A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park and by sure luck the day before our visit the park became the newest USESCO world Heritage site in the United States. The group of former missions includes not just active churches, but also farmlands, living quarters, granaries, workshops, kilns, wells, perimeter walls, a cattle ranch and irrigation systems (acequias) that are still functioning after hundreds of years. These achievements were possible through the combined efforts of the Spanish and indigenous peoples living in the missions.
Mission were used by the Spanish to transplant their culture to frontier in the New World. While many people associate missions with the Catholic faith, they were much more than just churches. The purpose of this mission was to convert Native Americans into Spanish subjects. Although missionaries introduced native people to Catholicism, they also taught them skills like farming as well as the Spanish language and about the Spanish government. Once the missionaries had completed their task, they would move on to another area and another native population. Hopefully, there remained a self-sufficient community where before one had not existed. What had really been accomplished, though, was the creation of a population that reflected both its original and its newly adopted culture.
Of course the most famous of the misisons is “The Alamo”. The story of the Alamo begins with the establishment of the Mission San Francisco de Solano near the Rio Grande River in 1700. There, Father Antonio de San Buenaventura y Olivares worked to convert many of the Coahuiltecan bands to Catholicism. In 1718, after many Native Americans had left Mission Solano, Olivares moved the mission’s belongings to the new site near present day San Antonio.
While the mission changed locations several times, the present location was chosen in 1724. The foundation of the stone mission church was laid in 1744. Until it was secularized nearly 70 years later, San Antonio de Valero was home to Spanish missionaries and their converts. It was the first of five Spanish missions in the San Antonio area.
On February 23, 1836, the arrival of General Antonio López de Santa Anna’s army outside San Antonio nearly caught them by surprise. Undaunted, the Texians and Tejanos prepared to defend the Alamo together. The defenders held out for 13 days against Santa Anna’s army. The final attack came before dawn on March 6, 1836. As Mexican troops charged toward the Alamo in the pre-dawn darkness, defenders rushed to the walls and fired into the darkness.
The San Antonio Missions site now joins a list that includes cultural and natural sites of universal importance such as the Grand Canyon in Arizona, the Taj Mahal in India, and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
The site is the 23rd World Heritage Site in the United States out of more than a thousand inscribed worldwide. Other recent inscriptions to the list from the U.S. include the Monumental Earthworks of Poverty Point, Louisiana, inscribed in 2014; and the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, Hawaii, inscribed in 2010. The Papahanaumokuakea is a vast cluster of islands and atolls with surrounding ocean to the northwest of the main Hawaiian Archipelago.
Gary Arndy for Everything-Everwhere.com does a great job describing the San Antonio Mission NHP and their UNESCO World Heritage site designation on his Podcast The Global Travel Conspiracy, Episode 4 so check it out.