Martín de Alarcón: The Forgotten Founder of San Antonio

Sketch of Hernando de Alarcon, Courtesy of
Sketch of Hernando de Alarcon, Courtesy of Landmark Adventures.

Martín de Alarcón, a Spanish sailor, thrived in the world of the Spanish military. The Spanish crown appointed him to protect the country in the vast open waters of the ocean. The smell of sea salt and the decrepit wood under his fingers led people to believe he would live an adventurous life. He is remembered today not as a sailor but as the leader of the expedition that created San Antonio, Texas.1

Historical plaque, Governor Martin De Alarcon in East Texas | Courtesy of the Texas Historical Commission

Martín de Alarcón began his military career as a sailor for the Spanish royal navy in the mid-1600s. He traveled on long treacherous voyages to far off lands throughout the world. On one voyage, Alarcón found his way to the Indies, an important hub for the Spanish during this time. While based in Oran, which today is in North Africa, Alarcón became a seasoned sailor. Alarcón wished to surpass the rest of his shipmates, and so he decided to climb the ranks of the military. He wanted to be more than a mere one of many. Unbeknownst to Alarcón, the next chapter of his life would launch his legendary role as a major player in the rise of the San Antonio de Valero Mission and the town of San Antonio.2

In May of 1691, the Viceroy (a leader of a colony under the rule of a monarchy) of Mexico, Conde de Galve saw promise in Alarcón and appointed him Sargento mayor (Sergeant Major) of Guadalajara. Becoming Sargento mayor was Alarcón’s first step toward joining the upper ranks of the Royal Navy. A few years later, after proving his competency, Viceroy Conde de Galve promoted Alarcón to alcalde mayor (the chief magistrate of a colony or territory) as well as Capitan De Guerra (captain of war) in the areas of Mexico now called the Michoacán.3

In September of 1696, only five years after his first major appointment, Viceroy Juan de Ortega y Montanez appointed Martín de Alarcón to be Capitan De Guerra in the surroundings of Mazapil. His orders as protector of the Royal Spanish military and its citizens had now grown exponentially as he became the protector of Indians. Using his military training and skills he learned through the years as a leader guided him in his endeavors with Indians in the Indies and later the Americas.4

Painting of Comanche Feats of Horsemanship, painted by George Catlin | Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

For years, Martín de Alarcón continued in these roles in the dangerous and exciting places at the northern frontier of the Spanish Americas. He used his experiences to explore the New World and protect the Spanish citizens from attacks as the delegated protector of Indian peoples. Through these interactions, he saw the Native groups as a threat and as such treated them with malice.5 This would be most evident during the Alarcón Expedition when he traveled his newly delegated land interacted with the Native peoples that were used to working with the French. This would be a tough task for any leader of what would become San Antonio.6

All of his hard work and years of leadership came to a head in December of 1716 when Alarcón was appointed Commander of the Presidio San Francisco de Coahuila and also became the governor of the Texas province. This appointment was given under the rule of the Viceroy Marques de Valero of Mexico City. His first order of business in his new position was to resupply the Spanish citizens who ventured out into the dangerous terrain of the uncolonized Texas territory. Under the command of Domingo Ramon, many Spaniards ventured into the Texas territory in 1716. This major adventure into the northern frontier of the Texas territory would become Alarcón’s last major step before his life-changing meeting with Father Antonio San Buenaventura y Olivares.7

In 1716, Alarcón finally reached the peak of his career when he traveled to meet with Domingo Ramon’s group of Spaniards in what is called the Alarcón Expedition. He was stopped when he was asked to investigate a man named Louis Juchereau de St. Denis when Alarcón arrived in Saltillo. St. Denis was a Frenchmen working in the same area as Alarcón. Before meeting Alarcón, St. Denis already established multiple successful missions. Alarcón investigated St. Denis for trading illegal goods in the Spanish territory after his earlier arrests. St. Denis was received and accepted after his marriage to the granddaughter of Commander Domingo Ramon. The same man who placed him under house arrest during his time while being investigated by the Spanish crown. Alarcón was asked to investigate St. Denis further during Denis’ second expedition into the Texas frontier. After that, the cooperation between the French and Spanish was destroyed.8

Print of Governor Martin de Alarcon’s 1718 Expedition through Present Day Guadalupe County and Seguin | Courtesy of University of Texas Press.

