When Texans think of Spanish missions, they visualize San Antonio.
There, five 18th-century missions, including the Alamo, have been lovingly preserved or partially reconstructed. Downriver in Goliad, the similarly rebuilt La Bahía crowns a hill above the town.
But missions in Austin? Really? If so, where are the stone-walled enclosures, stuccoed chapels and soft curves picked up by Southwestern designers ever since the 1700s?
According to 18th-century sources, three missions — San Francisco de los Neches, Nuestra Señora de la Purisima Concepcion and San Jose de los Nazonis — were built in 1730 on the Colorado River, mostly likely in or near Austin.
They were moved in stages from East Texas after French incursions into that area. In 1731, they moved again, this time to San Antonio.
A granite-and-metal Texas Historical Marker honoring the missions now stands on the eastern banks of Barton Springs Pool, the mostly likely site for the three frontier communities, some historians say. Soon, that marker will be moved as part of unrelated improvements around the pool.
Try as they might, however, leading state archaeologists and historians can’t pinpoint the exact locations of the Colorado River missions. Some archival evidence survives, but, as far as they know, no physical remains.
“Considering how central Barton Springs has become to our identity as a city, it is hard not to imagine that they would have wanted to locate themselves there,” says Brad Jones, archaeologist with the Texas Historical Commission. “But really any spring site near the river has potential.”
Jones adds: “The Barton Springs area has been well investigated archaeologically — at least relative to some other areas — and so far no clear evidence. What we are looking for is not likely to be easy to find.”
Three published sources housed at the Briscoe Center for American History and the Benson Latin American Collection on the University of Texas campus mention the missions: Fray Morfi’s “Viaje de Indios y Diario,” Vito Alessio Robles’ “Coahuila y Texas” and Carlos Casteñeda’s “Our Catholic Heritage in Texas.”
Castañeda — yes, co-namesake for the UT library — records that on Oct. 29, 1729, Brigadier Pedro de Rivera delivered a long report arguing that, if East Texas missions were no longer viable, they should be shuttled to the Colorado River.
“The Indian nations along the Colorado were thought to be more peaceful and docile and the country better suited for the establishment of settlements and the raising of crops,” Castañeda writes.
Father Miguel Sevillano de Paredes agreed, then later penned a petition to move the Colorado missions to San Antonio. (Even later Spanish missions were planted in nearby Hays, Comal and Milam Counties.)
Castañeda concludes: “The details of the exploration and findings — as well as the moving — are indeed meager, but all evidence seems to indicate that by July 27, 1730, they were temporarily located on this river.”
The great historian of the Spanish Southwest died in 1958.
“You’d still have to go to the original manuscripts that Castañeda used in order to locate the actual mission sites around Austin,” says Austin Community College historian Andrés Tijerina, who has researched the subject. “I found them mentioned in the Bexar Archives as well around this area, but it would still take quite a bit of archaeological hiking along with the archival research.”
Archaeologist Jones, who plans to dig into the archives again soon, agrees it would be tough tying the records with physical reality.
“To put in perspective, we currently have a little over 2,400 archaeological sites recorded in the county, and none have yielded solid evidence of an early 18th-century Spanish occupation,” he says. “It is unclear how close the three missions would have been to one another, so it may be that three missions are dispersed across the landscape close to the river, creating a large potential area for them to be found. This lack of precision for location is exacerbated by the short period of occupation.”
Temporary sites, too, do not lend themselves to permanent evidence.
“This isn’t to imply there would not be artifacts or features,” Jones says. “But if the same site were occupied later (as Barton Springs was/is), it may mask a light Spanish colonial period occupation, especially if they had limited supplies of the types of artifacts that scream Spanish occupation such as decorated ceramics or copper or brass items that would preserve well.”
But what about this tantalizing clue?
“I knew a lady back in 1983,” Tijerina says, “who told me she lived on the cliff overlooking Barton Creek in that triangle between 360, MoPac and 290 that had the ruins of a mission on her property.”
Jones has investigated such claims, though perhaps not this one.
“There are several cases in our county files for Travis where individuals have contacted the Texas Historical Commission about sites on their property that they think are the missions,” Jones says. “But thus far, these have not panned out.”
In other words, Barton Springs is a great potential location, but not the only potential location.
He concludes: “To me, this is one upshot of the interest that the marker is drawing: Getting people thinking about it and hopefully it may spark someone’s memory or be on their mind next time they find an interesting piece of ceramic in their field.”
Michael Barnes writes about Austin’s people, places, history and culture.