Franciscan Missionaries in Texas before 1690

The first missionaries came to Texas in the mid 1500s. Updated 2 years ago
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Image Depicting Ascension Thursday

Image Depicting Ascension Thursday

'Ascension Thursday' by Stefan Kramar depicts Fray Juan de Padilla, who accompanied the Coronado Expedition.

The first Christian missionaries came to Texas by way of New Mexico.

This odd historical fact was the result of three influences: the goals of the earliest Spanish explorers, the geography of New Spain and the Spanish sense of responsibility for spreading the faith. That the religion was introduced from the west is odd because other development of Texas – social, economic and cultural – came from the east and south.

Explorers' Goals

Spain's early goals in the Southwest were primarily materialistic, and the search for wealth resulted first in the Coronado expedition of 1540-42. Considering the context of the times, it was not far-fetched to believe that immense wealth was over the horizon. The Inca Empire of Peru had been conquered a mere seven years earlier. The Incas ruled the second grand system of civilization the Spanish had encountered in the New World. The first, the Aztecs, was conquered in 1519-22.

Then came bits of evidence of a possible third indigenous "empire" north of Texas. The reports included mention of people who lived in houses. The physical evidence included samples of fine woven cloth, as well as a few gemstones and metal objects. Of course, the Pueblo people of northern New Mexico, as it turned out, did not possess the kind of wealth Spanish explorers sought. But, there Spain was.

Crusading Mission

Abandonment of the area was not conceivable. This was because of Spain's sense of Christian mission that came out of their own peculiar history. It is beyond our purposes to go into that history in this article, except to say the Spanish were a crusading society, and they had acquired a keen sense of responsibility for all peoples to receive the Santa Fe (Holy Faith).

Unlike the English and French colonizers who wanted the Indians just to get out of the way, the Spanish were continuously wrestling with dual and conflicting impulses toward the Indians – greed and charity. The greed for new wealth was witnessed mostly in the soldiers and civilian explorers, who often exploited the Indians as labor. The protective missionaries, some say overly protective, bore evangelistic charity toward the native people, wishing to instruct them in the new faith but also to teach them crafts and agricultural techniques through the elaborate mission system.

With the pursuit of wealth a dashed hope, the Spanish religious mission became the primary catalyst for policy in the Southwest for the following two centuries.

The Franciscan order was given the job of teaching the Indians, and before 1690, when the Spanish turned their interest to East Texas, there was much activity in West Texas in spreading the Christian faith.

Geographical Avenues

The geography, especially the layout of the river systems, was the third element that influenced where and when different tribes received the missionaries' message. New Spain's northern frontier by the 1570s had reached mining areas around Santa Bárbara at the headwaters of the Río Conchos (see map).

From there, movement along the Conchos to its junction (La Junta) with the Rio Grande provided an avenue for travel northward. La Junta de los Ríos became an important stopover on most excursions. It had been a settled farming area since 1500 B.C. and in the late 1500s A.D. it was the home to several different Indian groups. Nancy Parrot Hickerson, in her study of the Jumano Indians in the region, says there were eight villages at La Junta on both sides of the Rio Grande, some of them with more than 2,000 people.

In 1598, Juan de Oñate led the entrada through El Paso del Norte that began the colonizing of New Mexico. The Spanish founded the first settlement and mission near present Española. In 1610, the capital of New Mexico was moved to Santa Fe. As the New Mexico base became established with the arrival of more Franciscans at the Isleta monastery (at least 53 between 1612-1629), there was a burst of missionary activity in all directions.


In 1629, the deepest missionary activity into West Texas occurred at the confluence of the Colorado (then called the San Clemente) and the Concho (then called the Nueces) rivers, most sources say. (Anthropologist Hickerson says it was at a Jumano base [ranchería] north of there, possibly at the headwaters of the Red River in Palo Duro Canyon.)

This mission came on the pleadings of the Jumanos who showed some familiarity with Christianity, all sources agree. Believers hold that the Indians encountered a mysterious "Woman in Blue" who spoke to them in their languages and told them to seek further religious instruction (see Lady in Blue). Skeptics say it was the weaker tribes' fear of the encroaching Apaches that spurred their interest in Spanish protection.

A second mission to the Plains Jumanos occurred in 1632. Sources disagree on whether Fray Juan de Salas participated or merely directed it, but all agree the second mission was to the Colorado-Concho area near present-day San Angelo.

In 1630, there was a brief attempt for a mission in the El Paso area to serve the primitive Mansos Indians. Around 1656 there was a second attempt there, and finally a successful and permanent mission in 1659.

