The Spanish Colonial era in Texas began with a system of missions and presidios, designed to spread Christianity and to establish control over the region. The missions were managed by friars from the order of St. Francis – the Franciscans — and were placed in lands that had been home to Native Americans for thousands of years. The missionaries hoped to spread Christianity and the Spanish culture to native groups. Presidios were the missions’ secular counterpart. The earliest were small garrisons of Spanish soldiers who protected travel along roadways. As towns began to grow around the presidios and the missions, the presidios’ role evolved into protecting not only roads, but also the developing Spanish missions and settlements. Under the Spanish crown, distinctions between religious and secular power were blurred. Together, the missions and presidios served as centers for that power – the foundations of a strategy to subdue and control the land and the people in what is now Texas.
The first Spanish missions were established in the 1680s near present-day San Angelo, El Paso and Presidio – areas that were closely tied to settlements in what is today New Mexico. In 1690, Spanish missions spread to East Texas after news surfaced of La Salle’s French settlements in the area. The Spanish settlers there encountered the Caddo Indians, who they called “Tejas” (derived from the Caddoan word “Tay-yas”, meaning friend).
The friendly relations between the Spanish and native peoples were short-lived, as the natives began to distrust the settlers. Throughout the Americas, European explorers and settlers brought disease and disruption to native peoples. In early settlements across the state, the Spanish engaged in a power struggle with local groups, with neither side ever declaring full victory over the other.
The missions and presidios were, however, a success for the Spanish crown in other important ways. Throughout the 1700s, Spanish Texas served as a buffer protecting the wealthier provinces to the south from both rival Europeans and independent Indian peoples. It was a time of turmoil in the region. Conflict among colonial powers was magnified by Spanish settlers arriving from the south and new groups of Native Americans, including the Comanches and Wichitas, making their way into Texas from the north.
During the century, San Antonio, founded in 1718, proved to be the most successful settlement, a combination of civilian, military, and mission communities. Evidence of the presidio and mission system can still be seen in San Antonio today, with the Alamo – the remains of Mission San Antonio Valero – and the nearby settlement at La Villita. Remains of an early outpost called La Bahía, which also included a presidio and missions, can be seen at today’s Goliad. And a settlement called Los Adaes served as the capital of Spanish Texas – in an area that is now a state park in Louisiana.
When the French turned over Louisiana to Spain at the end of the French and Indian War, the capital of Texas was transferred to San Antonio. Some of the residents of Los Adaes eventually established Nacogdoches at the site of an abandoned Caddo settlement. Aside from these successful communities, the Spanish experimented with establishing mission fields for various Indian groups, including Apaches, but never with long-term success.
Following the Louisiana Purchase, Spain began to reinforce Texas in order to protect its Mexican colony from its new neighbor, the United States. The Mexican War of Independence, which began in 1810, weakened Spanish control in Texas, which saw major battles fought between royalists and insurgents. In the process, Texas came to the attention of the Americans, some of whom claimed that Texas had been part of the Louisiana Purchase.
By the time Texas became a part of independent Mexico in 1821, the province had suffered widespread destruction. Among other things, pirates occasionally occupied Galveston Island and fortune-seekers, smugglers and revolutionaries periodically invaded Texas. Change brought by new Indian groups in the area continued, as the United States grew, and its frontier advanced farther west. That chaos gave the Hispanic population of Texas, the Tejanos, welcomed efforts to begin the orderly settlement of available lands by Anglo American farmers. The age of Mexican rule in Texas had begun.