Nortenos Attack San Saba Mission

Michael has a BA in History & American Studies and an MSc in American History from the University of Edinburgh. He comes from a proud military family and has spent most of his career as an educator in the Middle East and Asia. His passion is travel, and he seizes any opportunity to share his experiences in the most immersive way possible, whether at sea or on the land.

Part of our in-depth series exploring the forts of Comancheria

The Spanish explored the Southern Plains and a good portion of the rest of North America through the last half of the 1500s but they let more than a century slip by before they became interested in possessing it, by then, they were too late. The Comanche used Spanish horses and French weapons to conquer and hold the Southern Plains so that around 1750 when the Spanish looked northwest of San Antonio, they found the Comanche and their allies looking right back at them. By that time their allies included the French who pursued a policy of friendship through trade with the Indians. Their agents readily supplied rum, steel weapons, and muskets to the tribes in return for pelts, particularly the beaver, which was the fur of choice for European top hats. Unlike the Spanish, they did not try to colonize or force their religion on the natives.

The result of French trade was an imbalance in strength between traditional enemies, often devastating to the weaker tribe. While the metal weapons caused great upheaval along the Mississippi, their effect was minimal against the emerging Plains Indian, particularly the Comanche. They could fire twenty arrows accurately at fifty yards, in the time it took to reload a musket. During this short time they could cover over three hundred yards at a full run. The horse Indians soon incorporated French metal short arms, particularly the tomahawk, and converted to iron arrowheads. By the eighteenth century, a warrior could trade a fur for a dozen flat, wide, barbed arrowheads, preferred for war. By this time, there were more than thirty tribes of horse Indians on the plains hunting buffalo, and while all tribes had horses, the rest remained primarily agrarian. Of the Plains Indians, two became dominant, the Dakota (Sioux) in the north and the Comanche in the South. It was the Comanche who staked out the best hunting grounds and controlled the horse trade. They were the only tribe to attack on horseback; and on horseback, the best rider was the best shot; that was the Comanche.

As their bands grew in number they expanded their territory, the Wasp band driving south into West Texas and northern Mexico in west Texas. In front of them were the retreating overmatched Lipan Apache. Between 1731-1733, the Spanish suffered from increased raiding; virtually open warfare on its northern border.

The Commandant of the Presidio of San Antonio de Béjar in a report to the Viceroy, dated September 18, 1731, described what happened to him and his men during an Indian raid on the fort's horse corral.

    "They attacked us with the greatest audacity," he added, "emboldened by their vastly superior numbers. There must have been 500 of them, all mounted and well armed, while we had only 25 men altogether. Realizing our weakness, the Indians attacked so furiously that we had no room in which to defend ourselves. They advanced in a crescent, pressing our center as vigorously as they did both wings, but because my men were so few we could not defend all sides at once… While we were in this desperate situation the enemy, for no apparent reason, took off at top speed and disappeared…"

In a later report to the Viceroy the Commandant described Apache tactics and weapons but it would be possible that he did not recognize the raiders as Comanches.

    "These Indians rarely make war or travel on foot, but are almost always mounted, and their skill and agility on horseback is equal to that of the Spaniards. This, with their superior numbers, gives them an important advantage over us, for they can reconnoiter with the greatest boldness before attacking. On such occasions we can never inflict serious damage upon them except with firearms, which are difficult to use effectively against mounted men… They protect themselves as well as their horses with tough leather [i.e., buffalo hide] armor, and, when they are equipped in this fashion, no sword or spear can touch them… In your letter to me you make the assertion that the Indians are cowardly by nature, a matter on which I should not like to express my own opinion, lest it seem exaggerated or presumptuous, and I speak now only because you asked me to do so and because I believe you ought to be fully and accurately informed, so I shall repeat the exact words of the most experienced soldiers of the punitive expedition, as told to Governor Don Juan Antonio Bustillo of this Province. They expressed amazement at what they saw, for they had been in many engagements with various Indian nations, but never in their lives had they seen anything to equal the valor and daring of these warriors. The veterans went on to say that they failed to understand how the Presidio had managed to survive thus far; nor did they see how it could continue to stand, except by a miracle."

