27 Jul He Said, She Said
Surviving frescoes adorning the interior rooms of Mission Concepción. First image is a sun motif on the vaulted roof of the convento of the mission. Second image is a motif of the crucified Christ decorating the baptismal room. These motifs are synchronizations of Spanish and Indigenous iconography. Created circa 1740s. Image by author.
History is written by the victors, or so the saying goes. In the northeasternmost frontier of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, in what is now the city of San Antonio, at least, mission history was written by lettered Franciscans administring them during the 1700s and early 1800s. During Church administration, these missions of what was then the Province of Coahuila and Texas were presented as stable, productive institutions in which the Indians that inhabited the missions were orderly and grateful for their induction into ¨civilized¨ Spanish customs. This was, however, flowery, white lies and omissions. In truth, the missions of Concepción, San José, San Juan, and Espada were rarely able to maintain a self sufficient population of neophytes – let alone a tax-producing one, the Crown´s goal in the area.
Disease, the traditional culprit, is the obvious point of blame for the calamitous reduction of the number of people living inside the missions. Mission friars often recording entire ¨nations¨ that had succumbed to the plagues brought by the Spanish Empire´s subjects in the area. With a general number of a 90% death rate amongst infected Amerindian populations, the story can easily remain here. However, the other half of the story is that the seasonally-nomadic Indians of this area, which had no yet adopted horse husbandry of the scale of the Apaches – these armed with horses and a higher amount of iron weapons and guns that frequently warred against them pushing them southward into the expansionist Spaniards, only really became infected whenever they were inside the mission walls. And how they came to be inside is the real meat of the problem. Unlike the stories mentioned above that were sent to the king of Spain, the barely hundreds of imperial colonists were outnumbered by thousands of Indians, Apache and the various bands whom the Spaniards collectively called Coahuiltecan, who more often than not chose to enter the mission system. For the latter, it was an alliance of convenience spurred by necessary military assistance against the fearsome Apaches, that brought them into the missions. And the Spaniards knew this. The empire´s cities, walls, and food were built, farmed and ranched by indian hands who in return recieved shelter inside the walls and firearms to arm themselved with. The empire´s subjects were simply too few to create and maintain all that was built in this period.
And armed they were. The Spaniards could scarcely muster the numbers amongst themselves to fend off Apache raids which constantly sapped their ranches of valuable cattle and constantly threatened the inhabitants with hunger and destruction. Were it not for the constant defence done by the natives, the Apaches would have pushed back the Spanish Empire in this region, their nomadic lifestyle proving to be too nimble on this unfamiliar terrain for the Crown´s armies. With the nearby presidio of San Antonio de Valero, or fort, was consistently undermanned to about 80 soldiers. They were actively counting on Native manpower to defend what the Crown claimed as its own. In June of 1745, the biggest battle of these Apache-Spanish wars occurred when a force numbering somewhere between 300-400 Apaches attacked the presidio. The fort was only saved by a reinforcing army of just 100 mission Indians coming from the nearby Mission de San Antonio de Valero, now known as The Alamo.
One must imagine the crisis that the hispanos and Spaniards of this region found themselves in whenever the ever-frequent plague spread throughout their settlements and decimated the Indians they relied on. Not only would they be killed by the infestation of smallpox, they would also leave the missions, finding their alliance unteneble. Their cities and missions turned into mass graves and emptied of the very people they depended on. Slowly but surely, however, their numbers dwindled. Caught between two empires, some joined the Lipan Apaches, while others remained and were assmiliated in the missions, eventually they or their descendants recieving land from the Church when they were secularized in 1794 and 1824.
With the Coahuiltecans and their neighbours gone, no one was left to challenge what the Franciscans said. It was their word against a virtually extinguished people. No one could or wanted to challenge their views, having naturalized the common, chauvinist arguments that painted the mission Indians as childlike savages. The Spaniards were obviously the victors over them and the Apaches, at least till 1821 when Mexico became independent. Their views remained, though.
Going against the mainstream current and conducting reivisions of past historical analysis is the only way to correct these ahistorical views. Juliana Bar´s Peace Came in the Form of a Woman is a fantastic example of this effort, piecing together the information from various Spanish sources that indeed, it was the Spaniards that depended from the Indians, not the other way around. The diverse peoples of the San Antonio River ignorantly lumped together as Coahuiltecans were simply caught between two imperial peoples and a terrifyingly deadly plague. Institutions like the National Parks Service, as I´ve learned, also strive to provide a more inclusive and correct way of preserving and interpreting history in a setting that is readily accessible to the public.
Ultimately, all historical production must be constantly critiqued, challenged, and reanalized. For if the work of historians is done by those with clear ideological or political agendas, the past will be twisted to serve their goals, which can become frustratingly difficult to correct. We all know how Natives are still infantilized and victimized in the modern day, even with works made by people like Barr made available since 2007. Progress will not come by itself, but by the materal reality of historians, anthropologists, and others working coherently in tandem to correct the crimes of the past. The Franciscans, for example, had the priviledged institutional backing of one of the largest empires the world had ever seen for centuries, whose past still hangs on like a nightmare on the present. If we won’t have our say, who will?