San Antonio is a city steeped in its own rich history. That could be written about any 300-year-old urban center, especially one founded along a river where indigenous people dwelled for thousands of years before European settlement. Not many cities, however, make history so easy to see and experience as San Antonio, one of only two U.S. cities with UNESCO World Heritage recognition.
San Antonio is best known for those sites – the Alamo, and the four Spanish-colonial missions – but a deeper appreciation of its history can be found by reading about the people and events that defined the city.
With the start of San Antonio’s Tricentennial celebration only days away, it’s an ideal time to explore the many good nonfiction books that tell the story of San Antonio’s history, culture, and politics over the generations.
Friends in the local literary and reading community agreed to peruse their own bookshelves and suggest a few favorite titles. I’ve started with my own recommendations. This unofficial guide to San Antonio’s rich past isn’t meant to be a definitive list, but it offers enough choices to keep most readers busy for all of 2018.
We welcome your comments and suggestions to expand our guide.
The list includes newly published titles and several classics from years gone by. What cannot be found in print at The Twig Book Shop at the Pearl, or out-of-print at Cheever Books and Half Price Books on Broadway and other San Antonio locations, can be found via abebooks, the online marketplace that searches independent booksellers around the world for out-of-print titles.
Better yet, become a card-carrying member of the San Antonio Public Library and check out one or more books to delve into the past and gain a better understanding of the present.
History students will not get very far before they encounter author and former book publisher Lewis Fisher, who is published by Trinity University Press after that publisher acquired Fisher’s Maverick Publishing Company in 2015.
Fisher’s Saving San Antonio: The Preservation of a Heritage (Trinity University Press, 2016), is a must-read and a great place to start your armchair history tour. Fisher chronicles how San Antonio in the 19th century became the first city west of the Mississippi River to start a preservation movement, and how the the birth of the San Antonio Conservation Society in the early 20th century codified historic protections locally.
Friends have listed various other Fisher books in their lists of recommendations, so continue reading to gain a fuller appreciation of this prolific local historian and his work.
John H. Kampmann, Master Builder: San Antonio’s German Influence in the 19th Century (Beaufort Books, 2014), by Maggie Valentine. Kampmann and his work are not widely recognized in San Antonio outside the preservation and design communities, but he deserves a statue. Valentine, a professor of architecture at the University of Texas at San Antonio, has researched and written a meticulously documented volume that is essential to understanding San Antonio’s evolution from a Spanish adobe pueblo to a 19th-century town built with sturdy German-cut limestone.
Readers who do not recognize Kampmann certainly know his work, which is visible everywhere downtown and in the historic King William neighborhood. He designed and built the Menger Hotel on Alamo Plaza, St. Joseph’s Catholic Church around the corner on Commerce Street, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on East Pecan Street, and the German-English School on South Alamo Street. His King William projects include the Steves, Eagar, Halff, Groos, and Oppenheimer houses.
Others might not put this newly published volume on their reading list, but I also recommend The King William Area: A History and Guide to the Houses, by Mary V. Burkholder and Jessie N.M. Simpson. Photography by Al Rendon. (San Antonio: King William Association, 2017). The book lists more than 100 homes in the state’s first historic district and details their building, original owners, and who has occupied them through the years. All but two of the homes include their present owners.
This edition serves as an unofficial update to Burkholder’s The King William Area: A History and Guide to the Houses (San Antonio: King William Association, 1973), the classic work on the King William Historic District that served as the heart of the prosperous German immigrant community in the mid- and late 19th century.
Burkholder, a King William resident and preservationist, died 20 years ago. She lived in what was known as the Fry House at 226 Madison St., a charming one-story Victorian home, and she was a seminal figure in the district’s revival in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. She is listed as a co-author because “40 percent of the book’s content was Mary’s work,” co-author Simpson said.
The book can serve as a guide of sorts for newcomers to familiarize themselves with the leading German immigrant families who arrived in San Antonio in the 1870s and ’80s and went on to start businesses, acquire wealth and political power, and eventually become the self-declared royalty in a city that even today is listed as one of the most economically segregated in the country. Basically, those original German families became some of the most prominent old-money families of Anglo San Antonio.
Those same families were key to the founding of Fiesta in 1891 with the first Battle of Flowers parade. The complex nexus of the Spanish/Mexican and German cultures is essential to understanding some of the historic intersections and tensions in San Antonio. One hard-to-find book that explores the subject is Inventing the Fiesta City – Heritage and Carnival in San Antonio, by Laura Hernández-Ehrisman (University of New Mexico Press in cooperation with the Clements Center for Southwest Studies at Southern Methodist University; Reprint edition April 1, 2016). I found it at abebooks.com and assume it is available from the two respective university bookstores, too.