The Spanish called the area beyond their northwestern frontier "Apachería" and the word Apache, once used to scare children, now had a terrifying effect on all ages. Father Juan Agustín Morfi records that at the Hacienda del Pasaje, near Mapimí, they came upon several crosses marking the graves of the victims of a recent Apache raid:

    "From the mouth of a canyon we saw a cloud of dust that soon disappeared, and on the slope of Colorado Hill we met its authors, who turned out to be some poor muleteers bringing wine from Parras to Mapimí, and who, when they saw our dust, were firmly convinced that it was raised by a large band of Apaches-a notion that filled them with such dismay that, although they could have taken refuge in an hacienda they had passed a while back, or fled to the mountains near by, they did no such thing, but stopped in their tracks, unable even to make use of their few and badly kept weapons and expecting their death from one moment to the next, as they confessed to us later."

Over the next fifteen years the Spanish mounted three punitive expeditions against the Apache, marching as far north as the Red River, but they overrated the effectiveness of their forays. In 1746 they bought the act when Lipan warriors humbly begged the Friars to establish a mission so they could become farmers and Christians. The state resisted spending funds for a presidio to protect such a venture but a wealthy miner named Don Pedro Terreros had promising samples of silver ore from his Los Almagres mining stake. He put up 150,000 pesos to build the mission and persuaded the government to build a presidio, which incidentally would also protect his new mine. Furthermore, he insisted that his cousin, Father Fray Alonso Giraldo de Terreros be appointed president of the mission.

The Commandantship fell on veteran Indian fighter, Colonel Diego Ortiz Parrilla, who had been governor of Sonora since 1751. The missionaries insisted Parrilla build his fort three miles down and across the San Sabá from the mission. Considering the entire affair was situated several hard days' ride from San Antonio, Parrilla argued the wisdom of keeping his soldiers so far away. He was overruled and reluctantly he ordered the log stockade and its mud huts constructed. Only a few Lipan came in; contemptuous of the vulnerable situation, they soon departed. Never intending to occupy the mission, they only wanted the breathing spell they anticipated if the Comanche found a new enemy. The whole thing sat enticingly like a bug on a duck pond. The Apaches didn't have to wait long. A few days later the Reverend Father President Terreros and Father Fray Miguel de Molina climbed the parapet to inspect the cause of the commotion outside the mission. Molina could only stammer, and the Father President stood shaken as they witnessed a war party of over two thousand armed and painted warriors slowly circling the mission on their war ponies. A mission Indian alerted Parrilla, who ordered soldiers to mount what horses he had and proceed to the defense of the mission. They rode right into the war party and were annihilated about the same time several Comanche warriors pushed their way into the mission. They announced they were Comanches and that they had brought Wichitas with them to kill Apache. None of the Spanish could deduce the French hand in this alliance, soon the mission was full of belligerent warriors many wearing fantastic headdresses of antlers, horns or feathers, many soldiers noticed they were carrying new French muskets. Several Indians entered the mission waving the freshly taken bloody scalps of Parrilla's men and the murder began. The survivors eventually testified to the events of that day.

The following is the deposition of Father Fray Miguel de Molina, the only one of the three missionaries left alive at San Sabá. The best known account of the massacre, which was taken from the book The San Saba Papers, A Documentary Account of the Founding and Destruction of San Saba Mission, translated by Paul D. Nathan.

    I certify fully and swear upon my word as a priest that shortly after sunrise on the said day, when the said Reverend Father President had celebrated Mass and the said Father Fray Joseph de Santiesteban was just beginning his, a furious outburst of yells and war cries was heard outside the gate of the enclosure. It seemed to come from about the distance of a musket shot in the direction of the fords of the river, which at that point flows northward. Soon afterward, some of the men and women of the Mission cried out that the Indians were upon us. I immediately went to the church to warn the Father who was starting to say his Mass, of what was going on, and to advise him, in view of the state of affairs, not to continue. He followed my advice, removing his sacred vestments, but remained in the church.

    I returned very quickly to the quarters of the Father President, where several persons had taken refuge, while others had sought safety in various buildings and offices, for a great horde of Indians firing their muskets, had surrounded the stockade and houses. The barbarians took note of our precautions and our preparations for defense, and they found out too that the gates were not open and that it would not be easy to carry out their evil designs without effort or risk, as they had supposed. Therefore they resorted to offers of peace and friendship, which they made from outside the enclosure, some in the Castilian language, and some by means of signs and gestures.