Reporting his findings and after months of delays due to St. Denis, Alarcón continued his adventure into the vast wilderness of the Texas frontier. The Alarcón Expedition is not known for this major delay, but rather for when he met Father Antonio de Olivares. Father Olivares was the missionary who founded the San Antonio de Valero mission. Over six months later, Alarcón crossed the Rio Grande river with several Spaniards who were looking to create a new life in the abundant and healthy soil of the vast new world.

Other than Father Olivares, Martín de Alarcón brought 35 soldiers and approximately ten of them brought their families to the new territory. All together these soldiers and their families totaled around 70 people. All had to take what little belongings they had and put all their faith in Alarcón and 35 soldiers for protection. The trek to their new home was grueling with long days in the heat of a Texas summer. Having very few cattle for transportation, many people had to walk some of the way. Families knew very little of where they are going, and once they do settle their new homeland there would be nothing. After the long and arduous journey, the tired and fatigued settlers faced the realization that their problems and difficulties would only be halfway done. There would be no homes and no crops to feed their families. The only food was that which each settler brought with them. All the supplies to begin building a home had to be found and made. With very little wood around, many of the original buildings were made with hardened soil and stone. All looked up to Alarcón for guidance, leadership, and protection. 9

Print of German Texans | Courtesy of the German Federal Archive

Father Antonio San Buenavista y Olivares established the San Antonio de Valero Mission, while Martín de Alarcón established the presidio of San Antonio de Bexar. With these newly established areas, the settlers began building around the new markers of the colony, one of these is the Villa de Bexar, one of the most important settlements for the Spanish crown in the Texas territory. This marked the beginning of San Antonio as we know it today. After Alarcón established this new settlement, he left the settlers to begin their new lives as Spanish Texans.

Martín de Alarcón, weary of years on the Texas frontier, finally completed his expedition into the rough and dangerous terrain of the new world. Unlike the settlers that followed him, Alarcón’s travels were far from over. Alarcón continued his mission by visiting the other established colonies. Alarcón traveled to the other missions that were already established by St. Denis before his expedition. In the cold winter months of Texas, Alarcón traveled through the harsh terrain, where he captured and seized illegal trading goods in the name of the Spanish crown. In January of 1719, after many months, Martín de Alarcón took the long path back to San Antonio and saw his colony had survived his departure and the settlers were making it through the winter season. After having served his country for over thirty years, Martín de Alarcón wrote a brief of his findings and sent it to his superiors. It was only then that at the end of that same year Martín de Alarcón was relieved from the charge and burden of being the Governor of Texas. His patriotism and service to the Spanish military were recognized two years later. His records of merits and acknowledgments were filed in 1721 and can be seen in Mexico City.10

Martín de Alarcón was a man who had his faults when it came to cooperation and creating relationships with the Native peoples of the Texas frontier. Yet, he became an impressive leader for his country and his fellow soldiers to admire and hold in esteem. Alarcón led a long life of adventure and risk in the vast reaches of the Spanish territories, all while continuing to be loyal to the Spanish crown and his fellow countrymen.11

  1. “Spanish Texas,” June 15, 2010, https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/nps01.
  2. Donald E. Chipman, “Martín de Alarcón,” Texas Historical Association, Accessed Feb. 2019. https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fal02.
  3. U. S. Coast and Geodetic, “United States Coast and Geodetic Survey, to the Secretary of Commerce,” Annual Report of the Director, 1885.
  4. “Governor Martin de Alarcon in East Texas – Texas Historical Markers,” Texas Historical Commission. Accessed January 21, 2019. http://www.waymarking.com/gallery/image.aspx?f=1&guid=67408f6a-7a95-401a-bfac-0fd2c194780c&gid=3
  5. Carol Lipscomb, “Comanche Indians,” Texas Historical Association, Accessed March 2019. https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/bmc72.
  6. Betty Gerald,  Comanche Society: Before the Reservation (College Station: Texas A & M Univ Press, 2005).
  7. Donald E. Chipman, “Martín de Alarcón,” Texas Historical Association, Accessed Feb. 2019. https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fal02.
  8. “St. Denis, Louis Juchereau de,” The Handbook of Texas Online, Texas State Historical Association (TSHA). Accessed January 21, 2019. https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fst01.
  9. John Malcolm Penn, “Landmark Adventures: Hernando de Alarcon,” Landmark Adventures, Accessed March 2019. http://landmarkadventures.blogspot.com/2011/02/hernando-de-alarcon.html.
  10. “St. Denis, Louis Jucherau de,” The Handbook of Texas Online. Texas State Historical Association (TSHA).” Accessed January 21, 2019. https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fst01.
  11. John Malcolm Penn,  “Landmark Adventures: Hernando de Alarcon,” Landmark Adventures, Accessed March 2019. http://landmarkadventures.blogspot.com/2011/02/hernando-de-alarcon.html.

