San Pedro Springs Park, A History

Part 1: 1691-1836

By Hector Cardenas


There have been some questions on why San Pedro Springs Park is considered the second oldest park in the United States. Many folks may not be familiar with its early history. This brief narrative will quote from Cornelia Crook’s, San Pedro Springs Park (1967, Privately printed, San Antonio, TX) and will detail the abundant history of our neighborhood park.

During the seventeenth century soldiers of Spain periodically explored the interior of Texas searching for lands of great wealth like those previously discovered in Mexico and Peru. Though no wealth in the form of gold and silver was found, the expeditions did lay the groundwork for the expansion of the Spanish frontier.  A Spanish explorer, Domingo Teran de los Rios, recorded in 1691 the first known written description of the area that was later to become San Antonio. His report to the viceroy in Mexico read:  

We marched five leagues over fine country, with broad plains -  the most beautiful in New Spain. We camped on the banks of an arroyo, adorned by a great number of trees, cedars, willows, cypresses, osiers, oaks and many other kinds. This [river] I called San Antonio de Padua, because we reached it on his day.

Fray Damian Massanet, one of the missionaries accompanying Teran provided his own account of the area:

On this day there were droves of buffalo, the horses stampeded. We found at this place the encampment of the Indians of the Payaya tribe. This is a very large tribe, and the country where they live is fine. I named this place San Antonio de Padua because it is his day. In the language of the Indians it is called Yanaguana [Peaceful Waters].

By the eighteenth century fear of foreign aggression by the French and a desire of the Catholic Church to build missions for the instruction of the Texas Indians, led Spain to send out exploring parties with a view of establishing permanent settlements. One of the first was the Espinosa-Olivares-Aguirre. Father Isidro Felix de Espinosa provided the first known description of San Pedro Springs on April 13, 1709, the feast day of the apostle Saint Peter:

We crossed a large plain in the same direction, and after going through a mesquite flat and some holm-oak groves we came to an irrigation ditch, bordered by many trees and with water enough to supply a town. It was full with sluices of water, the earth being terraced.  We named the waters “San Pedro Springs” (agua de San Pedro).

It was on this expedition that Father Antonio de San Buenavevtura Olivares, the guardian of the Franciscan college of Santa Cruz de Queretaro, became interested in this portion of the Texas territory. The expedition’s diarist, Father Espinoza, returned seven years later as one of nine priests who accompanied the Domingo Ramon expedition. By accident the explorers arrived at San Pedro Springs on June 29, 1716. The exact day, seven years past, of St. Peter’s feast day. High Mass with all its pageantry was held under the springs tall trees that surrounded the lake. The chiefs of the Indian tribes came in large numbers to participate in this celebration, one strange to their eyes. The expedition returned to Mexico and Ramon convinced the Spanish authorities that in order to circumvent French encroachment and trading schemes, Spain should build a supply line nearer the borderland, and occupy Espiritu Santo (Matagorda Bay area) for supplies coming by sea. He also recommended that the site of present day San Antonio should be a fortified half-way station. His ideas were approved on December 3, 1716.

Martin de Alarcon, a Spanish soldier of fortune and Governor of the Provencia de Tejas, led the expedition to establish the presidio and a settlement among the villages of the Yanaguana.  Father Olivares found this a great opportunity to carry out his dream of establishing a mission in the interior of Texas. The organization for a long and well supplied expedition by Alarcon had several setbacks and caused a rift between the impatient friar and Alarcon. They both took separate routes to their destination and Alarcon arrived in May of 1718. Alarcon  is given credit for the founding of the presidio which became the focal point of Spanish defense in Western Texas and San Antonio. Father Olivares arrived at the springs and took charge of establishing his mission.

The Mission on the Creek

Mission San Antonio de Valero, established and named by Franciscan Father Antonio de San Buenaventura Olivares in honor of the Viceroy, Marquis de Valero, and was the first mission of the College of the Santa Cruz (Holy Cross) of Queretaro to be founded in the province of Texas. It was housed in a primitive structure about three fourths of a league downstream of the San Pedro headwaters. The walls were made by pulling together slender poles and brush and filling the cracks with mud. The roof was made of straw. This crude mission, a short ways downstream from the San Pedro headwaters, was lovingly nurtured by Father Olivares. However, a few months later when a better location was found on the east bank of the San Antonio River, it was moved from its original location. In 1724 a hurricane demolished the second structure and the mission was again moved, this time to the present site of the Alamo.

The Royal Presidio (military compound) de San Antonio de Bexar and the Villa de Bexar (settlement), were named in honor of the viceroy’s brother, the Duke de Bexar, who in 1686 died a hero’s death defending Budapest against the Turks, was established on May 5, 1718 on and around the headwaters of the San Pedro Springs. The Presidio and the Villa were also destined to be moved from their original sites along the springs. In 1722, the Marques de San Miguel de Aguayo located the Presidio farther south along the spring’s creek where he rebuilt and strengthened it. Nearby the still existing Spanish Governor’s Palace at Military Plaza in present day downtown San Antonio is approximately where the presidio was moved to.