In 1674-1675, there were brief forays from Monclova in Mexico. These occurred near Del Rio and Eagle Pass and were efforts to reach tribes who had crossed the Rio Grande from missions in Coahuila.

Santa Fe Uprising

On Aug. 10, 1680, the Pueblo Uprising began in New Mexico, and within weeks the 2,000 Spanish colonists were forced to flee to El Paso. After decades of enduring inept and sometimes malicious governors, the Indians established an alliance strong enough to successfully revolt. There had also been overzealous missionaries who prohibited Indian customs and ceremonies they deemed pagan and diabolical.

When the Spanish refugees arrived at El Paso del Norte, they camped in what were thought to be short-lived settlements.

Instead, it would be twelve years before they were to return to Santa Fe. In the meantime, the Spanish established a government-in-exile in San Lorenzo a short distance down river from the El Paso mission. And, for the Indian allies who had fled with them, settlements and missions were established that still exist today at Ysleta and Socorro.

In 1683, some of the missionaries from El Paso moved down river to establish other missions for La Junta. Also in that year, Juan Domínguez de Mendoza led an expedition that returned to the area near present San Angelo, first reached in 1629-32 by Salas.

In all, some 32 Franciscans worked to advance the Christian faith into West Texas before the emphasis switched to East Texas and later still to the area around San Antonio.

ollowing are listed the Franciscans connected to ministry in Texas before 1690, grouped by expedition. The letters following in parenthesis indicate locations where they worked. Sources are also named (NHB, [New Handbook of Texas], etc). A complete list of sources follows. 


PADILLA, Fray Juan de. Came to the New World from his native Andalucia in Spain, where he had been a soldier before joining the Franciscan order. The exact date of his arrival is not known, but his signature did appear on a letter from the New World dated Oct. 19, 1529. ... Padilla was among the party that journeyed in 1541 with Francisco Vázquez de Coronado to Quivira, the Wichita village in present-day Kansas. He reportedly conducted a service of thanksgiving [Eucharist] in Blanco Canyon [or Palo Duro Canyon]. When the disillusioned Coronado declared his intention to return to New Spain in the spring of 1542, Padilla chose to remain and continue missionary efforts among the Plains tribes. He and two lay brothers worked in the New Mexico pueblos and reportedly were martyred. ...

Padilla and his companions set out for the buffalo plains. Some accounts claim that they followed the Canadian River as far as the area of present Hutchinson and Roberts counties before turning north to Quivira, where they were warmly received by the natives. After working in the area about two years, Padilla, with companions, wanted to expand their ministry to neighboring tribes in unexplored territory.

About Nov. 30, 1544, at a little more than a day's journey from their home base, they were suddenly set upon by a war party of enemy tribesmen. Urging his companions to flee, the account goes, the friar knelt and deliberately sacrificed himself to the arrows of the Indians, who "threw him into a pit, covering his body with innumerable stones." The actual location of Padilla's death is disputed, as are certain details surrounding the episode, such as who was really with him. However, he has been revered by Texans as the first Christian martyr of Texas. In 1936 a monument commemorating the martyrdom was erected jointly by the State of Texas and the Knights of Columbus in Amarillo's Ellwood Park. – Anderson, NHB. (A,B)

DANIEL, Fray. One of three lay Franciscans on Coronado expedition 1541-44. No last name given. – Castañeda. (A,B)

DE LA CRUZ, Fray Juan. One of two lay Franciscan brothers who remained after Coronado returned to Mexico. Worked with Padilla in the New Mexico pueblos and reportedly was martyred Nov. 25, 1542. Aged missionary. Had labored for many years among Indians of Jalisco. Little is known except he remained alone among Tiguex. Died pierced by arrows. "He was so highly regarded for his saintly life by Coronado himself, that the latter gave orders to his soldiers that each should touch his hat or helmet whenever the name of this holy man was mentioned." – Castañeda. (A,B)

ESCALONA, Fray Luis de (or Descalona/Ubeda). One of two lay Franciscan brothers who remained after Coronado returned to Mexico. Worked with Padilla (who was youngest of three) in the New Mexico pueblos and reportedly martyred circa 1544. (A)

NIZA, Fray Marcos de. Had served in Central America and Peru. Controversial Franciscan explorer, led the 1539 expedition into the American Southwest. ... It was based on his reports – some say exaggerations – that the Coronado expedition was initiated. Niza traveled in 1540 to Cíbola with Coronado. Niza (from Nice) returned to Mexico City where he died in 1558. – Weber, NHB. (A,B)



