The history of San Antonio is fascinating and complex. Here, we highlight some of the people and developments that have shaped the Alamo City into what it is today
By Jeremy Banas, Cynthia J. Drake, Becca Hensley, Edmond Ortiz, Kathleen Petty, Sarah Stockman and Claire Winesett
Mission San Jose: UTSA General Photograph Collection; Pearl: Courtesy Historic Pearl; Brackenridge: Sean Loyless; Baseball: Courtesy San Antonio Missions; Empire Theatre: Courtesy Majestic & Empire Theatres; Flood: Courtesy San Antonio Conservation Society; Sunshine Cottage: Courtesy School; McNay: Courtesy Museum; Spurs: Courtesy Spurs Sports & Entertainment; Hemisfair: Courtesy Hemisfair Conservancy; Tobin Center: Courtesy Tobin Center for the Performing Arts
1718: The Founding of San Antonio
The city’s official operation begins in May of 1718 with the nearly simultaneous founding of military and mission establishments, according to Bruce Shakelford, one of the primary curators behind the Witte’s tricentennial Confluence and Culture exhibition. On May 1, 1718, the Spanish priest Father Antonio Olivares founds Mission San Antonio de Valero, named after St. Anthony of Padua. A few days later on May 5, San Antonio de Béxar Presidio, a military garrison, is established on the west side of the river. Within a few decades, four additional missions are planted near tribes along the river with the intent of converting indigenous people to Catholicism and Spanish ways of life, says Shakelford. Mission San José is founded in 1720 and Mission Concepción, Mission San Juan Capistrano and Mission San Francisco de la Espada are all established in San Antonio in 1731 after being relocated from other areas. Open plazas, jacal (sturdy houses made of logs, mud and straw) villages, workshops and acequias for irrigation surround the missions’ iconic central churches and allow for life filled with hard work making clothes and other goods, attending to new types of crops in the fields and herding cattle on ranches.
1730s: Spanish Governor’s Palace Established
The first section of the palace, also known as the Comandancia, is constructed in the 1730s by José de Urrutia, captain of the San Antonio de Bexar Presidio. The palace serves as a military outpost, a general store and a private home to another family over the next 100 years and in the 1850s—when City Hall is built nearby—houses a clothing store and other businesses. In 1929, the city purchases the building and it becomes one of San Antonio’s first preservation projects.
Canary Islanders sent by the king of Spain to populate what is then the province of Texas travel to San Antonio de Bexar.
San Antonio de Bexar is named the capital of Spanish Texas.
The Spanish government secularizes San Antonio de Valero, transitioning the mission into a military post.
The city declares for Mexican independence, but is recaptured following the battles of Medina and Alazan Creek.
Trailblazer: Samuel Maverick
A Texan not by birth but one who got here (nearly) as quick as he could, Samuel Maverick was among the two delegates selected to serve in the 1836 Independence Convention. He’d moved to San Antonio just before the Siege of Bexar but left the state again in 1836 to live in Alabama, returning to San Antonio a few years later after the birth of his son (another important San Antonian, Samuel Jr.). Maverick served as mayor and is known now largely because of the term “maverick,” which denotes unbranded calves and later led to the term being used for independent thinkers. It came about after Maverick let his own cattle roam in the 1840s, something uncommon at the time. He also served in the Texas Legislature, where he was known for working to win equal land rights for Mexican and German immigrants.
1835-1836: Battle of Goliad, Siege of Béxar and Battle of the Alamo
The Battle of Goliad, the second battle in the Texas Revolution, results in an early Texas victory when the Texan forces attack the Mexican Army at Presidio La Bahía near Goliad on the morning of Oct. 10, 1835. Samuel McCulloch Jr., a free black soldier, is the only Texan wounded in battle, becoming the first Texan casualty of the revolution. The first major campaign for Texas freedom is ignited during the Siege of Béxar (Oct. 27 – Dec. 9, 1835), which ends in a Texas victory over the Mexican troops. A few months later, the Mexican Army launches a return attack on San Antonio de Valero resulting in the deadly 13-day Battle of the Alamo (Feb. 23 – March 6, 1836). Every defender is killed, and “Remember the Alamo” becomes the rally of the Texan army as they continue to fight—and eventually gain—independence.