San Antonio: Then and Now, by Paula Allen (Pavilion, 2015) is a reader-friendly overview of the city, its founding, development, and post-HemisFair ’68 economy. Allen has worked as a freelance history columnist for the San Antonio Express-News for several decades, often researching answers to readers’ queries about obscure people and moments in the city’s past.
To understand why San Antonio is known as Military City, USA, readers need to explore the important role the city played in the development of military aviation, various training Missions, and as a major logistics center. The presence of so many installations, including Kelly, Lackland, and Randolph. Air Force bases and Fort Sam Houston, helped create the city’s Mexican-American middle class, employing tens of thousands of civilian workers in the mid-20th century. San Antonio in the Great War, by John Manguso (Arcadia Publishing, 2014) is a good place to start. Other military histories are listed below.
The book to leave on the bedside table for your guests is San Antonio Uncovered: Fun Facts and Hidden, by Mark Louis Rybczyk. (Full disclosure: I wrote the foreword for the 2016 Trinity University Press updated edition.) It’s an entertaining trivial pursuit of San Antonio history – light fare, but even history buffs likely will learn something new.
Let’s look at the selections other friends of the Rivard Report recommend:.
Claudia Maceo, owner of the Twig Book Shop
American Venice: The Epic Story of San Antonio’s River, by Lewis Fisher (Trinity University Press, 2015). Fisher uncovers the evolution of San Antonio’s beloved River Walk. He shares how San Antonians refused to give up on the vital water source that provided for them from before the city’s beginnings. Neglect, civic uprisings, and bursts of creativity culminated in the 1941 completion of a Works Projects Administration project designed by Robert H. H. Hugman.
The resulting River Walk languished for years, but enjoyed renewed interest during the 1968 World’s Fair, held in San Antonio, and has since become the center of the city’s cultural and historical narrative.
“The real story [of the River Walk] is a bit less Hollywood but far more interesting … With a growing number of cities facing issues of water supply, urban runoff, flooding, and ways of rebuilding better after a disaster, the San Antonio River Walk remains a great example of getting it right,” writes Irby Hightower, co-chair of the San Antonio River Oversight Committee.
In this updated and expanded edition of River Walk: The Epic Story of San Antonio’s River, Fisher offers more fascinating stories about the River Walk’s evolution, bringing to light new facts and sharing historical images that he has since discovered. The update includes information about the Museum and Mission Reaches, two expansions of the River Walk that are vital to San Antonio’s continued growth as the seventh-largest city in the country.
Chili Queens, Hay Wagons, and Fandangos: The Spanish Plazas in Frontier San Antonio, by Lewis Fisher (Maverick Books, reissued 2010). As San Antonio’s frontier era was ending in the 1870s and 1880s, Military Plaza was a vivid outdoor market. By night it was a crowded dining venue where storied chili queens dished out spicy meals and saloons and fandango halls pulsed nearby. A cathedral dating from 1738 faced Main Plaza, where Apache chieftains and Spaniards had long ago buried a hatchet, a lance, six arrows, and a horse to signify peace. On Alamo Plaza, a demonstration of how barbed wire constrained a herd of cattle changed the course of the American West.
Plazas were the heart of San Antonio since its earliest days on the remote northern frontier of New Spain. Not until a railroad was built in 1877, providing easy access to the rest of the nation, did San Antonio experience the rapid growth that made it more like cities elsewhere.
The Blood of Heroes: The 13-Day Struggle for the Alamo – And the Sacrifice That Forged a Nation, by James Donovan (Little, Brown and Co., 2012). A sweeping, action-packed saga of the legendary last stand at the Alamo, by the author of the bestselling A Terrible Glory. On Feb. 23, 1836, a large Mexican army led by dictator Santa Anna reached San Antonio and laid siege to about 175 Texas rebels holed up in the Alamo. The Texans refused to surrender for nearly two weeks until almost 2,000 Mexican troops unleashed a final assault. The defenders fought valiantly for their lives and for a free and independent Texas, but in the end, they were all slaughtered. Their ultimate sacrifice inspired the rallying cry “Remember the Alamo!” and eventual triumph.
Vincent Michael, executive director of the San Antonio Conservation Society
I like Empire of the Summer Moon, by S.C. Gwynne (Scribner, 2010). This epic history of the Comancheria is essential to understanding the complexities of efforts by European settlers to establish themselves in and around San Antonio to the detriment of Comanche Native Americans, especially under the leadership of Quanah Parker, the son of a Comanche warrior and captive European settler who went native.
Spanish Water Anglo Water, by Charles R. Porter Jr. (Texas A&M University Consortium Press, 2011), an early look at how water shaped the city’s development.
I got a lot out of Andres Tijerina’s Tejanos and Texas under the Mexican Flag (Texas A&M University Press, 1994).
For the Missions, you have to go back to Lewis Fisher yet again: The Spanish Missions of San Antonio (Trinity University Press, 1998), an elegant coffee table book with more than 100 photographs by David Osborne and a foreword by Father David Garcia, the catholic priest and community leader who led the successful fundraising drives to restore San Fernando Cathedral and later the four Spanish-colonial Missions, all of which remain active Spanish parishes that welcome Sunday visitors.
