Spanish-Apache Relations in Early San Antonio

The Alamo
6 min readMay 25, 2018

by Dr. Bruce Winders, Alamo Curator

[T]he lands of the presidio of San Antonio and the villa of San Fernando are comparable to the best in this New Spain, [nevertheless], it is the center or nucleus of the Apache.[1]

Governor Tomás Felipe Winthuysen, 1741–1744

The picture often presented of the San Antonio Mission is one of missionaries teaching peaceful Indians how to become Spanish subjects. Mission activities included religious instruction, digging and maintaining irrigation ditches, building structures, and producing clothing for the converts all while maintaining the mission’s farms and ranches. Rather than another earthly Eden, though, the residents of early San Antonio’s missions faced an almost constant state of war with the Lipan Apache. This is a brief history of that conflict.

The 18th century marked a period of competition for Texas. We have come to automatically think of the contest between the Spanish and the French to claim Texas, but other people were also on the move. For centuries the Apache and Comanche had been confined to limited ranges in New Mexico and southern Colorado. However, the acquisition of the horse from the Spanish gave them the means to expand their territory eastward. Caught in the middle of the converging encroachments by the Spanish, Apache, and Comanche, many Coahuiltecan Indians living in the vicinity of what would become San Antonio sought shelter in the Spanish missions. With no interest in mission life, longtime enemies the Apache and the Comanche, continued their warfare once they arrived in Texas. Spanish policy sought to placate both parties, hoping to turn them into allies. Although short periods of peace occurred, conflict remained the norm throughout much of the 18th century.

[San Antonio de Béxar] is the place most exposed in actuality to the invasions and raids of various tribes of warlike Indians of the north, who attack the haciendas and opulent missions in the vicinity while pursuing the Lipan Apache, who are their hated enemies.[2]

Royal Regulations of 1772

The Spanish experienced the most difficulty with the Apache whose journey across Texas had taken them as far east as Presidio La Bahía (Goliad). Apache raiding parties frequently harassed Spanish settlements, absconding with horses and human captives. Unafraid of the presidial soldiers, Apache men, women, and children brought skins and hides to Béxar to trade for Spanish goods. At times the Apache appeared ready to give up their nomadic ways, telling the Spanish they wanted to settle down if they could have a mission of their own where they could live. These talks dragged on without success during the first part of the 18th century.

The construction of the presidio amounts to nothing, since only the crudely shaped houses form a square plaza without any additional rampart. Consequently, there have been, and still are, incidents of the Apache entering at night and stealing horses, which were tied in the plaza. This is not due to a scarcity of quality stone because nearby there are excellent quarries. However, timber is scarce, because it is too far away, and the felling of trees and their transport would require a guard for protection because the enemies are raiding this country and the settlements.[3]

Governor Tomás Felipe Winthuysen, 1741–1744

Open warfare with attacks and counterattacks characterized Spanish-Apache relations in the 1730s and1740s. The high point of this era was an attack on June 30, 1745, by a force of 400 Apache (warriors accompanied by women and children) on Presidio San Antonio de la Béxar. The attackers were driven off when one hundred armed Indian converts from Mission San Antonio de Valero rushed to aid the beleaguered Spanish soldiers. Peace efforts finally bore fruit for Spanish officials in 1749 when a ceremony in the civil plaza of Villa San Fernando de Béxar took place with Apache leaders. According to one report, a large hole was dug in the plaza in which the implements of war (bows, arrows, axes, and even a live horse) were thrown. Both the Apache and Spanish filled the hole together to signify that their conflict had ended.

1765 painting of the massacre at San Saba

In 1757, after several attempts to create a mission for the Apache, the Spanish established Mission Santa Cruz de San Sabá 150 miles west of San Antonio. The Apache had continued their war with the Comanche throughout this period, using this mission as a base for their raids against their old enemies. On March 16, 1758, a force of 2,000 Comanche, Tonkawa and Hasinai Indians attacked the mission and destroyed it. The Apache blamed the Spanish for not protecting them and gradually resumed raids on the settlements along the San Antonio River.

