As the cultural and economic metropolis of South Central Texas, San Antonio is the only major city in Texas that can trace its history back to the eighteenth century. The creation of San Antonio de Bexar Presidio in 1718 was the product of the Spanish colonial presidio system, accompanied by Catholic missionaries wishing to convert the indigenous population to Catholicism and a sedentary lifestyle of farming and ranching. The first of the missions was founded in 1718: San Antonio de Valero, known since the early nineteenth century as the Alamo ( SA1), Spanish for the cottonwood trees along the nearby river. It was joined by four others, Concepción ( SA84), San José y San Miguel de Aguayo ( SA85), San Juan Capistrano ( SA86), and Espada ( SA87). These missions remained in operation until the 1790s when they were consolidated administratively or secularized by Spanish colonial authorities because of a decline in growth of the Indian population due to high infant mortality rates, because the Spanish government found the missions to be economic liabilities, and because the threat of French incursions was eliminated after the sale of Louisiana. The government also was under pressure from the civilian population, who wanted to take over the mission land for ranching and agriculture enterprises.
The permanent establishment of San Antonio began in the early 1730s, when the first civilians, including fifteen families of Berber origins brought from the Canary Islands, arrived and developed an economy based on livestock ranching. The small town grew around what are today known as Main and Military plazas, with the mission compounds sited to the east and southeast. The town plan was based on the Laws of the Indies, the legal code drawn up to regulate the administration of the vast Spanish colonial empire in the Americas, first promulgated in 1573. The code stipulated a grid plan of streets and the location of public buildings, such as churches, markets, and seats of government. The central feature of the new towns was the open plaza, around which the major public buildings were arranged. This plaza served a number of purposes in its own right as a parade ground for military drills and a community gathering place. The church was most often placed on the east side of the plaza and the principal government building on the west side, although this was not absolute, as in the case of San Antonio, where the locations of these buildings were reversed.
The Siege of the Alamo during February and March 1836, honored in myth and glorified by Hollywood, created a unique identity for both Texas and San Antonio. The Alamo's 189 defenders could not withstand nearly 4,000 of Antonio López de Santa Anna's best-trained troops and after a thirteen-day siege, the Alamo fell on March 6, 1836. Santa Anna then moved east in pursuit of Sam Houston's force and met defeat at San Jacinto ( AT24) on April 21. By December of that same year, Mexican forces evacuated Bexar Country and the Republic of Texas was established, with San Antonio serving as one of its short-lived capitals in January 1837.
The settlement remained small in the early nineteenth century and began to grow more rapidly under the Republic of Texas until Texas became a state in 1845. Initial expansion was toward the east along the banks of the San Antonio River, encompassing the site of the Alamo within Alamo Plaza. Following Texas independence, San Antonio's population declined to less than 1,000 and these inhabitants were largely of Mexican descent. With the border between Texas and Mexico in dispute, military actions against San Antonio in 1842 by Mexican troops discouraged additional permanent settlement. The first significant influx of non-Mexican settlers were Irish immigrants who arrived in the 1830s, followed in the 1840s and 1850s by a much larger influx of German immigrants. By the outbreak of the Civil War, the city had a population of more than 8,000, making it the largest city in the state. The turnaround in prosperity was due in part to the success of San Antonio merchants, mainly Irish born, who developed a lucrative trade, often illegal, with Mexico along the Rio Grande. The most prosperous economic infusion was the establishment of military installations in the city during the Mexican War of 1846–1848, with the army contracting with local merchants for goods and services. This economic relationship became permanent with the founding of Fort Sam Houston in 1876, and expanded as additional military installations appeared through the twentieth century.
Little survives from the years 1836 to 1860, but the pattern of growth following the course of the river is still clearly visible in the first southern expansion of the city, the King William neighborhood, which began to develop in the 1860s. Many of the residents were of German descent, but the area was not exclusively German.
