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Attempts at Native Conversions along the Rio Grande

photograph of the San Bernardo Mission Church
Buzzards swirl above the ruins of the San Bernardo Mission church, the only structure remaining of the "Gateway" mission and presidio complex in Guerrero, Mexico. Begun in 1760 using local travertine stone, the church —in its second location at the Rio Grande site—was never completed. Photo by Bobby Inman.
map of Coahuila and Nueva Leon
Inset from 1729 map of Coahuila and Nuevo Leon, showing Missions Guerrero and San Juan Bautista along the Rio Grande. Map by Francisco Alvarez Barreiro, courtesy of the Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. Enlarge image
=image can be enlarged.

This complex, symbolizing military and religious might, was a key installation for the Spanish as they looked toward the Northern Frontier. The town of Guerrero, its missions, and fortress, were to become the "Gateway to Spanish Texas."

photograph of the excavation
At the western end of the Indian housing at San Juan Bautista, archeologists excavated a circular wall footing, roughly 8 meters in diameter. Thought to be a defensive bastion, the feature is similar to structural remains found at Missions San Jose and Espada in San Antonio. Raids on the missions by more warlike Indians were a continual threat in the 1700s. Photo by Thomas R. Hester. Enlarge image
map of Mission San Bautista
Map of Mission San Juan Bautista in its third location (1740) on a hillside west of the presidio site. Archeologists uncovered remains of the probable granary, a well or cistern, the native housing area, and midden (trash) deposits. (Map adapted from Eaton 1989.) Enlarge image
photo of the excavation
Excavations at Calle de los Indios (the Indian apartments) on the north side of San Bernardo. Photo by Thomas Hester. Enlarge image
photograph of church dome and walls
View of the church dome and walls at Mission San Bernardo. Photo by Bobby Inman. Enlarge image
photograph of Indian housing
View from atop church at Mission San Bernardo, looking north toward remains of Indian housing. Photo by Jack Eaton. Enlarge image
Census of families and tribal groups residing at Mission San Juan Bautista in 1772, near the end of operations. Note the diverse native groups ennumerated. Translation of records courtesy of Feliz Almaraz (Almaraz 1980). Enlarge image
Download full record as a Download pdfpdf.

Download 1772 census from Mission San Bernardo as a Download pdfpdf.

The year was 1699 and a Spanish force, including Franciscan monks from Queretero in central Mexico, moved north to Monclova, Coahuila intent on settling land claimed by Spain and bringing the Christian religion to the native peoples they encountered. Precious metals were also part of the Spanish quest, as was finding a labor force to work the mines and mission fields.

The mission the Franciscans founded at Monclova (about 120 miles southwest of Laredo) was not successful and was closed. The 1699 move would push the frontier northward to the Rio Grande and beyond. They established the new northern gateway at a well-watered locality where today lies the small village of Guerrero, Coahuila, about 30 miles south of Eagle Pass, Texas. The surrounding area on both sides of the Rio Grande had been occupied by small, mobile groups of hunters and gatherers for a least 13,000 years.

This part of northeastern Mexico has a very dry climate, lying in the rain shadow (rain-poor, leeward side) of the rugged Sierra Madre Oriental mountains. In the past, freshwater springs, termed ojos de agua, emanated near present day Guerrero, creating an oasis in the desert-like lands of northern Coahuila. The springs carried a high charge of travertine in solution and these deposits formed a natural dam sometime in the ancient past, creating a large lake (laguna) and a smaller lake behind it.

Several fords (pasos) across the nearby Rio Grande made this locality particularly attractive to the Spanish. These fords undoubtedly had been used as traditional river crossing points throughout prehistoric times. They were to become critical to Spanish efforts in settling and supplying the frontier.

By 1700, construction of buildings was underway. Soon, three missions and a presidio had been established: San Juan Bautista (January, 1700), San Francisco Solano (March, 1700), and San Bernardo (1702). The missions were situated in a triangular pattern around the important springs and lakes. Initially, a mobile cavalry unit was assigned to protect the missions, later a permanent garrison, Presidio San Juan Bautista, was erected. This complex, symbolizing military and religious might, was a key installation for the Spanish as they settled the northern frontier of New Spain. The town of Guerrero, its missions, and fortress, were to become the "Gateway to Spanish Texas."

