With García Márquez’s permission, the sad events that shook the Spaniards of the Mission of Santa Cruz de San Sabá (located in Texas) back in 1758 were the chronicle of a death foretold. As the Padre Presidente in command said before the gates of hell opened wide: “All hell together is confederated to prevent this enterprise”. He left this world knowing he was right, though it was the only satisfaction he took to his grave when thousands of Comanches, decked out in their war paint, ferociously entered the hacienda and put to the sword the religious, civilians and soldiers who lived there.
What happened at the Mission was the culmination of an escalation of tension and violence that had strained relations between the native Comanche and the Spanish settled on the northern Texas frontier for many decades. But even today there is controversy over its purpose. Some consider the attack a mere attempt to obtain supplies and horses from a hacienda located too close to hostile territory. On the other hand, many others, such as the historical researcher and populariser León Arsenal, believe that the raid was planned down to the smallest detail and aimed to sow the seeds of terror among the Hispanic soldiers in order to scare them away, something he confirms in his recent book “Enemigos del Imperio” (Enemies of the Empire) (Edaf).
Remains of the presidio of San Luis de las Amarillas
If his aim was to use fear, the result was mixed. It is true that the news of the attack and the barbarities perpetrated against the religious spread throughout overseas. Junípero Serra himself referred to them in a letter sent on 29 September of the same year to his friend Miquel de Petra: “[I heard that] the Christians from the nearby prison went in search of the corpses to bury them, and after six days Father Joseph’s body was found. The head was a little removed from the body in the same circumstances. His body was girded with three iron sackcloths”. The towns, in turn, were filled with chronicles narrating the cruelties of the natives.
However, just as certainly, knowing that he could not afford the privilege of letting this affront pass if he wanted to maintain order among the rest of the local tribes, Diego Ortiz de Parrilla led a column of half a thousand men in August who, armed and thirsty for revenge, entered enemy territory to punish the guilty parties with iron and fire. The result was a series of battles which, although they did not help to expand the still extensive Spanish Empire in the region, did contain the Comanche’s impetus. This is confirmed by Fernando Martínez Laínez and Carlos Canales in their work “Banderas Lejanas”: “By the end of the summer of 1759, everything was ready to punish those guilty of the massacre, […] which ended on 25 October”.
Trouble amongst Indians
This story of our particular and unknown far west began after an extensive (but not good) relationship with the natives. In the middle of the 18th century, with New Mexico, Texas, and Louisiana sharing a border with the local tribes, North America had become a veritable hodgepodge of peoples. And they were all eager to carve out their own particular niche in the area. Among them, however, there were two that gained prominence for their constant infighting: the Comanche (warlike and always eager to steal horses from the Spanish monarchy, which they used to hinder every now and then) and the Apache (equally belligerent, but accustomed to tasting defeat when confronted by their brothers).
In the mid-18th century the situation was both light and dark. The Spanish Empire, hitherto oblivious to tribal strife, had no choice but to be on guard to defend its territories from the unruly Comanches. Governor Tomás Vélez de Cachupín was lucky in New Mexico and, after organising a punitive expedition, succeeded in quenching his enemies’ thirst for territory and combat. In Texas, meanwhile, tensions rose when these natives began a campaign against the Lipan Apaches, also enemies of the Crown (though less dangerous than their colleagues, it must be said), near the northern border.
But they soon changed their minds when, as Arsenal reveals in his book, “in August 1749, four Apache chiefs came to San Antonio to ask the Spaniards not only for peace but for an alliance and firearms to fight the Comanches”. The proverb, always wise, would say that it was a bald opportunity. Or that our people were presented with an unparalleled opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. They could, at the same time, put an end to an open conflict that had been going on for decades and stop the Comanche’s expansionist ambitions without having to waste a single Spanish life. Needless to say, they made the decision they did.
San Sabá is born
This was happening in the Texas wilderness when, in 1757, the Apaches invited the Spaniards to establish an outpost near Menard, north of San Antonio. The idea was not a bad one, at least for them, as it guaranteed them a force of soldiers in the middle of the Apachería to act, as Laínez and Canales point out, as a protective shield against the Comanches. What did our country get in return? To satisfy the Franciscans‘ desire to establish a mission in that territory to begin the Christianisation of the natives. If there were any doubts about what the hell to do, they were dispelled when the owner of the mines of La Vizcaína and Real Monte, Pedro Romero de Terreros, offered to pay for the settlements out of his own pocket.
