The town of Menard is today a quiet West Texas town with an economy that relies on ranching and oil.
The drama played out in the bottoms of the San Sabá River, and a year later on the banks of the Red River 200 miles away, had its beginnings almost two centuries before, when Spanish military might began cutting a swath across the New World, following its discovery in 1492 by Christopher Columbus. Led by Cortés, Pizarro, Quesada, Valdivia, Mendoza, Cabeza de Vaca and others, Spanish soldiers, mounted and using firearms, overcame the New World inhabitants.But in 1757, four forces converged on the area to play their distinctive roles in history: the Spanish and the French from Europe, the Apaches and the Comanches from the northern regions of what later became the United States.
The Spanish at first blush were the most formidable of the forces coming together in 1757 in West Central Texas. Spain's army had once been the best in Europe. In the New World, the natives could not effectively oppose the Spanish, and French forces on the North American continent at this time were no match, either. Caribs. Aztec. Inca. Maya. Chichimec. Each New World civilization fell to the firepower of Spanish muskets fired from the backs of Spanish horses.
The Indians of the Valley of Mexico were accustomed to the control of a centralized state and were relatively easy for the Spaniards to subjugate. Only occasionally did determined New World Indians, like the Maya of the Yucatan, who were decentralized and lived in city-states, or the Pueblos of New Mexico, temporarily defeat Spanish arms. Except for the Pueblos, however, the Spaniards encountered Indians with decentralized societies while moving northward from the Aztec empire. Plains Indians were the most decentralized of all, not even having permanent settlements. Against the Plains Indians of North America, the Spaniards' luck ran out.
Goals of the Europeans in the New World varied. The French traded goods to the Indians for furs and gave them firearms so they could both hunt and defend themselves better. The Spanish goal was to convert Indians and turn them into exploitable copies of themselves. Conflict was inevitable.
Plains Indians Migrate into Texas
Neither the Comanches nor the Apaches were native Texas Indians. At the time of Coronado's expedition of 1540, neither tribe was in the region of today's Texas. Wichitas and Tonkawas migrated south even later. The Caddoes of East Texas, the Karankawas of the Gulf Coast and the Coahuiltecans of the Rio Grande were native. Apaches, the first great foes of the Spanish in the early 18th century, were originally Athapaskan speakers from the Pacific Northwest. A fierce and warlike people, they migrated into the Rockies and eastward at an undetermined date. At its peak, the territory of the eastern Apaches ranged from the Dismal River in Nebraska to Central Texas. Even afoot, the Apaches were potent warriors who preyed on everyone they encountered. But after they acquired the large horse herds left behind by Spanish settlers fleeing the Pueblo Indian revolt in New Mexico in 1680, they became formidable. In a short period, mounted Apaches spread across the Plains, in the pursuit of plunder and animals. Using horses, they could more easily follow the wandering bison that was the commissary of thousands of Indians. In the process, they made many enemies. As the Apaches migrated, groups separated along the way. Some, like the Navajos, became sedentary. Others, like those who finally came to Texas some time in the 17th century, became partly settled. During the summer, these Apaches camped in river bottoms to raise maize and other crops. Originally this group lived between the Red River and the Colorado plains. Apaches never developed a full horse culture. But the Apaches did use horses to increase their mobility, allowing them to hunt bison more efficiently and to attack unmounted Indians on both the east and west fringes of the Great Plains.
No group, however, adapted to the use of horses more gracefully or completely than the groups within the mountain Shoshones of the far north who became the fearsome Comanches. They found horses to be not just a useful tool, but the answer to their dreams. The horse provided them mobility, honors in war, and respect from those who previously had despised and mistreated them. The horse became the linchpin of their culture.
The Comanches were completely nomadic and relied on bison to provide not only food but also clothing, and other necessities for living. They never camped anywhere for long. Their raiding range on foot was about 100 miles. On horseback, it increased to 800 miles. Lengthy journeys for a hunt or a raid were common. On hunts, the entire band traveled.
