The original 1889 City Hall (left) building rises above other buildings near San Fernando Cathedral (right).
The original 1889 City Hall (left) building in Military Plaza rises above other buildings near San Fernando Cathedral (right) in Main Plaza. Credit: Courtesy / Raba Collection / San Antonio Conservation Society Foundation

Not all downtown San Antonio history happened at Alamo Plaza. The city’s two other downtown plazas have also brought forth troves of secrets from San Antonio’s 300-year history, archaeologists said.

On Friday, archaeologists with the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Center for Archaeological Research, Raba Kistner, and the Texas Historical Commission discussed multiple archaeological excavations in and around San Antonio’s Main and Military plazas.

The archaeologists spoke at the historic Menger Hotel downtown as part of an annual meeting of the Texas Archeological Society. Most excavations were tied to construction or utility work and uncovered artifacts from the centers of soldier and civilian life in the city’s early days.

Archaeologists found thousands of sherds of ceramic plates, bowls, and other houseware of Spanish, Native American, English, and French origins. They found animal bones, glass pieces, buttons, beads, and coins, along with military objects like musket balls, gunflints, and remnants of trenches and other fortifications.

The features and artifacts discussed stem from around the days of Spanish colonization in the early 1700s. Less than one mile from the Mission San Antonio de Valero, later known as the Alamo, the Spanish founded a presidio, or fort, on the banks of San Pedro Creek. In 1722, they moved the presidio further south along the creek to its final location.

That area is now called Military Plaza, the home of San Antonio’s City Hall. Across Soledad Street lies its counterpart, Main Plaza, the center of what became a colonial village after the arrival of 15 Canary Islander families in 1731.

Shawn Marceaux, Director of the Center for Archaeological Research at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Credit: Edward A. Ornelas for the San Antonio Report

Paul Shawn Marceaux, director of UTSA’s Center for Archaeological Research, was part of a team that in 2013 and 2014 did multiple small excavations in the basements of the buildings near the Spanish Governor’s Palace, the last remnants of the Spanish presidio. The buildings are now called the Plaza de Armas buildings, used as offices for City employees and studios.

Underneath the buildings, archaeologists found a “veneer of late 19th-century materials” lying over a deeper deposit of dirt, rocks, and animal bones, interspersed with thousands of pieces of broken ceramics and lost trinkets of the past. Marceaux said the materials in this underlying “sheet midden deposit” ranged in date from 1722 to 1850.

Much of the deposit remains unexplored, Marceaux told attendees. Archaeologists found its horizontal boundaries, but “we never got to the bottom of these deposits,” he said.

The ceramics they found include Spanish colonial majolicas, or tin-glazed earthenware. They found Native American ceramics and stone tools, such as arrowheads, a stone adze, and a mano grinding stone made from basalt, a volcanic rock from nowhere near San Antonio, suggesting trade with other indigenous groups far away.

More recent artifacts included an Indian head penny, a blue glass inset, and buttons made from seashells, Marceaux said.

Behind those buildings, near the tiny Calder Alley and adjacent to San Pedro Creek, Kristi Nichols of Raba Kistner worked on an excavation related to the San Pedro Creek Improvements Project to restore sections of the downtown creek.

That archaeological work got complicated when workers ruptured a sewer line upstream, causing sewage to leak into their pit, she said. They had to have the site treated with chlorine multiple times to make it safe enough to work.

Most of the more than 10,000 artifacts they found were bone, Nichols said, particularly from cattle. They also found Spanish colonial and Native American ceramics of a similar vintage as those found in the UTSA excavation.

Near Main Plaza, another UTSA Center for Archaeological Research investigation in 2016 and 2017 uncovered remains of a house built by Spaniard Fernando Veramendi, archaeologist Leonard Kemp said.

Trenching for a new water line in 2017 revealed a portion of the foundation wall of “irregularly-shaped limestone blocks and columns” left over from the opulent home he built, once called the Veramendi Palace, Kemp said.

Veramendi immigrated to San Antonio in the late 1700s and married into a Canary Islander family, becoming a successful merchant.

The family and the palace played a role in the Texas Revolution. Veramendi’s granddaughter, Ursula Veramendi, would go on to marry frontiersman and Alamo legend James Bowie. In the 1835 Siege of Bexar, a few months before the Battle of the Alamo, the Veramendi house was used by the Texian Army. Texas colonist Ben Milam was killed outside the house and buried on the property for some time.

Later on, the house became a saloon and beer garden, a furniture store, and a real estate office, Kemp said. The structure was demolished around 1910.

Near the wall, they also found a “heavily corroded, hand-forged, iron, pipe-like artifact” that’s some have suggested was a late 17th- or early 18th-century pistol or rifle, he said.

UTSA archaeologist Antonia Figueroa touched on Main Plaza’s more recent history. As part of work done in 2003, Figueroa said they uncovered building foundations and a plaque from an orphanage there once run by the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word.

The sisters, who also founded the University of the Incarnate Word, moved to San Antonio in 1869 to help the city cope with disease epidemics. They found a hospital downtown that later became an orphanage, Figueroa said.

“At lot of people passed away during that time, and there were a lot of children left without parents,” she said.

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.