On a recent spring afternoon, Bexar County Clerk Lucy Adame-Clark walked through a steel door in the basement of the Bexar County Archives building downtown, showing two visitors a mostly empty vault, with metal bars dividing the cool, dry space into three sections.
The former Federal Reserve Bank branch on Nueva Street was purchased by Bexar County in 2014. Recently renovated, its vault will house records such as historical maps that document the way Bexar County changed through the years. The now-empty shelves waiting on the right side of the vault will eventually bear the results of an $18 million, years-long restoration project: the Bexar Archives.
The Bexar Archives, also known as the Bexar County Spanish Archives, currently live in two places. In 1899, Bexar County gave most of its historical documents to the University of Texas at Austin, mostly because the county was unable to properly preserve and store the fragile documents detailing Spanish and Mexican government activities before the 1836 Texas Revolution. Similar historical documents – including land survey notes, official government declarations, and probate court records – remain in the county’s possession. One of the prize pieces of the collection dates back to 1831: James Bowie’s dowry contract for his soon-to-be wife, Maria Ursula de Beramendi. In it, he pledges to give her 15,000 pesos.
“It’s one of the few examples of his signature where he signed his name and then put this whirlwind tornado rubric under his name,” said David Carlson, the Bexar County Spanish Archives archivist.
In March, Bexar County commissioners approved a contract with Dallas-based Kofile Technologies, Inc. to restore and preserve those documents, along with others dating back to the early 1700s. Texas law mandates county clerks record and maintain county documents, and Adame-Clark said she was determined to get all of the historical records in her care properly restored and archived.
“It shouldn’t be a challenge for any county clerk to preserve history, because that’s in the statute,” said Adame-Clark, the first woman to be elected county clerk. “It says, ‘You shall.’ It didn’t say ‘You may,’ it says ‘You shall.’ Meaning, you better do your job, and it’s your duty to preserve what’s under your umbrella.”
This is the largest preservation project that Kofile has taken on, said Chris Marotti, the company’s vice president of products and strategy.
“We’ve had other clients engaged in projects in between $5 million and $8 million or $10 million, but this is the largest one to date,” Marotti said. “So it’s an ambitious and real kind of forward-thinking project.”
The archives, both in Bexar County and at UT Austin, have informed the work of many researchers around Texas as well as beyond the state borders. The combined Bexar County Spanish Archives cover the time between 1717 and 1835, though the oldest physical document in Bexar County’s possession dates back to 1736, Carlson said.
Local historian and former University of Texas at San Antonio professor Felix D. Almaraz said ensuring the documents are well-maintained matters not only for the academic world at large, but for Bexar County itself.
“It matters because it is the legacy of Bexar County,” he said.
Bexar County also used to span a much larger geographical area, so its history touches on so much of its surroundings, Almaraz added.
“It’s not [only] the Bexar Archives, but how the Bexar Archives relate to other regional depositories,” he said. “Because the legacy is not just in one place, it’s spread across the border lands.”
Almaraz, who at age 86 continues to work as a distinguished research scholar in residence at St. Mary’s University, retired as a history professor some years ago. He expressed particular appreciation for the project’s digitization effort, which Almaraz said is crucial to expanding access for researchers. As part of its agreement, Kofile will take digital images of the historic documents it restores and make those available on a database for Bexar County. It also will digitize more recent documents that need to be uploaded, such as Bexar County Commissioners Court minutes as recent as 2001.
The county’s historical archive extends beyond the Texas Revolution, holding papers from the estates of Bowie, David Crockett, and Erastus “Deaf” Smith. Kofile will also preserve county records from the Civil War, including Confederate Army pension applications for 346 residents in the area at the time.
Access to historic documents about the Bexar County area also helps inform the Tejano history of Bexar County, said local historian Rudi Rodriguez, who started TexasTejano.com and dedicates his research to the descendants of the first Spanish, Mexican, and Indigenous families on the Texas frontier, also known as the Tejanos. Without the Bexar County Spanish Archives, many of these stories are lost, Rodriguez said.
“The archives – the Spanish Archives specifically – tell of the founding of Texas and the American Southwest,” Rodriguez said. “I think a lot of times we talk about our own San Antonio [and] Texas history and we miss, from a historical standpoint … that in fact, we are part of the American Southwest and have been since 1845. So as Tejanos, we are very much part of the founding of America.”