1837: San Antonio Named County Seat
In December 1836, Mexican forces leave the soon-to-be-formed Republic of Texas, which organizes Bexar County and, in January 1837, delegates San Antonio as the county seat.
1852: Higher Education Comes to Town
St. Mary’s University (first called St. Mary’s Institute) brings Catholic education, rooted in the Marianist ideals, to San Antonio. But that is just the start of higher education in the Alamo City:
Founded in 1869, Trinity University moves to San Antonio in 1942.
The Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word found Incarnate Word College in 1881 for women. Men are first admitted in 1970 and it becomes the University of the Incarnate Word in 1996.
The Sisters of the Congregation of Divine Providence open Our Lady of the Lake College in 1895. It becomes Our Lady of the Lake University in 1975.
University of Texas at San Antonio is founded by the Texas Legislature in 1969. The first class (which includes just 1,113 students) begins taking courses in 1973.
The Legislature establishes Texas A&M–San Antonio as its own campus in 2009, fulfilling a vision that began over 10 years earlier.
Southwest School of Art is formed in 1965 at La Villita before moving to its current home in the former Ursuline Convent and Academy in 1971. In 2014, it establishes a bachelor’s of fine arts degree program. The first class will graduate this year.
1855: Brewing Begins in San Antonio
San Antonio’s brewing history begins in 1855 when William Menger and Charles Degen open the Western Brewery, located next to the Alamo. In 1887, the San Antonio Brewing Association (aka Pearl Brewery) begins brewing and—along with the original Lone Star Brewery—ushers in the city’s golden age of beer.
The growth, however, is halted just over three decades later by Prohibition. Only Pearl survives, and it goes on to become the largest brewery in the Southwest. Between 1933 and 1994 San Antonio has just two breweries: Pearl and the second iteration of Lone Star.
In 2001, after 115 years in business, Pearl Brewery closes (Lone Star already had halted production).
The growth of craft beer, though, means Pearl isn’t the end of local beer. Entrepreneurs behind Blue Star, Freetail, Alamo Beer and others have once again made the city a hub for brewing.
1858: St. Mark’s Episcopal Church Opens
Though missionaries form the group behind the church in 1850, it isn’t until eight years later that the downtown landmark (designed by Richard Upjohn) opens, according to a book by Lewis F. Fisher. It becomes a community leader in San Antonio and among Episcopalian churches. It’s also the site of future president Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1934 wedding.
1860s: Chili Queens Introduce New Flavors
The smell of simmering chili, the cacophony of horse-drawn wagons, musicians, a community trading news around giant tables in San Antonio’s plazas—this is the domain of the Chili Queens, San Antonio’s original team of culinary entrepreneurs who help give the city its signature spice. “This is where Tex-Mex starts,” says Amy Fulkerson, chief curator for the Witte Museum. “They were taking things that they might have cooked at home and bringing them to the marketplace—chili con carne, enchiladas—and bringing them to a larger group of people who
may not have grown up with that. They really gave it a flavor that was unique to San Antonio and to Texas.”
With the rise of tighter health codes, the Chili Queens fade away by the late 1930s, but many argue their culinary legacy lives on in present day food trucks as well as in the city’s beloved Tex-Mex cuisine.
1876: Construction Begins on Fort Sam Houston
Known as one of the oldest U.S. Army posts, Fort Sam Houston begins with the Quadrangle in 1876. It is expanded between 1885 and 1891 and officially named Fort Sam Houston (for Gen. Sam Houston) in 1890. The base serves an important role in the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Fort Sam Houston is the site of the first solo military flight, leading to the construction of Kelly Field in 1917. The hospital that will become Brooke Army Medical Center opens in 1938. The Aviation Cadet Center is separated from the now-closed Kelly
AFB and becomes Lackland Air Force Base, named in 1947 for Brig. Gen. Frank D. Lackland. In 2005, President George W. Bush calls for joint basing, which results in Joint Base San Antonio, made up of Fort Sam Houston, Lackland Air Force Base and Randolph Air Force Base.
