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Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga

Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga
A Frontier Mission in South Texas

A comprehensive study of the history and archaeology of a Spanish colonial mission in south Texas.

Series: Texas Archaeology and Ethnohistory Series, Thomas Hester, series editor

April 2007
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239 pages | 6 x 9 | 73 b&w photos, 16 line drawings |

In the early part of the eighteenth century, the Spanish colonial mission Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga was relocated from far south Texas to a site along the Guadalupe River in Mission Valley, Victoria County. This mission, along with a handful of others in south Texas, was established by the Spaniards in an effort to Christianize and civilize the local Native American tribes in the hopes that they would become loyal Spanish citizens who would protect this new frontier from foreign incursions.

With written historical records scarce for Espíritu Santo, Tamra Walter relies heavily on material culture recovered at this site through a series of recent archaeological investigations to present a compelling portrait of the Franciscan mission system. By examining findings from the entire mission site, including the compound, irrigation system, quarry, and kiln, she focuses on questions that are rarely, if ever, answered through historical records alone: What was daily life at the mission like? What effect did the mission routine have on the traditional lifeways of the mission Indians? How were both the Indians and the colonizers changed by their frontier experiences, and what does this say about the missionization process?

Walter goes beyond simple descriptions of artifacts and mission architecture to address the role these elements played in the lives of the mission residents, demonstrating how archaeology is able to address issues that are not typically addressed by historians. In doing so, she presents an accurate portrait of life in South Texas at this time. This study of Mission Espíritu Santo will serve as a model for research at similar early colonial sites in Texas and elsewhere.


2009 Citation, San Antonio Conservation Society

  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1. Introduction
  • Chapter 2. The Historical Record
  • Chapter 3. The Archaeological Record
  • Chapter 4. Mission Architecture
  • Chapter 5. Investigations at Related Sites
  • Chapter 6. Mission Material Culture
  • Chapter 7. Mission Foodways: The Faunal Collection
  • Chapter 8. Conclusions
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Tamra Lynn Walter is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Texas Tech University in Lubbock.


The Spanish Colonial era in Texas began in the sixteenth century with the arrival of explorers such as Álvarez de Piñeda and Cabeza de Vaca. The period lasted into the early nineteenth century and is marked by the remains of missions, presidios, ranchos, visitas (visiting or outlying missions), and various Spanish settlements. The region we now call Texas includes a much greater area than the Hispanic Texas known to the Spanish as Tejas or the New Kingdom of the Philippines, as it was called from 1694 to 1715. During the Spanish occupation of the region, the area encompassed the lands to the north of the Medina River and east of its headwaters into Louisiana (Chipman 1992, 1). Although Texas lacked the rich mineral resources found in northern Mexico, it was nonetheless an important province for the Kingdom of New Spain. Foreign intrusions into Spanish territory from other European groups, especially those from French colonies in the New World, were a constant threat to Spain's landholdings and natural resources. The province of Tejas served as an important buffer zone between the northern boundaries of New Spain and the rich silver mines of Mexico (Bolton 1915, Céliz 1935). In theory, Spanish officials hoped to colonize the frontier of New Spain through conversion. Once Christianized, the native groups would eventually be converted into loyal Spanish citizens through the mission system. Ideally, these faithful neophytes would then help protect the land and resources of New Spain from foreign incursions (Bolton 1960).


The missionary efforts in Texas, carried out by the Franciscan order, therefore played an integral part in the attempts to colonize the region. From the viewpoint of the government, the work of the missionaries was not only to Christianize but also to civilize the lands north of Mexico and to work toward holding and expanding this frontier (Bolton 1915, 10). Hence, much time and effort were devoted to establishing missions among the various indigenous groups of Texas. At least five missions were established in South Texas alone for the Indian groups of the area. The Spanish Colonial mission of Espíritu Santo in present-day Mission Valley serves as an excellent example of a Franciscan mission complex.


