Two of the most important moments in San Antonio’s history are often confused.

The history of the place named San Antonio began June 13, 1691, when an expedition led by Domingo Terán de los Ríos, first governor of Spanish Texas, arrived at the Payaya nation’s rancheria, or Indian village.

“This is a very large nation and the country where they live is very fine,” Father Damián Massanet, a member of the discovery tour, wrote in his diary. “I called this place San Antonio de Padua, because it was his day. In the language of the Indians it is called Yanaguana.”

So why didn’t we celebrate San Antonio’s Tricentennial in 1991?

Frank W. Jennings, author of “San Antonio: The Story of an Enchanted City,” explained in the Journal of the Life and Culture of San Antonio, “The naming of San Antonio and the founding of the settlement occurred on two different days, 27 years apart. The anniversary of the naming of San Antonio, the first time people with Spanish lineage came here, and the birthday observance of the ‘founding’ of San Antonio deserve distinction.”

During the Tricentennial, the city will be celebrating the first European settlement beginning May 1-5, 1718, with the founding of the Franciscan San Antonio de Valero Mission, probably named to honor the Marquis de Valero, viceroy of New Spain, second son of the tenth duke of Bexar. Martin de Alarcón, governor of Coahuila and Spanish Texas, led the expedition accompanied by Father Antonio de Olivares to establish a fort and mission on the San Antonio River. They brought with them many soldiers and their families, horses, cattle, goats, sheep, chickens, seeds and household goods.

Olivares, a Franciscan missionary, inaugurated the mission near the San Pedro Springs, according to the expedition’s diarist, Father Francisco Celiz.

He also wrote, “In this location, in the very spot on which the Villa of Béjar was founded, it is easy to secure water, but nowhere else.”

The first mission’s location was lost until 2013, when city archaeologists uncovered the likely original site near the Christopher Columbus Italian Society, 201 Piazza Italia. In 1724, the landmark moved to its ultimate locale, now known as the Alamo.     

J.F. de la Teja, Texas State University history professor emeritus, said no permanent community existed at the place now called San Antonio until 1718.

“Yes, there were various expeditions that came through the area, but none of them established a permanent occupation,” de la Teja said. “Even the Indian peoples of the area only used the springs on a seasonal basis. With Martin Alarcón’s expedition, which had explicit instructions to establish a permanent outpost, we have the beginnings of San Antonio, with 300 years of continuous settlement.”

Vincent Michael, San Antonio Conservation Society executive director, said the 1691 tour was solely exploratory.

“We don’t date sites in the Pacific Northwest based on Lewis and Clark’s expedition,” Michael noted. “Yes, there were certainly seasonal and very possibly permanent native settlements here in all of these years, but there is no way to date any of those settlements. La Villita being high ground made sense for a settlement, although the great majority of Native American tribes in what is now South Texas were migratory because of the climate.”

On March 9, 1731, a group of families originating from the Spanish holdings in the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa trekked to the Presidio of San Antonio de Bexar, adding their numbers to the imperial garrison existing there since 1718. These immigrants comprised the first civil government in San Antonio, historians said.

However, evidence indicates humans had lived along the San Antonio River for thousands of years. During excavations for the San Antonio River Improvements Project, University of Texas at San Antonio archaeologists unearthed a 10,480-year-old spear point.

Ramon J. Vasquez, American Indians in Texas at the Spanish Colonial Missions executive director, said he discovered a fossil at the Land Heritage Institute on San Antonio’s far South Side, which Texas A&M University scientists identified as a mastodon tibia bearing evidence of manmade tool marks. Mastodons, distant relatives of elephants, became extinct 10,000 to 11,000 years ago.

“So my ancestors have been living around here for a long, long time,” Vasquez said, “and there were lots of people here when the Spanish arrived. I guess we were lucky they discovered us.”

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