    They succeeded in convincing Corporal Ascencio and another soldier, the son of Juan Antonio Gutiérrez, and the two soldiers entered the quarters of the Reverend Father President to inform us of the good will and peaceful intentions of the Indians. The Corporal assured us that the promises of the Indians were genuine, and that he recognized them as members of the Texas, Tancague, Vidae, and other nations from farther inland, with whom he had had experience on many previous occasions.

    Thereupon the Father President went out into the courtyard. I accompanied him, filled with amazement and fear when I saw nothing but Indians on every hand, armed with guns and arrayed in the most horrible attire. Besides the paint on their faces, red and black, they adorned with the pelts and tails of wild beasts, wrapped around them or hanging down from their heads, as well as deer horns. Some were disguised as various kinds of animals, and some wore feather headdresses. All were armed with muskets, swords, and lances (or pikes, as they are generally called), and I noticed also that they had brought with them some youths armed with bows and arrows, doubtless to train and encourage them in their cruel and bloody way of life.

    As soon as the wily enemy became aware of the confidence we placed in them, many dismounted and, without waiting for us to unlock the games, opened them by wrenching off the crossbars with their hands. This done, they crowded into the inner stockade, as many of them as it would hold, about three hundred, a few more or less. They resorted to the stratagem of extending their arms toward our people and making gestures of civility and friendliness. When I noticed that many chieftains had approached with similar gestures, I advised and persuaded the Father President to order that they be given bundles of tobacco and other things they prize highly. This he did most generously. I myself presented four bundles to an Indian who never did dismount and whom the others acknowledged as their Great Chief. He was a Comanche, according to the barbarians themselves, and worthy of respect. His war dress and his red jacket were well-decorated, after the manner of French uniforms, and he was fully armed. His face was hideous and extremely grave.

    When I gave him the four bundles of tobacco, he accepted them cautiously, but with a contemptuous laugh, and gave no other sign of acknowledgment. I was disconcerted at this, all the more so because I had already seen that the Indians, heedless of their promises of peace, were stealing the kettles and utensils from the kitchen, and the capes of the soldiers. They also took the horses from the corral, and then demanded more. When they were told there were no more, they asked whether there were many horses at the Presidio. The Fathers and soldiers told them that there were indeed many horses at the Presidio, as well as equipment and supplies of all kinds-a reply we thought expedient to make them fully aware that nothing was lacking for the defense of the Presidio. When we asked the cunning enemy whether they intended to visit the Commandant at the Presidio, they replied that they did, and asked us to give them a note to him. We did not consider his request inopportune, but rather thought it might be an effective way of clearing the Mission of the enemy, for they still had it completely surrounded and were causing great damage by their thievery, as they boldly ransacked all the buildings and offices.

    The Father President decided to give them the paper, which was taken by a chieftain of the Texas Nation, who went to the corral and took one of the remaining horses, the personal mount of the Father President, saying he needed it to take the note to the Presidio. When the Father President objected, he took up his musket and aimed it at the horse, whereupon the Father let him keep the horse and resumed his conversation with several Indians, who were telling him about the state of affairs in the Texas country, concerning which the Father, having visited there, had some knowledge. All this while the barbarians persisted in their hostile actions, surrounding, searching, and looting the various buildings.

    Meanwhile, other Indians were talking with me and my companions, trying to convince us that they had no intention other than to fight the Apaches, who had killed some of their people. They asked whether there were any at the Mission; but, since the enemy had already declared their desire to kill Apaches, we had managed to shelter and conceal [the latter] in the quarters of the Father President, the entrance to which was protected by a constant guard of soldiers.

    I further certify that, a short time after the departure of the Texas Indian from the Mission post, he returned with a large number of his followers, saying that he had not been allowed to enter the Presidio and that three of his companions had been killed and another wounded with knife cuts. To which the Father President and I answered that he must have approached the Presidio with too large a party and they must have behaved badly; that, if he wished to go again, the Father President would go with him. He replied that he would do so. With this decision the Father ordered the horse saddled that had been left for him, and another for a soldier.

