Digging up the Facts

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Presidio de San Saba

Photo by Terrance Russell
By John Hallowell 

Most of the Texas Hill Country’s recorded history has occurred since the first expedition of German settlers reached New Braunfels in 1845. The German settlements were ultimately successful, and museums in New Braunfels, Fredericksburg and even as far north as Mason are packed full of artifacts and first-person accounts to document their Hill Country adventure.

Because they were ultimately unsuccessful, most people are not so familiar with the Spanish attempts to tame the Hill Country almost one hundred years earlier. Of course, San Antonio and the Camino Real were already established to the south and east of the Texas Hill country, but it was during a major effort to colonize Texas around 1750 that Spain sent its first major expedition into the heart of the hills.

The valley now inhabited by the town of Menard was chosen as the home for a presidio and a mission in 1757. About 300 Spaniards (including 100 soldiers) made the long journey in a convoy of carts and pack animals from central Mexico, through Saltillo and San Antonio to “civilize” the interior of Texas. The presidio was built on the north side of the San Saba River just west of the present-day town; the mission was built about three miles to the east. The Spaniards built an irrigation ditch, and began cultivating the fertile fields.

Presidio de San Saba

Photo by presidiodesansaba.com

Less than a year later, on March 16, 1758, the mission was destroyed by an army of Comanches and allied tribes. The presidio held out, and its original log stockade walls were replaced by solid rock, but Comanches harassed supply lines, destroyed crops and stole livestock, making life miserable for the defenders. Within ten years, the site was abandoned, and an impressive ruin was all that was left of Spain’s ambitious plans; a few adventurous travelers used the old fort as a makeshift corral and campground through the middle of the 19th century. A mural was painted in 1765 to commemorate the mission’s destruction, but the actual site was forgotten by the early 1900s.

A misguided attempt to reconstruct the presidio was made during the 1930s as a public works project, but the new construction was not done accurately or well. Now that project is, itself, in ruins. Historians and archeologists began trying to relocate Mission San Sabá in the mid-1960s, but it was not until 1993 that the search met success. That’s when Dr. Grant Hall, a professor of anthropology at Texas Tech, discovered a few remnants of the old mission in an alfalfa field just east of Menard. Dr. Hall involved his students in the ongoing study of the old Spanish ruins.

Since 2000, Texas Tech has held regular summer “field schools,” now under the direction of Dr. Tamra Walter, at the old presidio. Dr. Walter is a specialist in historical archaeology who uses the field schools both as a way to give her students some hands-on archaeological experience and as a way to learn more about the fort and the lives of its inhabitants. One of their objectives is to provide a historically accurate description of the presidio; another is to shed light on the lives and activities of the inhabitants. The people of Menard hope to soon be able to build a true-to-life replica of the presidio and an interpretive center to demonstrate for visitors the saga that played out here 250 years ago.

Presidio de San Saba

Photo by presidiodesansaba.com

The years of archeological excavations at the site have yielded a great deal of information; the original architecture of the presidio has been partially traced through vestiges of wall foundations, and recovered artifacts give clues to the lives of the people who lived there. Artifacts from the site are typical of the Spanish Colonial period in Texas: musket balls, gunflints, horse equipment, hand-forged iron nails, and shards of imported ceramic olive jars, plates, and bowls.

The approach during the first few years of excavation was to dig in a sort of “checkerboard” formation, in an attempt to “narrow down” the excavation site by determining its outer perimeter. Dr. Walter explained that this year’s focus was to uncover clues that would “make visitors feel a human connection” and help modern Americans understand what life was like for the women and children who lived at the fort. She targeted rooms in the presidio to discover their functions and uses, and looked for trash pits outside the walls. Her students dug 2-meter squares along the south wall of the presidio, and found, to their surprise, that there had been a temporary wall with wooden posts there before the “permanent” structure was completed. They uncovered a “builder’s trench,” with a layer of stones buried along the outline of the wall, and a cobblestone pavement.

“Every year, we find more neat things,” she said. “We always wish we had more time, but we always find tons of good info. We’re surprised to find so much intact.” The people of Menard make her job more pleasant. “I love Menard,” she says. “The people here are so nice; they’re genuinely excited about this place, and they want to see it appreciated.”

More and more visitors are appreciating it, and with good reason. At the time of its occupation, Presidio San Sabá was the lone bastion of Spanish authority on an otherwise unoccupied frontier. Both in physical size and by the size of its military force, it was the largest and most important military installation in Texas at that time. The history represented here in Menard is a priceless asset to the Texas Hill Country.