he Mission San Antonio de Valero, established in San Antonio in 1718, was but one of many Catholic missions organized as part of the official Spanish plan to Christianize native Americans and colonize northern New Spain. Franciscan monks began building on the present site, on east side of the San Antonio River, about 1724 and remained there until 1793, when the Spanish government legally dissolved the mission and distributed ownership of its lands and buildings.
After the departure of the Franciscans, the seventy-five-year-old mission entered a long period of rather haphazard use. In addition to its famous role in the Texas revolution, the site's subsequent functions have included quarters for both Spanish and Mexican frontier troops; housing for local Indians, Tejanos, and itinerant squatters; hospital; army supply depot; Masonic lodge; jail; commercial store and warehouse; public park; tourist attraction; movie set; and historic site. This multiple use has greatly complicated efforts to document or describe the Alamo at any given time. Another difficulty arises from semantic ambiguity in many descriptions of the site, with the title Alamo sometimes used to refer exclusively to the church building and sometimes to the entire mission complex.
Our knowledge of the eighteenth-century mission derives from the written descriptions of Spanish missionaries and government observers, from archaeological evidence, and from examination of the surviving structures. Because much of this information has only recently become available, early Alamo historians and preservationists were forced to rely on oral tradition and outright speculation. Many of the resulting misconceptions have unfortunately become fixed in the popular image of the Alamo.
Regarding the church, for example, many nineteenth- and early twentieth-century observers assumed it had once been completed, then damaged by later military action. Contemporary reports indicate, however, that the mission church that now dominates Alamo imagery was never completed or actually used for religious services.
Construction on it proceeded from the late 1750s, when Father Francisco Xavier Ortiz reported the collapse of an earlier stone church with tower and sacristy, until the decline of the mission during the late 1780s and early 1790s. The design for the new church was an ambitious one, clearly intended to be the architectural masterpiece of the mission. It followed a traditional cruciform plan, with a long nave crossed near its eastern end by a short, broad transept. The walls were sturdy, over three and one-half feet thick, and well built of limestone blocks, but only roughly finished.
Inside, the church was probably paved with flagstones and was intended to have a barrel-vaulted roof, supported by stone arches, and a dome or cupola over the crossing. The walls were evidently completed at least as high as the cornices, and several of the arches with their supporting pilasters were installed. Vestiges of these arches survived into the nineteenth century and are visable in Edward Everett's painting depicting the interior view of the Alamo.
There, the project apparently stalled, however, as
the mission's Indian population declined precipitously from a high of
328 in 1756 to a mere 44 in 1777. Surviving evidence suggests that the
roof itself, the dome, and a second-story choir loft, designed for the
west end, were never put in place.
Outside, the western facade of the church, which opened onto the mission plaza, was the chief architectural glory. The mission inventory of 1793 described this facade as "a showy and impressive piece of Tuscan architecture," with arched doors surrounded by elaborate floral carvings, twisting columns, and shell-topped niches for statuary. The central facade and front comers of the church were of carefully cut and fitted blocks, unlike the rough limestone used elsewhere. Although the facade was never finished, it is possible to project its intended design, based on similar Early Baroque style facades erected in Spain and its New World provinces.
Since the mission's ecclesiastical center was never finished, mission life must have revolved around the administrative center, the priests' residence or convent. Containing offices, kitchens, dining and guest rooms, the monastery was apparently the first permanent building constructed at the mission, replacing earlier adobe structures. By the close of the mission period, the convent included two two-story wings forming an L along the west and south edges of an inner courtyard, immediately north of the church. The remainder of the mission complex, of less permanent construction than the two main buildings, is even more difficult to locate and describe. Workrooms, storerooms, and Indian residences were continually being repaired or replaced, and all apparently fluctuated considerably according to the size and vigor of the Indian population. During the mission's mid-century peak, the Indian pueblo included thirty finished adobe houses, most with open, stone-arched galleries plus a number of brush huts, or jacales; by 1793, however, only twelve Indian houses were still habitable. Theoretically, the Alamo was to have been the religious branch of the Spanish presidio-mission system established to reduce the savage frontier. A presidio, or strong defensive fort staffed by royal troops, would provide the needed military protection against both hostile natives and rebellious mission Indians. The presidio San Antonio de Bexar, however, was neither completed nor adequately garrisoned, compelling the Franciscans at San Antonio de Valero and other nearby missions to devise their own defenses against hostile Apaches and Comanches. As a result, although religion dominated the Alamo's early years, the site also manifested clear military overtones. Protective walls, probably erected after the San Saba mission massacre of 1758, enclosed San Antonio de Valero's main plaza in an irregular rectangle approximately 480 feet long (north-south) by 160 feet wide (east-west). The Indian houses lay within this enclosure, mainly along its western wall, but the church and convent buildings were outside and to the east of it. In 1793, the remaining walls had already crumbled were about eight feet high and two feet thick, constructed of stone, mud, and adobe. The main gate, located in the south wall, had been fortified as early as 1762 with a turret and three cannons, and in 1793 a small one-pound cannon also stood on a rampart near the convent entrance.
After the complex ceased to be an active religious establishment in 1793, its military characteristics became even stronger. A company of Spanish cavalry, sent to protect the settlements around San Antonio, established its quarters in the old mission [in December of 1802]. By the early nineteenth century, when Anglo-American visitors began to appear in Bexar occasionally, the site's essential orientation had changed to that of a military post. Zebulon M. Pike, who visited San Antonio in 1807, seemed unaware of its mission past, alluding to the Alamo simply as "the station of the troops" on the east side of the river. Even its popular name, "the Alamo," apparently dates from this period, reflecting the Spanish cavalry company's origin at the Mexican town of "El Alamo," near Parras in Nueva Vizcaya.
Source: Schoelwer, Alamo Images--Changing Perceptions of a Texas Experience, SMU Press, 1985.