Investigations at the Missions

The Gateway missions were the focus of a two-year study undertaken in the 1970s by the Center for Archaeological Research at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA). Led by project director R. E. W. Adams and archeologists Jack Eaton, and Thomas R. Hester, the Gateway Project conducted excavations, historical research, and ethnohistoric studies of Indian groups concentrated in the missions of San Bernardo and San Juan Bautista. Work at San Bernardo uncovered the original surface of the mission quadrangle, workshops and living quarters of the priests, and foundations of six long structures built to house native peoples and arranged in rows along a street, termed “calle de los indios.” According to records, the buildings were made of adobe with travertine footings. At the San Juan Bautista site, the church, priest’s quarters, workshops, and Indian housing were excavated. At both sites, chipped stone tools, ceramic sherds, and animal bone were recovered.

Historians, including Felix Almaraz of UTSA and T. N. Campbell of the University of Texas at Austin, culled Spanish records for insights into the mission population and how the traditional hunter-gatherers adapted to a sedentary, agrarian way of life. The names of nearly 90 Native American groups from northeastern Mexico and southern Texas were identified in mission census lists and other accounts. Campbell’s data, compiled from ecclesiastical, military, and personal accounts, enabled him to link the Pacuache, one of the native groups living at San Bernardo in 1775, to their former homeland range in Dimmit and Zavala counties and possibly to the Tortuga Flat (learn more) archeological site, radiocarbon dated to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

The following sections provide a brief overview of the Indians connected to the missions along with examples of the items they left behind, many indicating their reluctance to abandon traditional lifeways.

Mission Indians in their New Life

During the early 1700s, the native hunter-gatherers from northern Mexico and southern Texas were brought into the missions along with other Indian groups who were recent immigrants into the area. To the northwest, upon and beyond the Edwards Plateau, many small groups already had been displaced by aggressive mounted raiders, the Comanche and Apache peoples. The stone walls of the missions, guarded by Spanish soldiers from the presidio, appeared to offer refuge.

Many of the native groups of the region were described by the Spanish as aggressive, belligerent, nomadic, and in need of indoctrination. The native groups of northeastern Mexico (and adjacent Southern Texas) are often labeled as "Coahuiltecans," a term that can be applied properly only as a geographical term, rather than as an ethnic classification. It was once believed that most of the small native groups of the region all spoke dialects of the same language-Coahuilteco. Later work revealed the extent of the native people's linguistic and ethnic diversity. Among the aboriginal languages spoken in the region were: Coahuilteco, Comecrudo, Cotoname, Solano, Karankawa, Aranama and Sanan. At least six different languages were found among the groups who came to the Rio Grande missions.

Spanish mission documents record what at first glance appears to be a success story. According to the historian Espinosa, a typical day was framed morning and evening with prayers which the natives learned to recite in Castillian. In addition to instruction in religion, the Indians were taught to plow fields, grow crops and fruit trees, maintain herds of domestic animals, and weave cotton and wool into cloth. Several boys were organized into an a capella choir.

Baptisms of native children were special events following long periods of instruction by the friars. Carefully groomed and dressed, the young Indians lined up to be assigned godparents, couples from the presido, as well as given Christian names. Census records from the late 1700s ennumerate the Spanish Christian names of members of native familes along with names of their tribal groups—Mescal, Pacoa, Pampopa, Pacuache, Canoa, Payaya, Aguayan, among others —in a curious blending of western and indigenous traditions.

At times, there were as many as 300 Indians counted in the mission census with baptisms taking place periodically. Such good reports were important to the friars and other interested Spanish officials as they insured more funding of the missions on the northern frontier.

In This Section:

drawing of a Franciscan friar
A Franciscan friar at Mission San Bernardo. The missionary's traditional habit is tied with a cord tied with three knots symbolizing the order's vows: poverty, chastity, and obedience. Drawing by Jose Cisneros, courtesy of the Bexar County Historical Commission. Enlarge image
map of Guerrero
Map of Guererro showing locations of missions San Juan Bautista, Bernardo, and Solano, Presidio del Rio Grande, and the springs (Las Brutas). See full map. Enlarge image
See 1729 map.
native population and inventory report
Native population and inventory, Mission San Juan Bautista, from Report of Mission San Juan Bautista, Oct. 23, 1706, by Fray Isidro de Espinosa. (Table 1, Almaraz 1979). Enlarge image
photo of excavated red-tiled floor
The red-tiled floor of the mission granary was uncovered during excavation of a long trench. Spanish accounts indicate that the clay tile allowed too many rodents to enter the storehouse, so they laid a layer of fill and large flagstones over the tile. Photo by Thomas Hester. Enlarge image
plan of Mission San Bernardo
Plan of Mission San Bernardo drawn by archeologist Jack Eaton. Note the native housing. Researchers speculated that the six elongate structures originally may have been divided into multiple apartments, which would explain the reference in a 1772 mission inventory to 40 houses having been completed. Click to enlarge. (Map adapted from Eaton 1989.) Enlarge image
title page of Novena booklet
Title page and frontispiece of Novena booklet used at Mission San Juan Bautista. Image courtesy of Felix Almaraz, Jr. Enlarge image
photograph of a basalt mano
photograph of "tinklers"
photograph of scrapers
Native-made artifacts. From left to right, a basalt mano, or hand stone used for grinding plant food; center, "tinklers," or ornaments, made of marine oliva shell; a selection of chipped stone tools, including bifaces and unifacial scrapers. Enlarge image
drawing of a Coahuiltecan
A Coahuiltecan Indian in traditional dress, as depicted by Frank Weir. Enlarge image
photograph of metal arrow point
Signs of European influence. Metal arrow points, fashioned from iron barrel staves and other materials, were made not only by European and American manufacturers for trade with the Indians but also by the native people themselves. Photo by Thomas R. Hester. See more. Enlarge image
photograph of use wear
Microscopic view (at 200X magnification) of a chipped-stone hide scraper (right) from Mission San Bernardo. Among the striations produced from using the tool in a pushing motion, the analyst noted polish indicating the effects of grit particles (dry hide polish). Circle in photo denotes area of microwear depicted at left. Enlarge image

Keeping to the Old Ways

The story of the native people at the missions, however, is sometimes at odds with the archeological evidence and with additional historic records, indicating a far more complex picture. It is doubtful that the native people counted in the census became permanent mission residents. Attempts to imprint Spanish cultural ways were short-lived. Although the Spanish introduced domesticated animals (cattle, sheep, goats and horses) and planted crops with Indian labor, the Indians continued to make and use stone tools, hunt wild game with bows and arrows, and gather traditional plant foods. It is likely they viewed the mission as but another source to augment resources obtained in their hunting and gathering rounds, as has been suggested by Robert Ricklis for the Karankawa at Mission Rosario. While at the missions the Indians continued other traditions such as the dancing of mitotes, the Spanish noting that the Indians went to the woods to dance their "pagan dances."

Perhaps wisely, the native people were reluctant to give up the flexible way of life they knew well and could control (nomadic hunting and gathering) in exchange for the agricultural crops and domesticated animal foods upon which the Spanish relied. Raising European foods in fixed localities within an arid land was subject to the vagaries of nature. Indeed, at times when the crops at the missions did not thrive (documents indicate the year 1727 was such a year), the native people provided wild game and plant foods such as sotol bulbs and prickly pear pads to supplement the mission food supply.

There were other hardships. European diseases periodically devastated the native populations, who had no resistance to the germs, and the friars could do little to help. Relations between the Spaniards and native peoples was not always harmonious. In 1715 the Indians of San Bernardo and San Juan Bautista rebelled over harsh treatment by the presidial soldiers.

Stone tools made by the natives and recovered by archeologists-arrow points, scrapers, flake tools, perforators, choppers, grinding stone fragments-as well as bone and shell tools and ornaments attest to the persistence of the traditional native ways. Signs of Spanish influence, however, were obvious as well, including arrow points made of metal and wine-bottle glass and gunflints chipped from stone.

Analysis of the stone tools indicates that the majority of the chert (flint) was obtained from local sources and many pieces appeared to have been heat-treated. Careful heating of chert pieces improves flaking characteristics of the often poor-quality and small size of the tool stone of the South Texas Plains. The knappers reduced chert river cobbles to useful tools using several flaking methods, including the bi-polar technique. This method involves striking a small cobble resting on a stone anvil with a hammerstone, thus creating simultaneous fractures from opposite ends. The wedge-shaped flakes resulting from this technique could be easily shaped into gunflints.

Examination of some of the chipped-stone tools tools under high magnification showed polish and striations characteristic of use in processing animal products (hide/meat) as well as plant materials. The faunal materials recovered from the missions also show that the leg bones of larger animals were routinely broken to extract the rich marrow. In addition to large species such as deer and domesticated cattle (possibly bison as well), rodents, rabbit, peccary also were represented in the recovered animal bone, as well as Rabdotus land snails and freshwater mussels.

It is likely the natives incorporated the missions into their seasonal hunting and gathering rounds and used the mission resources that did not offend their core values. Indeed, Spanish records state it was difficult to keep the natives at the missions. Some moved from one mission to another while others abandoned the missions altogether and returned to their ancient traditions.

