Before Mission Dolores
The Spanish were the first Europeans to enter Deep East Texas when the De Soto Expedition entered the area in 1542 under the command of Luis de Moscoso following Hernando de Soto’s death at the Mississippi River. Earlier interpretations of the route of this expedition maintained that this group passed through what is now San Augustine, but most recent interpretations take Moscoso’s route west of San Augustine, passing through modern day Nacogdoches. Moscoso and his group found no gold or silver, and while they left no settlers behind, they did leave Spanish horses, hogs, and diseases. The immediate impact is unknown, but it is likely that deadly Old World diseases began spreading among the native peoples of East Texas, triggering social changes as Indian groups struggled to cope with population loss.
The French first visited the Cenis (Hasinai Caddo) area of Deep East Texas during the occupation of La Salle's Fort St. Louis (1685-1689) on the Gulf coast, but like the early Spanish explorers, their trails were well to the west of San Augustine, close to the Neches River.
The Ais Indians occupied the area around San Augustine but it was the Hasinai to the west who invited the Spanish back into East Texas. La Salle’s failed attempt at establishing a fort on the Gulf coast caught the attention of the Spanish, who sent several unsuccessful expeditions to find the French fort. During one of these expeditions the Spanish encountered a group of Hasinai who proclaimed themselves tayshas or allies (a term which became Tejas and then Texas) and asked the Spanish to come settle in their homeland of East Texas. This invitation prompted the establishment of two Spanish missions in 1690, San Francisco de los Tejas—located near modern-day Weches, Texas, and Santísimo Nombre de María, located on the Neches River, five miles to the east of San Francisco. Santísimo Nombre de María was destroyed by a flood in 1692 and San Francisco de los Tejas was abandoned a year later at the insistence of the local Hasinai after misbehavior by Spanish soldiers and their cattle. Spanish soldiers were making inappropriate advances to the Hasinai women and Spanish cattle were wrecking havoc on Hasinai gardens.
In the following decades, Father Francisco Hidalgo, formerly of Mission San Francisco, was determined to return to East Texas and minister to the Tejas (Caddo) peoples. In 1711 Hidalgo wrote what turned out to be an important letter to the governor in French Louisiana, Antoine de la Mothe, Sieur de Cadillac. Father Hidalgo was disappointed that the Spanish would not fund his return to East Texas, and he offered to introduce Cadillac to Spanish traders in exchange for French support of his mission in East Texas. Two letters were sent by courier from Presidio San Juan Bautista on the Rio Grande and when one arrived in Mobile, it was after the French had been rebuffed in their attempts to establish trade relations with the Spanish at Vera Cruz—one French ship loaded with trade goods had been seized by the Spanish on its way to Vera Cruz and the ship was sent back to Louisiana without its cargo in 1710 because trade between the French and New Spain was forbidden by the Spanish Crown.
Cadillac instructed Louis Juchereau de St. Denis to try to find Father Hidalgo. St. Denis had visited the area of the Natchitoches Indians in 1700 and in 1713 he returned there, established a trading post, and proceeded across the land of the Tejas to Presidio San Juan Bautista. In effect, the French had failed to establish trade relations through the “front door” at Vera Cruz and so they tried again through the “back door” at San Juan Bautista. St. Denis and his men were arrested at Presidio San Juan Bautista by Commandant Diego Ramon and held under house arrest. It has been suggested that the families of Ramon and St. Denis had previous commercial relations, and these relations were made more personal by Louis Juchereau marrying María Manuella Sánchez de Navarro, the step granddaughter of Diego Ramon. It’s not known if St. Denis ever found Father Hidalgo, but Hidalgo’s letter and St. Denis’s travels to try to find him resulted in the Spanish development of Texas.
The Spanish-French interaction foretold the founding of Mission Dolores. Elsewhere in this website readers can learn more about the Caddo peoples, the most populous and powerful native groups in East Texas by studying the special exhibit, Tejas: Life and Times of the Caddo. More of the historic background leading to the return of Spanish missionaries and soldiers to the region can be found in the Cultural Worlds section of the TBH exhibit on Los Adaes.