Rodriguez said he has been researching and speaking about Tejano history for 20 years, but there is still much left to be investigated. Hopefully, the preserved Bexar County Spanish Archives can continue to add to that bulk of knowledge, he said.
“It seems like we’re just on the first chapter of talking about the diversity of the American Southwest, and that’s about the Tejanos,” Rodriguez said. “And it’s an incredible story, but it’s been untold.”
Kofile has not yet transported the Bexar County archives to its Dallas restoration lab, Marotti said. But once it does, licensed conservationists will begin restoring hundreds of thousands of documents, a process expected to take a couple of years. The hours required to finish the project are difficult to quantify, Marotti said, as the amount of documents that need to be processed is “overwhelming.”
At the lab, the historic records will each be sprayed with a de-acidification solution that halts the decay of paper. Each page is cleaned, patched together if necessary, and imaged for digital records, Marotti said. The paper is then covered with a mylar plastic sleeve, which protects it from further deterioration. Those sleeves ultimately make up a book that Kofile will bind.
Once those documents are restored and bound, they will be put in floodproof and waterproof boxes made out of steel and stored in the vault.
Previous Bexar County clerks had started the preservation and archival process, Adame-Clark said, but there is still much work to be done.
“As I walked in as a county clerk in 2019, we went and did an audit, an overview, and an inventory of all the historical records in the county clerk’s office that we are responsible for, and it was disheartening to see what condition they were in,” she said in March to commissioners.
Many of the documents are mildewed or have fallen into disrepair and are in dire need of restoration, Adame-Clark said. While sharing some of the records that live in the Bexar County Archives Building downtown, she pulled out a previously preserved book of land surveyor notes, handling it carefully with white cloth gloves. She pointed to various pages that had chunks of paper and writing missing but were held together with thin white material.
“There’s a lot of detail paid to this because they actually have to remove the tape, and they do it very carefully,” she said. “So there’s a lot of delicacy and dedication that goes into the preservation.”
Adame-Clark hopes the project’s conclusion will make a strong case for bringing the Bexar Archive documents at UT Austin back to the county.
“If I’m about to have a conversation with UT of Austin, and they’re telling me, ‘You’re not spending the funds to preserve your own history, then how can you want the rest of it?’ … You have to take care of what’s in front of you,” Adame-Clark said.
Don Carleton serves as the executive director of the Dolph Briscoe Center at UT Austin, which houses the Bexar Archives. He said he was delighted to hear that the county would restore and preserve its historical documents, but said the idea of reuniting the split Bexar Archives is “misleading.”
“The Bexar Archives is just a name that was placed on it by various people,” he said. “It’s officially the Mexican provincial records relating to the province of Coahuila and Texas. They just got the popular name ‘Bexar Archives.’”
“We’re really proud of what the county’s doing now. It’s long overdue,” Carleton added. “And so that means both portions of that collection called the Bexar Archives are now going to be in great shape and available to research in Austin and in San Antonio.”
As far as the archives’ permanent residence, Carleton said, that was decided in 1899.
“We’ve kind of gone through this many times in the past several years, and the university’s position is that they’ve been here 100 years,” he said. “… We’ve microfilmed the entire collection and given the microfilm complimentary to various institutions in Bexar County, including the county courthouse.”
Adame-Clark believes the Bexar Archive documents housed in Austin rightfully belong to Bexar County and that the county clerk who agreed to transfer archival documents to UT Austin more than 100 years ago may not have acted according to law.
Carlson, the Bexar County archivist, acknowledges that the decision on what documents would go to the university and what would stay in Bexar County was confusing. According to the 1899 agreement, Bexar County retained documents that were thought to be traditional records kept by counties, such as property deeds, wills, and land sales. But there was no evidence to show how the actual split was executed.
“Modern archiving practice would not contemplate doing something like this with a collection of documents,” he said. “You would always leave the [collection] as a whole.”
Whether the county’s records ultimately remain apart or consolidated, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff applauded Adame-Clark for her efforts to preserve local historical documents.
“This is a quantum leap from what was done under previous county clerks and one that’s so necessary,” he said to her after commissioners approved the $18 million contract. “Now with the climate-controlled vault that we have and everything, it’s appropriate to step forward and save these records.”