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San Francisco de los Tejas, how and why?

How I miss being on the road with my beloved people! Maybe we’ll get back to it soon again. This is what we learned while headed to Nacogdoches at our first potty stop! Who knew the Texas Parks were so convenient? Thank you, Texas!

East Texas, its flora and fauna, and its native tribes were described in detail by several Spanish explorers. In the 1530s, Cabeza de Vaca, shipwrecked on the coast with other members of the Narvaez expedition to Florida, explored much of the southern half of East Texas in his attempts to return to central Mexico. He described the variety of tribes with whom he had come in contact, but, perhaps of greatest importance to the Spanish, reported a total lack of gold.

Later explorers, including Hernando de Soto and, after his death in 1542, Luis de Moscoso, agreed. A few pearls in the rivers but no gold. There were, however, natives who could be Christianized. Mission Fathers in Mexico (New Spain) continued to plead for permission to reach out to the tribes.

Without the gold, the Spanish King felt the cost of missions was prohibitive. East Texas and its native peoples were left to live their lives peacefully among the pines for the next century and a half. Successful farmers, the Texas First Peoples, including the Caddo or Hasinai, had established large towns and extensive trade networks, reaching as far as the Comanche in West Texas and far to the North where they traded in long canoes up the Mississippi River. These tribes first used the term “Tejas” or “Teysha” for friend when the Spanish arrived.

By the 1680s, the Spanish were keeping a furious eye on the rapidly expanding European settlements in New England and Louisiana. Both French and English explorers had begun to extend feelers deep into Spanish territory encouraged by Spain’s weakened King Charles II. Explorations by Pére Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet in 1673 along the river the natives called the Misipipi led to the settlement by Rene Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle on the Gulf of Mexico.

La Salle’s small fort and civilian settlement at Fort St. Louis on Matagorda Bay in 1685 at last drove the Spanish to action. By 1686, the Spanish were determined to remove this “thorn” from their Spanish Sea. It took almost a dozen expeditions by land and sea and three frustrating years before the Spanish found the wooden fort and buildings. The town had been destroyed by the Karankawa and little remained of the people or the fort.

The Spanish saved some of the children, including Marie Talon and her two brothers, and two of La Salle’s men made their way back to Canada. The danger of further French encroachment had not ended. The Spanish feared the threat of the French in Mobile who offered trade goods and guns to the Caddo and their neighbors.

Over the next decades, the Spanish made repeated efforts to establish missions in East Texas. The least expensive means of securing the area was to send missionaries. The advantages included the fact that the church paid for the settlements, the mission fathers wanted to go, and in the first few instances, the mission fathers refused the help of the soldiers, thus saving the King the cost of their upkeep.

The Caddo people in East Texas lived in much the same kind of stable communities as the natives of Central Mexico. Like the distant Jumano of West Texas, the Caddo also claimed to have been visited by the “Blue Nun.” María de Jesús de Agreda, a Spanish nun, explained that she had fallen into trances and had been bilocated to Texas. There she had spoken to the native tribes and encouraged them to seek Christian missionaries. The mission fathers were thrilled to hear of the Caddo beliefs.

            In 1690, Governor Alonso de León and Father Damián de Mazanet (also Massanet) marched from Monterrey to establish San Francisco de los Tejas in the forests along the upper Neches River. A second mission, Santísimo Nombre de María, was settled nearby. Father Mazanet, encouraged by his initial success, requested more priests and lay brothers in order to establish eight more missions among the Caddo and their many neighbors.

            In 1691, Father Mazanet joined the first governor of the province of Texas, Domingo Terán de los Ríos, to return to East Texas with some of the requested priests and fifty soldiers. The governor, who was to explore Texas, fought bitterly with Father Mazanet. The following year, Terán abandoned the province and returned to Veracruz, his expedition a failure, leaving Mazanet and a handful of lay brothers at San Francisco de los Tejas.

            Undaunted, Father Mazanet continued to demand supplies. The next governors of Texas provided what they could to Mazanet and his missions. The goods were slow in coming, insufficient, and the distance to the nearest settlement on the Rio del Norte (Rio Grande) was much too far. The Caddo, who only wanted guns, had to provide the Spanish missionaries with food to keep them alive.

By 1693, a small-pox epidemic convinced the Caddo that the Spanish God did not have their best interests at heart. The tribal leaders informed the Spanish priests that if they did not leave, they would be massacred. Father Mazanet chose not to become a martyr. He buried the bells, burned the missions and led his fellow missionaries on a grueling 600-mile trek back to the Rio Grande. Once again, East Texas was abandoned.

There is little doubt that the French, well-aware of Spanish silver mines, were anxious to open trade with the interior of New Spain. The Spanish, meanwhile, had implemented laws to prevent any strangers from entering their territory, particularly their new Louisiana neighbors. It was too late. The French had set up successful trading settlements along the Gulf coast and had begun to trade with the Caddo and to infiltrate East Texas.

Did the Spanish return to refound San Francisco de los Tejas? More next time.

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