Mission built for Apaches targeted.
Long before they terrorized American settlers in Texas, Comanches made life miserable there not only for the Spanish colonials but also for the Plains Apaches. The destruction of a Spanish mission near the San Sabá River in March 1758 demonstrated how aggressive and fierce the Comanches could be, though the number of dead at San Sabá might have been much greater if not for a nearby presidio.
Neither the Comanches nor the Apaches were native to the area that became Texas. In the late 17th century, the Apaches adopted the horses the Spanish brought to the New World and took to the Plains to hunt buffalo. In the early 18th century, Apache raiders plagued the Spanish soldiers and priests pushing up from Mexico. Never before had the Spanish seen such a savage and elusive foe, but the Apaches were just the foretaste of a greater terror that was barreling down from the north. The Comanches, a branch of the Shoshones from what is now Colorado, rode onto the southern Plains to hunt buffalo and raid. The Lipan Apaches bore the full force of their attacks and were driven from the Texas plains before the first Anglo-American settlers crossed the Sabine River.
The Spanish, not yet recognizing the Comanche threat, refused to trade guns to the Apaches. On the other hand, the Comanches obtained firearms from French traders coming from Louisiana—and thus were far more powerful. As the Spanish saw it, they would either be saved the trouble of destroying the Apaches themselves or else the Apaches would renounce their old ways and come to the Spanish for protection.
One day in 1749, Lipan Apaches rode into San Antonio de Bexar (or Bejar) wanting to make peace with the Spanish soldiers and requesting that the priests build a mission on the San Sabá River some 150 miles northwest of San Antonio. The priests were overjoyed, the soldiers suspicious. Seven years would pass before the Spanish finally established themselves along the San Sabá (near present-day Menard, Texas). Mine owner Don Pedro Romero de Terreros offered the Spanish government 150,000 pesos to build the mission and convinced it to build and man a presidio nearby as well. His action had less to do with his concern for Apache souls than it did with having a presidio to protect his mining interests. His cousin, Father Fray Alonso Giraldo de Terreros, was made the president of the mission.
Perhaps the Apaches hoped that the establishment of the Spanish in their former territory would provide them some protection. Maybe they hoped to provoke a war between the Comanches and the Spanish. In either case, the Lipans were lying when they claimed the land along the San Sabá as their own. The Comanches had driven them from that region years earlier. The Spanish were walking into a trap.
In 1857 the Spanish established Mission Santa Cruz de San Sabá (Mission San Sabá, for short), along with Presidio San Luis de las Amarillas (Presidio San Sabá), commanded by Colonel Diego Ortiz Parilla, three miles downriver to stand guard. The few Apaches who showed up at the mission showed little interest in the salvation of their souls. At one point that summer, a large group of Apaches camped near the mission’s wooden compound, but they were on their way to hunt buffalo and possibly fight Comanches and did not enter the mission. By early 1858, only a few of the mission Apaches remained.
On March 15, a large group of mounted Indians unknown to the locals drove off the herd of Spanish horses that grazed between the fort and the mission. Colonel Parilla urged Father Terreros to abandon the log mission, but the priest elected to remain at his post.
The next day, as many as 2,000 Indians rode toward Mission San Sabá, now occupied by 35 men. Not knowing exactly who these tribes were, the Spanish called them the Norteños (Northerners). The uninvited guests, Comanches and their allies, wore red and black face paint and were armed with European armor and muskets as well as their own lances and bows and arrows. The soldiers Parilla had left at the mission begged Father Terreros for permission to open fire and drive back the Indian force, but he refused. He was a man of God. The Comanches and their allies forced open the gates and soon filled the mission.
Terreros and his priests greeted them, offering gifts of tobacco and other trinkets, and assured them that all the Apaches were gone. In fact, some Apaches were hiding in Terreros’ own quarters, but they would surely be killed if discovered. Despite the gifts, the Norteños began helping themselves to anything that struck their fancy—cooking pots, utensils, tobacco, clothing and horses. Hoping that the lure of more horses would get the Indians out of the mission, Terreros assured the Comanche leader that there were more at the presidio.
As a group of mounted warriors thundered off toward Presidio San Sabá, Parilla, nervous for the safety of Terreros, Joseph Santiesteban and the other priests, sent some soldiers from the presidio to the mission. The two parties collided. Grossly outnumbered by the native warriors, the Spaniards were slaughtered. The Indians cut the scalps from the dead soldiers and rode back to the mission waving their bloody trophies.
Accounts of what happened after the hostile Indians returned to the mission are contradictory. Father Miguel de Molina, a survivor of the ordeal, said that the Indians were angry because the Spanish soldiers had fired on them and killed three of them. Other accounts say that the scalp-waving warriors only wanted more scalps. Whatever the case, an orgy of violence broke out in the mission. Terreros himself was among the first to die, cut down by a Comanche. As the Norteños fell upon Terreros’ comrades, Father Molina and others found temporary safety in Terreros’ quarters. They remained there while Juan Leal, one of Terreros’ civilian servants, and a few other defenders fired back at the attacking Indians. But then the Indians set the building on fire.
Molina and the others were forced to flee to another building, leaving behind a wounded companion, Juan Antonio Gutiérrez. The Indians were more intent on stealing what they could rather than finishing off the defenders. Joseph Vasquez, the lone survivor of the mounted force that had met the Indians on the road from the presidio, dragged himself to the mission while the looting and burning were still going on. Several Indians threw him into a fire, but again he survived, with only a burned hand to show for his ordeal. The attackers eventually departed for the presidio, leaving Molina and 27 other men still alive in the mission. The soldiers were better armed and less trusting than the priests had been, and the Comanches and their allies had already lost at least a dozen men. The Norteños, despite their superior numbers, decided not to attack.
After a few days, the warriors rode off, leaving the badly shaken Spanish to bury their eight dead, including two priests. San Sabá, the northernmost mission ever established in Texas by the Spanish, was not rebuilt. The Comanches had shown the Spanish the limits of Spanish power. Although the number of men killed at the mission was small, what was accomplished there was not: The mounted warriors had just blocked the spread of the most powerful empire in the world.
Originally published in the February 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.