No one knows when the Apaches drew the enmity of the Comanches. But about 1700, the Comanches moved south of the Arkansas River and began driving the Apaches from the plains. Comanches fought mounted, using firearms or short bows, and occasionally lances. The sedentary agricultural cycle of the Apaches proved to be their undoing. Comanches roamed the plains during the growing season, attacking and destroying the Apaches' agricultural camps. Since the Apaches were not the horsemen that the Comanches were, they could not effectively pursue and fight back.
For a time, the French sold guns to the Wichitas and the Apaches, among others. The Comanches took the commerce in weapons as a personal affront. In response, they barred the French from crossing the plains, preventing the French from opening trade with the Spanish colonists on the upper Rio Grande Valley along what later became the Santa Fe Trail. After the Apaches were routed, the Comanches developed trade with the French, also allowing them to use the Comanche range. As the Comanches continued their campaign against the Apaches, which lasted several generations, they moved into the Texas Panhandle. As many as 13 bands operated in Texas during historical times. The Panhandle was the most fertile bison range on the Great Plains. For the first time, the Comanches began to defend their hunting area from other tribes.
Spanish Establish East Texas Missions
As early as 1690, when the Spanish first ventured into the Piney Woods of East Texas, they antagonized the Apaches: Not only did the Spanish build two missions among the Caddoan tribes of the area, they also aided the Caddoes in battles against the Apaches. Although the Apaches later appeared to cooperate in Spanish efforts to turn them into replicas of Spanish peasants, the Apaches never forgot this early insult. When the San Antonio de Valero mission (now known as the Alamo) was established in 1718, it was time for revenge. After an Apache raid on San Antonio in 1723, the Spanish sent a punitive expedition against the marauders. Led by Capt. Nicolás Flores y Valdés, the soldiers headed north and located an Apache camp near present-day Brownwood. In an apparent violation of Spanish policy, the soldiers killed 34 warriors and captured many women and children.
Between 1726 and 1731, Apache raids diminished. The Comanches were hammering the Apaches southward, and the temporary lull may have been an Apache attempt to attract missions and the protection they afforded.
Spanish Policy Clarified
A decree outlining Spanish policy was issued by Viceroy Juan de Acuña, Marqués de Casafuerte in 1729. This decree, which bound the frontier for 40 years, forbade attacks on Indians unless attempts to make peace had been tried and had failed. The Spanish military was not to take sides in disagreements between Christianized tribes, and soldiers were not to stir up trouble with mission Indians. And finally, when any group of Indians sued for peace, the Spanish were bound to honor the request. However, in 1732 the Apaches again began to harass the San Antonio settlement. This led to another military expedition up the San Saba River to within 10 miles of present-day Menard. The expedition was led by the newly appointed governor, Don Juan Antonio Bustillo y Caballos. Bustillo engaged the Apaches in a four-hour battle Dec. 9, 1732. The 100 Spanish soldiers forced the Apaches to retreat and captured 30 women and children. Historians believe that the battle was on the San Saba River in the vicinity of the site where the San Sabá mission was later established. Bustillo is credited with discovering the river and naming it El Rio San Sabá de las Nueces, in honor of the abbot, Saint Sabbas, whose feast day it was.
Comanches First Recorded in Texas
The first documented sighting of Comanches in Texas was about 1743, when a group passed near San Antonio. The Spanish had traded with them in New Mexico, however, for many years. Missions were opened in 1748 on the San Xavier (today's San Gabriel) River, near present-day Rockdale, Milam County. These were unsuccessful, partly because of constant Apache pressure on them.
However, beginning in the late 1740s, Apaches resumed making overtures to the Spanish government. The Apaches knew that the Spanish were so eager for religious converts that they would protect them from the Comanches, who continued to push the Apaches southward. Franciscan priests saw in these Apache overtures opportunities for converting the indigenous peoples to Christianity and making them into useful Spanish citizens. The Spanish government soon decided to establish missions in Apache territory.
By the middle of the 18th century, the Comanches had all but driven the Apaches from the plains. The Spanish seemed unaware that the Apaches had lost control of the lower plains. By this time, the Apaches could not safely hunt on the plains, and many started raiding south of the Rio Grande. The mission of San Juan Bautista, near present-day Eagle Pass on the Mexican side of the river, was a popular gathering place. The mission San Lorenzo, about 50 miles west of San Juan Bautista, was established in 1754 for Apaches. But the Indians burned the buildings and headed north within two years, complaining that the mission was too far from their homelands.
