San Antonio: History

Alamo Dominates Early History

Crossing six miles of city blocks, the San Antonio River is the focus of the city, just as it has been ever since the surrounding valley drew wandering Coahuitecan tribes seeking respite from the heat. Members of the Payaya tribe who camped on the river's banks named the region Yanaguana, or "Place of Restful Waters." But written records of these tribes' presence are minimal, and it was not until 1691 that the first visit to the river valley was made by a European. That year, on June 13, a day devoted to Saint Anthony of Padua on the Roman Catholic calendar, the river was christened by a Spanish official exploring the region. After he moved on, it was not until 1709 that a second party of Spaniards encountered the river while searching for a site for a new mission. They returned to the area in 1718 to found Mission San Antonio de Valero and Villa de Bexar, the outpost established to govern the Texas province. The mission eventually became the most famous of all Spanish missions established throughout the American Southwest. Although its crude huts were destroyed in 1724 by a hurricane, they were rebuilt on the site where its remains now stand. The mission's nickname became the Alamo; in Spanish, the word "alamo" means cottonwood, and writings by settlers of the period note the region's groves of trees, its water supply, and its mild climate reminiscent of their home country.

Six missions in all were founded around San Antonio, with a goal of converting the native population to Roman Catholicism. A presidio, or fort, was established near each mission, with soldiers to protect the missionaries and, when necessary, to add force to the missionary argument. The system was designed to create new Spanish subjects out of the natives, enabling Spain to hold onto the vast territories it claimed in North America. Historians blame the eventual failure of the mission system on epidemics that reduced the population, periodic raids by Apaches and Comanches, and cultural differences resulting in feuds among friars, soldiers, and colonists. Mission San Antonio was secularized (removed from Church control) in 1793, and the city was incorporated in 1809.

From 1810 to 1821, San Antonio, which served as the seat of the Spanish government in Texas, was the site of several major battles in Mexico's fight for independence from Spain. Anglo-American colonization began with 300 families brought to Texas by Stephen F. Austin, whose father envisioned a settlement with ties to neither Spain nor Mexico. By 1835, the settlers' resentment of Mexico had grown into an armed revolt. Mexico's first attempt to quell the rebellion was defeated. In revenge, Mexican dictator Antonio Löpez de Santa Anna brought with him an army of 5,000 men to attack San Antonio's defenders, a force of fewer than 200 Texans fighting from inside the fortified Alamo. Among those within its walls who held off Santa Anna's troops for 13 days beginning in February 1836, were frontiersman Davey Crockett, soldier Jim Bowie, and Lieutenant Colonel William Travis, who vowed to neither surrender nor retreat.

Statehood's Aftermath

The "Victory or Death" dedication of the Alamo's defenders, who ultimately perished when their call for reinforcements went unanswered, inspired other insurgents throughout Texas to take up arms against Mexico. Forty-six days after the Alamo fell—to the battle cry "Remember the Alamo!"—Sam Houston's Texans defeated Santa Anna at San Jacinto, and the Republic of Texas was established. The battles and uncertainties, however, did not end until 1845 when Texas became the twenty-eighth U.S. state. The ensuing period brought an influx of German settlers to San Antonio, which increased the population from about 800 to 8,000 people. Texas, aligned with the Confederacy in the Civil War, maintained its rough frontier atmosphere until 1877, when the railroad linked the isolated region with the rest of the nation.

The City in the Twentieth Century

A regional cattle industry evolved, and San Antonio's progress was further enhanced with the advent of gas lights, telephones, and electricity. When the city entered the twentieth century, it was a melting pot of German and Hispanic influence, and its population swelled with newcomers from urban America. Between 1870 and 1920 San Antonio grew to 161,000 people, making it Texas's largest city. Shortly after the turn of the century, "Aeroplane No. 1," a Wright brothers-type aircraft, flew over Fort Sam Houston and marked the debut of military aviation as an economic force in the region. Downtown businesses flourished, and the coming of the automobile fed the growth of newer surrounding communities.

World War I solidified San Antonio's position as a military command center; 70,000 troops trained there in 1917 and 1918. The war also diminished the status of the city's German community, leading to the resurgence of the Hispanic population, which was growing due to the influx of hundreds of thousands of Mexicans into Texas. San Antonio's Great Flood of 1921 left destruction in its wake, but by 1929 the city's adobe structures were complemented by skyscrapers, the most notable being the Tower Life Building, at one time the tallest office building in the state. San Antonio's Conservation Society became a vigorous presence in the preservation of the city's historical treasures, including the river around which it is built.

The onset of World War II meant intensive military activity for San Antonio. Lackland Air Force Base, for instance, trained more than one third of the war's air cadets. Expansion of the military complex led to tremendous postwar growth for the city and its environs. The 1968 HemisFair celebration placed an international spotlight on the city, attracting thousands of visitors, including some who decided to make the thriving Sun Belt community their home. By the 1970s the city's population numbered well over 700,000 people, of which more than half were Hispanic. Demand for more services and housing increased, yet language and cultural barriers had created pockets of poverty and ethnic tensions. Politics reflected the city's changing mood, and in 1975 Lila Cockrell became the first woman mayor of San Antonio. Eventually the Hispanic majority concentrated its new political force in the person of Councilman Henry Cisneros, elected in 1981 as the country's first Mexican-American mayor of a major city. San Antonio entered the 1980s as a national example of growing Latin influence in politics. The 1990 groundbreaking for the Alamodome, a $170 million domed stadium which served as the home to the NBA Spurs and was the city's first venue for major conventions and special events, marked the beginning of a progressive decade for the city. In recent years the city has seen further growth, with the completion of such projects as the expansion of the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, which has helped bring the city's annual convention attendance to 500,000, and the completion of the SBC Center, a new home for the Spurs. The Mission Trails project, which will make the area's historic missions more easily accessible, is nearing completion. San Antonio's multifaceted allure currently brings nearly 8 million visitors to the city per year.

Historical Information: San Antonio Conservation Society, 418 Villita Street, San Antonio, TX 78205; telephone (210)224-5711