RODRÍGUEZ, Fray Agustín (d.1582). Lay brother on upper Río Conchos in 1570s when he read Cabeza de Vaca's account of adventures and heard reports from La Junta about Indians in cotton clothes who lived in houses. Secured permission (1581) to explore Pueblo areas, went from Santa Bárbara up to Taos. Martyred at Puaray, N.M., after the soldier escorts (including leader Sanchez) returned to Mexico. (B,D,E)

BELTRÁN, Fray Bernardino. Resident in monastery in Durango, Mexico. Accompanied Antonio de Espejo on mission of 1582-83 in attempt to rescue Fray Rodriguez and companions. At Pauray, urged returning to Mexico once martyrdom of friars determined. (D,E)

LÓPEZ, Fray Francisco. As priest, was designated superior when he accompanied Fray Rodriguez on 1581 entrada. Martyred at Puaray with Rodriguez. (D,E)

SANTA MARÍA, Fray Juan de. Accompanied Fray Rodriguez on 1581 entrada along Rio Grande. Turning back to Mexico alone, he was killed by Indian war party. (D,E)


OÑATE 1598

VELASCO, Fray Francisco de. In company of Oñate in 1598-1601 at El Paso and in Texas Panhandle. (D,B)

VERGARA, Fray Pedro de. Lay brother with Oñate in 1598-1601 at El Paso and in Texas Panhandle. (D,B)


SALAS 1629

SALAS, Fray Juan de. Franciscan, came to New Mexico in 1613 or 1622 and founded Isleta mission, near present Albuquerque. Benavides says Indians had special fondness for Salas. In 1629 Jumano Indians went to the monastery and asked for religious instruction, stating that they came at the request of the "Woman in Blue," María de Ágreda.

It was while they were living on a stream which the Spaniards called Noeces or Nueces that they were visited by María de Ágreda. This river, erroneously thought to be the Arkansas, has definitely been identified with the present middle Concho, in Texas...Salas and Father Fray Diego López [set out] with a guard of three soldiers...guided on this occasion by the friendly delegation that had come to seek for them ... going approximately 300 miles east-southeast from old Isleta.— Castañeda.

[Salas and companions reached] southwest Texas where they were welcomed by a large band of Indians, who claimed they had been advised of approaching Christian missionaries by the Woman in Blue. Although no permanent mission was set up among the Jumanos, in 1632 Fray Ascencio de Zarate and Fray Pedro de Ortega lead a follow-up expedition to the same locale. – Chipman.

A senior and much respected priest must have been in attendance at [1629] meeting ... [where] Jumanos requested missionaries because, says Benavides, they were influenced by the virtuous reputation of the Franciscans, and they acted out of a special fondness for Fray Salas. ... [who] would have understood (the Jumanos) situation. Salas had worked among the Tompiros and Jumanos in the Salinas (in New Mexico) for many years ... He had a reputation for skill with native languages and had become acquainted with Jumano leaders such as Captain Tuerto. Benavides indicated ... Salas was eager to undertake the mission. ... [Plains Jumanos] optimal location near Canadian, Red and Brazos suggests possibly a protected site in a canyon or barranca such as Palo Duro Canyon. ... After an indefinite period of time – a month at most – during which they worked at catechizing, erected a large cross, conducted healing sessions, and met with the ambassadors from neighboring tribes, the priest was evidently their intention to return. – N. Hickerson. (C) [or A,B, according to Hickerson].

LÓPEZ, Fray Diego. Young ... perhaps one of the [1629] arrivals in New Mexico. Accompanied Fray Salas on first mission to Jumanos in Texas. – N.Hickerson. Some (Blake, NHB) say surname was LEON. (C)

ORTEGA, Fray Pedro (or Juan) de. Priest-missionary to Jumanos in 1632. Worked six months at confluence of Concho-Colorado in West Texas. ..."Died among the Jumanos," Benavides, Memorial of 1634, "... worn out by the long and severe hardships of the march, the evangelical preaching, and the catechizing of the Indians in the Christian doctrine." Some sources say he was poisoned by Indians. Unlike Salas, he had difficulties with Indians. In Taos, Indians "gave him tortillas of corn made with urine and mice meat." — N.Hickerson. (C)

ZÁRATE, Fray Asencíon de. Priest-missionary to Jumanos in 1632. Accompanied Ortega to confluence of Concho-Colorado in West Texas. ... Posada, Report of 1686: "two hundred leagues southeast of Santa Fe, on a stream called the Nueces (Concho)." – N.Hickerson. (C)