1877: First Passenger Train Arrives
The Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railway, the city’s first railroad connection and path for passenger trains, is established. A second railroad is added in 1881 (and three more in the 20 years following), spawning economic growth. By 1900, San Antonio is the largest city in the state with a population of 53,321.
Trailblazer: Artemisia Bowden
Established by St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, the first iteration of St. Philip’s College in 1898 was merely a sewing class. Artemisia Bowden was appointed head of the school in 1902, and by 1926 she had grown it into a private junior college. When the church could no longer support it during the Great Depression, Bowden lobbied the school district, arguing it needed to have a public community college for blacks since there was one for whites. It was incorporated into the public system in 1942. Bowden is listed among the saints of the Episcopal Church.
1869 San Antonio Missions Play Ball
Known initially as the Missionaries, the baseball team moves from Austin in the middle of the 1888 season while a charter member of the Texas League. The team—which has several names before becoming the Missions—face Babe Ruth in 1930. Over the years, its roster includes legends like Brooks Robinson. The team will advance to Triple-A baseball in 2019.
1891: Inaugural Battle of Flowers Parade
Ellen M. Slayden, wife of State Rep. James Slayden, suggests the first Battle of Flowers Parade, modeled after the floral parades of Spain, to recognize the fallen from the Battles of San Jacinto and the Alamo. A storm forces the parade to be moved from April 21 (the anniversary of the Battle of San Jacinto) to April 24, but the tradition sticks. The all-female organized parade grows and inspires dozens of other events, what we now recognize as Fiesta San Antonio.
1899: Brackenridge Park Opens
Founder of San Antonio National Bank and president of San Antonio Water Works, George W. Brackenridge had an impact on San Antonio and the state that is far reaching. And while his philanthropic and civic endeavors focused largely on education, his most noticeable gift might be the land on which Brackenridge Park now sits. The land is notable not just for its park, golf course, zoo and Japanese Tea Gardens but also because artifacts have been found there that date as early as 9200 B.C., when indigenous people lived on the land at the headwaters of the river.
Sports First: In 1922, Brackenridge Park Golf Course hosts the first Texas Open (now the Valero Texas Open at TPC San Antonio), which is the third oldest PGA tournament. The event takes place at Brackenridge off and on through 1959.
Trailblazer Clara Driscoll
When Clara Driscoll moved back to Texas after attending school and traveling abroad, she was dismayed to find the Long Barrack next to the Alamo covered with billboards and under consideration to be transformed into a hotel. She partnered with the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT) in 1903 to advocate for the preservation of the historic structure and in 1905 covered most of the cost for the DRT to buy the Long Barrack (the state later paid her back).
1914: Empire Theatre Opens
Around 1,800 people crowd in for a Dec. 14 screening of Neptune’s Daughter, the silent film that opens the opulent Renaissance Revival theater. In 1921, over 9 feet of water floods the facility. It reopens after renovation (and then closes in 1978). The original walls are restored before it reopens in 1998, thanks to the Las Casas Foundation and Red and Charline McCombs.
1921: Flood Kills 51
A hurricane that forms in the Gulf of Mexico in early September leads to disaster for San Antonio and other parts of Texas. Though it turns into a tropical storm as it moves inland, over 20 inches of rain hits Williamson County on Sept. 7. It moves to the Alamo City the following day and on Sept. 9 major thunderstorms bring sheets of rain. By Sept. 10, there has been up to 17 inches of rain in the upper Olmos Basin. Flooding in the Olmos Basin creates a surge in the San Antonio River, flooding downtown buildings with up to 12 feet of water and wreaking havoc along the San Pedro and Alazan creeks in the city’s largely Hispanic West Side neighborhoods. Fifty-one people die, the majority on the West Side, and dozens of others are never accounted for. The San Antonio Light declares it “the greatest disaster in the history of San Antonio.” Tragedy, however, leads to change. Mayor John Tobin proposes a bond in 1923 that pays for a dam at Olmos Basin plus the construction of bridges and storm sewers—the precursor to development along the River Walk.