Rick Casey, San Antonio journalist
Maury Maverick: A Political Biography, by Richard B. Henderson (University of Texas Press, 1970). Probably out-of-print but not hard to find. An excellent chronicle of the life of one of San Antonio’s greatest mayors. Especially interesting to me was the major player he was on the national scene, a friend not only to FDR, but to the likes of William O. Douglas, H.L. Mencken, and many other luminaries. Only by reading the book will you understand why he supported the “whites only” Democratic primary, and why he changed his position.
Powering a City: How Energy and Big Dreams Transformed San Antonio, by Catherine Nixon Cooke. (Trinity University Press, 2017). Yes, this is an official history commissioned by CPS Energy, and so it probably lacks some negative realities. But it traces the role of energy technology in building the city going back into the 19th century. It also tells the remarkable story of how the City came to purchase the electric and gas company in 1942 from the huge conglomerate that owned it. The purchase was made possible by FDR and Harold Ickes fighting the conglomerates – something that is hard to imagine in a country where many states, including Texas, have passed laws prohibiting cities from building their own internet structure for citizens. The result is that CPS Energy is the nation’s largest municipally owned electric utility and a living rebuttal to those who say the private sector always does it better. CPS has consistently featured among the lowest rates of major American cities while over the past 75 years pumping more than $7 billion into the City’s general fund. Also, the book features a slew of fine historical photos.
George W. Brackenridge: Maverick Philanthropist by
On the Border: An Environmental History of San Antonio, edited by Char Miller (Trinity University Press, 2005). What makes San Antonio geographically special? How about the fact that it sits at the intersection of three ecosystems: coastal plain to the east, Hill Country to the northwest, and the Brush Country to the southwest. Or that it is at the bottom of the world’s longest “arctic chute,” meaning that there are no east-west mountain ranges between the North Pole and the Alamo. Thus Blue Northers. It’s important to know your place, and this book thoroughly describes San Antonio’s.
Ramiro Salazar, director of the San Antonio Public Library system
This expanded list of local books are offered without publisher names or dates since they are all available at Central Library and/or the various branches, as are other titles recommended by myself and others.
Faces of Béxar: Early San Antonio & Texas, by Jesús F. de la Teja.
San Antonio de Béxar: A Community on New Spain’s Northern Frontier, by Jesús F. de la Teja.
San Antonio: A Unique History and Pictorial Guide, by Henry Guerra.
History and Legends of the Alamo and Other Missions in and Around San Antonio, by Adina De Zavala; edited and introduced by Richard R. Flores.
A Texas Legacy: The Old San Antonio Road and the Caminos Reales. A Tricentennial History, 1691-1991, edited by A. Joachim McGraw, John W. Clark, Jr., and Elizabeth A. Robbins.
History of the San Antonio Zoo, by Wilbur L. Matthews; illustrations by Mark Mayfield.
San Antonio’s Historic Market Square, by Edna Campos Gravenhorst.
The Railroads of San Antonio and South Central Texas, by Hugh Hemphill.
Chinese Heart of Texas: The San Antonio Community, 1875 to 1975, by Mel Brown.
The Spanish Acequias of San Antonio, by I. Wayne Cox.
Mayor: An Inside View of San Antonio Politics, 1981-1995, by Nelson Wolff.
Transforming San Antonio: An Insider’s View of the AT&T Center, Toyota, the PGA Village, and the River Walk Extension, by Nelson Wolff.
San Antonio on Parade: Six Historic Festivals, by Judith Berg Sobré.
Deep in the Heart of San Antonio Land and Life in South Texas, by Char Miller.
100 Things to do in San Antonio Before You Die, by Denis Barkis Richter.
With the Makers of San Antonio: Genealogies of the Early Latin, Anglo-American, and German Families with Occasional Biographies; each group being prefaced with a brief historical sketch and illustrations, by Frederick C. Chabot.
West of the Creek: Murder, Mayhem, and Vice in old San Antonio, by David Bowser.
The Illusion of Inclusion: The Untold Political Story of San Antonio, by Rodolfo Rosales.
Tejano Origins in Eighteenth-Century San Antonio, by Gerald E. Poyo & Gilberto M. Hinojosa.
Spiritual Treasures of Downtown San Antonio, by Mary Jane Hardy.
Cornyation: San Antonio’s Outrageous Fiesta Tradition, by Amy L. Stone
Wings Over San Antonio, by Mel Brown.
San Antonio Beer: Alamo City History by the Pint, by Jeremy Banas & Travis E. Poling.
San Antonio Architecture: Traditions and Visions, by Boone Powell.
This River Here: Poems of San Antonio, by Carmen Tafolla.
Happy Tricentennial, happy reading.