A New Arrow Point Style

photograph of desert plants
Cacti, mesquite, and other thorny desert plants line the old road near Mission San Juan Bautista. Indians periodically left the mission confines to gather cactus fruits, cactus pads, mesquite beans, and other traditional foods, at times supplying much-needed rations for the friars. Photo by Betty Inman. Enlarge image




It is likely the native peoples viewed the mission as but another source from which to augment resources obtained in their hunting and gathering rounds.

stone tool
A stone mano, or grinding stone, from the mission was used by native peoples to process plant foods--perhaps domesticated crops such as corn as well as wild plants. Photo by Thomas hester. See more. Enlarge image
photograph of Guerrero arrow points
Guerrero arrow points from the Gateway missions. The adoption and use of this single arrow point style by mission Indians on the Rio Grande and its spread throughout the south Texas missions attests to the movement of native peoples and widespread trade networks. Photo by Thomas R. Hester. Enlarge image
drawing of a Guerrero point
This lanceolate example of a Guerrero point from a south Texas mission site is shown in a enlarged view to illustrate the fine parallel flaking. The point measures roughly two inches in length. Drawing by Kathy Roemer from Turner and Hester 1985:177. See more examples Enlarge image
photograph of church interior
A cross hangs on the wall of the baptistry at the Mission San Bernardo church. This small room with domed ceiling originally contained a baptismal font for baptising new babies. Photo by Bobby Inman. Enlarge image
photograph of modern-day Guerrero
Pastel-colored stucco buildings line the streets of modern-day Guerrero. Photo by Bobby Inman Enlarge image
photograph of visitors
Visitors at the church include Bobby and Betty Inman (top left), John and Ruth Stockley (center), and Linda and Thomas R. Hester (top right). Hester led field work at the missions. Inman, author of this exhibit, analyzed the lithic tools of the mission Indians. Enlarge image

The stone tool assemblages from the Gateway missions are marked by the appearance of a new style of arrow point - the Guerrero point. This distinctive, stemless, triangular arrow point has been found in most mission settings across Texas. Although this is the earliest known occurrence of this new arrow point style, it is unclear whether it originated at the Gateway missions. The contexts in which it was found-in and around the mission compound (the Indian housing area and middens) and the extended occupation periods (San Bernardo and San Juan Bautista were not secularized until 1794)-make it difficult to precisely date the introduction of the new point style.

Some archeologists see the Guerrero style arrow point as a continuation of the long prehistoric tradition of making unstemmed projectile points in south Texas and northeastern Mexico. The persistence of this tradition for over 5,000 years has been attributed to the region's lithic resources, which were of a generally uneven quality and could be found only in some areas (Learn More). Sources such as the Rio Grande gravels typically yield small chert cobbles from which it was easier to fashion unstemmed dart points than notched and elaborately shaped styles, although versions of the latter clearly were made and used in the region. The native peoples living in the missions may have continued the long tradition of making unstemmed points and created their own version suitable for bow and arrow weaponry.

The extensive trade network among the native groups in the Spanish missions suggests that Guerrero points may have been traded along with other goods. Early records show decorated bison and cow hides were being traded among the Gateway missions and other missions in Texas. Perhaps this new point type resulted from a changed subsistence which now included domesticated animals brought by the Spanish or perhaps it was a means to show solidarity of the diverse cultural groups whose land had been invaded by the foreigners. Curtis Tunnell, in his study of Mission San Lorenzo de la Santa Cruz on the Edwards Plateau, suggests that the Guerrero point may have been introduced by the Lipan Apache as they spread southward. Very late sites on the Plains bear examples of similar triangular arrow point styles. On the other hand, as Hester pointed out in his preliminary analysis of the Gateway lithic artifacts, the Apache in south Texas were frequently hostile to the mission enclaves, not part of it. Regardless of the mechanism behind it, the spread of the Guerrero point type among such disparate groups over such a short period of time is remarkable.

Decline of the Gateway Missions

Missions San Bernardo and San Juan Bautista continued in operation for more than 120 years, making them two of the oldest and most successful missions. The third Gateway mission, San Solana, was short-lived at the site; it's staff was relocated two decades after its establishment, moving on to a much more heralded future.

In April, 1718, Don Martin de Alarcon and Padre Fray Antonio de San Buenaventura y Olivares traveled northward to establish another mission settlement which would grow into the city of San Antonio. Thus San Solana became Mission Valero (the Alamo), the first of the chain of five missions that would ultimately be founded along the San Antonio River.