Mounted and armed with French weapons, the Wichitas, Caddoes, Tonkawas, Tawakonis, Kichais and others banded together against the Apaches. These former bully boys had raided into East and Central Texas as Comanche pressure drove them off the plains. Soon the united tribes were joined by their former foes, the Comanches, to present a formidable front to face the Apaches. The goal of these Norteños, as the Spanish called them, was to exterminate the remaining Apaches. Desperate for help, the Apaches absorbed some smaller Texas tribes, such as Coahuiltecan groups and the Jumanos of the Rio Grande area, both of which had once been bitter enemies of the Apaches. But the Apaches got little help or sympathy from anyone else on the plains – except the Spanish. In 1749 the Spanish and the Apaches solemnized their peace agreement with a formal ceremony held in San Antonio, in which implements of war, including a live horse, were buried.
Almost immediately, the new relationship caused friction with the Spaniards' other Indian friends. The treaty was considered an act of hostility against the Apaches' enemies – the Comanches and their allies, the Norteños. It didn't help, either, when Spanish soldiers gave Apaches protection on their hunting forays onto the plains. The Apaches' presence around the San Gabriel missions frightened the neophytes, and many of them left. Disease epidemics also hit the San Gabriel location, and a drought dried up water supplies. Capt. Felipe Rábago y Terán, commander of the presidio, was accused of improprieties with the wives of soldiers and neophytes alike. Some of his soldiers were charged with abusing Indians. Rábago's uncle, Pedro, replaced him as commanding officer and finally abandoned the presidio in August of 1755. The missions were moved to the San Antonio River. While the Spanish government acknowledged that missions in what is now West Central Texas were desirable, it provided no funds to pay for them.
Then Pedro Romero de Terreros, one of the wealthiest men in Mexico, offered to finance the first three years of operation of missions created to convert the Apaches. His cousin, Father Alonso Giraldo de Terreros, was to lead the missionary effort. The first of several expeditions to find a suitable site for the Apache missions in 1753 was led by Lt. Juan Galván. Fray Miguel de Aranda of the mission Concepción in San Antonio helped. After viewing sites on the Pedernales and Llano rivers, they selected a location on the San Sabá River near today's Menard.
Lt. Galván set up a huge wooden cross on a horseshoe bluff overlooking the river to mark the spot for the presidio, and a religious service was held. Several Apaches were already in the area. It took four years and two more exploratory expeditions for the Spanish government to confirm Lt. Galván's original decision. Pedro de Rábago y Terán was dispatched to the same area in November 1754. Finally, Col. Diego Ortiz Parrilla, who had been appointed commander of the presidio, and Father Terreros, with soldiers, missionaries, nine families of Tlaxcalan Indians and others arrived on April 17, 1757. Work began immediately on the presidio and mission buildings.
The Spanish didn't seem to realize that the site they had chosen was in Comanche territory, not Apache.
Building of San Sabá Mission and Presidio
Within a short time after arrival on the San Saba River in April 1757, the soldiers completed the presidio stockade, and the friars constructed a mission compound. The mission was formally christened Santa Cruz (Holy Cross) de San Sabá and the presidio, Presidio de San Luis de las Amarillas, in honor of the viceroy of New Spain. (We are spelling the name of the river without an accent, since that is the way it is spelled today, but the correct Spanish spelling of "San Sabá" is used here for the mission.) Only the ruins of an attempt to rebuild the presidio in 1936 mark the site of the Real Presidio de San Sabá.
The priests wanted to prevent a recurrence of the problems experienced at the San Gabriel missions. They insisted that the mission and the presidio be on opposite sides of the river and 1.5 leagues apart (about 3.94 miles). This made defense of the mission nearly impossible.
The San Sabá mission was of standard design. Within a wooden compound were a small church, classrooms, storehouses and workshops. Herds of livestock and horses were established near the compound, and nearby fields were broken and crops planted. Although the mission was ready to begin operation, no Indians came, much to the frustration of the friars.
In June, about 3,000 Apaches camped near the facility, but they did not enter. They planned to go on their annual bison hunt and then campaign against the Norteños. After that only small groups of Apaches passed the mission, rapidly heading south. Frustration mounted during the winter of 1757-58 because the Apaches had not kept their word to enter the mission. Three disheartened friars returned to San Antonio; only three missionaries remained.