EL PASO 1630-59

SAN FRANCISCO y ZúÑIGA, Fray García. In 1659, founded Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe Mission at El Paso del Norte, coming from Senecú in New Mexico. Mission still stands in downtown Juárez, the oldest structure in the El Paso area. Some sources say he started a branch mission also called Senecú in Texas before 1662. It is said that he refused [to receive Holy] Orders until he set out for New Mexico, when he was ordained under oath of obedience. Founded New Mexico's Socorro mission. At El Paso until 1671 when he returned to New Mexico. He died in 1673. – Castañeda. (D)

ARTEAGA, Fray Antonio de (b. 1589). Native of Mexico, son of distinguished family from Canary Islands. Attended University of Mexico. Joined Franciscans 1612 at age of 23. Attained distinction as a sacred orator. One of 30 missionaries arriving in New Mexico in 1628. At Senecú (N. M.) where he was a colleague of San Francisco y Zúñiga: "By his tender care and ardent zeal he succeeded in winning the heart of this heretofore unconquered nation [Mansos]." (Baltzar Medina in his 1682 Chrónica.) ... In 1630, he made first attempt at mission in El Paso; obliged to abandon his work among the El Paso Mansos shortly after his arrival. Just how long he stayed is not known. – Castañeda. (D)

CABAL, Fray Juan. Franciscan priest and colleague of San Francisco y Zúñiga in second El Paso mission attempt 1656. (D)

PÉREZ, Fray Francisco. Franciscan priest colleague of San Francisco y Zúñiga in second El Paso mission attempt 1656. (D)

SALAZAR, Fray Juan de. Franciscan priest and colleague of San Francisco y Zúñiga in third and permanent El Paso mission 1659. (D)



LARIOS, Fray Juan. On April 30, 1675, Fernando del Bosque, Fray Larios, and company set out from the mission of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, at present Monclova, Coahuila. ... On May 11 they reached the Rio Grande, probably below present Eagle Pass. Bosque took formal possession of the river, erected a wooden cross, and renamed the river the San Buenaventura del Norte. On May 15, the expedition was met by several Indian chiefs, who asked the missionaries to come to teach and baptize their followers. The oath of allegiance to the king was administered to all the Indians, a portable altar was set up, and Mass was celebrated.

In all, the Spaniards traveled 40 leagues past the Rio Grande and made six halts in south central Texas. On May 25 they reached a site in Edwards County that they called San Pablo Hermitano. They returned by a northerly route to Guadalupe, where they arrived on June 12; there Bosque made a formal report to Antonio de Balcárcel. The latter recommended that three mission districts be established, including land and Indians north of the Rio Grande.

Indian hostilities and disputes with Nuevo León about the jurisdiction of the area, however, delayed implementation of the plan for more than a decade, and by that time the focus of efforts had shifted to East Texas to counteract French incursions. – Walker, NHB. (F)

DE LA CRUZ, Fray Manuel. A lay brother sent by Larios into Texas in 1674 ... crossed between present Eagle Pass and Del Rio. He came to a "mountain range which the Indians called Dacate" – probably the hills along Devil's River in Val Verde County. Spent three weeks among Indians of Maverick, Kinney and Val Verde counties. – Castañeda. (F)

PEÑASCO de LOZANO, Fray Francisco. Crossed Rio Grande near Del Rio in 1674 after return of Brother Manuel de la Cruz. Brought Indians back to mission at Santa Rosa, Coahuila. Colleague of Larios. (F)

SAN BUENAVENTURA, Fray Dionisio de. With Larios at Eagle Pass and Edwards County in 1675. (F)



AYETA, Fray Francisco de (b.1640). Born in Pamplona. He entered the Franciscan order at the age of 19, was ordained a priest the next year, and was assigned to the province of New Mexico. He provided vital assistance to refugees at El Paso del Norte when they arrived after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Father Ayeta, in ill health and physically impaired, left the frontier and returned to Spain in 1683. There he took up his pen in defense of the missionary (regular) clergy, who were increasingly challenged by bishops and the secular clergy. Ayeta died in Spain during the decade of the 1690s. — NHB. (D)

GUERRA, Fray Antonio. First missionary stationed at Socorro, Texas, 1680-82. (D)

YNOJOSA, Fray Joaquin (or de Hinojosa). First missionary stationed at Ysleta, Texas 1680-82. Assisted Fray Colina at La Junta missions in 1687. (D,E)

ZAVALETA, Fray Juan de. Celebrated first Mass at Ysleta, Texas 1680. Missionary to La Junta in 1683. Went on with Mendoza-Lopez to San Clemente at junction of Colorado-Concho 1683. – Castañeda. (D,E,C)



LÓPEZ, Fray Nicolas. Was custodian of the missions in New Mexico in 1680 when the Indian revolt drove the Spanish back to El Paso. ... with Fray Juan de Zavaleta and Fray Antonio Acevedo established two missions at La Junta, La Navidad en las Cruces and Apostol Santiago, in December of 1683.

