921), pp. 27-28.
  17. Ibid., pp. 22-26.

2 commments on “San Antonio in the Early 1800s”

  • D. Flowers says:

    A good history read. I was born in San Antonio as my parents were passing through in 1948. Your emails are always a welcome arrival.

Join the discussion

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The inhabitants are gay and not very hardworking, and the dance is the chief amusement among the lower classes.

Jean-Louis Berlandier