The two remaining Gateway missions played a significant role in sustaining the new San Antonio missions, enabling the flow of supplies to them and advancing settlement of the northern frontier. Over the decades, however, as new missions were instituted in other areas, there were calls to secularize the Rio Grande complex. The old missions hung on, however, as others failed.

Finally it was determined that progress in converting the Indians to Christianity was "imperceptible." In 1781 Missions San Bernardo and San Juan Bautista were transferred to the missionary college of Pachuca. San Bernardo's Indian population had declined to 103, San Juan Bautista's to 169. Official orders of secularization were issued in 1794, although both missions continued to work with the Indians. By 1829, mission lands had been divided and alloted to settlers.

A visit to the area today, near the small village of Guerrero (approximately 30 miles southeast of Eagle Pass, Texas), finds the standing remains of the Church at San Bernardo. The structure was partially restored by the Mexican government in the 1970's. While the springs are still present, the large lake so vital to the mission complex no longer exists, due to the dynamiting of the dam in the early 20th century.

Credits and Sources

The Gateway Missions exhibit was contributed by Betty Inman, with additional writing by TBH editor Susan Dial. Inman holds a Masters in Anthropology degree from the University of Texas at Austin. She has worked on a variety of early historic and mission sites in south Texas including Mission Espiritu Santo at Victoria (41VT11) and Fort St. Louis and as a staff member for the LCRA's Nightengale Archeological Center in Kingsland. Her current interests include reconstruction of Caddo ceramics for Archeological and Environmental Consultants. UT-Austin Professor Emeritus Thomas R. Hester, who worked on the Gateway project, consulted in the creation of this exhibit.

photograph of Guerrero points
Guererro points vary from triangular to lanceolate in shape and often have fine parallel flaking. The specimens shown here were recovered from Mission Bernardo. See more examples Enlarge image

The success of the Gateway missions enabled the flow of supplies to the missions at San Antonio and advanced settlement of the northern frontier.

photograph of interior corridor
Arched windows bring light into an interior corridor at the San Bernardo church. Note the depth of the stone walls, a feature which helped insulate the church. Photo by Bobby Inman. Enlarge image
chart of occupation dates
Dates of occupation of missions at Guerrero and elsewhere in southern Texas. Chart adapted from Inman 1997. Enlarge image

Print Sources

Adams, R. E. W.
1997   Archaeological Investigations at the Gateway Missions. In the Archaeology and Ethnohistory of the Gateway Area, Middle Rio Grande, Texas. Final report to the National Endowment for the Humanities, by the University of Texas at San Antonio. (Copy on file at UTSA-CAR and TARL UT-Austin.)

Almaraz, Felix D., Jr.
1980   Inventory of the Rio Grande Missions: San Juan Bautista and San Bernardo. Center for Archaeological Research, University of Texas at San Antonio.

1979   Crossroads of Empire: The Church and State on the Rio Grande Frontier of Coahuila and Texas, 1700-1821. Center for Archaeological Research, University of Texas at San Antonio.

Campbell, T. N.
1988   The Indians of Texas and Northeastern Mexico: Selected Writings of Thomas Nolan Campbell. Texas Archeological Research Labporatory, the University of Texas at Austin.

1979   Ethnohistoric Notes on Indian Groups Associated with Three Spanish Missions at Guerrero, Coahuila. Special Report No. 3. Center for Archaeological Research, the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Eaton, Jack
1989   The Gateway Missions of the Lower Rio Grande. In Columbian Consequences edited by David Hurst Thomas, pp. 245-258. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.

Hester, Thomas R.
1989   Perspective on the Material Culture of the Mission Indians of the Texas-Northeastern Mexico Borderlands. In Columbian Consequences edited by David Hurst Thomas, pp. 213-229. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.

1977   The Lithic Technology of Mission Indians in Texas and Northeastern Mexico. Lithic Technology 6(1-2):9-13.

Inman, Betty
1999   The Lithic Artifacts of the Native Americans at the Spanish Colonial Missions, Guerrero, Coahuila, Mexico. Bulletin of the Texas Archeological Society 70: 363-384.

Ricklis, Robert A.
1996   The Karankawa Indians of Texas. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Turner, Ellen Sue and Thomas R. Hester
1985   A Field Guide to Stone Artifacts of Texas Indians. Texas Monthly Press, Austin.

Weddle, Robert S.
1968   Mission San Juan Bautista, Gateway to Spanish Texas. University of Texas Press, Austin.