Although research has been conducted at many of the missions established in various parts of the state, the missions in South Texas remain poorly understood. In many cases archival information is sparse or nonexistent. For example, available historical records documenting the mission's third location, the focus of our investigations, are limited to brief mentions of the site, usually in relation to the nearby fort known as Presidio Nuestra Señora de Loreto de la Bahía. To date, no descriptions of the mission's layout or architecture have been recovered from the archival records, much less information on daily events and lifeways of the mission inhabitants. The archaeological investigations of recent years have begun to bring these pictures into focus, rendering material clues to who resided at the mission, what their work entailed, and how they sustained themselves. Recent investigations at the Espíritu Santo site in Mission Valley, therefore, provide an opportunity to examine the mission system in a more detailed manner.


Both history and historical archaeology enrich our understandings of the past; however, the two disciplines often ask very different questions. Historians may focus on prominent individuals in the past or on unique historical events, while historical archaeologists trained in the field of anthropology, for example, seek to reconstruct the everyday lives of both the renowned and the anonymous. Each discipline can clearly supplement the other, yet historical and archaeological data are not always equally accessible. In the case of Mission Espíritu Santo, the archaeological record is obviously more extensive than the few brief historical records that document the mission's third site near the Guadalupe River in what is now called Mission Valley. Our investigations centered on this third location among the four sites Mission Espíritu Santo occupied during its more than one hundred years. Here, archaeology must serve not only to answer anthropologically oriented questions (e.g., questions concerning daily life, subsistence economies, ethnicity), but it also can serve to flesh out the historical record. The archaeology of Espíritu Santo thus greatly enhances our understanding of this eighteenth-century Spanish Colonial mission.


As a graduate student at the University of Montana and later at the University of Texas, I had the good fortune of meeting and working with Thomas R. Hester, then a professor of anthropology at UT. Dr. Hester had become interested in investigating an old Spanish mission in South Texas and suggested that I conduct excavations there for my master's thesis. I quickly accepted his offer. I eventually entered the doctoral program at UT and continued my research at Espíritu Santo in conjunction with fellow graduate students and two Texas Archeological Society field schools.


The first formal investigations at Mission Espíritu Santo in Mission Valley began in the summer of 1995 and continued until the spring of 1999. A historical marker was erected at the site in 1936 to commemorate the mission, although no formal research had been conducted to verify that this location was indeed the third site of Mission Espíritu Santo. Between 1936 and 1995, occasional investigations were carried out at the site. Limited archaeological testing and surface collections constitute most of the work that was completed there prior to the 1995 excavations. In 1965 a treasure hunter discovered a burial within the mission ruins, and Cecil Calhoun, a local avocational archaeologist, recorded it. The burial proved to be from the late nineteenth century, and thus it was not associated with the Spanish Colonial occupation of the mission (Calhoun 1965). Archeologists did not return to the site until 1975, when E. H. Schmiedlin, A. Fox, and C. K. Chandler completed a nonrandom survey and surface collection of artifacts. The crew noted evidence of extensive looting and disturbance by pot hunters inside the mission ruins. In 1989 Schmiedlin, a steward for the Office of the State Archeologist (OSA), reexamined the site and drew several preliminary sketches of the mission layout. Schmiedlin produced a report on his investigations that brought the site to the attention of the OSA.


In the spring of 1995 the OSA conducted limited excavations at the site to assess its potential for future research. Encouraged by the findings, the OSA recommended further research. That summer Dr. Hester directed archaeological investigations during the 1995 UT field school, and I participated as part of my thesis research. Students and local avocationalists completed test excavations at the site during the summer, and more testing followed in the fall. UT students and the TAS continued excavations there until the fall of 1999.


Considering the limited nature of the historical record, the archaeological record serves as the main source of information for Mission Espíritu Santo. Accordingly, excavations were oriented toward answering specific questions that the written records alone did not address. My goals in presenting this research are: first, to give an overall picture of the mission layout and its related sites; second, to provide a description of the history and everyday life at Espíritu Santo; and finally, to exemplify the importance of archaeology to both the history and ethnography of eighteenth-century Spanish Texas. Ideally, the study of Mission Espíritu Santo will serve as a model for research at similar early Colonial sites in Texas and elsewhere.


