In the language of the Indians, the river was called Yanaguana. The first Spanish explorers called it the San Antonio, " . . . because it was his day. "
Damian Massanet, 13 June 1691
In 1716 the Franciscan missionary, Fray Antonio de San Buenaventura y Olivares, recorded in a letter to the Spanish Viceroy in Mexico City one of the earliest known descriptions of the Indians who fished in the river and hunted along its banks:
They dress themselves in tanned deerskins, and the women the same, although they are covered to the feet. The men spend little concern on their dress, as some of them go about naked. They take part in mitotes, or dances, when they wish to go to war or when they have attained some victory over their enemies. They do this dance as if gripped by the hands by which they suffer various abuses, and these dances are causes of the murders which they commit on each other...Their languages are different; only by means of signs are they understood among all the nations. They are governed, and conduct their trade, with signs. Their customs are generally the same. Some are more spirited than others. They are very warlike among themselves, and they kill one another with ease, for things of little consequence, as they steal horses or women from each other. Yet their presence is agreeable. They are of smiling countenance and are accommodating to the padres and Spaniards. When they came to their rancherias they freely give them what they have to eat. They are very fond of Spanish dress. Soldiers often give them a hat, cloak, trousers, or other garment in pay for the work they do....Learning is easy for them, and they acquire use of the Spanish language with facility.
From its headsprings the river burst from the earth in one mighty gush of water, "sufficient for a city and the building of many mills."
Because of the river the city was born.
The river had always been a gathering place. Indian cultures flourished here from the time of Ice Age hunters. Their bones, their stone and flint tools, and the bones of the game they hunted have been discovered in nearby limestone caverns and rock shelters.
Along the Indian trails, now winding roads that follow the winding river, diggings have uncovered pieces of Spanish armor and horse bits dating from the 18th and 19th centuries.
The first European discoverers of Mexico and Texas had come from Caceres in the high arid plains of Spain where water was more precious than gold. They had sailed over the edge of the world in wind-swept ships, forging sea paths to the New World. Later explorers, men mounted on horses, crossed the dry, rolling plains of Northern Mexico, drawing a direct route from the Rio Bravo (the Rio Grande) at a crossing called Paso De Francia, to this river. These explorers measured a day’s march by the distance between water holes, springs, creeks and rivers.
Every exploration party had a cartographer who charted his caravel’s sea voyage. Overland parties mapped trails, identifying sources of fresh water.
Maps of new discoveries had once been the guarded property of the Spanish king, but with the invention of the printing press came a diffusion of knowledge. As the world expanded, maps became saleable merchandise.
Texas was first mapped in 1519 by Captain Alonso Alvarez de Pineda who sailed the Gulf Coast and discovered "very good land," bays and rivers "pleasing to the eye." His pilot Anton de Alaminos is said to have sailed with Columbus.
Alvarez de Pineda sketched the shoreline of the Gulf Coast from Florida to Vera Cruz, where he exchanged shots with Hernan Cortez who was saddling up for his conquest of Mexico. The Pineda map was a landmark.
Some historians believe Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca camped at the headwaters of the San Antonio River in the 1520s, which would make San Antonio one of the oldest historical sites in North America. De Vaca wrote of his 7 -year odyssey in his account, "Los Naufragios," ("The Shipwrecked Ones"), which is the first written description of Texas, of the Indian tribes, of the plant and wild life and watering holes. In it he describes a "cow with small horns and long hair," the first documentation of the American Bison, the buffalo. Cabeza de Vaca’s journal has been of inestimable value to anthropologists and historians.
Other historians credit the 17th Century explorer Alonso de Leon, kinsman of Ponce de Leon, with being the first European to camp at the headsprings in 1670. Over a period of six years, 1685 to 1690, De Leon led six expeditions into Texas looking for La Salle’s French Fort St. Louis. But it wasn’t until 1691 that the documented chronicle of this river began.
In that year, on June 13, the feast day of San Antonio de Padua, the expedition of Fray Damian Massanet, a Franciscan missionary, and Domingo Teran de Los Rios, first governor of Texas, pitched camp alongside a rancheria of friendly Indians. The grey robed missionary, following the order of the viceroy, recorded in his report:
I named this place San Antonio de Padua because it was his day. In the language of the Indians it is called Yanaguana.
The following morning in celebration of the feast day of Corpus Christi, Fray Massanet built an arbor of cottonwood trees where an altar was placed to offer Mass.
"The Indians were present during these ceremonies...and the military fired a great many salutes." The campaigners broke camp, raised their red and gold royal standard and marched out due east to the frontier of French Louisiana, to expel all foreigners and enforce the claims of their king.
From that day June 13, 1691, the Yanaguana has been called the San Antonio, and the river with its clear, flowing water became the most important refueling station for the Spanish entradas into Texas.
--Mary Ann Noonan Guerra,
excerpted from: The San Antonio River,
(San Antonio: The Alamo Press, 1987)