June 6, 2012 - The Spanish were in Texas for the better part of two centuries, but found that trouble lurked every which way in their new wilderness province. A good example is a series of missions they built in hopes of civilizing the "savages" and establishing something of a new world order. A new world order, in that part of the world came to be, but other than getting out of the way, the Spanish didn't have much to do with it.
We start with the establishment of three Spanish missions on the San Gabriel River in Milam County. The missions came to be because members of local tribes asked the minister of missions in San Antonio for one. The Spanish, assuming the tribes were ready to convert to Christianity and civilization as they defined it, built a temporary mission on the San Gabriel in 1745, and an official mission three years later. The third mission, Nuestra Senora de Candeleria, was built in 1749.
For a time, the missions seemed to do reasonably well. The tribes who sought sanctuary there showed various levels of devotion to the Christian faith and a universal fondness for food, shelter and gifts, which they received for simply showing up and not killing anybody or stealing anything.
The missions on the San Gabriel (known as the San Xavier in those days) deteriorated rapidly with the arrival of Felipe de Rabago y Teran in 1751. Rabago never liked the site for the new mission and he didn't like the Indians they were supposed to be protecting and educating, but he liked the wife of one his soldiers, Juan Joseph Ceballos, quite a lot, and he had his way with her quite openly. The priests were scandalized and washed their hands of Rabago and the entire mission by excommunicating him and all of his soldiers.
Ceballos, perhaps mercifully in one sense, was later murdered at the mission along with a priest. Rabago blamed the murder on the Coco Indians, who, like him, had never much cared for the missions. A captured Coco copped to killing the priest but said he was handsomely rewarded by Rabago for doing so. Rabago was shocked -- absolutely shocked -- that he would be accused of such a crime.
Incredibly, things got worse. Though the year was reasonably wet, that part of the San Gabriel River went dry. Just before it did a giant fireball -- a meteorite? -- came out of the sky and crashed in the woods near the mission. Even the less pious among them had a hard time seeing this as anything other than a punishment from God. The missions moved (the missions stayed, actually, but the people running them moved) to the San Marcos River in 1755. For a while, this seemed like a good move.
Around New Braunfels and west through the Hill Country were Apaches clamoring for sanctuary and forgiveness for all the killing and stealing they had done ever since the Spanish arrived. Now, all they wanted to do was wage peace and sing about Jesus all day. That's essentially what they told the priests, and the priests believed them.
The Apaches requested a new mission on the San Gabriel River, near present day Menard, assuring the Spanish that many more Apaches waited there for Christian comfort and counseling. The priests were happy, but the soldiers who had spent so much time fighting Apaches were suspicious. Accuse them of racial stereotyping if you will, but none of this seemed very Apache-like to them.
The thousands of Apaches living in the Hill Country stayed away from San Saba mission in droves. To quote Yogi Berra a couple of centuries later: "If the people want to stay away, how are you going to stop them?" That was the riddle that faced a Spanish officer named Don Diego Ortiz de Parrilla, who was in charge of overseeing the dubious enterprise. To his credit, he knew it was dubious. To his misfortune, he would suffer history's blame for the terrible thing that happened there.
The terrible thing was that the Comanches arrived in the Hill Country. The Apaches knew they were coming, of course, but kept the news to themselves. They hoped the Spanish soldiers would essentially do their fighting for them. Instead, some 2,000 Comanches roared into the San Saba mission, killed the 10 people they found there, and stuck around for a few days to enjoy the mission's plunder and bounty. Parrilla and his solders, badly outnumbered, waited in the presidio for the marauders to leave.
When they did leave, Parrilla and his soldiers set out to "punish" the Comanche and pursued them into the Hill Country. The Comanches obligingly waited up. Parrilla's soldiers ended up running for their lives in a chaotic retreat that Spanish officials declared to be a disgrace.
That is how the Comanche came to rule the Hill Country for the better part of the next century and it's why the Spanish left.