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—the native Indians, called Coahuiltecans; Spanish settlers, soldiers, and priests; and German settlers, fleeing the revolutions in Europe. Through the following decades, these different immigrant groups would accommodate each other and forge a unique local culture.

Mission San Antonio

In the late 17th century, 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 Spanish presence was still minimal.

In 1691, an early reconnaissance party passing through what is now San Antonio found a wooded plain watered by a clear river, called Yanaguana by the native Coahuiltecan Indians. The explorers named it San Antonio de Padua, after the saint’s day on which they arrived. The Coahuiltecans, at that time suffering the depredations of the Apaches, regarded the Spaniards as protectors. They soon converted to Christianity and invited the Spanish to establish missions. In 1718, Mission San Antonio de Valero—later known as the Alamo—was founded by Franciscan priests. 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 East Texas missions that had been nearly destroyed by French and Indian attacks were moved from hundreds of miles away to the safer banks of the San Antonio River. 

In March of that same year, 15 families from the Canary Islands arrived, sent by order of the King of Spain, and established the village of San Fernando de Béxar close by the garrison. 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 of Béxar (it wasn’t officially renamed San Antonio until 1837). To make crop irrigation easier, the early settlers were given narrow strips of land stretching away from the river and nearby San Pedro Creek; centuries later, the winding paths connecting these strips were paved and became the city’s streets.

As the 18th century wore on, bands of Apache Indians frequently attacked the village, but far more devastating to the Coahuiltecans were the diseases brought from Europe, for which they 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 and its farmlands redistributed, but in 1810, Spanish authorities turned the former San Antonio mission into a garrison, recognizing the military potential of its thick walls. Because 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.”

The Alamo

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

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. They’d already repealed many of the tax breaks they’d initially granted the settlers; now they moved in to prohibit all further U.S. immigration to the territory. 

Then historical events prevailed. In 1835, General Antonio López de Santa Anna abolished Mexico’s democratic 1824 constitution, and Tejanos (Mexican Texans) and Anglos alike balked at his dictatorship. A cry rose up for a separate Texas republic. One of the first battles for Texas independence was fought in 1835 in San Antonio when 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, 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 that would fire the American imagination. The siege lasted from February 23 through March 6, 1836. Some 180 volunteers under the command of William Travis —among them Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie—died in the final attack, defending the Alamo against a force that was 10 times their number. Though the Americans ultimately lost the Alamo, the delay allowed the Texian army’s leader, Sam Houston, to muster his forces and eventually defeat the Mexican army at San Jacinto with the battle cry “Remember the Alamo!” 

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

After the Fall

During Texas’ brief stint as a republic (1836–45), few Americans came to live in San Antonio, but settlers came from overseas in droves: By 1850, Tejanos and Americans were outnumbered by European, mostly German, immigrants. (Fun fact: By 1860, German speakers in San Antonio outnumbered both Spanish and English speakers.) The Civil War put a temporary halt to the city’s growth (while Texas joined the Confederacy, many 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 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 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. The military remains one of the city’s largest employers; it’s now home to Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, JBSA-Fort Sam Houston, JBSA-Lackland, and JBSA-Camp Bullis. San Antonio trademarked Military City, USA, as an official designation in 2017. 

But, with all due deference to the Alamo’s memory, San Antonio has also forged strong ties with Mexico. With its large Hispanic population, regular flights to Mexico City, and cultural attractions such as the Latin American wing of the San Antonio Museum of Art, San Antonio has a lot of reasons to maintain strong business relations with our southern neighbors. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), signed in San Antonio in 1994, has been a boon for the city, which hosts the North American Development Bank— NAFTA’s financial arm—in its downtown International Center, where representatives from the various states of Mexico have offices. The 2018 rebranding of NAFTA as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) suggests that “build a wall” rhetoric is not going to significantly change the balance of economic self-interest on both sides of the border.

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’ 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 flood threat 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, decades before anyone in Texas had ever heard of urban planning. Mounting a multipronged campaign (even including a puppet-show dramatization), the women’s group won the battle, and the river was saved.

In 1927, Robert H. H. Hugman, an architect who’d 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.

For some decades more, the River Walk remained just another pretty space. Then, in 1968, when the city celebrated its 250th anniversary by mounting the HemisFair exposition, record crowds were drawn to the rescued waterway. (San Antonio’s convention center was also built for the exposition, putting the city on the trade show and convention map.) From then on, the city really began banking on its banks—and it hasn’t looked back since. New cultural attractions opened in rapid succession: The San Antonio Botanical Garden in 1980; the San Antonio Museum of Art in 1981; the Rivercenter Mall (now Shops at Rivercenter) and SeaWorld San Antonio in 1988; the Fiesta Texas theme park (now Six Flags Fiesta Texas) in 1992; and the Alamodome in 1993. San Antonio had come into its own as a world-class visitor destination.

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