The tribes represented at [Valero] are among the most warlike and skillful in shooting arrows. It is to be noted, however, that these people as well as the Indians of other tribes and missions, because of their great fear of the Apaches, do not dare attack them by themselves but only with the help of the Spaniards.[4]

Governor Tomás Felipe Winthuysen, 1741–1744

These later raids by the Apache had a devastating effect on the missions. It became unsafe to venture outside the missions as the possibility of death or captivity were ever present. Crops were neglected because workers feared going to the fields. Additionally, the mission’s stockmen could no longer conduct their annual round ups of cattle for branding, making it impossible for the missions to mark their livestock. Teodoro de Croix, Commandant General of the Provincias Internas del Norte, took note of the vast herds of unmarked cattle on an inspection tour of Texas. In 1778, he issued a Draconian decree that all unbranded cattle, horses, and mules belonged to the King of Spain. The fact that the decree permitted the missions to keep their unbranded livestock by paying a royal tax did little to make their predicament caused by the confiscation of their livestock better. Faced with the loss of their source of wealth, the missions steadily declined.

They [Indians at San José] have houses of stone which are built artistically, so that the mission is a veritable castle. Although they are in constant danger of attack by the Apaches (a very bold enemy who has dared to enter the presidio even in day time and roam the streets) the have never entered the mission grounds. They always attack the Indians outside the mission.[5]

Fr. Ignacio Antonio Ciprián, 1749

Apache activity finally lessened with the approach of the 19th century. Vexed Spanish officials had considered exterminating the band, but combined pressure from the Spanish and Comanche had placed them on the defense. Many of the Texas Apache had relocated and merged with other bands along the Rio Grande. Some had even finally come into the San Antonio’s mission, including Mission San Antonio de Valero. Nevertheless, the Apache had shaped much of the Spanish experience in Texas throughout the 18th century.

Selected Resources

Brinkenoff, Sidney B. and Odie B. Faulk, Royal Regulations of 1772. (Phoenix: Arizona Historical Foundation, 1965.

Dunn, William Edward. “Apache Relations in Texas, 1718–1750,” Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association, Vol. 14, №3 (January 1911), 198–275.

_________. “The Apache Mission on the San Sabá River; Its Founding and Failure,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. 17, №4 (April 1914), 379–414.

_________. “Missionary Activities Among the Eastern Apaches Previous to the Founding of the San Saba Mission,” Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association, Vol. 15, №3 (January 1912), 186–200.

John, Elizabeth. Storms Brewed in Other Men’s Worlds: The Confrontation of Indians, Spanish, and French in the Southwest, 1540–1795. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981.

Leutennegger, Benedict. The Texas Missions of the College of Zacatecas in 1749–1750: Report of Fr. Ignacio Antonio Ciprián, 1749, and Memorial of the College to the King, 1750. San Antonio: Old Mission Historical Research Library at San José Mission.

Magnaghi, Russell M. “Texas as Seen by Governor Winthuysen, 1741–1744,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. 88, №2 (October 1984), 167–180.

[1] Russell M. Magnaghi, “Texas as Seen by Governor Winthuysen, 1741–1744,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. 88, №2 (October 1984), 176.

[2] Sidney B. Brinkenoff and Odie B. Faulk, Royal Regulations of 1772. (Phoenix: Arizona Historical Foundation, 1965), 59.

[3] Magnaghi, “Texas as Seen by Governor Winthuysen, 1741–1744,” 173.

[4] Ibid., 173–174.

[5]Benedict Leutennegger. The Texas Missions of the College of Zacatecas in 1749–1750: Report of Fr. Ignacio Antonio Ciprián, 1749, and Memorial of the College to the King, 1750. (San Antonio: Old Mission Historical Research Library at San José Mission, 1979). 21.

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