    The Father President and the soldier Joseph García mounted in order to accompany the Indian. I observed the Father President looking for the Indian chief who was to go with him, but without finding him; nor was he to be seen among the rabble that thronged the courtyard. Therefore the Father President started toward the gate to look for him outside the enclosure; but, as he approached the gate, a shot was heard and the said Father President cried out. At once other shots were fired at the mounted soldier, and then began a cruel attack against all, and thus I became fully convinced of the treachery and falsehood of the enemy and my suspicion of evil intentions of their part was confirmed. I was now certain that the story of the crafty Texas chieftain about the killing of his Indians was a lie and a snare. I managed to escape to the quarters of the Father President; others did likewise, and still others sought refuge elsewhere. I also assert that, at the very moment the Father President and the soldier Joseph García were shot, [the Indians] set raging fires on all sides of the stockade, where they had provided themselves with ample supplies of firewood. All this I and the other refugees saw through the loopholes in our room. Therefore I believe-indeed, I am sure-that they had been planning and preparing their violence from the start, and that they began it as soon as they had the wood ready, the buildings reconnoitered, and the roads occupied. It is my opinion that their number exceeded two thousand-an estimate I made by observing for more than half an hour the space they occupied while carrying on their trickery and mischief.

    From our closed room we fired through loopholes prepared in advance and thus defended ourselves until after midday. The Indians busied themselves meanwhile with pillage and plunder of the provisions stored for the Apaches who were to be settled at the Mission. They were confident that the fires they had set in and around the Mission post would consume us all without any further effort on their part. Therefore they became careless and afforded us the opportunity to make our way to a house next to the church, because our former quarters were already burning. But our move was discovered by the enemy, who again attacked us with shots and fed the fires they had previously set, so that we had to flee once more. We went into the church itself, which was less badly ruined, although it too was on fire. There we remained until past midnight, when all of us escaped except Juan Antonio Gutiérrez, who could not on account of a serious wound in the thigh.

    I certify, under the same obligation, that our successes in this venture are not attributable to the enemy's carelessness in leaving that part unguarded, but rather to poor planning and bad leadership. They were fearful of a counterattack from the Presidio and consequently centered their attention on the intervening roads and fields, and on the projected destruction of the Presidio, which they had in mind for the following day. All this I learned in detail from the people of the Mission, who had now taken refuge in the church and the house next to it. The entire Mission staff was present, except the Father President, Father Fray Joseph de Santiesteban, Lázaro de Ayala, Enrique Gutiérrez, and Joseph García, who had perished in the first treacherous onslaught of the barbarians.

    I further certify that, after we had spent the night in the room where we first took shelter, about eight o'clock the following morning, the soldier Joseph Vazquez came to the outer door, seeking confession and asking to be admitted. We recognized him by his voice through the boards and let him in. He was bleeding profusely from a serious wound in the chest, naked, and badly battered. He said he was one of the soldiers sent by the Colonel to reinforce the Mission as soon as he [the Colonel] learned the Indians were there, but the party was attacked on the way by a great throng of the enemy, who fired upon them with their muskets. [Vázquez] thought his companions must have been killed, for it seemed unlikely that they could have escaped alive from such a multitude of Indians. He thought also that the Presidio must be in great danger, for the armed barbarians were continuing their march against it.

    [Vázquez] was asked how he had managed to reach us. He replied that, after the Indians had struck him to the ground and stripped him, they had left him for dead. He took advantage of their carelessness, dragging himself or crawling along, until he reached the Mission stockade, where he again fell into the hands of the enemy, most of whom were busily breaking open bales of clothing and boxes of supplies from the storehouse, and making off with their contents. Two of them seized him and threw him into the blazing enclosure of the stockade, from which he managed to escape with only a burned hand.

    I further certify that I learned from other persons in our refuge that the Indians, with their first volley upon arriving at the mission that morning, had wounded Andrés de Villareal with a musket ball, which was still embedded under his arm. That very morning, but even before their arrival at the Mission, the same Indians had stripped naked the wife of Juan Antonio Gutiérrez. Juan Leal, who was on the bank of the river near where the Indians were crossing, was attacked and threatened with their lances, but they spared his life and brought him, with the woman, to the Mission. There they intended to slaughter all the inhabitants, but did not wish to reveal in advance their bloody purpose in coming here.

    I left the unfortunate place and made my way south by hidden trails or paths, until the morning of the eighteenth, when I arrived at this Presidio. I found it in a state of defense and already on guard against an attack by the Indians, who were still near by to the north and east. It was truly a miracle that [those at the Presidio] had succeed in protecting themselves against such a horde of barbarians, who had attacked them heavily armed, and with the craft and cunning I have described.