In February 1758, marauding Indians attacked a supply train bound for the presidio. Late in the month, the same group scattered the presidio's horse herds after taking 59 animals for their own use. Spanish soldiers chased the raiders for eight days, but recovered only one horse. They reported that armed Indians were to been seen all around the area. The presidio went on alert.
By March 15, Col. Parrilla was concerned enough to send a soldier to the mission to urge the friars and their people to come to the presidio. But the missionaries declined. The commander made a personal plea in the afternoon, but the friars were adamant. Eight soldiers were left at the facility, making 35 people in all at the mission. Parrilla also provided lookouts to try to protect the mission from surprise attack. The commander was left with 59 men with which to defend the presidio.
Early on the morning of March 16, Juan Leal, a 50-year-old civilian servant for Father Terreros, went to the creek near the mission compound to cut some wood. He was surprised and captured by Indians. But he was recognized as a friend and protected from death by one of the raiders. As far as he could see were Indians armed with muskets, swords and lances and painted for war. A few boys riding with the force carried bows and arrows.
The gates of the mission stockade were closed when the mounted horde approached. But there were Tejas, Bidais and Tonkawas among the Indians, and these groups had been at the San Gabriel mission. The soldiers recognized many familiar faces and opened the gates. Many mounted Indians entered the compound, including a Comanche chief dressed in a red jacket in the style of the French. Father Terreros tried to appease the throng by distributing gifts and tobacco. Other Indians scattered throughout the compound, taking what they wanted from the storehouses. The Spanish did not interfere. All the mission's horses were rounded up and taken by the Indians, and a chief asked for more. There were no more at the mission, Father Terreros said, but there were horses at the presidio. The chief left with a group of Indians. A short time later, he returned and said the soldiers at the presidio had fired at him. Father Terreros offered to escort the chief back to the fort. But when the priest mounted a horse and started to leave the stockade, he was shot dead. A melee erupted and the Spanish ran for cover.
Another priest, Father José de Santiesteban, was probably killed while praying before the altar of the small church. Several other people were wounded. The battle continued most of the day. The small group of Spaniards holed up in building after building, moving as the Indians set each structure on fire. They finally fled into the chapel. Leal, who had escaped from his captors, dragged a small cannon into the building, mounted it on some chests and kept the Indians at bay until the raiders became more interested in looting than in killing Spaniards. All that they could not carry away they destroyed.
That night the Norteños held a grand victory celebration that was heard at the presidio. Early in the battle, a messenger was sent from the mission to the presidio for help. He told of Indians painted for war and carrying French firearms, bullet pouches and powder horns.
A scouting party, led by Sgt. Joseph Antonio Flores, was sent to survey the situation from a hill south of the mission. From that vantage point, he saw Indians spread out for miles around the mission. The stockade was overrun. Flores' small party also engaged a band of Indians, suffering three casualties.
After dark 28 defenders of the mission escaped, including several with serious wounds, and reached the safety of the presidio. A scouting party sent to see about the people of the mission also dispatched two soldiers to warn a nearby wagon train of the danger.
Spaniards estimated that 1,500 to 2,000 Indians had been involved in the war party. An estimated 17 Indian raiders died during the fighting at the fort and in small skirmishes. Col. Parrilla took many precautions at the presidio. Soldiers scattered around the area on various assignments were called in, and the families of the soldiers were given the protection of the fort.
Patrols sent out on the morning of March 17 found the Indians rapidly retreating to the north. Visiting the smoldering mission ruins, Parrilla found that two priests and six others had been massacred. In his reports to his superiors, Col. Parilla absolved himself of any blame for the loss of life. He emphasized that he had tried to get the missionaries to enter the presidio, but that because of the fragmented authority of the operation, he had no standing to order the religious to do anything.
To emphasize the French threat to the province of Texas, Col. Parrilla pointed out that each victim of the raid died of bullet or lance wounds; none was killed by arrows. The frontier was swept with the reports of the audacious attack by the Plains Indians. Every presidio commander on the frontier was afraid that his installation would be the next one to be attacked by the savage hordes of Norteños. The attack on the San Sabá mission marked the beginning of warfare between Comanches and white settlers – a war that continued for more than a century.