Destruction of San Sabá
In exchange, the businessman requested that the missions in question be under the command of his cousin, friar Alonso Giraldo de Terreros. A small request if it would save the viceroyalty the small fortune of building the settlements. All in all, it is surprising the choice of a religious man who, shortly before leaving for his new destination, sent a series of letters to his relative confessing that, “after so many years of practice with the people of this land I am already bored” and that “as things stand, and the lack of people, it does not seem possible to me either in three or six years” to undertake the task of Christianising the Apaches.
Despite Fray Alonso’s doubts, the proposal was soon accepted and, shortly afterward, that same year, the Mission of Santa Cruz de San Sabá was established in the heart of the Apachería. In an attempt to guarantee its protection, the presidio of San Luis de las Amarillas was also erected, under the command of Captain Parrilla, although at a distance to prevent the soldiers from being attracted by the natives. Some 300 people were involved in the operation, including settlers, combatants, friars, and missionaries. A more than enough number for the time, as the Spanish authors rightly point out. Initially, the creation of another hacienda was considered, but the possibility was rejected because of the problems in getting the first one up and running.
The work of both sites continued as usual until, in late autumn, Apache scouting parties arrived at the Mission to report that a giant Comanche contingent was marauding in the area. Their intentions were unknown, but they did not seem friendly. News of continued looting and attacks on Spanish parties prompted Parrilla to ask the religious people to protect themselves in the presidio, but they declined the invitation. Why? In his magnum opus “San Sabá. Mission for the Apaches”, Juan M. Romero de Terreros offers the theory that “[he] was unaware that the Comanches had managed to extend their alliances to a large number of tribes, being able to mobilise a number of warriors never known on the frontier”.
The pillars of the disaster had been erected. At dawn on 16 March 1758, some two thousand warriors, half armed with French rifles, presented themselves at the Mission. Their intentions were uncertain, but the sheer number caused the few soldiers present to close the gates at once. From behind the bars, with fear in his body, Corporal Asensio Cadena demanded that they identify themselves. Some of them replied that they were in search of their Apache enemies. The clock struck 7 a.m., and the situation was so precarious that the soldier preferred to allow them to enter the place. In any case, he must have thought, it was impossible to hold them back.
Everything happened at lightning speed. Father Terreros greeted the natives with the classic trinkets, a typical gift to calm tempers. However, when the gifts were finished, the Indians demanded the surrender of any horses in the compound. The friar, suspicious, claimed he could not offer them, but gave them a handwritten note that they could take to the presidio so that Captain Parrilla could deliver the horses to them. What he was looking for, in reality, was the help of the soldiers in the presidio. The plan was not a bad one, but the result was. “After a while, several of the Indians who had gone to the presidio returned saying they had been shot at and had lost three men”, the Spanish authors add in their work.
Then disaster struck. Terreros offered to return with them to the presidio to settle the conflict with Parrilla, but was gunned down at the gate with the soldier who was about to travel with him. Comanche anger was finally unleashed with the burning of the stockade. The rest of the Mission’s inhabitants hid in their homes, but to little avail. Arsenal recounts that, when they entered, “they killed the eight friars and the Apaches” without mercy. Only one escaped. “The religious were beheaded, as was the statue of St. Francis that presided over the nave of the church. They defiled the sacred objects, they smashed everything”, he adds, “The most chilling crime was leaving the headless body of a friar on the altar.
Dragón de cuera, the troops used in the American lands to confront the natives.
This is how the aforementioned Junípero Serra eventually explained it:
The Christians from the nearby prison went in search of the corpses to bury them, and after six days the body of Father Fr. Joseph [de Santiesteban] was found, breathing a soft smell distilled from the cuts of fresh blood. The head was a little removed from the body with the same circumstances. His body girded with three iron sackcloths. They buried him there and there, covering him with earth, on which then came out a very luxuriant corn kernel, which is what there you rightly call the wheat of the Indies, a prodigy (so it seems) that to my mind may mean that the grain of wheat that is dead under the earth promises us much fruit in the achievement of the souls of those wretches. So be it. Amen.
The Comanches also attacked the presidio but were repelled at the cost of the lives of eight fighters (one-third of the force). Thus ended the short life of Mission San Sabá, but not its legend. In the months that followed, dozens of stories told of its sad fate. Friar Fidel de Lejarza, a contemporary of the events, wrote an account of what happened in which he explained that the Comanches “arrived at seven in the morning and surrounded the Mission” and confirmed that there were five soldiers, three religious, five women, ten boys, two Apaches, and four other civilians. He also devoted a few lines to their defence of the place: “Encircled but spirited… and cheering each other on they shouted at the top of their voices: rather dead than surrendered, war, war, fire, fire, fire”.