In the following chapters I will present archival, archaeological, and architectural data relating to the site as a way to bring the mission experience to life. Chapter 2 presents a historical overview of Spain in the New World and of Spanish Texas as context for the founding of Espíritu Santo. The history of the mission is discussed in its entirety, from its establishment on the coast to its virtual abandonment in the late eighteenth century and eventual secularization in the early nineteenth century. Through the use of historical and ethnohistorical accounts and the archaeological record, I offer an overview of the Native American residents of Espíritu Santo. Chapter 2 also presents a discussion of Late Prehistoric cultural patterns that are related to those evidenced at Espíritu Santo. The mission Indians affiliated with Espíritu Santo are clearly related to the prehistoric groups that occupied the Guadalupe River Valley prior to the arrival of Europeans.


Chapter 3 presents an overview of the archaeological work at the site. Archaeological excavations helped to define living areas inside and outside the mission compound. The investigations provide information concerning the locations of particular habitation areas for the indigenous residents and the Spanish occupants of the site. Excavations in a large area believed to be located outside the mission compound revealed cultural materials indicative of a mission Indian occupation. Additional excavations of a small mound inside the mission plaza strongly suggest the presence of activity and living areas related to presidial soldiers and their families who were probably stationed at the mission during its tenure in Mission Valley.


Chapter 4 focuses on the mission architecture. In particular, the architectural investigations within the mission ruins are supplying information regarding the building styles and plan of the compound. The chapter presents detailed discussions of each identified mission structure and the layout of the mission complex as well as the construction and possible functions of the mission buildings. For example, the remains of wall foundations that were exposed during the investigations helped to outline the arrangement of the mission complex and provided insight into the possible functions of some of the structures. Ultimately, all of the data recovered from the architectural investigations are combined to reconstruct a more comprehensive picture of the mission's organization.


In Chapter 5, an overview and discussion of work completed at the nearby sandstone quarry, the associated dams, and the acequias emphasize the importance of the numerous components that make up a mission compound. In Chapter 5 I review the results of our investigations and their relationships to the entire mission complex to reconstruct how the mission and all of its related parts functioned together as a whole. Reviewing the mission system in its entirety contributes to a much fuller understanding of the inner workings of an eighteenth-century mission complex.


The analysis of cultural materials including artifacts in Chapter 6 and animal bones in Chapter 7 provides further insight into daily life at the mission. In particular, these analyses explore such aspects of mission life as diet, access to European goods, daily activities, and residents' overall health. Delineating habitation zones and activity areas across the site through the analysis of cultural remains therefore adds to reconstructing aspects of mission life and the lifeways of its inhabitants. The analysis of the material record at the mission likewise helps to consider questions concerning the ethnic affiliations of the mission residents.


Although ethnohistorical accounts and historical records provide some information regarding the different groups residing at the site, the material record offers a more in-depth look at the mission population. Historical records tell us that the Aranama and Tamique were among the only indigenous groups living at the mission. However, cultural materials recovered from the excavations, especially those inside the mission compound, indicate the presence of members of other groups and/or interactions among these groups and the mission residents in the form of trade. Spatial analyses of the cultural materials are used to make some preliminary inferences about the ethnic affiliations of the native residents and their relationships with other native groups.


The faunal remains, both animal bone and shell, are particularly useful for examining issues of subsistence-related economic behaviors. For instance, the two refuse middens, one inside the mission compound and one outside, contain large amounts of faunal remains and supply a great deal of information about mission foodways. I emphasize comparisons between the middens as a means to reveal distinctions suggestive of the activities that led to the accumulation of each midden. Furthermore, quantifying domestic and wild faunal materials present in each feature contributes significant information about the food resources available to the mission occupants and the importance of cattle to the mission diet and economy.


I employ a multidisciplinary approach to address the research goals and multiple lines of evidence to explore the Mission Espíritu Santo holistically, encompassing archaeological, architectural, historical, and ethnohistorical data. By examining and combining all available data, we can develop a better understanding of the mission inhabitants and the social and cultural surroundings at Espíritu Santo. Written records alone cannot tell the story of the mission. The archaeological record, however, provides us an opportunity to piece together a much more detailed picture of the mission and frontier life in eighteenth-century Texas.



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