Retaliatory Expedition Planned
Col. Parrilla wanted to mount a punitive expedition against the Norteños immediately. But the Spanish had much to ponder. The attack was the first by such a large body of Indians. They were better armed and fought better than Indians in the past. No doubt there was some French influence in their weapons, clothing and tactics.
The makeup of the raiding party, too, was a new development. Comanches, Bidais, Tonkawas and Tejas, who previously had not been enemies, were among the leaders of the raiding party. The Spanish were beginning to understand the magnitude of the consequences of embracing the Apaches. Spanish colonial bureaucracy moved slowly in the best of times. When questions were raised about the wisdom of an action, the process could grind to a near halt. Compounding the usual slow pace was the fact that no one was sure where the San Saba River project fit into the colonial organization. While the Spanish pondered their next actions, the Norteños continued to raid. In 1758, they struck a camp near the presidio and killed 50 Apaches. In December 1758, 17 members of an Apache hunting party were killed. In early 1759, 20 Spanish guards were killed near the presidio and 700 horses were taken. The Indians appeared to be reveling in their new-found supremacy over the former scourges of the plains.
Apaches also began having second thoughts about the ability of the Spanish to protect them. Parrilla received approval for a retaliatory raid in August 1758. June was the best time to begin such a campaign because forage for the animals was available. It was decided that 500 men would be ordered on the expedition, which was expected to cost 59,000 pesos. Soldiers were to be drawn from several presidios. Tlaxcalan Indians from Mexico, along with mission Indians, would be used. The viceroy sent Parrilla final approval of his plans in May 1759. More delays followed, but the force finally left San Antonio in August. Moving north, the group crossed the Concho River near present day Paint Rock and forded the Colorado downstream from today's Ballinger. Then it turned northeast, crossing the Clear Fork of the Brazos near present day Fort Griffin.
Near today's Newcastle in Young County, the Spaniards attacked a Tonkawa village, killing 55 Indians and taking 149 prisoners. Plunder from the San Sabá mission was found among the villagers' belongings. This victory made the campaign worthwhile in Col. Parrilla's mind. But the Tonkawas offered information on the location of a large Wichita village on the Red River, still farther to the northeast. A Tonkawa guide was taken to lead the way.
On "Day Seven" (of October) by Parrilla's accounting, the expedition reached the vicinity of the Wichita camp in present-day Montague County. Today the location is known as Spanish Fort, because early Anglo settlers were unaware that the French had been in the area. And they did not believe the Indians could have built the fortifications whose remains they found.
As the Spanish approached the village, a group of Indians ambushed them and then retreated at a run. The Spanish pursued them down a wooded road until they entered a clearing facing a stockaded village. The Indians took cover in the village and closed the gates. The village was well organized. The Spanish reported seeing herds of horses grazing nearby and corrals near the village. Crops were growing in irrigated fields along the river. Over the village flew a French flag. (Spanish critics have argued that presence of the French flag did not mean Frenchmen were present. The French often gave flags to Indians with whom they traded.)
The Spanish withdrew to regroup. But the Indians in the stockade kept a stream of fire aimed at them, cutting off the road as an escape route. Both mounted Indians and some on foot sallied forth from the fort and engaged the Spanish. The Apaches and missionary Indians with the Spanish force broke ranks, leaving Spanish flanks open to the attacking Norteños. Sixteen Spaniards died in the action along with three of their Indian allies. Parrilla claimed that 45 enemy Indians died. At dark, the Spanish retreated. At dawn, they began the long trip back to the San Saba.
The experience reaffirmed Parrilla's initial assessment: Great changes were needed in selecting, equipping and training Spain's military on the northern frontier. Nothing was done by the authorities. Col. Parrilla lost prestige in the expedition against the Norteños. Though he tried to paint the effort as a success because of the victory at the Tonkawa village, no other official embraced his position. The Norteños were not chastised.
After a decade of exile, Capt. Rábago was once again given command of the presidio in 1760.