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39 Responses

  1. I really enjoyed this article. I am not from San Antonio I’m actually from Ohio so this was a very interesting read. As soon as I moved to Texas the Battle of the Alamo was one of the first things that I learned about in my time in middle school. I really like that the article explained the story of Martin and how he was considered a role model in Texas. Since I do live in San Antonio now it is very interesting to learn about the role models here. I have been here for about 16 years and now I know more than ever. Very good!

  2. It is a bit surprising that someone from Spain in Spanish Mexico was apart of what makes the city of San Antonio what it is today. Originally I thought the spanish sent this priest named Saint Anthony or Santo Antonio if it was in spanish back then with some people to land somewhere and grow the population of the new world and bring the religion of the catholic church into it compared to the other religions by France and later Britain. Not only did he was a part of it, he helped the people and his motherland to survive and be successful in this new terrain to what now makes San Antonio de Bexar or Valero or what name we identify it as, the current one in 2020 and well now in the early parts of 2021.

  3. Very interesting article with a fresh topic! Not too often do we study the origins of the settlements in Texas so it was really fascinating to learn that he was not only a prominent political and military figure but he started off traveling to lands as far as the Indies and Oran. I applaud him for all his service he did as it must’ve been extremely difficult to not only travel with limited resources but to also be a guide to small groups and be their leader in organizing the settlement with nothing to work with besides the land they eventually resided on.

  4. I find it fascinating to learn more about the history and founder of San Antonio. I am amazed by how impressive Martin de Alarcon was, he was a man who simply never stopped. He didn’t settle for less or was ‘corrupted’ with all the new leadership powers he quickly gained throughout the years of serving his country. Although, he did mistreat the Natives of Texas (which is not surprising since many Spanish/Europeans wanted to get rid of them) I was astonished how trusted he was by his settlers and by his superiors especially since his settlers were putting their whole lives at risk to follow a man to settle in a new place that will be soon become one of the biggest cities in Texas. Honestly speaking, people should be taught more about the founder of San Antonio besides just learning the basic history we get from the history of the Alamo. Overall, this article was well written and really kept the audience engaged with its story.

  5. It was so fascinating to read about the beginning of San Antonio! It is really crazy to think about San Antonio with such a small population because now it is so big and only growing to be honest. I have honestly never even heard the name Martín de Alarcón. I only really hear about the Alamo when it comes to the history of San Antonio. It was also really interesting to read of the Native roots and interactions he had with them. Great read!

  6. It’s interesting to think about San Antonio starting out with only about 70 people. It has become so much larger since this story. Not having grown up here in San Antonio I know very little of the history. It’s also interesting that they settled here when it’s as hot and dry as it is here. It’s also interesting that Martín de Alarcón, who was a sailor, was the one that established San Antonio.

  7. As someone who was born and raised in San Antonio, it’s crazy that I have never heard of this man. I enjoyed learning more about the place I am from and it’s interesting to know that San Antonio has such rich history. Alarcon definitely deserves more recognition and it’s unfortunate that he’s one of the “forgotten.” This article was very interesting and it definitely brought me new information about my home.

  8. Growing up in San Antonio you are introduced to the story of the alamo at a very young age and while I did learn a lot about it , I never really knew much about the men that took part in forming the city of San Antonio. This article showed me the story of Martín de Alarcón and how he was a role in the rise of Texas. Its interesting to read about the Alarcón Expedition and to see all the land that he covered which today may only take a few hours, but that was not the case back then.

  9. As growing up into San Antonio, you just hear the famous story of the Battle of the Alamo. While I have heard some of the men in the historical upbringing of the city of San Antonio, as well as such notable names of some of San Antonio’s missions. This was a very cool article to referencing the orders of the military position of Martín de Alarcón, which built up to the assignment to Texas.

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