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A History of La Bahía
By Craig H. Roell
Texas State Historical AssociationCopyright © 1994 Texas State Historical Association
All rights reserved.
THE SPANISH ERA
This place affords no advantages as to situation, for good drinking-water is very far off, and timber still farther. The water of the stream is very brackish, so much so that in five days during which the camp was pitched there all the horses sickened. —FRAY DAMIÁN MASSANET, DE LEÓN EXPEDITION SITE OF LA SALLE'S FORT ST. LOUIS, 1689
These Indians are very dirty and the stench which they emit is enough to turn one's stomach. They are fond of all that is foul and pestiferous and for this reason delight in the odor of the polecat and eat its flesh. —FRAY GASPAR JOSÉ DE SOLÍS INSPECTION OF LA BAHÍA MISSIONS, 1768
THE "GREAT KINGDOM OF THE TEXAS." SO did early Spanish explorers christen the vast northern frontier of New Spain, named for the ancient Indian greeting "techas" or "tejas" meaning "friends" or "allies," and applied by the Spaniards to the whole region and its inhabitants. But this so-called "land of the friends" became pivotal in the New World contest of empires between Spain and France. This rivalry intensified in the Texas wilderness in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries following the establishment of Fort St. Louis, the first French colony in Texas, by Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle. The French explorer founded his settlement near the shores of La Bahía del Espíritu Santo (Bay of the Holy Spirit) in 1685. The Spaniards launched five sea voyages and six land marches to find the intruders. Finally, on April 22, 1689, an expedition under Alonso de León, accompanied by the missionary Fray Damián Massanet, discovered the somber ruins of the ill-fated French colony; La Salle's venture was unsuccessful and ended in death for him and most of his 280 settlers and soldiers, victims of the wilderness, Indians, disease, and mutiny. Nevertheless, the possibility of French claims on the region inspired Spain to establish a system of missions and presidios as part of a formidable plan to colonize the area, encourage and protect trade routes, and Christianize native inhabitants. Among the many outposts that the Spaniards established, two would prove crucial in future events. In 1718 Martín de Alarcón, governor of the provinces of Coahuila and Texas, founded San Antonio de Béxar presidio and San Antonio de Valero mission (whose chapel would popularly be called the Alamo), laying the foundation for what became the foremost settlement in Spanish Texas.
A separate expedition three years later led by the Marqués de San Miguel de Aguayo, then governor and captain-general of Coahuila and Texas, was sent to establish the second pivotal settlement, La Bahía, literally on the ashes of La Salle's French colony. According to official reports, Espíritu Santo Bay was secured on April 4, 1721, by Aguayo's advance unit under Capt. Domingo Ramón, who then founded Presidio Nuestra Señora de Loreto on the ruins of Fort St. Louis. Aguayo arrived in April 1722 and began construction on a permanent fortification. Archaeological evidence confirms that this site was on the west bank of Garcitas Creek about two miles above its mouth on Lavaca Bay in present Victoria County. The name of this presidio, which formally appears in Spanish records as Nuestra Señora Santa María de Loreto de la Bahía del Espíritu Santo, honored the shrine of Holy House of the Virgin of Nazareth located in Loreto, Italy, and referred as well to the presidio's location on the Bay of the Holy Spirit.
Aguayo authorized Father Agustín Patrón y Guzmán to establish the nearby mission, Nuestra Señora del Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga, among the area's Karankawan tribes (the Coco, Cujane, Copane, and Karankawa proper). The name of this mission, which formally appears in Spanish records as Nuestra Señora de la Bahía del Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga, was a reference to its bay location and also honored the viceroy of New Spain, Baltasar de Zúñiga y Guzman, Marques de Valero. Espíritu Santo, which was to become one of the most successful missions in Texas, was placed in the care of the Franciscan missionaries from the college of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe de Zacatecas.
However strategic to prevent French aggression, and despite its natural beauty, the Garcitas Creek site proved a hostile, unhealthy environment. The humid sub-tropical climate and wet surroundings enlivened a pesky mosquito population, which was to be acknowledged in the names given to local creeks and bayous. Alligators infested the waters, many buffalo grazed the swampy grasslands, and salt-water lagoons dotted a landscape that Fray Massanet had criticized as affording "no advantages as to situation, for good drinking-water is very far off, and timber still farther. The water of the stream is very brackish, so much so that in five days during which the camp was pitched there all the horses sickened."