1922: USAA Forms
The insurance, banking and investment services company starts in 1922 when 25 Army officers team up to insure one another’s vehicles. William Garrison is elected the first president.
San Antonio is home to several major companies, including Valero, which was named for the San Antonio Mission and opened in 1980, and radio company iHeart Media, known as Clear Channel Communications when Lowry Mays and Red McCombs founded it in 1972.
1924: San Antonio Conservation Society Founded
Thirteen women establish the society, in large part to restore and preserve the San Antonio missions. The group is among the first of its kind in the U.S. It has been credited with making San Antonio a city known for its history, both in preservation and in neighborhood restoration as can be seen in the King William Historic District.
1929: Majestic Theatre Opens
Though not the first Majestic Theatre in the state, the San Antonio Majestic is the first fully air-conditioned theater in Texas and the largest movie house in the South when it opens June 14, with over 3,700 seats. Follies of 1929 is the first film shown, followed by live acts.
1941: First Portion of River Walk Completed
Architect Robert Hugman and developer Jack White, manager of the White Plaza Hotel, are credited with the plan that, years after Hugman’s first pitch, results in the March 1941 completion of the initial River Walk plus the Arneson River Theatre at La Villita. Hotels along the River Walk that open in time for the 1968 World’s Fair cement its place as a tourist destination and growth continues. In 1998, a 13-mile expansion begins that results in the Museum and Mission Reaches. “It’s the lifeblood of the community,” says Visit San Antonio’s Richard Oliver.
1947: Sunshine Cottage School for Deaf Children Opens
In 1945, Dela and John White learn that their infant daughter, Tuleta, is deaf. The Whites discover the John Tracy Clinic, one of only a few schools equipped to educate deaf children—but it is in California. Nevertheless, Dela has a strong belief that her daughter can learn to speak, so the Whites travel to the Tracy Clinic with their 18-month-old. With encouragement from its founder and initial funding from the Junior League of San Antonio, 26-year-old Dela White decides to open a school of her own. Sunshine Cottage School for Deaf Children enrolls seven students in 1947 in a former caretaker’s cottage near the site of today’s Landa Library, painted with bright yellow paint that had been donated. Over the next 70-plus years, Sunshine Cottage grows, moving from to what’s now the Zoo School and eventually to a 20-acre campus on Hildebrand that opens in 2010. There, the student body, which now includes 300 from infancy through fifth grade, benefit from state of-the-art spoken-word education.
Trailblazer The Rev. Claude Black
Black is named pastor at Mount Zion First Baptist in 1949. He goes on to be a Civil Rights leader, serving on City Council and becoming the first black mayor pro tem.
1950: The First Modern Art Museum in Texas
In a 24-room Spanish Colonial Revival mansion, one of the country’s most captivating modern art collections beckons. Built for painter, art collector and heiress Marion Koogler McNay, the 1920s-era home on sweeping, 23-acre, Eden-like grounds now holds more than 20,000 works of art—including pieces by Picasso, Van Gogh, O’Keefe, Hopper and others. Designed by architects Atlee and Robert Ayres and built originally as McNay’s abode, the home was part of an endowment that when McNay died in 1950 established Texas’ first modern art museum. Since then, the trove has only continued to grow. The private collection began in 1927 with Diego Rivera’s “Delfina Flores” and grew to include more than 700 works by 1950. The home was opened as a museum in 1954. “We offer an escape from the outside world, and the side benefit is all of this wonderful art,” says Heather Lammers, curator of collections. McNay, ever the visionary, more than achieved her lofty goal.
