San Antonio's past is the stuff of legend -- if it were a movie, the story of the city would be an epic with an improbable plot, encompassing the end of a great empire, the rise of a republic, and the rescue of the river with which the story began.

For most of its history, San Antonio was the largest city in Texas and the "cosmopolitan" center, where multiple cultures came together and coexisted. At the time of the arrival of the Spanish, the land was inhabited by native Indians called Coahuiltecans, who eventually populated the first Franciscan missions; 15 families from the Canary Islands, sent by order of the King of Spain; and a small garrison of soldiers. The settlement prospered. The church eventually built five missions. Later, during the fights for Mexican Independence and Texan Independence (1821 and 1836, respectively), San Antonio saw several hard-fought battles, including the famous siege of the Alamo. This greatly reduced the population for more than a decade until it began to attract thousands of German settlers fleeing the revolutions in Europe. So many came that by 1860, German speakers in the city outnumbered both Spanish and English speakers. Through the following decades, these different immigrant groups would accommodate each other and forge a unique local culture.

Mission San Antonio


At the time of the first mission's founding, the Spanish Empire in America stretched from Texas to Tierra del Fuego. Administering such a vast territory was difficult. Spain divided the continent into viceroyalties. The viceroyalty of New Spain included all of Mexico, Guatemala, and large stretches of the southwestern United States, where it had a minimum presence.

In 1691, an early reconnaissance party passed through what is now San Antonio and found a wooded plain watered by a clear river, called Yanaguana by the native Coahuiltecan Indians. They named it San Antonio de Padua, after the saint's day on which they arrived. The Coahuiltecans, by that time, were suffering the depredations of the Apaches and looked to the Spaniards for protection. They asked to be converted to Christianity and invited the Spanish to establish missions there.

In 1718, Mission San Antonio de Valero -- later known as the Alamo -- was founded. To protect the religious complex from Apache attack, the presidio (fortress) of San Antonio de Béxar went up a few days later. In 1719, a second mission was built nearby, and in 1731, three ill-fated missions in East Texas, which were nearly destroyed by French and Indian attacks, were moved hundreds of miles to the safer banks of the San Antonio River. In March of that same year, the Canary Island settlers arrived and established the village of San Fernando de Béxar close by the garrison.


Thus, within little more than a decade, what is now downtown San Antonio became home to three distinct, though related, settlements: a mission complex, the military garrison designed to protect it, and the civilian town known as Béxar, which was officially renamed San Antonio in 1837. To irrigate their crops, the early settlers were given narrow strips of land stretching back from the river and from the nearby San Pedro Creek, and centuries later, the paths connecting these strips, which followed the winding waterways, were paved and became the city's streets.

Remember the Alamo

As the 18th century wore on, bands of Apache Indians would frequently attack the village, but these attacks killed fewer of the native population than did the diseases brought from Europe, for which the Coahuiltecans had little resistance. By the beginning of the 19th century, the Spanish missions were sorely depopulated. In 1794, Mission San Antonio de Valero was secularized, its farmlands redistributed. In 1810, recognizing the military potential of the thick walls of the complex, the Spanish authorities turned the former mission into a garrison. The men recruited to serve here all hailed from the Mexican town of San José y Santiago del Alamo de Parras. The name of their station was soon shortened to the Alamo (Spanish for "cottonwood tree").


By 1824, all five missions had been secularized and Mexico had gained its independence from Spain. Apache and Comanche roamed the territory freely, and it was next to impossible to persuade more Spaniards to live there. Although the political leaders of Mexico were rightly suspicious of Anglo-American designs on their land, they entered into an agreement with Moses Austin to settle some 300 Anglo-American families in the region to the east of San Antonio. Austin died before he could carry out his plan, and it was left to his son Stephen to bring the settlers into Texas. Shortly afterward, others (now called empresarios) made similar agreements with the Mexican government.

The Mexicans wanted a buffer between the Indians and their settlements in northern Mexico, but eventually grew nervous about the large numbers of Anglos entering their country from the north. Having already repealed many of the tax breaks they had initially granted the settlers, they now prohibited all further U.S. immigration to the territory. When, in 1835, General Antonio López de Santa Anna abolished Mexico's democratic 1824 constitution, Tejanos (Mexican Texans) and Anglos alike balked at his dictatorship, and a cry rose up for a separate republic.