López and Zavaleta joined Juan Domínguez de Mendoza at Apostol Santiago and accompanied his expedition to Concho-Colorado (San Clemente). Interpretations of Mendoza's route have placed the mission variously on the Colorado River west of Ballinger (Bolton), near the confluence of the Concho and Colorado rivers (Castañeda), and on the South Llano River (Williams). ... Seymour V. Connor, locates the mission on the San Saba River west of Menard. ... During [Mendoza-López] six-week stay at San Clemente, the Spaniards were joined by 2,000 to 3,000 Indians, most of whom were baptized by the two priests ... After several attacks by the Apaches from the north and the Salineros from Nueva Vizcaya, the Spaniards abandoned the mission.— Standifer NHB (E,C)

ACEVEDO, Fray Antonio. Missionary with Fray Nicolas Lopez to La Junta in 1683-84. (E)

COLINA, Fray Agustín de. As priest, was stationed in 1687 at the struggling missions of La Junta de los Ríos, at the site of present Presidio, Texas, and Ojinaga, Chihuahua. There in the fall of that same year, widely traveled Cíbolo and Jumano Indians approached Colina and asked him for a letter that they could take to "the Spaniards (French) who were coming and going among the Tejas" in East Texas. ... It is possible, but by no means certain, that Colina continued to labor as a missionary in the La Junta region. (E)



BENAVIDES, Franciscan Fray Alonso de (ca. 1578-1635). Custodian of the Franciscan missions in the Southwest from 1626 to 1629 and interviewer of María de Agreda in Spain. Son of Pedro Alonso Nieto and Antonia Murato de Benavides, was born on the island of San Miguel in the Azores about 1578. He is noted for his memorials (reports) which comprise one of the basic sources for history of the West Texas missions. He arrived in New Spain in 1598 and took vows with the Franciscans some three years later in Mexico City. Benavides filled the office of novice master at Puebla for a time and was later associated with the Inquisition, while residing at the friary of Cuernavaca. — Weddle, NHB. (D,E) I

— written by Robert Plocheck, associate editor, for the Texas Almanac 2004–2005.



• Ashford, Gerald. Spanish Texas: Yesterday and Today , Jenkins Publishing Co., Austin and New York, 1971.

• Bannon, John Francis. The Spanish Borderlands Frontier 1513-1821 , University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1974.

• Boxer, C.R. The Church Militant and Iberian Expansion 1440-1700 , Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 1978.

• Castañeda, Carlos E. Our Catholic Heritage in Texas 1519-1936 , Von Boeckmann-Jones Company, Austin, 1936.

• Chipman, Donald E. Spanish Texas 1519-1821 , University of Texas Press, Austin, 1992.

• Habig, Marion A. O.F.M. Spanish Texas Pilgrimage: The Old Franciscan Missions and Other Spanish Settlements of Texas 1632-1821 , Franciscan Herald Press, Chicago, 1990.

• Hickerson, Nancy Parrott. The Jumanos: Hunters and Traders of the South Plains , University of Texas Press, Austin, 1994.

• Simons, Helen and Cathryn A. Hoyt, eds . Hispanic Texas: A Historical Guide , University of Texas Press, 1992. “The Spanish Missions in Texas” by Robert S. Weddle.

• Sonnichsen, C.L. Pass of the North I-II , Texas Western Press, El Paso, 1968.

• Syers, William Edward. Texas: The Beginning 1519-1834 , Texian Press, Waco, 1978.

• Weber, David J., ed. New Spain's Far Northern Frontier: Essays on Spain in the American West 1540-1821 , University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1979.

• New Handbook of Texas , Texas State Historical Association, 1996, various.

• Journal of Texas Catholic History and Culture , Texas Catholic Historical Society, 1992. “The Legacy of Columbus: Spanish Mission Policy in Texas” by Félix D. Almaráz Jr. “Before They Crossed the Great River: Cultural Background of the Spanish Franciscans in Texas” by Kieran McCarty O.F.M.

• Encyclopaedia Britannica , “María de Ágreda,” “Conceptionists,” and “Philip IV.”

• Catholic Encyclopedia , “María de Ágreda.”

• Archdiocese of San Antonio, 75th Anniversary.

• National Park Service, Washington, D.C.

• Texas Historical Commission, Austin.


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