Over the course of our Tricentennial year, City leaders, educators, artists, community activists, and many others will be paying homage to the men and women whose blood, toil, and tears founded and created San Antonio. Many of the city’s most recognizable landmarks – from the original Spanish-colonial Missions to the San Fernando Cathedral – are a testament to the legacy of the founders of our municipal government.
There is a modest symbol of remembrance that lies not too far from San Fernando. A plaque that honors 16 families – a total of 56 men and women. Hailing from the Canary Islands, these individuals came here in 1731 at the behest of King Philip V, who wanted to retain the territory for Spain.
What these brave adventurers ultimately gave to our city, however, makes for a much greater story. It is, as the marker at Municipal Plaza states, the story of the “earliest civilian colonists of San Antonio.”
Upon their arrival to the area, these Canarians joined with the Coahuiltecans – the earliest recorded inhabitants of the area – the mission friars, and the Spanish presidio soldiers who were here to protect them and the mission lands for the Spanish crown. They founded a municipality, the Village of San Fernando de Bexar.
The village was located on what was then the west side of the Plaza De las Yslas – what is known today as Main Plaza. Above all, they established our city’s system of law and order, the very foundations upon which civil government is based.
The lives of these 56 civilian settlers are intertwined with the history of this city. For example, they accounted for the first 120 mayors of San Antonio. And later descendants, such as Robert L. B. Tobin, would be integral to the cultural legacy of our city. An underwriter of operas and a champion of the arts, Tobin would go on to fill an entire wing of the McNay Art Museum with his priceless collection of theater art and design. An endowment in his name largely funded San Antonio’s cutting-edge Tobin Center for the Performing Arts.
The contributions of the early Canarians to our system of government and our cultural heritage is immense. But theirs is also a story of bravery in the face of overwhelming hardships, a story that should continue to inspire each and every one of us, and one that is relevant to this day: The quest for a better life in a new land.
They faced fantastic challenges, enduring a transatlantic voyage that would take them as far as Veracruz, Mexico. The last 1,000 miles of the journey would be traveled on foot. Think about that. After months at sea, the 56 Canarians still had to walk 1,000 miles to get to their new home.
So great was their desire for a new life, for themselves and their loved ones, that they walked 1,000 miles to seize that better life. What a lesson of love and dedication these colonists have shown us!
Over time, the Canarians would establish ranches where they would raise crops and tend cattle. During the American Revolution, the Canary Islanders took part in cattle drives, providing beef to the colonists who were fighting for freedom from British rule. But in the tumultuous times of the Texas Republic, many Canarians would see their ranches taken from them. But even this heartbreak was not enough to diminish their humanitarian spirit.
This history and their legacy cannot fit on a simple monument in Main Plaza. It can begin to be told by the five bronze statues that have been commissioned and will ultimately reside in front of the Bexar County Courthouse.
It will also be shared as part of our Tricentennial commemoration, when a delegation from the Canary Islands comes to San Antonio next month. A variety of public events are associated with their visit, among them a symposium that will take place on March 10 at the UTSA Downtown Campus, appropriately in the Aula Canaria.
Were it not for the passion for a better life that drove these “earliest civilian colonists of San Antonio,” our beloved city would not be what it is today. We owe it to our founders to have that same passion to create an even better city over the next 300 years.