The First Official Permanent Civilian Settlement
In 1719, the Council of the Indies, the governing body of the colonies, recommended to the Spanish crown that families from the Canary Islands be recruited to populate Texas. The Canaries are a group of 13 islands, seven of them inhabited, in the Atlantic Ocean about 60 miles off the coast of northwest Africa. The original inhabitants were the Guanches, a tall, blond people thought to be of Berber extraction. But the islands had been colonized by Spain in the 15th century, and the Guanches had been absorbed into the Spanish population.
Canary Islanders laid the cornerstone for San Fernando Cathedral in 1738. Photo by Erich Schlegel.
The council reasoned that a Spanish civilian colony on the Texas coast would firmly establish Spain's claim to the territory and would block the French from westward expansion.
At the urging of the Marqués de San Miguel de Aguayo, governor and captain general of the provinces of Coahuila and Texas, the king finally granted permission in July 1723 for 200 volunteer families to be recruited. By September 19, the 200 families had signed on.
But there followed years of governmental bickering over the best location for the new colony, the optimum number of families to send at one time, financing of the group and many other details.
The colony's location was finally fixed at San Antonio, and the first group of 56 people, led by Juan Leal Goraz, arrived on March 9, 1731, after a difficult ocean voyage and a grueling overland march.
It is not known how many actually started out from the islands, but when the land portion of the trip began, there were 10 families. By the time it arrived at San Antonio, the group comprised 15 families because of marriages along the way. The trip was harder on the horses than on the people: From the records, it appears that at least four people died on the trip through Mexico; 125 horses were lost to fatigue and exhaustion.
Fifty-six Canary Islanders formed the nucleus of San Fernando de Béxar, the civilian component of the settlement on the San Antonio River.
Although the original plan called for 200 families eventually to populate the settlement, the scheme was scrapped before the first 15 families had reached San Fernando, and no more Canary Islanders made the trip.
Captain Juan Antonio de Almazán urged the settlers to become self sufficient as quickly as possible. He apportioned the arable lands around the settlement among the arriving families, urging them to plant as much as possible. The families were housed temporarily in troop quarters in the presidio. After the harvest in early July, the captain and his men helped the Canary Islanders lay out San Fernando and begin building houses.
Capt. Almazán appointed officials of the new civilian government of San Fernando on July 20, 1731, with the group's unofficial leader, Juan Leal Goraz, named the first regidor or councilman. In all, Almazan appointed six regidores, an alguacil mayor (sheriff), and a mayordomo de los propios (administrator of public lands). The first election in Texas was held on August 1, 1731, when the recently appointed officials were called together to elect the first two alcaldes ordinarios (justices of the peace). Records of all the appointments and the results of the history-making election were sent to the viceroy, who granted his official approval of the proceedings on October 24, 1731. The first official permanent civilian settlement in Texas was born.
Descendants of the Canary Islanders still live in the San Antonio area.
— written by Mary G. Ramos, editor emerita, for the Texas Almanac 1992–1993.