San Antonio River Historical and Cultural Significance

Prior to the arrival of the Spanish, indigenous people —later named Coahuiltecans—lived along the San Antonio River. The Payaya people, a band of Coahuiltecans, used the San Pedro Springs as one of ten encampments that were located east and west of Bexar before the 1700s. The first documented record of the present-day San Antonio River was from Cabeza de Vaca, a Spaniard on his explorations of Texas in 1535.

On June 13, 1691, Gobernador Domingo Terán de los Ríos of Coahuila and Father Damien Massanet, who were passing through the area of present-day Bexar County, arrived at a camp of Payaya Indians near the river. Father Massanet named the river “San Antonio de Padua” because it was the Feast Day of Saint Anthony – the river was known by the Payaya as Yanaguana.

Fray Antonio de Olivares returned to the area in 1718 to help create the first permanent Spanish settlement on May 5, 1718, giving the name “Villa de Béjar” to the civil community and presidio established around the first mission (San Antonio de Valero), hence the modern name of Bexar County. Within a year, the Spanish colonial settlers—with labor provided by indigenous people—started the development of an elaborate acequia system. The first acequia was completed in 1719 drawing water from the San Pedro Springs. Providing dependable water and rich bottomlands, the San Antonio River Valley became the birthplace of Texas cattle ranching on the lands initially operated by the Spanish to support the missions along the San Antonio River.

Five major 18th-century Spanish missions are lined up along the historical course of the river in San Antonio. The most famous mission is San Antonio de Valero, aka the Álamo is followed by Mission ConcepcionMission San JoséMission San Juan Capistrano and Mission Espada. These five missions in San Antonio are now designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The fort and its mission, Mission Nuestra Señora del Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga are located 180 miles downstream in Goliad, Texas. Also, Presidio La Bahía is the oldest Spanish fort West of the Mississippi.

In the Texas Revolution, the river was host to several conflicts. The Battle of Concepcion at Mission Concepcion (October 28, 1835) was a small skirmish on the mission’s grounds. The Grass Fight occurred when Texian militia assumed the worst when mistaking hay for gold. The Siege of Bexar was the climax of the previous three events when the Texian militia surrounded Bexar and forced the Mexican General Martín Perfecto de Cos to surrender. The Goliad Massacre at Presidio-La Bahia was a much deadlier event that occurred on March 27, 1836. 342 Texian prisoners of war were executed there by the Mexican army.1

Providing dependable water and rich bottomlands, the San Antonio River valley became the birth place of Texas cattle ranching. 

During Fiesta every April, a river parade runs on the San Antonio River in downtown San Antonio. It is one of Fiesta’s most popular events and ticket sales revenue goes to support children’s charities. Best party in Texas!