One of the first battles for Texas independence was fought in San Antonio when the insurgents attacked the garrison there. The battle was intensely fought, much of it door-to-door combat. Eventually, Mexican general Martín Perfecto de Cós surrendered on December 9, 1835. Under terms of the surrender, the Mexicans were allowed to leave, as no one had food for so many prisoners.


But the Mexican army, under General Santa Anna, would return in force the next year to retake the Alamo, in a lopsided battle against the Texan forces that would capture the American imagination. The siege lasted from February 23 through March 6, 1836. Some 180 volunteers -- among them Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie -- serving under the command of William Travis, died in the final attack, defending the Alamo against a force that was 10 times their number. The delay allowed Sam Houston to muster his forces and eventually defeat the Mexican army at San Jacinto with the battle cry "Remember the Alamo!"

After the Fall

Ironically, few Americans came to live in San Antonio during Texas's stint as a republic (1836-45), but settlers came from overseas in droves: By 1850, 5 years after Texas joined the United States, Tejanos and Americans were outnumbered by European, mostly German, immigrants. The Civil War put a temporary halt to the city's growth -- in part because Texas joined the Confederacy and most of the new settlers were Union sympathizers -- but expansion picked up again soon afterward. As elsewhere in the West, the coming of the railroad in 1877 set off a new wave of immigration. Riding hard on its crest, the King William district of the city, a residential suburb named for Kaiser Wilhelm, was developed by prosperous German merchants.


Some of the immigrants set up Southern-style plantations, others opened factories and shops, and more and more who arrived after the Civil War earned their keep by driving cattle. The Spanish had brought Longhorn cattle and vaqueros (cowboys) from Mexico into the area, and now Texas cowboys drove herds north on the Chisholm Trail from San Antonio to Kansas City, where they were shipped east. Others moved cattle west, for use as seed stock in the fledgling ranching industry.

As early as 1849, the Alamo was designated a quartermaster depot for the U.S. Army, and in 1876, the much larger Fort Sam Houston was built to take over those duties. Apache chief Geronimo was held at the clock tower in the fort's Quadrangle for 40 days in 1886, en route to exile in Florida, and Teddy Roosevelt outfitted his Rough Riders -- some of whom he recruited in San Antonio bars -- at Fort Sam 12 years later.

As the city marched into the 20th century, Fort Sam Houston continued to expand. In 1910, it witnessed the first military flight by an American, and early aviation stars such as Charles Lindbergh honed their flying skills here. From 1917 to 1941, four Army air bases -- Kelly Field, Brooks Field, Randolph Field, and Lackland Army Air Base -- shot up, making San Antonio the largest military complex in the United States outside the Washington, D.C., area. Although Kelly was downsized and privatized, the military remains the city's major employer today.


A River Runs Through It

The city continued to grow. In the early 1900s, it showcased the first skyscraper in Texas. But San Antonio wasn't growing fast enough to keep up with Houston or Dallas. By the 1920s, it had become Texas's third-largest city and had arrived at a crossroads. Was it to follow Houston and Dallas in their bull-rush toward growth and modernism? Or was it to go its own way, preserving what it thought most valuable? This dilemma took the form of a political dispute over the meandering San Antonio River. In 1921, during a violent storm, the river overflowed its banks and flooded the downtown area, killing 50 people and destroying many businesses. A city commission recommended draining the riverbed and channeling the water through underground culverts to remove the threat of flooding and free up space for more downtown buildings. This outraged many locals. A group of women's clubs formed to save the river and create an urban green space along its banks. (And this was decades before anyone in Texas had ever heard of urban planning.) The women's campaign was multipronged and even included a puppet-show dramatization. They won the battle, and the river was saved.

In 1927, Robert H. H. Hugman, an architect who had lived in New Orleans and studied that city's Vieux Carré district, came up with a detailed design for improving the waterway. His proposed River Walk, with shops, restaurants, and entertainment areas buttressed by a series of floodgates, would render the river profitable as well as safe, and also preserve its natural beauty. The Depression intervened, but in 1941, with the help of a federal Works Project Administration (WPA) grant, Hugman's vision became a reality.


Still, for some decades more, the River Walk remained just another pretty space. It was not until the 1968 HemisFair exposition drew record crowds to the rescued waterway that the city really began banking on its banks.

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