And yet it was the various Karankawan tribes of the area that offered the most challenge, as La Salle's colony had tragically discovered. Ferocious, nomadic, and primitive, reeking from their diet and personal habits (which included smearing themselves with fetid fish or alligator oil and skunk musk to ward off bothersome mosquitoes), they offended Spanish senses of smell and notions of a civilized life. "They are fond of all that is foul and pestiferous," Fray Gaspar José de Solís recorded, "and for this reason delight in the odor of the polecat and eat its flesh." They were given to thievery and violence, including ritualistic cannibalism reserved for captured foes. Fray Solís described Karankawan culture in great detail, including their controversial cannibalism. During a lavish dancing and musical ritual called the mitote, "they draw near to the victim, cut off a piece of his flesh, come to the fire and half roast it, and within sight of the victim himself devour it most ravenously. Thus they continue cutting him to pieces and dismembering him, until, finally, they have cut away all of his flesh and he dies...." To the undaunted missionaries, these Indians seemed prime candidates for bringing into the Holy Church. But the task proved extraordinarily difficult. As Fray Solís wrote as late as 1768, "they are anxious to be free from all servitude and from work and wish to return to their life of freedom and idleness. They have, moreover, a repugnance and distaste for the teachings of our holy faith and for the things of God, and they are loathe to observe our holy commandments and sovereign precepts."
In April 1722, at about the same time that Mission Espíritu Santo was founded, the permanent structure for Presidio Nuestra Señora de Loreto began to take shape. A surviving plan shows that the completed fort was to be octagon shaped with a moat, four bastions, and a tower. Aguayo left Capt. Domingo Ramon in command of the garrison of forty soldiers, which was later reinforced with fifty men from San Antonio de Béxar. But Ramon was unable to keep the garrison disciplined; antagonism and hostilities with the Karankawan tribes resulted and Ramon was killed. His son, Diego Ramon III, then became presidio captain, but was removed for inefficiency and replaced by an adept and talented administrator, Juan Antonio Bustillo y Zevallos. Under his able direction, and that of his successors, Nuestra Señora de Loreto achieved preeminence among all Texas presidios.
Unable to induce the nomadic Karankawan tribes to accept Catholic teachings or even stay at the mission, the Franciscan padres as early as April 1725 recommended moving the mission and its presidio to a location more favorable to their missionary efforts, a measure also prompted by continuing incidents of ill feeling and violence between these Indians and the presidio soldiers. By April 1726 both mission and presidio La Bahía had been relocated about ten leagues west (some twenty-six miles inland) among the more amenable Aranama and Tamique tribes at a site on the Guadalupe River now called Mission Valley in present Victoria County.
Here among ancient oak and pecan trees the reputation and importance of La Bahía would blossom. Its new and satisfying location among tribes that were agricultural, sedentary, and friendly greatly inspired the missionaries. The Guadalupe River setting was most pleasing, its climate considerably more healthy, its grassy plains conducive to stock grazing and farming (though trees were also in abundance), and a stone quarry was available ten leagues away. As Fray Massanet had recorded in 1689, "The country was the most pleasant that we have traversed" and the river banks "are covered with timber." At least two dams were constructed within a five-mile radius of the mission to direct water from the Guadalupe River and a tributary, Mission Creek, through stone irrigation ditches into fields for crop cultivation. But the padres soon found that normal rainfall was adequate. On the Guadalupe some twelve miles downriver, on a bluff called Tonkawa Bank near a popular low water crossing, the mission's associated ranchería (small village)—or possibly its visita (country chapel)—was constructed. (This site, identified by a state historical marker, is in Riverside Park in Victoria, Texas.)
For the next twenty-three years at the Mission Valley location the La Bahía mission and presidio prospered in both agricultural and missionary pursuits. Successful farming and cattle ranching enabled these Spaniards, with the aid of Indian wards, to supply themselves as well as other Texas missions and settlements with ample food. The main industry was livestock raising and exporting, particularly cattle and horses, which already grazed and roamed on the prairies bordered by the Guadalupe and Lavaca rivers on the north and the San Antonio River on the south. This endeavor laid the foundation for what became one of the characteristic industries of Texas—livestock ranching. Future Mexican and Anglo-American ranchers of Texas would build fortunes from the thousands of Longhorn cattle and mustang horses descended from these estrayed La Bahía herds. Texas braggadocio to the contrary, it is no exaggeration to say that the cradle of the Western cattle industry lay in the grassland prairie of La Bahía at its Mission Valley site.
The Spanish royal government, ever concerned about halting French and eventually English encroachment on its North American domain, authorized an expedition under José de Escandón to evaluate the northern frontier. In early 1747 Escandón ordered a reconnaissance of South Texas by the captain of Presidio La Bahía, Joaquín Prudencio de Orobio y Basterra. Based on Orobio's reports Escandón recommended moving the La Bahía presidio and mission, despite their success and favorable location, from the Guadalupe to the San Antonio River as a strategic move to better protect settlements on the lower Rio Grande. The proposed site was similarly suited to crop and stock raising, and timber, stone, lime, and other building materials were plentiful. Likewise, missionary efforts were similarly expected to produce success among area tribes.
