I recently became aware of some eighteenth century Spanish ruins near Menard, Texas. After an initial visit and several phone calls, I had the good fortune to spend a day with Carleton Kothmann, a spry eighty-something year old historian and supporter of the San Saba Presidio and Mission. We toured the partially restored Presideo, visited the site of the recently re-discovered Apache Mission, and saw several other points of local historical interest. I am indebted to Carleton for his time and expertise.
Below you will find what I gleaned from my visits and research. I have no doubt that one day the San Saba Presidio and Mission will attract legions of avid visitors. Here is a first peak at this partially restored and largely unknown historical site.
Dual purposes drove Spanish exploration of Texas in the eighteenth century: a search for riches such as Cortez in Mexico stole from the Aztecs and the saving of pagan souls. In 1757 Franciscan monks set out from Mexico City for Texas along with soldiers, prospectors, wives, children, and several Indian families. They embarked on the difficult trek to the San Saba River near present day Menard, Texas. The Franciscans accepted with pious enthusiasm their hardscrabble existence on the frontier in order to be the first to plant a Christian cross among the Lipan Apache.
The Spaniards began construction of their fort (the Presidio) and ill-fated Mission immediately on arrival in 1757. After the San Antonio mission complex, it would become the largest fortified Spanish mission in Texas but also would prove to be Spain’s last. When they built their timber and mud outposts on the winding, spring fed San Saba, their east Texas missions had already been active for over 50 years.
The east Texas Spanish fortifications had limited the growth of French settlements outward from Louisiana. It was hoped that the San Saba Presidio and Mission would similarly secure Spain’s valuable trade route from San Antonio to El Paso and prevent raids from the Native American Nations of the north (called the Norteños). Chief among these tribes were the fearsome Comanche, the finest light cavalry in the New World. The Comanche along with other Norteño tribes were the declared enemies of the Lipan Apache. The Spaniards by befriending the Lipan Apache then also became the avowed enemies of the Norteños.
Prospectors boasted of finding rich veins of silver along the nearby Llano River. Sightings of Lipan Apache wearing silver ornamentation fueled the prospectors’ already heady greed. An uncommon duality developed, consisting of idealistic padres zealous to transform Apache ways and avaricious exploiters, equally determined to steal their wealth.
Visualize the scene in 1757 when a long train of pack animals, horses, three to four hundred people and thousands of head of livestock noisily departed Mexico City for San Antonio. The procession then trundled cross-country to the upper reaches of the San Saba River. The priests no doubt exuded hope over their lofty prospects of converting the Lipan Apache to Christianity. Miners tramped or rode; dreaming of soon-to-be realized fortunes. Ultimately both groups with their markedly divergent goals would fail in their efforts. Some would pay the ultimate price for their audacity and hubris.
Colonel Diego Ortiz Parrilla, commander of the military contingent, was less sanguine than the padres and prospectors. He knew full well the risks that lay ahead from hostile tribes. He suspected the Lipan Apache had embraced the idea of a Spanish Presidio and Mission as a defensive ploy against their Norteño enemies, rather than truly embracing an agrarian lifestyle and Christianity. Parrilla’s reservations would prove correct.
Immediately on reaching the San Saba River, an argument developed between Parrilla and the Franciscan priests. Parrilla urged constructing the Mission near the Presidio for easier defense. The monks countered that a fort close to the mission would intimidate the Lipan Apache and prevent them from entering.
Based on earlier experiences with unruly soldier behavior at the east Texas missions, the priests also worried that the soldiers would molest the Apache women. This grievous sin, they feared, would lead to irreconcilable animosity among the Lipan Apache and preclude Christianizing them.
Despite his profound reservations, Parrilla had little choice but accept the unbending convictions of the priests. The priests chose a building area on the southern bank of the San Saba River four miles downstream from the Presidio. This separation with its intervening expanse of open ground between the mission and the fort ultimately allowed for the sacking of the mission.
Shortly after their arrival, efforts began to build temporary structures to house the Presidio and Mission. Stockades were thrown up. Huts were constructed. All were hurriedly erected by setting poles upright in a trench and chinking in sticks, mud, and stones to fill the cracks between the timbers. This building technique in Spanish is known as jacales and in English wattle-and-daub. The expectation of the builders was later to build more secure stone fortifications to replace the wooden enclosures.
Ten months later soldiers, civilians, and a few Lipan Apache huddled and fought from within the same wooden structure. On the morning of March 16, 1858 some 2000 Norteño braves surrounded and attacked the San Saba Mission. A pitched battle ensued. The tribes from the north viewed the Spaniards as alien invaders invading their hunting range. Galvanizing the Norteño tribes together was their common hatred for the Lipan Apache and those who supported them.
The Mission was burned to the ground. All but a few of those in the Mission were killed. The Presidio was shortly thereafter strengthed with rock walls. Ten years later with no mission to defend, the Presidio was abandoned. This proved to be the last mission to be built in Texas.
Thanks to the tireless efforts of good folks like Carleton Kothmann, Jim Goodall and his wife, the story of the San Saba Mission and Presidio will not be lost to future generations. With additional investment of money and time, this historical site will no doubt be visited by large numbers of persons wanting to better understand the unique history of Texas. Special thanks are also due Dr. Grant Hall, recently retired Chair of the Department of Archeology at Texas Tech University and to his faculty and students. Their archeological efforts have established the underpinnings for future exhibits and a fully restored historical site.