Presidio Rebuilt of Stone
Apparently anxious to redeem his reputation, Rábago strengthened the fortifications in late 1761 by rebuilding the presidio of stone and renamed it the Real (Royal) Presidio de San Sabá. But much more change was needed than the officer could provide.
New Spain's northern frontier had a serious sag in it around the Great Plains. With the Comanches in control of these plains and their enemies, the Apaches, running amok south of the plains, no short route between San Antonio and the Spanish settlements on the upper Rio Grande existed. To travel from San Antonio to the capital of the New Mexican colony, the Spaniards were forced to head south through Laredo and on to Saltillo. The route swung west through Durango province to Chihuahua City and then north up the Rio Grande Valley through El Paso to Santa Fe. That was a distance of roughly 990 miles to cover a route of about 500 miles as the crow flies. And none of the route was safe from Indian attacks.
Rábago sent out expeditions in 1761 that explored large sections of western Texas and located the Pecos River. But none ever came close to Santa Fe. An expedition sent south from near Santa Fe to San Sabá presidio a year later had no luck either.
With the zeal of a recent convert, Rábago pursued establishment of missions for the Apaches without prior authorization by the viceroy. In 1762, San Lorenzo de la Santa Cruz mission was opened for the Apaches on the Nueces River, with Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria del Cañón opening nearby a little later. Initially the missions attracted 400 Apaches, but for eight years, they got no support from the crown.
Together the missions were referred to as "El Cañón." They were located about halfway between San Sabá and San Juan Bautista.
The year 1762 became a watershed year for Spain's northern frontier. In Europe, the Seven Years War ended, with Great Britain prevailing over France. Spain joined the war late on the side of the loser and gave up claims to Florida and other territory for its trouble. France ceded the Louisiana Territory to Spain to keep it out of British hands.
With the long-standing French threat eliminated, Texas became a large buffer zone. Spain turned its attention to keeping English settlers from entering its new territory.
In 1766, an even larger change took place, as Charles III undertook to reorganize the northern frontier of New Spain. The Marqués de Rubí was sent to tour the frontier and to recommend changes. His survey would eventually cover more than 7,000 miles from California on the west to East Texas. Rubí arrived at the San Sabá presidio in July of 1767 and stayed 10 days. Apparently he was appalled by what he found. Soldiers were short of horses. Only half had pistols. Most of the equipment was shabby and in poor condition. Morale was low; the desertion rate was high.
Rubí noted in a secret report that the presidio cost 40,360 pesos a year to operate and was of no use to the kingdom. He suggested that the improvements be razed and the few settlers around the presidio be shipped to San Antonio. The military manpower could be put to better use on the Rio Grande, he said.
Indians raids had subsided for a few years before Rubí's visit, but after his departure they began again. One raid netted the Indians the presidio's entire herd of cattle. The marauders also kept up raids on supply trains, in an apparent attempt to starve the Spanish out.
Rábago abandoned the fort without authorization at one time in 1768, withdrawing the men to El Cañón, but he was ordered to return. Although still in his 40s, Rábago was in failing health. He began a trip to see the viceroy in 1769, but he died before reaching his destination. Later in the year, Capt. Manual Antonio de Oca was named commander of the San Sabá presidio.
Little improved under the new commander. In 1770, he, too, apparently abandoned the San Sabá presidio without authorization, again taking the soldiers to El Cañón.
King Charles III delivered the coup de grace to the foundering fort, ordering it closed in his decree of reorganization of the frontier in 1772.
Closing the presidio may have been as great a mistake as opening it: As soon at it closed, Indian raids on San Antonio increased alarmingly.
The facilities at San Sabá were never razed as Rubí recommended, and they came in handy with future Indian fighters. Gov. Juan de Ugalde of Coahuila (namesake of Uvalde County despite the difference in spelling) led a successful expedition of Spaniards allied with Comanches, Wichitas and Tonkawas against Apaches in 1789. If such an alliance had been struck 40 years earlier, the face of North America might have been changed.
As it was, the massacre at the mission on the San Saba and the subsequent Spanish defeat at the Red River marked the end to Spain's dreams of conquest and conversion on their northern frontier in the New World.
— written by Mike Kingston, then editor of the Texas Almanac, before his death in 1994. Published posthumously in the Texas Almanac 1996–1997.