Texas seems to be a mecca for history buffs. The Lone Star State’s big cities, such as Dallas, Austin, Houston, Fort Worth and San Antonio, have their unique (and even action-packed) episodes that have shaped their identity and progress. More so, the vivid past chapters of its cities and towns have made Texas a state that is truly distinct from the other states.
San Antonio is the second-most-populous city in both Texas and the Southern US, and the seventh-most-populous city in the entire US. San Antonio is the seat of Bexar County and the center of the San Antonio-New Braunfels metroplex. The city is also part of the “Texas Triangle” (or “Texaplex”), one of the eleven megaregions or megalopolis in the United States.
From the Native American occupation, discovery and settlement by the Spanish explorers, the old missions, the Texas Revolution (and the Battle of Alamo), the Old West, and the road to progress, San Antonio is a beautiful city, which is teeming with rich history and culture.
Early history – Indian occupation and Spanish settlement
Before the European discovery, a small ethnic community called Payaya Indians were the first occupants of what is now San Antonio. They lived near the valley (now called the San Antonio River Valley, in the San Pedro Springs area). The Payaya Indians aptly named the area “Yanaguana,” which means “refreshing waters.”
On June 13, 1691, a group of Spanish explorers and missionaries discovered the area. At the time of their discovery, it also happened to be the feast day of Saint Anthony of Padua, so they named the area (and its river) San Antonio. Another expedition occurred in 1709, which was also led by a group of Francisca missionaries, and in the same year, the first Spanish missions were built.
The actual founding of San Antonio occurred in 1716, when one of the missionaries named Antonio de Olivares established Mission San Antonio de Valero (which would become known as The Alamo). Soon, five more missions were erected along the river. In 1718, Olivares also built a presidio named Presidio San Antonio de Bexar, to protect the network of missions and to further assert the representation of Spain in the region against the aggression from the Indians, as well as the French and the British.
San Antonio grew to become the largest Spanish settlement in Texas. For most of its history, San Antonio had been the capital of the Spanish province of Tejas (it would later become the capital of Mexican Texas).
Mexican independence from Spain, The Texas Revolution, the Republic of Texas, and annexation of Texas to the United States
In 1821, after an 11-year war against Spain (Mexican War of Independence), Mexico successfully gained independence. In the aftermath of the war, it became Mexican Texas, and San Antonio served as the province’s political center. Its citizens lobbied for American immigration to support economic growth in the region, as well as Indian defense.
Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna had just been elected President of Mexico in 1833. When he unilaterally revoked the 1824 Mexican Constitution, violence followed in several provinces in Mexico. Texians (Anglo Texans) and Tejanos (Hispanic Texans) demanded the return of the 1824 Constitution. At first, they succeeded in forcing the Mexican military to retreat from Texas. But the Mexican troops were far from being done.
During the Texas Revolution, San Antonio became the site of numerous battles, such as the Battle of Bexar in December 1835 and the famous Battle of Alamo in March 1836, making them one of the most fought-over towns in North America. During the Battle of Alamo, 189 defenders maintained and protected the old missions versus 4,000 Mexican soldiers, for thirteen days.
Most historians come to the conclusion that the defenders were captured, but they were also accused as rebels and then executed. The deaths of the three Mexican martyrs spurred even greater resistance against the Santa Anna regime. The cry “Remember the Alamo” soon rose to become the rallying point of the Texas Revolution.
The Battle of San Jacinto in 1836 became the decisive conflict during the revolution. Santa Anna was captured and held for three weeks as a prisoner of war. Finally, he agreed to sign a peace treaty which dictated that the Mexican troops desert the region. This paved the way to the Republic of Texas, becoming an independent country. San Antonio was incorporated on June 5, 1837.
The United States annexed Texas in 1845 and included it as part of the Union, making Texas as one of the US states. This annexation led to a bloody armed conflict with Mexico, which became known as the Mexican-American War (1846 –1848). To make this particular episode short, the war ended with a decisive American victory. The aftermath of the war also led Mexico to finally recognize the American sovereignty over Texas, among many other territories. But despite the resounding American victory, San Antonio suffered devastating losses, and its population was drastically reduced.
San Antonio during the Civil War and the postbellum era
In 1861, the local militiamen forced the surrender of the arsenal in San Antonio even before the secession of Texas during the American Civil War. When Texas joined the Confederacy in that same year, San Antonio functioned as a Confederacy depot, where many Confederate units were formed. By this period, the city’s population had increased to 15,000, bolstered by the deluge of immigrants.