    The number and resourcefulness of these enemies of religion, divine and human, is very great, and the inhabitants of this region cannot be converted, even by the strongest efforts and the best planning, unless the territory between this river and our own settlements is occupied by our troops. For it is likely, if in this case the attackers numbered about two thousand, equipped with at least one thousand firearms, that in another attack their numbers will be still greater because of the many nations now involved in the war. Intent as they are on robbery and plunder, they will not desist from such activities, nor cease to carry out their diabolic schemes. Therefore I consider it impossible to reduce and settle these Apache Indians along the San Sabá, or for many leagues roundabout, even with the aid of the King's forces; nor will they be pacified by the utmost favor and aid. For having become aware, as they have done, of the evident threat and danger from their enemies, they are certain to try to escape from them, as they are now doing. It is well-known that the home of the Apaches is far away, closer to our settlements along the rivers. I am of the opinion that it would be an inhuman action to try to reduce them to this region, for experience shows that it is not proper or right to subject them to the dread of ill treatment and cruelty by their more numerous and warlike barbarian enemies. Nor is it possible, as is being attempted, to reduce all the Apaches [into Christian settlements].

    Although it is only a little more than two months since I arrived at this post, obeying the orders of my College, I have become well-versed in the affairs, events, and actions affecting the Apache Indians and their objections to being reduced and settled in this region. I believe that the strongest reason for their reluctance is dread and fear of their enemies. They have not openly said so, even when given the opportunity, so as not to admit their terror or show their anxiety and fear, for they are well-known to be very proud, haughty, and petulant. I am well-aware that some of them have often admitted their uneasiness to our soldiers. These fears, together with the ice, snow, cold weather, and the continual high winds of winter in this region, make it difficult for them to take care of their horses and other animals, and since we have experienced the cruel and hateful conduct of the enemies of the Apaches, we must give the latter some credence and continue trying to find refuge for them in other parts, where they will be able to support themselves and be less reluctant to accept conversion. This is my unalterable opinion.

    I am equally certain that this Presidio is in an extremely perilous situation, despite the care and efficiency with which its government is conducted. I likewise certify that Colonel Don Diego Parrilla was most anxious that the residence of the Apostolic Fathers should be closer to the Presidio. He also desired the late Father President to devote himself primarily to the conversion of the Apache Indians and give up such enterprises as the cultivation of the soil and other agricultural labors, until such time as circumstances should become more favorable than they have been ever since the Mission was established.

    These matters were mentioned and discussed when the said Colonel visited the Mission the very afternoon before its tragic destruction. Other points were also brought up and measures suggested for the greater security and well-being of all concerned. These measures would have been put into practice the very next day, had it not been for the unforeseen attack. [For example], the Father President had intended to sow and cultivate a plot of land within the confines of the Mission post, in order to test the quality of the soil, but as a result of the discussion held that afternoon, decided to give up the plan.

    I further certify that the [Mission] post was provided with two light cannon, ammunition, powder, and muskets, and with seventeen men, including the Indians assigned to that duty. But even if there had been seventy men, the same ill-fortune would have befallen us, for the astuteness of the enemy in gaining entry for their large and heavily armed forces would have assured their triumph and plunder, as they intended. To succeed in such surprise attacks, it is necessary only to deceive the trustful and exploit the mistaken judgment of the cautious.

    The above all is all that I can relate and certify, under the requirements specified.

    Fray Miguel Molina

The Comanches reappeared later in the year and Spanish pride demanded action. Parilla was commanded to lead as large an army as the Spanish had ever fielded against American Indians. His orders were to march as far as necessary on an extended campaign to teach the Indios a lesson they would never forget.

Colonel Parrilla departed in August 1759 in command of six hundred men, a quarter of which where Indian auxiliary made up mostly of Lipans, two cannon, and a supply train capable of supporting his expedition. They marched due north although the Lipans told him the Comanche were based to the northwest because he was aware of the harsh geography and scarcity of water on the plains. Along the way, probably north of Waco, he attacked a band of Tonkawas, although he didn't identify them as such. He reported he killed sixty warriors and captured one hundred fifty women and children. He bivouacked his army near the Brazos to rest and regroup for a few days and then proceeded north across the Grand Prairie between the eastern and western Cross Timbers.

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