tx almanac facebook link

The Search for Santa Cruz de San Sabá

Filed Under: 
Texas History Features

 

Santa Cruz de San Sabá has been called "the lost mission of Texas." Although its short history, from founding to destruction, has been well documented, its exact location was unknown until the early 1990s.

The 1993 discovery of the mission site in an alfalfa field east of Menard resulted from the latest of several attempts to find it. And the effort was spearheaded by Mark Wolf, a San Antonio architect who is a direct lineal descendant of one of the survivors of the 1758 massacre – Juan Leal. Leal was the civilian servant of Father Terreros who was captured and spared by the raiders outside the mission walls just before the attack began – the same Juan Leal who had set up a cannon to defend the desperate Spanish survivors during their retreat.

Spanish canal in Menard
A remnant of the irrigation canal built by the Spanish in the 1700s, which runs through the city of Menard. Photo by Robert Plocheck.

The presidio and mission structures built on the San Saba River in 1757 were temporary jacal or wattle-and-daub constructions (daub being a primitive mortar made from mud). Most of the mission was destroyed by fire during the Indian raid in 1758, and time and weather finished off anything that was left. The presidio was rebuilt of stone in 1761; its more permanent construction made its location easier to find.

Of course, the mission would have been more than just a church or chapel building. A mission was a complex of buildings, including small houses and workshops for carpenter, blacksmith and tailor, all enclosed by a log stockade. Often, a mission complex also included a cemetery. Spanish colonial documents were detailed in many ways, but remained elusive in the description of this mission's site. They did mention that the mission was located one and a half leagues from the presidio site.

Early Searches

One of the earliest known searches for the site of Santa Cruz de San Sabá was by a newspaper editor and Texas history enthusiast named John Warren Hunter. Hunter moved to the town then called Menardville in 1884. He published a book in 1905 giving the history of the mission. In a footnote, Hunter referred to the mission's site as being "about three and a half miles below the presently flourishing town of Menardville, and is on what is known as the Hockensmith place." This would prove to be an important piece of the puzzle, though it was evidently ignored for 90 years by subsequent searchers.

A historical marker commemorating the mission was placed by the state in 1936 about 2 miles east of Menard on Farm-to-Market Road 2092.

In 1956, Robert S. Weddle became owner and editor of the Menard News. When Franciscan priests made a pilgrimage to Menard in 1958 on the 200th anniversary of the massacre, Weddle launched his own research project into the mission's story. From an idea for a tourist pamphlet grew his classic and comprehensive history, "San Sabá Mission, Spanish Pivot in Texas," published in 1964.

In 1967, Kathleen Kirk Gilmore led a team of investigators, involving Southern Methodist University, the State Building Commission, and the office of the State Archeologist, in an investigation of the presidio site and a search for the lost mission. Gilmore figured that a Spanish league was equivalent to 2.63 miles, therefore the mission site should be 3.94 miles from the presidio. Although Gilmore did not find the site, the translations of Spanish documents made during that attempt were helpful to subsequent hunters.

Architect Bruce Johnson's search, on behalf of the Texas Old Missions and Forts Restoration Association in 1984 and 1985, used infrared photography along with field surveys and mechanical testing. Although he was also unsuccessful, his excavations were only about 250 yards from the site. Perhaps the most intensive search previous to 1993 was made in March 1990 by archaeologists and historians from Texas A&M University using archaeological, historical and geomorphological (the science dealing with the nature and origin of the earth's topographic features) studies. Six hundred acres east of Menard were studied, resulting in 18 possible sites, but none could be definitely identified as Spanish in origin. The geomorphological study revealed a number of former stream channels of the San Saba River.

Ancestor Search Sparks Investigation

Then came Mark Wolf. In doing research on his family history, Wolf discovered his seven-generation tie to Juan Leal, and he was determined to find the mission site. Wolf launched an exploration in March 1993 involving Kay Hindes, a free-lance archaeologist; Hindes enticed a team of archaeologists from Texas Tech University in Lubbock to join in the hunt.

The search began with aerial reconnaissance using infrared photography. A couple of possible sites were identified. Then Hindes found the reference in John Warren Hunter's 1905 report that the site was located on Hockensmith's property. Through deed records, Hindes traced the ownership of the 43-acre tract from Hockensmith to then-County Judge Otis Lyckman and his wife Dionitia. The site met all the requirements of the Spanish: access to a reliable water source, ample timber for buildings and fuel. It also matched the bits of description of the site that had been gleaned from Spanish documents of the day. The site is also 3.95 miles from the presidio location, a tribute to Kathleen Gilmore's calculations.

First Solid Evidence Found

On a day in September 1993, the researchers drove past the Lyckman's alfalfa field and noticed that it had been recently plowed. Stopping only long enough to gain permission to enter the property, the team members walked over the field, carefully scanning the recently turned dirt. Then Hindes picked up a ceramic fragment, wiped the dirt from it, and realized that its pale green glaze was that of a Spanish olive jar. Triumphantly, she told the others, "This is what we've been looking for." Further investigation turned up concentrations of burned daub. The clay-rich dirt that had been packed into the cracks in the wooden walls of the mission had hardened like pottery in the heat of the fire when the Indians burned the compound, and chunks of it were lying all over the plowed field.

Test excavations directed by Texas Tech archaeologist Grant Hall in January 1994 went below the surface zone that had been disturbed by modern plowing. The archaeologists identified soil stains left by wooden poles and posts used in building the mission. Metal detectors helped pinpoint more than 400 metal finds, many of them such modern detritus as ring-pull tabs from soft-drink cans or metal ear tags for goats. However, 124 specimens of probably Spanish Colonial origin were also found, among them a wealth of iron nails, hinges, latches and hooks; a copper thimble; religious ornaments; pieces of bridle bit; and numerous lead musket balls. Also found were shards of Majolica, a tin-enameled ceramic; buttons; trade beads; bone; and basalt metate fragments. Hindes says that one of the most remarkable artifacts is a tiny religious medallion. Although the image on the medallion has not yet been identified, Spanish inventories of the supplies shipped to the San Sabá mission include such medallions, which were given to Indians who agreed to come into the mission for conversion.

Anne Fox, director of the archaeology laboratory at The University of Texas at San Antonio and an authority on Spanish Colonial missions, says that in her mind, there is no doubt that the site is the San Sabá mission site. Plans for full-scale archaeological dig at the site include stripping the alfalfa field of the layer of dirt that has been disturbed by modern agricultural practices, then investigating the site through painstaking hand excavation. The exact location of each find will be mapped and described, thereby revealing details of life at the mission. At press time in 1996, plans for such a full-scale investigation were on hold awaiting funding.

— written by Mary G. (Crawford) Ramos, editor emerita, for the the Texas Almanac 1996–1997.

 • Link to Menard town page.

SOURCE

"The Rediscovery of Santa Cruz de San Sabá: A Mission for the Apache in Spanish Texas" by V. Kay Hindes, Mark R. Wolf, Grant D. Hall, and Kathleen Kirk Gilmore; San Saba Regional Survey Report 1, Archaeology Laboratory, Texas Tech University; Texas Historical Foundation, Austin, and Texas Tech University, 1995.
 

Texas Almanac

Texas Almanac