Journal Of The Life And Culture Of San Antonio

The First Civil Settlement in Texas

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The first Spanish-speaking settlers began to group around the San Antonio River in 1718 when the mission and presidio (fort) were established. The first settlement, called the Villa de Bexar, was little more than civilian housing for families of soldiers stationed at the presidio, and did not qualify under Spanish law as an official town.

In 1722 the Marques de Aguayo urged the establishment of an officially recognized civil settlement to strengthen Spain's claims to Texas. Within a year the King of Spain made a formal proposal to Spaniards living in the Canary Islands to settle in New Spain. It took six years for the expedition to be fully organized, and on February 14, 1729, the final orders for embarkation were issued. The King of Spain completely funded the trip through Havana and Vera Cruz, and provided for all necessities along the journey.

At 11 a.m., March 9, 1731, fifteen families totaling about fifty-five Canary Island settlers filed into the Presidio of San Antonio de Bexar to lay claim to their right to settle and own land along the San Antonio River. By August plowing and planting had been concluded, a town site had been laid out on a low, flat hill "about a musket shot from the presidio," and civilian officials had been elected. The tiny municipality was "legally and officially recognized."

This settlement, at what is now La Plaza de las Islas, was the first permanent civil settlement in Texas. The Islanders named their town the "Villa de San Fernando" in honor of the Spanish prince, Don Fernando, who succeeded to the throne in 1746 as King Ferdinand VI. In 1738 the cornerstone of the Church of San Fernando was laid marking the beginning of the first parish church in Texas.

The first formal census of San Antonio, dated December 31, 1788, refers to the township as the Villa de San Fernando; the entire group of settlements, the Villa, the mission with its pueblo, and the presidio are referred to as San Antonio de Bexar. In 1823, after the Spaniards were expelled from Mexico, an election provided for the subdivision of Texas into five separate territories with San Antonio de Bexar as the capital of the entire Province. The 1836 Constitution of the Republic of Texas provided for the reorganization of the old municipalities into counties. Present Bexar County was thus created, with San Antonio de Bexar as the county seat. This name change of San Antonio for the original Villa was confirmed on June 5, 1837.

On December 14, 1837, the old settlement of San Antonio de Valero, in the county of Bexar, was declared a "body politic and corporate" with the title of "City of San Antonio."

 

--Mary Ann Noonan Guerra,

excerpted from: The San Antonio River,

(San Antonio: The Alamo Press, 1987)