5 pieces to see at the McNay
“LOVE” by Robert Indiana
“Reclining Woman” by Pablo Picasso
“Girl With the Blue Eyes” by Amedeo Modigliani
“Corn Hill” (Truro, Cape Cod) by Edward Hopper
Costume design for Vaslav Nijinsky as Chinese Dancer in Les Orientales by Léon Bakst (on display through June 10)
The Lone Star Brewery complex was purchased in the 1970s by the San Antonio Museum Association and underwent a $7.2 million renovation before opening in 1981 as the San Antonio Museum of Art. The Beretta Hops House was renovated into classrooms in the 1990s and the Cowden Gallery and other spaces have been added.
The Briscoe Western Art Museum is housed in what was the city’s first public library in 1903. It was later transformed into the Hertzberg Circus Museum (from 1968-2001) and opened in its current form in 2013 with an extensive Western art collection.
Trailblazer Carlos Cadena
Cadena and attorney Gustavo Garcia become the first Mexican Americans to win a case at the Supreme Court in 1954, which ultimately paves the way for Mexican Americans to be selected for service on juries (the case originated from a murder conviction the pair argued was unconstitutional because Mexican Americans had not been considered for the jury). A San Antonio native whose parents had immigrated in 1907, Cadena graduated with a law degree from the University of Texas in 1940. He was the only Mexican American in his class. He worked as an assistant attorney for the city of San Antonio before being drafted into World War II. In the late 1940s, he wins a court case that helps Mexican-Americans to purchase homes in previously restricted areas of San Antonio. In 1970 he is among those who found the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
1959: UT Health San Antonio Established
Though it doesn’t open until 1968, what’s now known as UT Health San Antonio is established in 1959 when Gov. Price Daniel signs a bill creating the South Texas Medical School. The former Nix Dairy Farm is transformed into the medical school and University Hospital campus by July of 1968. The Biomedical Sciences Graduate School, Dental School and School of Nursing have been added in the years since the school opened.
The creation of the first successful intravascular stent is credited to Dr. Julio Palmaz, who worked at UT Health from 1983-2005. The Palmaz Stent was patented in 1988.
Trailblazer Henry B. Gonzalez
The son of Mexican immigrants and a World War II veteran, Gonzalez became the first Mexican-American city councilman in 1953. His advocacy helped lead to desegregation of public facilities. He was elected to the State Senate in 1956 where he also fought for integration (mainly in schools). In 1961, he won a special election to become the U.S. representative for District 20, a position he held until 1998.
1973: San Antonio Spurs Arrive
Established as the Dallas Chaparrals in 1967 (one of 11 ABA teams),
the franchise relocates
to San Antonio as the Spurs, thanks to work by businessmen Red McCombs, Art Burdick and Angelo Drossos. Their first game is Oct. 10.
Spurs By the Numbers
2 Years After drafting David Robinson with the No. 1 pick in 1987, the Spurs wait this long for him, while he fulfills his commitment to the Navy. During his first year of play, the Spurs improve their record by 35 wins, the biggest one-year shift in NBA history.
3 Players The Spurs’ “Big Three,” Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, recorded the most wins by any NBA trio (575 regular season and 126 playoff games)
5 NBA Titles 1999, 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2014
7 Retired Numbers Johnny Moore (00), Avery Johnson (6), James Silas (13), Sean Elliott (32), George Gervin (44), David Robinson (50) and
Tim Duncan (21)
1,000 Wins In 2016, Tim Duncan became the first NBA player to win 1,000 games with the same team. He spent 19 seasons with the Spurs.
26,595 Points George Gervin’s career points (all-time leader in points per game).
Trailblazer Becky Hammon
The six-time WNBA all-star who led the San Antonio Stars to seven playoff appearances is hired as an assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs in 2014, becoming the first female coach in the NBA. She acts as head coach of the Spurs summer league team in 2015 and 2016. Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich has had nothing but compliments for her coaching and “basketball IQ,” saying that Hammon could coach anywhere at any level. Here’s hoping she’s remembered as the NBA’s first female head coach when she ultimately retires.
