Day Seventeen: Western Art, The Alamo, Mission San Jose

A rare treat for us today – we woke up knowing we didn’t have to pack everything into the Silver Bullet and move. We got into San Antonio so late in the day yesterday that we knew it deserved a day all to itself. It’s an historic town and deserves the attention. I will happily admit I learned a lot I did not know, and I have new questions I will be seeking answers to. “Read several books on the subject” kind of questions, not “do a Google search” kind of questions.

We did most of our sightseeing on foot, which led us to a museum we were not anticipating –  The Briscoe Western Art Museum. It’s pretty hard to miss. Here’s the statue that sits outside:

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That let us know what we were in for inside: sculptures, paintings, and memorabilia of all sorts relating to The West and The Southwest. There were some impressive pieces on display – Santa Anna’s parade saddle, Pancho Villa’s sword, and a number of personal items of the heroes of The Alamo – Davey Crocket’s bear knife and comb, for instance. There was a model of The Alamo to scale, featuring tiny figures that showed how outmanned the Texas troops were that day.

All that was great, but it was the art that had the biggest impact on us. Here’s a few of our favorite pieces, starting with this – a recent (2012) piece by Greg Kelsey, called Walkara, Hawk of the Mountains:

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Or this, called Hunter in the Sky, by Fritz White:

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I think this was my favorite, though. I spent quite some time staring into the face of this man, captured so beautifully in Blair Buswell’s How Many More.

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After an hour and a half or so wandering around the museum, we finally gathered our will to go back into the Texas heat – it was 95 very sweaty degrees today – and completed our trek to Misión San Antonio de Valero, better known today as The Alamo.

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I think that curved roof  is as recognizable as just about any historical architecture. Here’s what you may not know, if you’ve never been here – The Alamo is right downtown, in the heart of San Antonio. The Alamo has to be the only historical monument that has a Fuddruckers less than a block away. And no, I’m not kidding. This is what the street across from The Alamo looks like:

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If you can’t see the signs, there is a Guinness Book of World Records, a Ripley’s Believe it or Not ride, and a Tomb Raider ride. Not exactly the kind of staid, reserved businesses that might be associated with something that is, at least to Texans, hallowed ground.

Once you walk inside The Alamo, though, it’s hard not to feel that sense of reverence and history. Men from all over the world came to this exact spot and laid their lives down for something they believed in. By the way, one of the many things I learned was how diverse the defenders of The Alamo were – they came from all around the US, but also from Ireland, Wales, etc. It wasn’t just Daniel Boone and a group of tough Texans.

There were a number of monuments (including an unexpected one from Japan that draws on a comparison between the battle at The Alamo and one that happened in Japan) and I found this one moving:

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While Santa Anna was gathering his forces and establishing his lives, the men inside The Alamo, knowing how badly they were outnumbered, sent messengers out looking for help. In most cases, help was not to arrive, but thirty-two men from Gonzales volunteered to come. They helped reinforce some of the weaker defenses in the fort. All thirty-two died in Santa Anna’s final attack.

The grounds and buildings that remain of The Alamo are somber and beautiful. In several spots, we just sat and reflected on what had occurred there so many years before. It wasn’t hard to do so. What I can’t imagine is someone coming to San Antonio and not taking the time to visit. It’s free to walk through, and if you want to buy the audio tour, it’s only $7 a person. We bought the tour and were glad we did – it added a lot of history and perspective.

By then, it was afternoon, and we were hot and hungry. We grabbed a sandwich, walked back to our hotel (yes, we got our 10,000 steps in today!) and got in The Silver Bullet. We had one last San Antonio sight we wanted to visit – Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo, or just Mission San José.

Walking through both The Alamo and the Mission San José, I realized how important the Catholic Church was to the development of the Mexican territories, including what we call Texas today. The driving forces were the Spanish hunger for gold and riches, and the Catholic Church’s desire to spread their doctrine. Signs of Catholicism are everywhere in San Antonio, hundreds of years later.

We have learned to watch the movie whenever we go to a Visitor’s Center, and we did again here. It was worth it. It wasn’t just a history of this mission, but an overview of the history of the mission era in Texas. The Mission San José, being a bit more on the edge of San Antonio, is more complete than The Alamo, and we were surprised by how sizable the grounds were:

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All that land is inside the walls of the mission. Of course, being a Catholic Mission, there is some lovely statuary.

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We spent a few quiet (and sweaty) minutes inside the church, imagining what it must have been like to attend services there. I learned a lot here, much of it in how the Catholic Church related to the First People who had lived in the area for ten thousand years. The Catholics, of course, thought the natives were “savages,” and wanted to “civilize” them. The Spaniards and the church brought much more than just civilization, though – they brought European diseases that the natives had no immunity to. Many of the natives gave up their hunter/gatherer way of life to join the Mission lifestyle. After a century or so, both the Spanish and the church left the area and a new culture emerged – a mixture of Spanish and native cultures known as Tejano.

This is where I know I need to do a lot more research to understand what happened. Why did the Spanish and the Catholic church leave the natives (now “civilized,” according to the church) to make their own way? I don’t know, but I am sure there are any number of books that can give me an idea. If you know a good history book on the subject, please feel free to recommend it to me in the comments.

On the way out  of the Mission, I took this picture of a great-tailed grackle, which I rather like.

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Yes, he’s giving me a bit of the fish eye. He obviously didn’t like the cut of my jib.

After all that, we came back to the room, where we found our dinner all ready – the huge box of leftover BBQ that we had from last night.

Tomorrow, we are leaving for a quick stop over in Austin, where we are meeting with two of my favorite writer friends, then we are heading toward the Gulf of Mexico. Dawn’s goal is to dip her toes into the Pacific, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic on the trip. Sometime over the next few days, we will get her two-thirds of the way to that goal.

Cheers, and safe travels!

Shawn

16 comments

  1. I love learning from all your fascinating historical tidbits. Keep ’em coming! The detail on the sculptures is breathtaking. The movement/action seems so real in the first three pieces. I can almost see into the man’s soul in HOW MANY MORE. Simply beautiful. Continued safe travels.

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  2. I have a Master’s in history and taught history for a short time (until I have my girls), so your description of all these wonderful places is fascinating to me. I have been to Texas, but most of my travels were in the middle of the country more toward the North, so these insights are delightful. By the way, since you are visiting historic places, I have a suggestion for you. If you get to Kentucky, there is a replica of the Ark in a small town off I75 halfway between Cincinnati, OH, and Lexington, KY (home of the UK Wildcats). We plan to go there, but have not had the time yet. I understand it is fascinating. just a thought if you have time.

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  3. Shaun I have really enjoyed this blog of your trip! What a fun experience for you both. We spent two years i near Austin, and there is so much rich history in Texas, it takes more than a few days. If you get a chance, go to Gruene (Hall) Tx between San Antonio and Austin. Historic dance hall where George Strait got his start. Luchenbach is not far from where you are as well. Austin is rich in music history, both country and rock and roll. And the bbq? No place on earth better! Enjoy!

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  4. We plan to be in San Antonio in a couple months. One of the things I’m looking forward to is visiting the missions….and going to a Mariachi Mass at Mission San Jose! I don’t understand your comment above that the Catholic church left?? Did they leave and then come back?? Four of the missions in San Antonio are still functioning parishes.

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    • My recollection is that yes, they left at least as far as pulling most of the priests and church hierarchy out, leaving the running of the church to more lay people for some period of time. Obviously, at some point, the church came back in a more formal way. This could all be wrong, as I am answering from memory, without Googling to check. 🙂 If you’re in San Antonio soon, you’ll find out for yourself!

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