Teaching

Source Collection: Analyzing Historic Churches in the Southwestern US

Overview

Today, the US-Mexico border stretches along the path of the Rio Grande River. However, much of the territory that now makes up the Southwestern states of the US once belonged to the Spanish Crown. Studying the historic churches of Texas helps reveal this history. From the late-fifteenth through the early-nineteenth century, Spanish monarchs claimed possession of vast tracts of land throughout North, Central, and South America. While it stationed governors throughout this territory, it did not have an unlimited source of bureaucrats. Economic production and the evangelization of the native peoples were two central objectives for the rulers of Spain. To prioritize these goals, the royal court concentrated most of its employees in the more densely populated regions, such as Mexico City and Lima.

Essay

Today, the US-Mexico border stretches along the path of the Rio Grande River. However, much of the territory that now makes up the Southwestern states of the US once belonged to the Spanish Crown. Studying the historic churches of Texas helps reveal this history. From the late-fifteenth through the early-nineteenth century, Spanish monarchs claimed possession of vast tracts of land throughout North, Central, and South America. While it stationed governors throughout this territory, it did not have an unlimited source of bureaucrats. Economic production and the evangelization of the native peoples were two central objectives for the rulers of Spain. To prioritize these goals, the royal court concentrated most of its employees in the more densely populated regions, such as Mexico City and Lima.

Because of the practical limitations of governing such an extensive region, the Spanish government relied heavily on missionaries not only to supervise church function, but also to run local communities. The churches, many of which still stand today, provide a window into the daily life of the indigenous peoples forced to live, work, and worship there starting in the seventeenth century. Indigenous labor built the structures and contributed to the interior decoration. For example, the ceiling of the Socorro Mission in El Paso features floral designs reflective of the Piro culture, and the San Jose Mission in San Antonio preserves some of the old residences and workshops of the indigenous peoples who lived there.

Although many of the missions established during Spanish colonial rule have suffered from natural disasters or been demolished, dozens of structures still stand across the southwestern United States. National, state, and city governments have placed historical markers at several of the ruined sites. Many of the more complete structures are open to the public. Analyzing the remains of these church complexes can help shed light on many aspects of colonial life. Thinking critically about the significance of the structures, artwork, and locations of each mission helps reveal the political, economic, social, and cultural history of the region.

The San Jose Mission in San Antonio, Texas is one of the most complete complexes in the southwest. It was built in the mid-eighteenth century to evangelize approximately 300 indigenous people. These individuals lived and worked there under the supervision of the church authorities. During the 1930s, the federal government funded an extensive renovation of the buildings. Today, it is a National Historic Park.

Primary Sources

Annotation:

The Spanish Crown claimed possession of vast territories throughout North, Central, and South America between the late-fifteenth and early and nineteenth centuries. The region that comprises the modern-day US Southwest served as borderlands between indigenous communities, and Spanish, French, and English colonies. It was not heavily populated with Spanish setters, but it did have military posts and missions. This church, the Misión Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Acuña (located in San Antonio, Texas), was established in the mid-eighteenth century by Franciscan friars. It was constructed from local limestone by the indigenous people who lived and worked in the community. Although none of the exterior paint had survived, its interior still features several examples of eighteenth century frescoes. These decorations also would have been completed with indigenous labor.

Teaching Strategies

Categories of Analysis

Militarization:
The walls of the structures themselves reveal the military quality of the missions. The San Jose Mission in San Antonio, Texas provides a strong example. The exterior stone walls of the complex are still standing. They fortified the settlement, and protected them from external attack. These tall walls created a clear boundary between the Spanish-controlled mission and the frontier region.

European Architectural Influence:
The church at the San Antonio Mission has one of the best preserved facades of all the remaining Spanish colonial churches in the US. Its baroque design and ornately carved figurative decoration were typical of Spanish churches built during the colonial period. However, such detailed decoration was less common in the remote, sparsely populated region of the Spanish frontier in North America.

Indigenous Life and Labor:
The San Jose Mission was designed to accommodate approximately 300 indigenous people. The tribal affiliations they possessed and languages they spoke varied considerably. They included Pampopa, Pastia, and Sulujam peoples. Their tiny, two-room living quarters lined the interior walls of the complex. Some of the homes also had exterior fireplaces, like the one in the image above. Under church supervision, the labor of the indigneous peoples built the structures and provided the foodstuffs and tools that sustained daily life for the community.

Bibliography

“A Historical View of the San Antonio Missions.” 2015. San Antonio Conservation Society Foundation. June 16, 2021.
“Mission San Jose.” 2018. World Heritage USA. June 16, 2021.
“San Antonio Missions.” 2021. National Park Service. June 16, 2021.
“San José y San Miguel de Aguayo Mission.” Texas State Historical Association handbook of Texas. June 16, 2021.
“Spanish Colonial Missions of the Southwest Travel Itinerary.” 2016. National Park Service. June 16, 2021.
“The California Missions.” California Missions Foundation. June 16, 2021.
“The Missions of New Mexico since 1776 (Historical Introduction).” 1980. National Park Service History. June 16, 2021.
“The Spanish Missions in Texas.” 2018. The Texas Almanac. June 16, 2021.

Credits

Created by Brittany Erwin.

How to Cite This Source
Source Collection: Analyzing Historic Churches in the Southwestern US in World History Commons,