1968 The World’s Fair Opens
An estimated 6.4 million visitors descend on downtown San Antonio during the six-month World’s Fair, HemisFair. Fifty years later, the park is once again undergoing a transformation that will include green space, apartments and more.
Trailblazer Lila Cockrell
If it’s possible to fall in love with a river, former mayor Lila Cockrell, now in her 90s, says she did so with the San Antonio River. Cockrell was recruited to run for City Council in 1963 (where she served until 1970) and in 1975 becomes the city’s first female elected as mayor. She is instrumental in the World’s Fair, negotiates the “energy wars” and leads in parks and river development (as an elected official and a volunteer).
Trailblazer G.J. Sutton
Sutton is the first black San Antonian elected to the Texas House in 1972. His accomplishment, according to Everett L. Fly, a local historian, architect and landscape architect, is the result of decades of leadership by his parents—his father Samuel Sutton was the first black school principal in Bexar County. “If it hadn’t been for Samuel there would be no G.J.,” Fly says, adding that one of G.J.’s sisters was among the first black women to earn a medical degree in the Alamo City.
1987: City and MLK Jr. Commission Hold First Official Martin Luther King Jr. March
While the city’s first official march doesn’t take place until 1987, the Rev. Raymond “R.A.” Callies Sr. first organizes a March for Justice starting in 1968. Callies’ march continues to grow and is the catalyst for the current event, which is known as one of the largest MLK marches in the U.S. Callies also is credited with having a statue of MLK Jr. added in what’s now MLK Plaza.
Trailblazer Henry Cisneros
Cisneros first ran for City Council in 1975 at just 27, becoming the youngest council member to date. He is elected mayor in 1981, the first Hispanic
mayor of a major U.S. city in the 20th century, and is reelected three times, serving until 1989. In 1993, President Bill Clinton appoints him secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
1998: Rackspace Founded
Now one of the largest managed cloud computing companies in the world, Rackspace starts in the mid-1990s in the apartment of Trinity student Richard Yoo. He’s joined by Dirk Elmendorf and Pat Condon. The trio refocus their efforts on web hosting. Graham Weston and Morris Miller provide the capital needed to launch and in October 1998, Rackspace is officially born. Weston goes on to serve as CEO and champions for the tech industry.
2002: Pearl Transformation Begins
Silver Ventures, led by Kit Goldsbury, purchases the 22-acre Pearl Brewery complex, and begins work turning the once active brewery into a live-work-play destination full of restaurants, shops, apartments, a Culinary Institute of America campus and recreation spaces.
2003: Toyota Establishes $1.2 billion Manufacturing Plant in SA
Toyota Motor Corp. becomes one of San Antonio’s biggest employers in 2003, breaking ground on a 2-million-square-foot Tundra pickup assembly plant. Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff plays a key negotiating role in landing the company.
2014: Tobin Center for the Performing Arts Opens
After seven years of work and a $203 million investment (that included voter-approved bond money, county funds and city property), the Tobin Center opens on Sept. 4, bringing what leaders call a “world class performing arts center” to San Antonio. Built on the site of the Municipal Auditorium, which opened in 1926, the Tobin Center couples the preserved façade from the auditorium with new construction to create the large H-E-B Performance Hall plus a smaller theater and River Walk plaza.
2015: San Antonio Missions named UNESCO World Heritage Site
The five Spanish missions constructed by Franciscan missionaries in the 18th century are named the first UNESCO World Heritage Site in Texas during a July summit in Germany. Missions Espada, San Juan, San José, Concepción and Valero (the Alamo) make up the largest collection of still functioning Spanish colonial missions in existence. The process to become a UNESCO site started nine years earlier and involved extensive work by the San Antonio Conservation Society, the city, the county and others.