How a Frontier Became a Crossroads of Power

How the Alamo was established in present-day San Antonio is a story that begins long before the famous Battle of the Alamo. This period of history is key to understanding the creation of Texas and how it came to world-wide attention.

Image (above): La Salle Expedition to Louisiana, 1684, Jean Antoine Théodore Gudin (1802 - 1880), collection of RMN - Grand Palais (Palace of Versailles), France. 

Copy of Alonso Álvarez de Pineda’s map of the Gulf of Mexico, 1519.
© Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport, Spain
Alonso Álvarez de Pineda’s map of the Gulf of Mexico is the earliest known European map of Texas.

Spain Begins to Explore Texas

In 1519, Spanish explorer and map-maker Alonso Álvarez de Pineda led an Spanish expedition that, for the first time, mapped the coast of Texas along the Gulf of Mexico. From this expedition and the ones that followed, Spain claimed the area of present-day Texas as part of their territory. However, this was borderlands country, far from the large cities the Spanish controlled in central Mexico. Establishing a foothold hundreds of miles from military protection and European supply systems would be difficult.

Map of New Spain by Girolamo Ruscelli, titled Nueva Hispania Tabula Nova, dated 1561.
© Courtesy Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.
Girolamo Ruscelli, Nueva Hispania Tabula Nova. Venice: Girolamo Ruscelli, 1561. Map #93796, Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

Life on the Frontier

Frontier life could be harsh. Early colonists to a new territory would have to contend with being allies and enemies of the varying bands and tribes of indigenous people. Until supply routes were established, these colonists would not be able to rely on a steady supply of goods or support from their government. However, the Spanish government needed to place Spanish towns with Spanish citizens in their territories to ensure other European powers did not try to infringe on Spanish land claims.

Map titled The costes around the Mississippi river: discovered by Mr. de la Salle in 1683 and recognized by Mr. le Chevallier d'Iberville in 1698 and 1699.
Credit: Library of Congress
Les costes aux environs de la riviere de Misisipi: decouvertes par Mr. de la Salle en 1683 et reconnues par Mr. le Chevallier d'Iberville en 1698 et 1699, was created by Nicolas de Fer and Vincent de Ginville and published in Paris in 1701. It depicts the French exploration of regions bordering New Spain by the La Salle expedition.

Territory Claims Threatened and French Incursions

Over the next 160 years, the Spanish took steps to establish their claims through colonizing the territory. This increased as soon as Spain began to feel threatened by French incursions in the late 1680s. France had already claimed the Louisiana area on the border of Texas, and Spain worried that the French would encroach into Spanish territory. Texas served as a buffer between other European countries’ North American lands and Spain’s established colony to the south in present-day Mexico, and so it was vital that Spain keep these lands under their control.

Early Catholic Missions in Texas

Life on the edges of Spanish territory was filled with perils, including disease, attack from hostile indigenous groups, and limited supplies. Support from established Spanish colonies would take a long time to arrive if any dangers were faced – if help ever arrived. Few Spanish settlers were willing to be the first to establish a foothold in this territory in which there was little potential for personal profit. Spain’s solution to this problem was to set up Catholic missions, which would convert the indigenous people to Catholicism and teach them the skills that Spain believed were important to being a Spanish citizen. The Spanish government believed this would only take ten years. According to their plans, the missions would then be disbanded, the indigenous people would be citizens of Spain, and their communities would be self-sustaining. In 1680-1690, Spain established missions in the far eastern and western reaches of Texas, near the present-day towns of El Paso, Presidio, and Nacogdoches.

Cover page of the founding document for Mission San Francisco de Solano.
Credit: The Alamo Collection
Mission San Francisco de Solano’s founding document, signed by Fray Olivares, is part of the Alamo Collection.

Mission San Francisco de Solano

One of the missions set up during this period was Mission San Francisco de Solano, which was established in 1700 in northern Mexico, just a few miles from the Rio Grande. The missionaries who presided there were Fray Antonio de San Buenaventura y Olivares and Fray Francisco Hidalgo. This mission struggled to sustain itself from the start, and Olivares soon decided to begin looking for other locations better suited for the mission.

Foundation of San Antonio

After Olivares visited the San Antonio area during an expedition in 1709, he asked that the mission be moved to what he felt was an ideal location. San Antonio could serve as a bridge to the missions Spain had established in east Texas. The area was perfectly situated on a river. The indigenous people seemed receptive to the benefits a mission could provide, including protection from attack by other indigenous groups and stable food sources during lean hunting and foraging times of the year. The new mission, which Olivares established in San Antonio in 1718, was Mission San Antonio de Valero, which would later become the Alamo.