Many of the San Antonio missions came into existence the year before George Washington was born. In 1731, a tattered group of Spanish missionaries, soldiers, and a few Indian converts appeared at the gates of San Antonio.
The refugees were left over from Spain's failed attempt at colonizing East Texas and helped launch the beginning of modern Texas. In all, Spain constructed 26 missions in Texas; five of the most successful were on the San Antonio River.
The most famous and oldest of the missions, San Antonio de Valero, or the Alamo, had been abandoned as a church for more than 40 years at the time of the Texas Revolution of 1836. It is maintained by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.
A well-marked driving route stretches nine miles through San Antonio from the Alamo to Mission Espada at the southern end of the Mission Trail. Visitors can also strap on walking shoes or hop on a bicycle to enjoy the eight miles of dedicated paved pathways along the San Antonio River between Mission Concepción and Mission Espada.
The San Antonio Missions National Historical Park contains four of the best-preserved examples of Spanish colonial architecture in the country. Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Acuña is the northernmost of the national historic sites. The mission dates to 1716 in East Texas but moved to San Antonio in 1731. Completed in 1755, remnants of colorful frescos remain on the interior walls. The church is the oldest unrestored church in the U.S.
Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo is a year younger than the Alamo. Construction of the mission's church began in 1768 by skilled craftsmen from Mexico and students of the mission's vocational school. The largest and most ornate of the missions, San José was called the Queen of the Missions. San José y San Miguel de Aguayo is the most complete of the San Antonio missions and contains the main visitors' center.
Mission San Juan Capistrano moved from East Texas to its present site in 1731. The mission was plagued by diseases and hostile Indians. When the last few residents departed in 1824, they left behind crumbling stone walls and an uncompleted church.
The southernmost mission on the trail, San Francisco de la Espada, also moved from East Texas to San Antonio in 1731. A French-born priest saved the red stone mission from destruction in 1859.
One part of the Mission Espada that hasn't needed to be rebuilt is the aqueduct that carried river water to the fields. Probably finished around 1745, the irrigation system is the oldest acequia in the United States.
The best place to begin a tour is at Mission San José. Admission to all of the missions is free. For more information, call 210/932-1001 or go to www.nps.gov/saan.
892nd in a series. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of "Day Trips" 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.
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