The Mission Reach of San Antonio

Many people visit the Alamo and never know that there are four additional missions nearby. I read online that each one is uniquely different and decided I would like to see them all.

Many of you may remember that I used to live in California where I guided tour groups. California history is similar to Texas history in that both states were in the boundaries of Nueva España and then Mexico, after being liberated from Spain, and both have Franciscan-established missions.

Inquiring at the San Antonio Visitors Center how to visit the other missions, I was given a map and learned: 1) you can drive or Uber; 2) the bus goes as far as the two closest missions; 3) the Mission Reach trail connects with all of the missions; 4) Mission Espada is the furthest one from downtown San Antonio about 10 miles away; 5) bicycle rental stations with both standard and electric bicycles are located at all of the missions and parks along the trail; 6) “BCycle” bicycle rental app shows the availability of bikes at each station.

The “Mission Reach” Hike & Bike Trail is a 2011 extension of the San Antonio Riverwalk along the San Antonio River connecting all 5 UNESCO World Heritage Missions in San Antonio: The Alamo, Mission Concepcion, Mission San Jose, Mission San Juan, and Mission Espada. Each mission is about 2.5 miles from the next. This is a safe and fun way to visit the missions.

Three East Texas missions had failed due to disease, drought, and shifting relations with France and were moved to the San Antonio River valley in 1731 joining San Antonio de Valero and San Jose. These five missions, a presidio (fort) and the 1731 settlement of the Canary Islanders formed the foundation for the city of San Antonio. Recognizing the missions’ significance, the city has worked to carefully preserve them.

There were lots of options! We opted to take Lyft out to the furthest mission and rent electric bicycles for the return journey to San Antonio, stopping at each mission. If one wearies, they can park the bike and call a cab.
San Francisco de la Espada was the third of the East Texas missions to be moved to the San Antonio River valley. Espada was the only mission that made bricks and was constructed with brick.
In my opinion, Mission Espada was the most unique and picturesque of the San Antonio Missions.
The interior of the chapel at Mission Espada.
Espada was 10 miles from the village. Early pioneers would worship at its chapel and during times of danger gather inside the mission’s walls.

History of the Spanish Missions in Texas

Spain felt threatened by French encroachments from Louisiana, therefore in 1690 it stepped up its colonization northward from New Spain (present-day Mexico) by establishing six missions along the San Antonio River. The missions in modern-day Texas make up the largest concentration of Catholic missions in North America. (Hmmm, not California?)

Franciscan missions served both Church and State and were financed by the Crown of Spain. As an arm of the church, the mission was to convert the Indians. As an agent of the state, the mission helped push the empire northward and expand Spanish culture.

The Franciscans took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and pledged to serve as protectors of the Indians. they also helped the Crown as explorers, cartographers, diplomats, scientific observers, and chroniclers.

The Coahuiltecans were willing recruits for the missionaries. In exchange for labor and conversion to Catholicism, Indians received food and refuge in the missions. Although some fled the missions to return to their old life, most accepted Catholicism and actively took part in Spanish society.

It was Spanish policy that missionaries make mission community life like a Spanish village’s life. To develop a solid economy, they taught Mission Indians vocations. Men learned to weave cloth and make shoes. Blacksmiths repaired farm implements. Others learned carpentry, masonry, and stone-cutting for building elaborate buildings. Most men and boys worked in the fields, orchards, gardens or quarries. Women and girls learns to cook, sew, and spin, tend gardens, and make soap, pottery and candles.

The missions of San Antonio were not only self-sufficient, but they supported settlements and the nearby presidio.

By 1824 the San Antonio Missions were secularized, the lands distributed among the inhabitants and the churches were transferred to secular clergy.

Leaving the Mission Espada, we found the Trail and “BCycle” station. We chose two electric bikes and headed down the Mission Reach trail. It was well-signed, had lots of art installations such as this “Tree of Life” and resting places.
Our next stop was Mission San Juan Capistrano which was also relocated from East Texas in 1731. Massive stone walls around each compound gave residents security from enemies. A gatekeeper lived in a cell right inside the main gate who carefully scrutinized all outsiders before allowing them to enter the secure, enclosed world of the mission and barricaded it at night. Soldiers from the nearby presidio taught the Indians to use European arms.
San Juan de Capistrano’s fertile farmland would make it a regional producer of produce including growing peaches, melons, pumpkins, grapes, peppers, corn, beans, sweet potatoes, squash and sugar cane. At one time their herds included 3500 sheep and nearly as many cattle.
The chapel at Mission San Juan de Capistrano.
Inside the chapel at San Juan de Capistrano.
Biking to the next mission. The trail was well marked and there were just a few times that the trail required riding on the surface streets.
Water, timber and wildlife in the rich San Antonio River valley attracted Spanish explorers. Noting the Coahuiltecan Indians nearby, Fray Antonio Margil de Jesus established a second mission, San Jose, in 1720.
The Spanish missions were more than just a church, they were communities. Each was a fortified village with its own church, farm and ranch.
Within the walls Indians lived, worked, attended classes and worshipped. Built into the thick walls surrounding the mission compound would be storage, workshops, kitchens, granary, Soldier’s barracks and Indian living quarters. Note the “beehive” oven on the far left.
San Jose was called the “Queen of the Missions.” Visitors praised its unique architecture and rich fields and pastures.
Interior of the church at Mission San Jose.
Beautiful European style ruins in Texas! The remains of a 2-story convent that housed missionaries and lay assistants.
Dams have been built on the San Antonio River since the 1700s when missionaries and native Americans diverted river water by hand digging ditches to irrigate their crops. New dams were constructed in the 1800s for factories and mills. Over the years many washed away in floods. Flood control projects were constructed in 1900s.
The San Antonio River.
The mission of Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción was transferred from East Texas in 1731.
The church looks essentially as it did in the mid-1700s. It is the best preserved of the missions.
Colorful interior paintings are still visible although much faded.
The area inside the walled grounds from which the stone was quarried to build the mission church.
Mission San Antonio de Valero is commonly called the Alamo. Founded in 1718, over 300 years ago, it was the first mission on the San Antonio River. Today, it sits in the center San Antonio which has grown up all around it.

Once again, we started at the furthest mission – Mission Espada and worked our way back to town stopping at San Juan de Capistrano, then San José, then Concepción and finally by cruising past San Antonio de Valero known as the Alamo in downtown San Antonio before parking our bikes at a BCycle station near our hotel.

We had a great day cycling along the river. The trail was in excellent condition, nice and wide with plenty of room to pass other walkers and bikers. There were moderate hills, but the battery-assist electric bikes made it a breeze! The temperature was perfect for getting fresh air and exercise while enjoying the beautiful scenery.

Entrance to the missions was free to visit and there were toilet facilities. I highly recommend visiting all the San Antonio missions, but especially doing it while biking The Mission Reach!

This is the final post of four posts from our San Antonio trip. Here are links to the other posts: The Cost of Travel: San Antonio, San Antonio and the Riverwalk, Remember The Alamo!

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