Texas Trails

Clay Coppedge, Southern Livestock Standard

June 10, 2024

Apocalypse on the San Saba

Visitors to the Hill Country town of Menard might see the ruins of the old presidio, San Luis de las Amarillas, just outside of town, right next to the golf course and think that’s the site of the old San Cruz de Saba mission. They’re close, but wrong. 

For one thing, that’s actually the crumbling ruins of an attempted reconstruction of the original presidio. The mission (long gone) was a few miles away, its former location noted now with a historical marker on Ranch Road 2092.

The Spanish built the San Saba mission in April of 1757. The presidio came a year later to protect the mission, nestled as it was deep in the heart of what was then Apache country. The Spanish worried constantly in those days about Apaches and about the French who they always suspected of trespassing in New Spain as a possible prelude to a New France. 

One of the biggest blunders the Spanish made in Texas — and they made several — was focusing on the wrong enemies. In retrospect, we can see how they should have been suspicious when hundreds of Apaches went to San Antonio in 1749 to denounce their savage ways and become willing subjects of New Spain. The Spanish viewed this as the very definition of an answered prayer, and so they rushed to build a mission in Apache country to house, protect and christianize their newest converts.  

One dissenter was Spanish governor Jacinto de Barrios y Jauregui, who suspected the Apaches would feign loyalty to any flag that protected them from the Comanches, but the apparent mass conversion — and persistent rumors of silver and other valuable mineral deposits in the area —   overshadowed any piddling bureaucratic concerns. 

Once it opened, the Apaches stayed away from the mission in droves. Col. Diego Ortiz Parilla and 100 soldiers took charge of the presidio. Parilla, experienced in the ways of the frontier, shared the governor’s cynicism toward the tribe. He noted in a letter to the viceroy that a few Apaches showed up every so often, promising to be good and demanding gifts— everything from horses and cattle to ribbons and beads— then wandered away, never to be seen again. But even Parilla was oblivious to the real reason the Apaches visited the mission. 

Parilla and everybody else at the mission and presidio found that out on March 16, 1758, when about 2,000 mounted Comanches and their allies showed up outside the gates of the mission, resplendent in war paint, feathers and full battle regalia. Here was the living, breathing reason the Apaches had tried to appear loyal and accommodating to the Spanish. 

The sight of the Comanche war party so baffled the priests that they ordered the soldiers to hold their fire. Padre Alonso Giraldo de Terreos “seemed hypnotized by the barbaric splendor of the savages, who were painted black and red — war paint, though the Spanish did not recognize it — and wore impressive headgear of buffalo horns, deer antlers, and eagle plumes,” historian T.R. Fehrenbach wrote in his history of Texas. The Comanches, dressed to kill, murdered two priests and six others, then burned the mission. 

Most of Parilla’s soldiers were occupied with other business, and the few soldiers left at the presidio were no match for thousands of marauding Comanches. Parilla and the soldiers hid out in the presidio while the warriors reduced the mission to ruins, beheading and eviscerating the victims in the process. 

In response, Parilla gathered 600 soldiers, the largest force the Spanish ever mustered in colonial Texas, along with some Apaches who had nothing better to do and went looking for the perpetrators. They went all the way to the Red River where, unfortunately, they found them. 

“What happened next might have been one of the greatest slaughters in the history of the American West, except for the fact that Parilla’s forces almost immediately turned tail and ran,” S.C. Gwynne wrote in Empire of the Summer Moon. “Retreat turned into panic, and panic turned into headlong flight.”  Parilla shouldered official blame for the Spanish defeat at the hands of a bunch of heathen savages and the Spanish got out of the mission building and Comanche fighting business for good.

That left little doubt about who controlled Texas, and it wasn’t the Spanish, Apaches, or the French. This was Comanche territory now and would remain so for the better part of another century. 

Southern Livestock

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