Central Texas: Goliad State Park and its Spanish mission

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Before moving to Alaska, we spent two weeks bouncing around Texas, visiting family.  That meant going from central to south Texas and then back again.  We may be relocating to the biggest state in the Union, but Texas is no slouch, so this meant a lot of time on the road.

It was on one of those drives, on a rural stretch of U.S. Highway 183 from Refugio to Gonzales, that we had a very pleasant discovery—Goliad State Park and the Mission Espíritu Santo.

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Screenshot of Google Maps on my iPhone

For most of our time in Texas, our minds were already in Alaska, but this stretch of Texas highway was such a pleasant surprise that it made us slow down and look around. It had very few communities and large expanses of oak trees and just felt like Texas.

At one point, we came to Goliad.  Of course we’d heard of it; it may be tiny (population: >2000), but it’s one of the oldest settlements in the state and had a big role in early Texas history.  Texas’ first declaration of independence from Mexico was signed here; the town has a very cool medieval-looking fort (pictured below); it’s the site of one of the worst massacres in Texas history; and it’s the birthplace of famed Mexican army officer Ignacio Seguín Zaragoza, who’s basically the reason why Mexicans (and Americans–margarita, anyone?) celebrate Cinco de Mayo.

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Presidio La Bahía, which was used to guard and defend the area around the mission (see below).  It’s  the best-preserved presidio in North America (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Unfortunately, we were short on time and didn’t explore historic Goliad, but what did compel us to stop for a few minutes was Goliad State Park and the mission within its boundaries.

Spanish Missions in the United States

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Spanish built missions and presidios across the southern U.S. from Florida to California, and this included dozens throughout Texas.  The missions were established to spread the Catholic faith and claim territory, while the presidios were built so that Spanish soldiers could defend this territory.

Texas is known for its missions and may in fact have the most famous one in the world–Mission San Antonio de Valero (better known as the Alamo).  San Antonio’s missions were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015, Texas’ only such designation.

Goliad’s mission

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The Mission Nuestra Señora del Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga (which someone thankfully shortened to Mission Espíritu Santo) was built in 1722 at Matagorda Bay on the Gulf of Mexico, but missions were often moved for strategic purposes, and Espíritu Santo was relocated in 1749 to its current place on the banks of the San Antonio River.

Like I mentioned above, the focus of the priests was to “civilize and Christianize” local Indian tribes, in this case the Karankawa, Aranama, and Tamique, nomadic hunter-gatherers.  In many places around the U.S., Natives resisted the Spanish (sometimes violently, as we saw in Taos), but these particular tribes agreed to move into the mission and receive Catholic instruction in exchange for shelter, food, and protection from other, more belligerent tribes in the area.  This led to the eventual eradication of traditional tribal culture and way of life.

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A plaque established by the State of Texas in 1936.  The language is sometimes jarring, with words like “neophytes,” “civilize,” and “cannibalistic Indians” (a bit extreme, as I saw no reference in my reading to the Native tribes being cannibals).

As was the case with many missions, a community sprung up around the settlement.  Thousands of wild longhorn cattle and horses roamed on mission land, and ranching became the mission’s priority.  In fact, Spanish missionaries in the region inadvertently founded Texas’ famed cattle industry when they brought cattle with them from Mexico.  The Indians became adept vaqueros (cowboys) and herded cattle for trade throughout the area and, during the American Revolution, as far away as Louisiana.

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Mission Espíritu Santo closed in 1830 and fell into disrepair.  In 1931, the Texas State park system acquired it, and it was restored by the Civilian Conservation Corps from 1935-1941. Texas Parks and Wildlife further restored the chapel in the 1970s.

 

 

The mission is absolutely beautiful.  See for yourself:

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The workshop adjacent to the mission was restored and turned into a small museum, which includes artifacts and exhibits showing what life was like here:

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I grew up just outside of San Antonio, and Dale and I lived near the city for years, so I’m ashamed to admit that we’ve only been to the Alamo and none of Texas’ other missions.  It was always on our to-do list—“We really need to tour the missions”—but we never did, so we couldn’t let an opportunity to visit another Texas landmark pass us by.  And I’m so glad that we stopped in Goliad; what a lovely little part of Texas history.


Notes:

Goliad State Park and Historical Site has other attractions beyond just the mission, including camping, picnicking, hiking, fishing, and kayaking.  And the town of Goliad also has much to see and is worth a visit.  Another mission, Nuestra Señora del Rosario, is open to the public by appointment.