After the Civil War, San Antonio’s fortunes changed for the better. It became a prosperous cattle center and became the leading supplier of the cattle trail drives. San Antonio developed an important wool market following the importation of sheep to the nearby Hill Country.
Like many cities and towns in the United States during this period, San Antonio entered a new era of economic growth, thanks to the arrival of the railways. The first railroad was first constructed in 1877, and since then, the city’s economy had prospered even more. San Antonio was the biggest city in Texas until the 1930s when Dallas and Houston took over Alamo City.
San Antonio was also frequented by the Old West bandits. A former prostitute named Fannie Porter owned a famous brothel in San Antonio, which became a favorite hideout for outlaws such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
San Antonio in the 20th and 21st centuries
San Antonio welcomed modernization into the new generation. The streets of downtown San Antonio were expanded and widened to accommodate vehicles and traffic. However, the expansion of the roads meant the destruction of several important historic structures, including the Veramendi House (a mansion of a prominent local family) and old Mexican-style quadrangles.
The city’s population had grown steadily. By 1880, the city’s population had grown to 20,000. By the 1900s, five railroads had been built upon the city, and its population had increased to 50,000. In the 1970s, it had grown to 650,000. In 2005, the number of residents hit past the one-millionth mark. As of 2018, the population of San Antonio stands at 1,532,233. The expanding population is attributed to land annexation, which significantly enlarged the city’s physical area, as well as the vast number of immigrants.
San Antonio today
San Antonio has welcomed every change into each generation since the 20th century. However, it also successfully merges the new development with its illustrious past. While some of the old Spanish fortresses remained, several beautiful Victorian mansions were built only a few blocks away, creating a combination that lent the city an irresistible charm. These structures have stayed, making them popular tourist attractions nowadays.
On the other hand, San Antonio boasts modern high-rise buildings and skyscrapers that form a unique and impressive skyline. The highlight of the city’s skyline is the observation tower called the Tower of the Americas. Standing 750 feet (220 meters) tall, it is the tallest structure not only in San Antonio but in entire Texas as well. The building of this tower was completed in 1968 in time for the “HemisFair 68” international exposition.
San Antonio has a diversified economy, whose primary focus is on the military, health care, government and civil service, finance, oil and fuel, and tourism.
San Antonio is famous for its charming Riverwalk, which is often dubbed as the “Venice of America.” Other popular tourist spots in the city include La Villita (one of the original settlements in the city), Six Flags Fiesta Texas, Morgan’s Wonderland amusement parks, and the Alamo and San Antonio Missions Historical Park, among many others. Tourism is one of the city’s strongest industries, drawing around 32 million visitors each year.
As for education, San Antonio has over 100,000 students across the city’s 31 higher-education institutions. These facilities include the University of Texas at San Antonio, Texas A&M-San Antonio, and the five colleges of the Alamo Community College District. It is also home to several private schools, both secular and non-secular, among them St. Mary’s University, Trinity University, Our Lady of the Lake University, Webster University, and Hallmark University, as well as the Culinary Institute of America. The city has several public, private, and charter schools as well.
Sports are also a big part of San Antonio’s identity and culture. It includes several professional major and minor leagues, as well as high-school, collegiate, amateur and semi-professional teams. The San Antonio Spurs of the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the San Antonio Rampage of the American Hockey League (AHL) are among the top-level professional leagues in the city.
San Antonio’s culture reflects its colorful and turbulent past, as well as its distinction as one of the oldest cities in Texas. Because of its bygone status as part of Spain and Mexico, San Antonio is heavily influenced by Spanish and Mexican-American cultures. European (non-Spanish), African-American, American Indian, and Asian cultures also play a significant part in the city’s unique cultural identity. The mix of diversified cultures is evident in the local art, music, and several cultural festivals and events such as Cinco de Mayo (in the local market square), the Texas Folkie Festival, Tejano Music Awards, San Japan, the San Antonio Film Festival and several fiestas, among others.
San Antonio is one of those cities that captures the indomitable Texan spirit. Like most cities and towns in the United States, San Antonio has encountered settlement by conquistadores, resistance, loss and devastation, and then recovery, building a path to what it is now. Its deep and turbulent past is contrasted by its rapid growth and modernization over the past few decades, making it one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States.