The first rail line to reach San Antonio arrived in 1877, linking it to the Port of Galveston. In 1881, two railroads connected the region nationally: to the northeast and the Mexican border via the International and Great Northern Railway and to California via the Southern Pacific Railroad. The city grew explosively in the twentieth century, with its population almost doubling every ten years from 1900 to 1920. Expansion of the city headed north, encompassing the grid-planned Monte Vista neighborhood, followed in the 1930s and 1940s by the more informally planned, incorporated communities of Alamo Heights, Olmos Park, and Terrell Hills. These suburban developments attracted upper-income residents whose large houses often came with detached structures for live-in servants.
The relationship of the city to the San Antonio River changed dramatically during the years following the disastrous flood of 1921, which pushed several feet of water into downtown buildings. This led indirectly to the creation of the Riverwalk, or Paseo de Rio, now widely considered the city's greatest urban amenity. Eight years after the flood, San Antonio architect Robert H. H. Hugman proposed a plan for an urban park along the banks of the San Antonio River with areas for shops, restaurants, and apartments. His master plan, which he labeled “The Shops of Romula and Aragon,” added footbridges, street-access stairways, and a system of channels and dams upon which gondolas, inspired by those in Venice, would provide boat rides on the river. Due to a lack of city financing, the construction of the Riverwalk did not begin until 1938 with the availability of federal funds and was only completed in 1941. Initially, it was unsuccessful because of crime and the attraction of transients in that part of the city, making the number of businesses less than had been anticipated. In the 1960s, police efforts were increased to control downtown criminal activities, along with improved lighting. The building of a convention center ( SA64) in preparation for HemisFair'68 finally led to the improvement of downtown and many businesses were opened along the Riverwalk. San Antonio has continued to court tourism heavily, with the completion of the convention center and numerous new hotels. The size of these hotels overshadows downtown's low-scaled historic buildings, making numerous abrupt juxtapositions of scale.
San Antonio's demographics began to change during the 1910s and 1920s, the years of the Mexican Revolution, with a large influx of Mexican immigrants into South Texas fleeing the chaos of the Mexican Revolution in 1910. In large part this was due to the arrival in San Antonio of revolutionary leader Francisco Madero from the Mexican border state of Chihuahua. Madero continued to encourage revolutionary activity while in Texas, as did other exiled political figures. As the revolution progressed, violence increased in the border region, most notably due to the actions of military figure Pancho Villa.
This instability along the border compelled many Mexicans to cross the Rio Grande to seek safety in Texas. The neighborhoods to the south and west of San Antonio's downtown were predominantly settled by these newcomers.
The city has had a long-standing association with the United States military, beginning with the creation of Fort Sam Houston as an army base in the 1880s. The twentieth century saw this relationship expand immensely with the addition of Kelly, Lackland, and Randolph ( SA123) airfields. San Antonio eventually became the center for all-season military training in World Wars I and II, especially for year-round flight training.
The second half of the twentieth century, as elsewhere in the nation, saw new neighborhoods strung along the highways running north from the city center, including the encircling loop of I-410 and its attendant clusters of office buildings and shopping malls. Suburban expansion remained more desirable to the Hill Country north and west than to the plains east of the city. On the western outskirts of the city, two of the largest tourist attractions, Sea World of Texas and Six Flags Fiesta Texas, have led to the construction of large, luxurious resort hotels, each with its own golf course.
San Antonio has maintained its Mexican heritage, with well over half of the city's population classified as Hispanic in origin. The city is one of the most important tourist destinations in Texas, owing largely to its rich history and scenic Riverwalk. San Antonio also hosts many distinctive events that are rooted in the city's Hispanic past as well as such German festivals as Wurstfest and Oktoberfest. Throughout South Central Texas, festivals, historic home tours, market days, musical events, the spring appearance of wildflowers, and other events have bolstered tourism in the past thirty years and have become an important part of the region's economy.
Another late-twentieth-century component of San Antonio's development was the transformation of surrounding old towns into bedroom communities, notably New Braunfels, Boerne, Floresville, Gonzales, and Kerrville, the last of which has become a resort center, particularly for golfers. But local interest in historic preservation has led to the saving of many historic buildings.
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