San Antonio: 'On a Mission' to Celebrate 300 Years of History

A yearlong fiesta commemorates the city's 300 years of history and its vibrant, promising future.

There was something in these waters when the first governor of the new Spanish province of Tejas, Domingo Terán de los Ríos, led an expedition through an encampment area along the San Antonio River on June 13, 1691.

Yanaguana, or “clear water,” is what the Payaya Indians called the calming river area back then. The Spanish expedition happened to arrive on the feast day of St. Anthony of Padua, so its leaders decided to call the encampment area “San Antonio de Padua” instead.

Twenty-seven years later, on May 1, 1718, Spanish royalty would establish near this river site the Mission San Antonio de Valero, which would become famously known as the Alamo.

The mission was designed to serve as a halfway point between northern Mexico and Spanish settlement areas in eastern Texas. Four days later, the Spaniards would establish the Presidio San Antonio de Béjar—where the Spanish Governor’s Palace, circa 1749, still stands today—as a garrison to protect the new mission.

Thus, San Antonio was born.

San Antonio UIW

In 2018, beginning just past the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Day as fireworks light up the city’s skies, San Antonio will celebrate its tricentennial with a yearlong flurry of events and exhibitions, all designed to highlight the diversity of San Antonio’s population and its cultural arts.

At the center of the celebration will be the Alamo and the four missions that were established over the next few decades after its birth, all southward along the river: Mission Concepción, Mission San José, Mission San Juan Capistrano and Mission San Francisco de la Espada.

Each of the missions—except for the Alamo, which is the most heavily visited because of its status as a major tourist attraction—remains an active parish today.

In 2015, after several years of diligent work by city leaders, the five San Antonio missions were declared a World Heritage Site, a status that only 23 other landmarks and natural areas in the United States have achieved.

The designation by UNESCO puts the missions—described as the largest collection of Spanish colonial architecture north of the Rio Grande—on par with the Statue of Liberty, Independence Hall and Grand Canyon National Park nationally.

On a global scale, their significance is up there with the Pyramids of Giza and the Great Wall of China.

Mission Espada at sunset in San Antonio

Let the Party Begin 

The tricentennial will be a yearlong affair with many events, including special museum exhibitions and a Commemorative Week that’s scheduled for May 1-6. Events will center on the themes of arts and culture, education and history, and community service.

This first week in May is meant to coincide with the establishment of the Alamo and the presidio, but it coincidentally falls during the week of Cinco de Mayo as well. This holiday is the celebration of the Battle of Puebla, when the Mexican army ran off occupying French forces on May 5, 1862.

Concurrent museum exhibitions include “San Antonio 1718: A Tricentennial Exhibition of Art From Viceregal Mexico,” at the San Antonio Museum of Art, on view Feb. 16-May 13. After four-plus years in the planning stages, “San Antonio 1718” will feature 100 paintings, sculptures, works on paper and decorative objects on loan from 30 institutional and private collections.

SAMA’s exhibition will highlight works by some of Mexico’s most talented 18th-century artists, including Cristóbal de Villalpando, Miguel Cabrera and José de Páez, plus works from unknown artists and craftsmen.

One gem will be José de Páez’s monumental “The Martyrdom of Franciscans at Mission San Sabá,” which depicts the mission’s bloody rout by Comanches just north of San Antonio.

“This important exhibition celebrates the city’s deep Hispanic roots and strong ties with Mexico,” says museum curator Marion Oettinger Jr., who worked with historians from Mexico and the United States to bring “San Antonio 1718” to fruition.

“It reveals the sweep of Spain’s religious, political and economic ambitions and the everyday details of individual lives,” Oettinger Jr. says. During summer 2018, SAMA presents another exhibition, “Spanish Masterpieces From the Prado and Other Museums of Madrid.”

The Witte Museum, meanwhile, will open an appropriately named yearlong exhibition, “Gathering at the Waters: 10,000 Years of People,” in mid-January, and then, in early March and running through the rest of the year, “300 Years of San Antonio History: Confluence and Culture” will open. 

The tricentennial celebrations continue beyond museums: A five-day Alamo Baroque Festival in January hosted by St. Mark’s Episcopal Church promises to bring a “distinctive musical experience” through “historically informed performances” featuring internationally recognized artists. The San Antonio Symphony will perform a three-night tricentennial concert from Jan. 12-14, 2018, and has planned its season with a historical theme in mind.

Commemorative Week

Commemorative Week events will center on a different theme for each day of the six-day affair, beginning on May 1, Reflection Day, when Main Plaza downtown will feature interfaith sunset services and an eternal flame lit to symbolize the city’s bright future.

May 2 will be History and Education Day. During the summer of 2017, more than 300 San Antonio educators attended a summer camp sponsored by the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Institute of Texan Cultures to assist the teachers in planning a 2017-2018 history curriculum for the city’s tens of thousands of students.

May 3 will be Founders Day, when citywide events will feature performing arts such as dancing and theater and the city’s culinary diversity will be on full display.

Museums, other arts venues and theaters will offer free admission on May 4, Arts for All Day, when the city’s museums and their vast collections will be in the spotlight—as will the unveiling of a tricentennial public art piece.

Saturday, May 5, is Legacy Day, during which all 5 miles of the World Heritage mission site will be filled with musical entertainment, tours, and health and fitness activities, capped by fireworks over each mission at night.

May 6 is Military Appreciation Day, which will focus on the city’s rich military history. (Home to some 55,000-plus service members and the U.S. military’s largest medical center, San Antonio has earned the nickname “Military City.”) Flyovers, skydiving, band performances and drill corps demonstrations will be on the schedule on this commemorative day.

The City's Future

And just what lies in store for the city’s future?

Former San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor summed it up thusly as tricentennial planning got underway in mid-2017: “With a new northern reach from downtown through the San Antonio Museum of Art, the Pearl and Brackenridge Park, and a southern reach running to the San Antonio missions, we have allowed the San Antonio River to blossom into an urban asset that now pumps $3 billion into the economy every year,” she said. “A reimagined Alamo Plaza and Hemisfair Park multiply the possibilities.”

It was the Spanish expedition led by Domingo Terán de los Ríos that also recognized such promise when it came upon those Yanaguana waters, 300 years ago.

Headwaters Sanctuary