The Journal of the Life and Culture of San Antonio

Naming San Antonio in 1691

by Frank W. Jennings

The events, as well as the modern commemoration, of two historic days often get confused in our town. The naming of San Antonio and the founding of the settlement occurred on two different days, 27 years apart. The anniversary of the naming of San Antonio, the first time people with Spanish lineage came here, and the birthday observance of the “founding” of San Antonio deserve distinction.

San Antonio was given its name on June 13, 1691, because that was the feast day of St. Anthony of Padua -- and the day that a Spanish expedition came to the river they called Rio San Antonio. But San Antonio was not founded until 1718, when its first mission and first presidio were established at San Pedro Springs. San Antonio's 250th birthday, the anniversary of the founding of the settlement, was celebrated in 1968, when San Antonio held its world's fair, HemisFair ‘68.

Two men wrote accounts of how San Antonio got its name; both men were present at the time. One, Father Damian Massanet wrote in his diary on June 13, 1691:

On this day, there were so many buffaloes that the horses stampeded and 40 head ran away. These were collected with the rest of the horses by hard work on the part of the soldiers. We found at this place the rancheria of the Indians of the Payaya nation. This is a very large nation and the country where they live is very fine. I called this place San Antonio de Padua, because it was his day. In the language of the Indians its is called Yanaguana....

I ordered a large cross set up [on the 14th], and in front of it built an arbor of cottonwood trees, where the altar was placed. All the priests said mass. High mass was attended by Governor Don Domingo Teran de los Rios, Captain Don Francisco Martinez, and the rest of the soldiers.... The Indians were present during these ceremonies....

Then I distributed among them rosaries, pocket knives, cutlery, beads and tobacco. I gave a horse to the captain [the Payaya chief].

Domingo Teran de los Rios, the leader of the expedition and governor of Coahuila y Texas, mentioned above by Father Massanet, also wrote an account of the discovery and naming of the place:

On the 13th, our royal standard and camp moved forward in the aforesaid easterly direction. We marched five leagues over a fine country with broad plains -- the most beautiful in New Spain. We camped on the banks of an arroyo, adorned by a great number of trees, cedars, willows, cypresses, osiers, oaks, and many other kinds.

This I called San Antonio de Padua, because we had reached it on his day. Here we found certain rancherias in which the Payaya nation live. We observed their actions, and I discovered that they were docile and affectionate, were naturally friendly, and were decidedly agreeable toward us. I saw the possibility of using them to form reducciones [Indians submitting to mission life] -- the first on the RioGrande, at the presidio, and another at this point.

A second expedition to the Rio San Antonio arrived on April 13, 1709. Father Isidro Felix de Espinosa, accompanied by Father Antonio Olivares, came to the northern reaches of New Spain with an expedition led by Captain Pedro de Aguirre, commander of the presidio of the Rio Grande del Norte.

Father Espinosa wrote:

We crossed a large plain in the same direction, and after going through a mesquite flat and some holm-oak groves we came to an irrigation ditch, bordered by many trees and with water enough to supply a town. It was full of taps or sluices of water, the earth being terraced. We named it San Pedro Spring (agua de San Pedro) and at a short distance we came to a luxuriant growth of trees, high walnuts, poplars, elms, and mulberries watered by a copious spring which rises near a populous rancheria of Indians of the tribes of Siupan, Chaulaames and some Sijames, numbering in all about 500 persons, young and old. The river, which is formed by this spring, could supply not only a village but a city, which could easily be founded here because of the shallowness of said river. This river not having been named by the Spaniards, we called it the river of San Antonio de Padua.

Finally, nine years later in 1718, an expedition led by Don Martin de Alarcon, Governor of Coahuila y Texas, reached this same area. The diarist of the group, Father Francisco Celiz, wrote about San Pedro Springs that, "in this place of San Antonio is a spring of water which is about three-fourths of a league from the principal river. In this location, in the very spot on which the villa of Bejar was founded, it is easy to secure water, but nowhere else."

On the first of May 1718, Father Antonio Olivares, a Franciscan missionary, established the mission of San Antonio de Valero which had been founded by the governor "about three- fourths of a league down the creek" from the presidio. Celiz continued:

On the 5th of May, the governor, in the name of his Majesty, took possession of the place called San Antonio, establishing himself in it, and fixing the royal standard with the requisite solemnity, the father chaplain having previously celebrated mass, and it was given the name of villa de Bejar. This site is henceforth destined for the civil settlement and the soldiers who are to guard it, as well as the site for the mission...

So that's how San Antonio was named in 1691 and founded officially on May 1, 1718 -- the date it celebrates its birthday.

Works Cited

Almaraz, Felix D. The San Antonio Missions and their System of Land Tenure. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992.
Chabot, Frederick, San Antonio and Its Beginnings, 1691-1731. San Antonio: Artes Graficas Printing Co., 1936.
De la Teja, Jesus. San Antonio de Bexar: A Community on New Spain’s Northern Frontier. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995.
Ramsdell, Charles. San Antonio: A Historical and Pictorial Guide. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1959.
Robles, Vito Alessio. Coahuila y Texas en la época colonia. Mexico City: Editorial Cultura, 1938; 2d ed., Mexico City: Editorial Porrúa, 1978.


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