The San Saba Mission: Lost and Found, then Lost and Found Again

The San Saba presidio (at Menard, TX) is oftentimes mistaken for the San Saba mission. They are separate compounds, more than a mile apart. When the mission was established in 1756 the missionaries wanted the mission to be a good distance away from the fort (the presidio).  One might ask how a presidio with 100 Spanish troops was to protect a mission if it was not even in sight of the mission.  The answer is not very well.  The reason for the distance had to do with a disastrous experience with a Texas mission a few years earlier where the  presidio captain was anything but a good example for the newly Christianized Indians.  In fact the captain was excommunicated by the mission priest, then the captain had the priest murdered.  The mission Indians had enough and melted away.  A previously successful mission failed.

With this new mission the presidio was placed out of sight, on the other side (the north side) of the San Saba River.  After various northern tribes (mainly the Comanche) destroyed the mission in 1857 the presidio, that survived the attack, was rebuilt into a stone fortress.  It had no mission to protect, and instead of moving the command to the east to protect the fledgling Los Almagres mines, it stayed where it was to defy the northern tribes.

The stone fortress was occupied for several years but abandoned in the later 1700’s.  It remained for years, and was then mostly dismantled and used for building materials by the new town of Menardville (that later became Menard).  The large fort took a long time to even partly dismantle and there is no doubt where it was located.  Around 1937 a public work’s project mostly rebuilt it, but it was not rebuilt very well, or according to sketches that exist from the colonial era.  It began to crumble.  Much more recently it has undergone a better restoration and the original outline of the building has been reestablished.

While there was never any doubt as to where the fort was, where was the mission?  It seemed to be a case of everyone knew, everyone lost interest, then no one knew and wished they did.  Several archaeologists had a go at locating it, but without any success.  It was supposed to be one and a half leagues away from the fort, but just how long is a league? It was more a measure of how far one could travel in an hour–in an era of sun dials.  The location was lost, perhaps forever.  The old timers saw traces of it before the turn of the century, but no one thought to ask them before they passed on.

One of the reasons for the renewed interest in the mission was the book The San Saba Mission, that was printed in 1964.  It was printed by a person who has much to do, by what he did not do, with the treasure legend.  It was written by the local newspaper editor, a man named Robert Weddle.

Weddle was interested in Texas history–he more interested in history writing than in newspaper editing.  He wrote the aforementioned book and it put him on the map in Texas academia.  He went on to become a respected writer of Texas history.  He passed on a couple of years ago.  His 1964 book did much to popularize the San Saba mission and presidio.

What he did not want to popularize were the the San Saba treasure legends.  From reading many of his newspapers of that era, he had nothing but scorn and ridicule for the treasure legends.  Part of that could have been altruistic.  People were selling mining stocks and none of it ever paid off.  Every reader he dissuaded from the silver lode lottery was another reader who did not throw their money away.

But part of his disdain for the legends could have been that he was trying, really hard, to become a historian.  A small town newsman talking about Jim Bowie and stacks of silver bars would not be taken seriously.  So, perhaps, that has something to do with his newspaper not reporting on any of the treasure hunting goings-on in Menard in the 1960’s.

He may have, perhaps, realized that he had gone too far later in life.  While in the 1960’s he wrote that “tradition, and nothing else” claimed that Jim Bowie was after silver when he made an expedition to somewhere in the area in 1831, the reality was that Rezin Bowie and Caiaphas Ham both stated in unmistakable terms that they were indeed after a silver mine they thought was in the area.  Weddle, well, basically wrote a lie when he wrote those words.  Perhaps he thought it was a white lie.  Well, in what was probably the last academic paper he authored (co-wrote actually) he wrote about historical myths.  He mentioned the myth of silver mines around Menard, but added something curious in a foot note.  He wrote that when he first arrived in Menard that he found a chunk of slag near the old presidio.  Slag is a by-product of silver smelting.  He sent a sample of the slag off to UTEP.  The report came back that the slag contained silver.  For slag to contain silver the ore that was smelted must have contained even more silver.  Perhaps that foot note was a way to make amends for stretching the truth about Bowie, and for a complete press blackout of the very interesting goings on around Menard decades earlier.

Another newspaper editor is part of the story.  John Warren Hunter.  He was a fascinating individual, the sort that were rarely born after 1900.  He was an uneducated youth, a cowboy, who caught the  attention of a young lady back east.  The young lady resolved to civilize the young man and marry him.  So she did.  He took to learning what his educated wife was teaching very well.  He learned so well that he became a school master.  One school he mastered was in Menardville before the turn of the century.  Then he became a newspaper editor in the nearby town of Mason.  In the very early 1900’s the Texas Rangers were having a reunion in Menardville.  Hunter printed up a little souvenir booklet for them titled The Rise and Fall of the Mission San Saba.  The booklet was one part history of the area, one part treasure legend (Hunter held that Los Almagres was a real mine and that it was somewhere around Menardville), and one part biography of interesting early settlers to Menard County.

A couple and a half decades later J. Frank Dobie leaned heavily on the booklet when he wrote the San Saba legend part of Coronado’s Children.  Hunter had spent time in Mexico and could read and write Spanish (during the civil war he refused to join the confederacy and he lived in Mexico for the duration).  While in Monclova he heard tale of silver mines around the San Saba River.  He thought there was a mine, or perhaps mines, in the area, but he did not know just where they were and apparently expended no effort in finding out.

Weddle thought that Hunter’s book was anything but real history.  But years later someone saw something in that little book that probably made Weddle wish that he had read it more closely.  In the early 1990’s a San Antonio architect named Mark Wolf discovered that he was related to one of the soldiers stationed at the presido.  Mark took an interest in the story.  He asked an archaeologist to show him the mission site, where his relative saved many lives during the massacre.  The reply was that no one knew where it was for sure.

Mark developed a strong interest in the history.  He happened upon a yellowed old booklet, The Rise and Fall of The Mission San Saba.  Hunter wrote that the mission site was known to the locals and that artifacts could still be collected there.  It was on the “old Hockensmith place”.  Mark inquired with the county office as to what property had ever been owned by someone named Hockensmith.  There was only one such property–on the south side of the river, a distance from the presidio.  Long story short, that property was the place.  It just so happened that the field had been plowed for alfalfa, and sure enough Mark and some archaeologists he was with that day found one artifact, then another, then another, in the freshly turned soil.  A proper field study held by Texas Tech confirmed beyond a doubt that the mission site, lost when the first generation of Menardville residents passed on, was now found.  It is on private property, but there is a marker nearby.

The irony was that Bob Weddle could have found that site himself, and become a hero to academia, when he was living in Menard and writing his book about that mission in the early 1960’s.  It goes to show that one should never be too proud to read even tacky little booklets when researching history.

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