Escandón, who was made governor and captain general of Nuevo Santander in 1749, is called the "Father of Goliad." Acting on his proposals, the Spanish viceroy soon ordered the mission and presidio moved to his recommended location, a place Orobio had named Santa Dorotea (St. Dorothy). Having to abandon so successful and rewarding a site proved to be a sad experience. The move from the Guadalupe to the San Antonio River occurred in the fall of 1749, probably in October, since a government report dated November 16, 1749, shows the removal had been accomplished. This would be mission and presidio La Bahía's permanent location. Orobio was charged with the task, and despite being denied extra assistance by the government, managed to traverse the creeks and wooded prairies with ox carts and mules. Escandón planned to settle twenty-five northern Mexican families from Nuevo León or Coahuila at the Santa Dorotea site, but this failed to materialize. Nevertheless, a civilian community would eventually develop to complement the missionary and military settlement. In these were the roots of Goliad.
Four months after this move the presidio, now under the command of Capt. Manuel Ramírez de la Piszena, consisted of a large barracks and forty temporary houses built of wood and caliche mud for the garrison soldiers and their families; the captain's house of several rooms built of stone at his own expense for emergency protection; and a roomy chapel. The garrison was well armed, including six 8- pounder cannon, and numbered fifty men, who were stationed not only at the presidio, but also at nearby Mission Espíritu Santo—and, after 1754, at neighboring Mission Nuestra Señora del Rosario. Some of these soldiers also were detailed to guard La Bahía's herd of horses pastured several leagues downriver and escort the convoys and supply trains from San Antonio and the Rio Grande. These essential soldiers became crucial as Lipan Apache Indians increasingly raided the area by the mid-1750s. Among the children born to these royal soldiers of La Bahía were future Mexican patriot Carlos de la Garza, a key figure in the Goliad campaign during the Texas Revolution, and Ignacio Zaragoza, who would achieve heroic fame as leader of the Mexican forces that defeated the French at Puebla on May 5, 1862 (Cinco de Mayo).
Under Capt. Ramírez's direction, permanent structures were built at La Bahía presidio and mission, and at Mission Rosario as part of the government's plan to better defend its expanding frontier. As a result of the Peace of Paris in February 1763, which ended the terribly expensive Seven Years' War, France had to transfer all of its vast Louisiana territory to Spain, a monumental increase in Spanish land holdings in North America. Texas, long the Spanish hinterland, was now sandwiched between Coahuila and the new buffer zone that extended to the Mississippi River and included the city of New Orleans. As a result, the Spanish government ordered an incredible eight thousand-mile inspection of the northern frontier from the Gulf of California to the Louisiana border at Los Adaes. Its goals—to redetermine governing policies of both old and new territories, to insure protection against threats by the Indians, English, French, and even Russians, and yet find ways to economize in order to help eliminate the critically severe Spanish national debt resulting from the Seven Years' War.
During 1767, Texas was examined by the Marqués de Rubí (Cayetano María Pignatelli Rubí Corbera y San Clement). His tour convinced him that Spanish success in Texas was greatly at risk and required concentrating on practical and strategic settlements while eliminating isolated or useless ones. His recommendations, known as the "New Regulations of the Presidios," called for advancing San Antonio and La Bahía (including Mission Rosario) to preeminence, but temporarily abandoning most other establishments. By royal order East Texas was abandoned (until Nacogdoches was resettled in 1779), while Presidio La Bahía was rebuilt of stone and remained the only Spanish fortress for the entire Gulf Coast from the mouth of the Rio Grande to the Mississippi River. Located on major trade and military routes, La Bahía also grew in commercial importance, becoming one of three crucial areas of Spanish settlement in Texas, along with San Antonio and Nacogdoches.
On at least two occasions—in 1769 and 1771—the La Bahía garrison thwarted French and English intruders. During the American Revolution, soldiers from the presidio assisted Spanish armies of Gen. Bernardo de Gálvez in victories over the British in Louisiana and Florida from 1779–1782. Gálvez's energetic assistance toward American independence established a friendly relationship between the new nation and Mexico that would soon be replaced with a fear of the fast-growing United States. Still, the Texas port of Galveston honors his name and memory.
Like its presidio, when Mission Espíritu Santo was moved from the Guadalupe to the San Antonio River site, it was first constructed of wood and caliche mud. But by 1758 Father Francisco Xavier de Salazar was able to report to Governor Jacinto de Barrios y Jáuregui that the mission complex had been rebuilt of stone and mortar, though the mission's Indian population (which in May 1758 was 49 warriors, 50 women, and 79 children) was still living in primitive jacales. The missionaries tried to use a manual of Coahuiltecan words compiled in 1760 by Father Bartolome García of Mission San Francisco de la Espada to communicate with these people because of difficulties with teaching them in Spanish.
Excerpted from Remember Goliad! by Craig H. Roell. Copyright © 1994 Texas State Historical Association. Excerpted by permission of Texas State Historical Association.
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