By Fred Swegles
Everyone remembers the Alamo. We learned about it in school.
But did we also learn that the Alamo began in 1718 as a Spanish mission not named Alamo? Or that 13 years later, just down the road, another Texas church was christened as Mission San Juan Capistrano?
Mission San Juan, as locals call it, is today an active church and a tourist attraction, part of San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, run by the National Park Service.
Founded in 1731, the Franciscan mission was converting indigenous people to Christianity 45 years before Franciscan Junipero Serra founded his own Mission San Juan Capistrano 1,200 miles west, in California, in 1776.
The Alamo, for all its notoriety, is but one of 28 Catholic missions built across Texas from 1632 to 1793.
The first was Mission San Clemente in 1632. It didn’t last, nor did a second Mission San Clemente attempted in 1684. Both were about 200 miles northwest of San Antonio. Hostile Apaches weren’t having it.
You won’t find any trace of Mission San Clemente today — just four historic markers, miles apart from each other.
The Alamo didn’t appear until 86 years after the first Mission San Clemente. The Alamo— renowned as a fortress—was actually Mission San Antonio de Valero.
Today, the Alamo is the jewel of San Antonio, operated as a tourist attraction by the State of Texas. San Antonio Missions National Historical Park showcases Mission San Juan and three other San Antonio missions.
“Each was a fortified village with its own church, farm and ranch,” a storyboard at Mission San Juan states. “Here, Franciscan friars gathered native peoples, converted them to Catholicism, taught them to live as Spaniards and helped maintain Spanish control over the Texas frontier.”
Mission San Juan includes trails, ruins, a museum and a San Antonio River walk.
“There is also a Mission San Juan Capistrano in the California mission system,” the website TexasMissionGuide.com says.
Visitors to the Alamo relive Texas’ daring 19th Century revolt from Mexico and a brutal 1836 battle in which 200 vastly outnumbered Texan defenders were overwhelmed by Mexican forces.
Mission San Juan Capistrano is about eight miles south.
Texas' Mission San Juan Capistrano remains an active Catholic Church in San Antonio, Texas. Photo: Fred Swegles
Visitors to Texas' Mission San Juan Capistrano can purchase a T-shirt depicting the four missions that comprise San Antonio Missions National Historic Park. Photo: Fred Swegles
The back side of Texas' Mission San Juan Capistrano has a stone surface. The front side has been rehabilitated with a smooth white surface. Photo: Fred Swegles
The National Park Service presents storyboards at Texas' Mission San Juan Capistrano so visitors can imagine how it would have looked during the 1700s. Photo: Fred Swegles
The Alamo, otherwise known as Mission San Antonio de Valero, is San Antonio's most popular tourist attraction, about eight miles north of Mission San Juan Capistrano. Photo: Fred Swegles
You aren't likely to find any swallows today at Texas' Mission San Juan Capistrano, but other species do pay a visit. Photo: Fred Swegles
About 200 miles northwest of Texas' Mission San Juan Capistrano, swallows can sometimes be found along a river that used to be known as Rio San Clemente, near where Texas' first mission, Mission San Clemente, was started in 1632 and restarted in 1684. Neither mission lasted.
Texas' Mission San Juan Capistrano, located in San Antonio, is 45 years older than California's Mission San Juan Capistrano. It remains an active church as well as a tourist attraction, part of San Antonio Missions National Historic Park. Photo: Fred Swegles
Life at Mission San Juan
“Only a fraction of the buildings of the self-sustaining community that was Mission San Juan can still be seen above ground today,” a storyboard states. “Archaeology and old Spanish records provide clues to help us imagine this settlement of as many as 200 souls.”
Morning bells called the mission community to prayer, before breakfast. Franciscans taught the natives daily chores to perform. Boys older than age 12 learned to ride horses and herd livestock. Women tanned hides, ground grains and made pottery, baskets, candles and soap. Men underwent military training. Hunting, fishing, tending farms and harvesting were among the workloads.
As the community evolved, the natives’ culture based on hunting and gathering waned. “Adaptations expected of the natives were more than many could endure,” a storyboard says. “Natives left and returned, depending on food sources, Apache threats, epidemics and their commitment to Spanish life ways and Catholicism. Those who remained adapted to the Hispanic culture but continued to maintain cultural elements of their bands.”
Mission San Juan was a Spanish outpost along a royal road from Mexico known as El Camino Real—same name as Southern California’s El Camino Real that later would link 21 West Coast missions, including our Mission San Juan Capistrano.
What about Swallows?
The mission may have once had a migratory bird population—swallows—a trademark of California’s Mission San Juan. Swallows aren’t evident today.
About 200 miles northwest of Mission San Juan, swallows can be found outside the town of Ballinger along a rural stretch of river once called “the Glorious San Clemente.”
The website TexasMissionGuide.com describes Mission San Clemente as a modest wooden structure built in the wilderness in 1632 near the joining of two rivers, the Rio Concho and Rio San Clemente.
The first Mission San Clemente lasted six months. Harassed by hostile Apaches, the Spaniards departed, promising to return to local Jumano Indians who desired an alliance, historians said. More than 50 years later, the mission was restarted “by the expedition of Juan Dominguez de Mendoza while it was camped on a river named the ‘Glorious San Clemente,’ from March 16 to May 1, 1684,” says the Texas State Historical Association.
This second Mission San Clemente didn’t last, either.
In Search of Mission SC
“The exact location (of Mission San Clemente) is not known,” says TexasMissionGuide.com. “There are several different historical markers in the area claiming to mark the site of the mission.”
The best-known marker is along Highway 83, between Ballinger and Paint Rock. The river that early Spanish explorers called the San Clemente flows through Ballinger. Rio Concho bisects Paint Rock.
The two rivers join, east of Paint Rock, at what is now a reservoir. A little known Mission San Clemente historic marker stands along the banks. It’s on private property, inaccessible to the public.
Ten miles south in Millersview, Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church erected its own monument in 1984 to mark the 300th anniversary of the second Mission San Clemente.
San Angelo, Texas, maintains a scenic Concho River Walk that includes a historic marker commemorating the 1632 founding of Mission San Clemente “near this site.”
None of these historic markers mentions “Rio San Clemente.” The name Rio San Clemente faded into history after the 1684 demise of the mission. The former river “San Clemente” now is just a short leg of a much longer river, Rio Colorado. It runs 862 miles from northwestern Texas into the Gulf of Mexico.
Texas’ Colorado River
Texas’ biggest river has the same name as a more famous Colorado River that winds some 1,450 miles from Colorado into Mexico. That Colorado River supplies South Orange County cities San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente with much of their water.
Texas’ Colorado is no slouch. It’s “truly the lifeblood of our state,” Texas’ Colorado River Alliance proclaims.
When explorer Mendoza eyeballed “the Glorious San Clemente” in 1684, little did he know that he could have followed the river all the way to the gulf.
The state capital, Austin, lines its stretch of the Colorado with a riverwalk. About 150 miles downstream, the Colorado empties into the gulf.
There, in 1685, French explorer La Salle tried unsuccessfully to establish a French colony. Its brief presence startled the Spanish, helping to assure the demise of Mission San Clemente.
La Salle “landed 180 colonists at Matagorda Bay in Spanish-claimed territory,” the Texas State Historical Association says. A reverent granite statue of La Salle rises 40 feet above of the bayshore near Indianola, Texas.
Fred Swegles is a longtime San Clemente resident with more than 46 years of reporting experience in the city. Fred can be reached at email@example.com.