A royal land grant from King Phillip V of Spain in 1729 to San Antonio de los Llanos (San Antonio of the Plains, the name given to early inhabitants as a group) amounted to six leagues of 26,568 acres. Certain lots of this public land were granted to the inhabitants; others were reserved for the King, to be granted by him to new settlers. The area of the early settlement near the springs of San Pedro was declared an Ejido or public land. This was the first official act making this land a public area and awards San Pedro Springs Park its title as the second oldest public park in the country (Boston Commons, the oldest, dates to 1634). It is believed that it was at some point during this time that a structure was built that exists today and is known as “The Old Fort” or “Block House”. The Friends agree that this is the oldest complete structure in Texas that dates to the early 1700’s. The exact original use of the building is not known, but an old print shows it to have been the southwest corner of a cedar post stockade that was burned by Indians that left only the stone walls standing. The four sides contain rifle ports that were used by visitors that took refuge from marauding Indians at the springs.

First Civilian Settlers Arrive

The land around the springs was used as temporary farm land for people from the Canary Islands. These Islenos were settlers (56 men, women, and children) who had been brought by royal edict from the Canary Islands in 1731 as the forerunners of other Spanish families that the government planned to settle in Texas. They were granted the title of “Hidalgo” (landholding nobles), a customary title awarded to the first settlers of a new Spanish colony.  Contrary to popular belief, however, they were not the first settlers. The military, many with wives, and religious agents, had numbered almost 300 souls before the new arrivals. But the Islanders are seen as the first “civilian” settlers.

Officials of the Presidio announced that they had marked off plots of land for the new settlers. A drawing was held in July of 1731 for the various strips of land selected by the Governor between the San Pedro Creek and the San Antonio River for their farm tracts and home sites surrounding a plaza initially called Plaza of the Islanders, but soon became known as Main Plaza.  The Hidalgos selected the name San Fernando for their new community and added Bexar as a descriptive measure. Later when the Villa and Presidio were combined, they were officially called the Royal Presidio of San Antonio and the Villa de Bexar.

San Pedro’s Water

Soon after the founding of San Antonio de Valero Mission in 1718 an irrigation ditch (Acequia) was dug for the irrigation of crops. Water in the ditch ran from the springs in a southeasterly direction and continued until it met the river below the springs approximately where the Municipal Auditorium is today. This first channel ran for about one and one-third miles in length and irrigated some three hundred acres.

The later Spanish settlers from the Canaries, once receiving their land, began their first community improvement with help from the military. The San Pedro Acequia was dug with its origin also at the springs and in all probability became fully operable by 1734. The ditch ran down what is now North Flores by Main Plaza south near east of today’s Probant St. and met the San Pedro Acequia again right above its confluence with the river by Mission Concepción. With the completion of the San Pedro Acequia, the colonists could irrigate the entire basin between the creek and the river from the springs to the confluence. All in all, San Antonio had five main acequias that for more than a hundred years served as San Antonio’s main water delivery system. Some of these waterways still irrigate fields near the missions. Remnants of these early waterways are found throughout San Antonio.

Mission Life Ends

The original plans of the Spanish called for the introduction of hundreds of settlers from the old country to Texas, even their Mexican subjects failed to migrate north. Consequently the growth of Spanish Texas was very slow. The 1791 census of the Presidio and Villa showed 1,165 inhabitants. Over seventy years had passed since its founding, but the village was still considered small in proportion to what was earlier expected. Nonetheless, it was still the most important settlement in Texas and was made the capital in 1775. The missions were secularized in 1794 and most of the land surrounding them was awarded to the Indian converts and Spanish citizens. During these years of slow growth the springs remained mainly an outpost. Travelers would camp and graze their pack animals, but the fear of Apache and Comanche Indians kept most people close to the Presidio. Many felt that Spain’s initial purpose failed in the sense that San Antonio at the time did not reach its intended growth; however it did create a whole new people. The mixing of Spanish and local Indian (mestizo) blood produced the people of the southwest, the Tejano, whose numbers now dominate the population of San Antonio.

Republic of Mexico

Spain recognized Mexico’s independence in 1821 after a long and bloody eleven year battle. The Province of Texas was admitted to the New Republic of Mexico as part of the State of Coahuila, and Monclova became the capitol and opened its doors to Anglo American settlers. Following the adoption in 1824 of a new Mexican constitution modeled after the United States, there were more than 20,000 English-speaking Anglos in Texas. The new Constitution would grant land to settlers if they became Mexican citizens, spoke Spanish, practiced Catholicism and abided by  trade practices with their new country. In 1830 the Mexican government under the provisional President Anastasio Bustamante passed a law prohibiting further immigration to Texas. General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna later became President and ordered a federal inspection of Texas. The news he received was that Texas did not look like Mexico any longer, Anglo settlers and squatters greatly outnumbered Mexicans and most of their trading of cash crops and cattle was with the United States rather than the mother country. The General negated the Constitution of 1824 and began implementing stricter measures on slavery, trade, and new immigration among other actions. In October of 1835 the fight for Texas Independence began and ended with the Texas rebels defeating General Santa Anna in April of 1836 at San Jacinto and Texas becoming a republic. San Pedro Springs was used as a campground for several of General Santa Anna’s battalions in the days before the battle of the Alamo on March 6, 1836.

Saint Peter

Marquis de Valero

The “Old Fort” or “Block House”

King Phillip V of Spain

General Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana


Continue to Part 2