The Spanish Borderlands: The Mission Trail


View of the main square of Mexico City, 1700’s.

Though it’s dominance of the Borderlands ended long ago, Spain’s influence remains throughout the region. Things as diverse as architecture, clothing, place names, and national parks are testaments to the culture that once held sway from Florida to California. Before there was an Interstate 10 or US 90 connecting the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, there was Old Spanish Trail, an auto route spanning the continent from St. Augustine, Florida to San Diego, California. Begun in 1915, the builders and promoters for OST claimed it followed the route used by the Spanish Conquistadors 400 years earlier. Whether truth or hype, it made for a good story and demonstrates colonial Spain’s reach into the 20th century and beyond. Old Spanish Trail is still a major thoroughfare in the Rice University-University of Houston-Texas Southern University section of Houston.

Juan de Onate y Salazar

Juan de Onate y Salazar

From its foundational stronghold in present-day Mexico, Spain set her sights north in hopes of finding similar riches to those discovered among the Aztecs, but when the Coronado and Onate expeditions reported only disappointment, another, perhaps more important, purpose was devised for the areas now encompassing Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and southern California – providing a protective buffer against incursion into Mexico by Spain’s rivals. Spain built presidios (military forts) in strategic locations that secured their borders and advanced her regional control. The most important contributor to the spread of Spain’s influence in the Borderlands, however, was the system of missions established through the close symbiotic collaboration between church and crown.

A Franciscan Friar Showing A Book to Indians in the 17th Century

Franciscan preaching to the native people.

Evangelizing priests hoping to spread Christianity and European culture accompanied the explorers of New Mexico, most notably traveling with Juan Onate in 1598. Over the ensuing 100 years, about 40 Franciscan missions were built near or along the Rio Grande, and by 1680, missions had been established among most of the New Mexican native peoples. It took the French explorer La Salle’s expedition to spur mission building in present-day Texas, first along the coast, and later in the interior. The best preserved of these Texas missions can be found in San Antonio. The most famous, of course, being the mission of San Antonio de Valero, better known as the Alamo. The Alamo, featured in beloved movies, novels, and books of Texas history, so overshadows her sister missions that people may not be aware of the existence of the other four.

SA missions

Some of the missions began life in other parts of Texas, but were eventually moved so that they form a trail following the San Antonio River south from Alamo Plaza to the outskirts of the modern city.

mission map - modern

Since 1978, the National Park Service in conjunction with the Catholic Church, Archdiocese of San Antonio has preserved and administered the Missions San Jose (“The Queen of Missions”), San Juan Capistrano,  Concepcion, and Espada as the San Antonio National Historical Park. The Alamo is owned, operated, and maintained by the State of Texas. On July 5, 2015, all five missions were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Espada Aqueduct is listed as a National Historic Landmark. Of the missions, Concepcion is still a functioning neighborhood church holding Sunday Mass and celebrating feast days with the surrounding community as it has since its founding in 1716 in East Texas and 1731 in its present location.


Mission Timeline:

1690 – Missions Espada established in Augusta.

1716 – Mission San Juan Capistrano established in East Texas.

1718 – The Alamo and the future city of San Antonio established near the headwaters of the San Antonio River.

1720 – Mission San Jose established in its present location.

1731 – Missions San Juan, Concepcion, and Espada all relocated to San Antonio present locations.

riverwalk 2

A visit to all five missions can be accomplished as a day trip and is well worth the time. If you find yourself in San Antonio, don’t spend all of your time shopping and dining on the Riverwalk and at the Alamo. Take a tour bus or travel by car south beyond Interstate 10 and follow Mission Parkway to step back into the early days of Texas history.

SA San Jose mission

Mission San Jose


Mission San Juan Capistrano after 2013 restoration

sa mission 2

Mission Espada


Mission Concepcion


The Alamo

 Novels set in Texas

Finding novels set in the time of the missions is difficult. Novels set in Texas abound.

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mitchner 2heroes

Many books by Larry McMurtry and James Lee Burke.

Additional Reading and Reference