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Simulating Mission Dolores Today


Model of Mission Dolores complex showing interior buildings with shingled roofs and finished exteriors, and an exterior jacal in the palisado style. Mission Dolores Museum.

The desire for a replication of Mission Dolores is still the driving force behind activity at the mission interpretive complex today. Built in 1998, the complex includes a state-of-the-art museum and archaeology lab. Although the building of a replica of the mission was included in the master plan for the interpretive complex, the replica could not be constructed. Recall that for over forty years the mission location could not be verified. Once Corbin finally succeeded, he found that not enough of the mission survived to allow an accurate reconstruction or even replication of the mission complex. Too much remains unknowable.

A renewed effort to build a replica of Mission Dolores was begun in 2007 by the San Augustine County Historical Society. The overall effort was coordinated by James Bruseth, who directs the Archeology Division of the Texas Historical Commission. The shovel testing survey project conducted by George Avery in 2008 was a direct result. Yet this work confirmed yet again that there was not enough surviving evidence to allow an accurate replica to be built. 

The ongoing project is focusing on the interpretative value of having a life-size, three-dimensional rendering of the mission complex. Basically, people need to have something tangible to see and interact with when they visit the mission. While we can not accurately reconstruct or replicate Mission Dolores, there is a feasible alternative. it is feasible to build a mission complex in another nearby location By combining the available information from excavations and historical research at Mission Dolores and Los Adaes with other sources, we can build an authentic three-dimensional rendering or "simulation" of the mission complex. A model for this simulation currently resides in the museum. Architect Mark Wolf is using his expertise in the research of Spanish Colonial vernacular architecture to spearhead the design phase of the Mission Dolores replica project.

Other current research associated with Mission Dolores includes the work of Jeff Williams and Connie Hodges in locating and mapping segments of the Camino Real in the area. Both are students of Jim Corbin—or “Corbinites.” Another Corbinite, Carolyn Spears, Director of the Stone Fort Museum at SFA, has organized several workshops for teachers and heritage managers that have included a tour of Mission Dolores. Now that El Camino Real de los Tejas is an operational National Historic Trail, there may be funds available from the National Park Service for research projects along the trail. For instance, Connie Hodges of the SFA Center for Regional Heritage Research has conducted oral history interviews recently focusing on life and travel along the Camino Real de los Tejas from the Sabine River to the Angelina River as part of the National Park Service grant that funded this online exhibit.

Simulation Project

Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia and New Salem Village in Illinois, among others, are examples of reconstruction as the goal for the development of public interpretive programs at archaeological sites. That is, do the archaeology and then reconstruct the buildings—post for post—just the way they were recorded by the archaeological investigations. Reconstruction as part of developing archaeological sites for public interpretation is now frowned upon as being too destructive of the remaining archaeological traces. ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) is very much against the reconstruction of archaeological sites on both a national and international level. But back in the 1970s, reconstruction was the goal for archaeological investigations at Mission Dolores that were sponsored by the San Augustine County Historical Society.. When the archaeological investigations revealed that much of the mission complex had been destroyed, the sad reality that the mission could not be faithfully reconstructed set in. This dawning realization was cause for much concern in the 1970s and 1980s.

Happily, in 2008, a graduate student in the Historic Preservation program at the University of Texas—Erin Tyson—proposed a viable alternative idea—a “simulation.” That is, use the available archaeological and archival information for Mission Dolores, combined with relevant archaeological, archival, and ethnographic information from other Spanish Colonial period sites in Texas, and come up with a reasonable model of what the Mission Dolores complex might have looked like. The key would be to present the model to the public not as a reconstruction or replication, but rather as a simulation. The goal is to combine multiple lines of historical and archaeological evidence to be as authentic as possible.

Authenticity, however, sometimes goes against prevailing notions of what structures in the past looked like. The initial interpretation of the Spanish Colonial period domestic structures in the region was clouded by the idea that many domestic structures built by Europeans long ago were log cabins or log houses. While domestic structures built by Anglo-Americans in the 1800s in Texas were indeed log cabins and log houses, this construction style was not practiced by either the Spanish or the French during the 18th century in this area. Nevertheless, a 1930s replication of Mission Tejas (west of Nacogdoches) was built in the log cabin style, and a Spanish map of Los Adaes (near Natchitoches) was altered to render the dwellings log cabin style. In contrast, a 1971 sketch of Mission Dolores by San Augustine architect Raiford Stripling correctly depicts the structures with vertical rather than horizontal lines. Such structures are referred to as jacales, thatched-roof huts with walls made of upright poles usually covered with mud (daub).


Mission replica at Mission Tejas State Park, built in the 1934 by Civilian Conservation Corps to commemorate Mission San Francisco de los Tejas. Although the log cabin style is probably not authentic, the solid structure nevertheless represents the spirit of the Spanish missionaries who were among the first European settlers in the area. Photograph by George Avery. photograph
Joseph de Urrutia’s original sectional drawing (top) of the Spanish buildings at Presidio Los Adaes and a 20th-century redrawn version in which several of the buildings are depicted as log cabins.
Enlarge to see full versioin. photograph
Drawing of Mission Dolores de los Ais by architect Raiford Stripling in 1971. Stripling was born and raised in San Augustine, Texas, and was well aware that the structures at Mission Dolores were not log cabin style buildings. photograph
Detail of a famous 18th century painting of the 1758 attack on Mission San Sabá. The mission is depicted as mostly jacal type structures within a palisade wall. The structures are clearly not log cabin style structures. See Mission San Saba to learn more.  photograph
Jim Corbin sketch reconstructing elements of Mission Dolores identified as a result of excavations in 1976, 1977, and 1978. Frontispiece of Corbin et al. 1980. photograph
1907 postcard from Corpus Christi depicting two jacales with different construction techniques. In this case the residence (on left) has small branch palisado walls covered with daub (eroding) with a door in the end wall. The storage structure (on right) has infill walls of horizontal branches. The residence has a grass thatch roof; the storage structure has a tarpaulin overlay (note that early jacales also used animal hides for roofing material). photograph
1918 postcard depicts a “Mexican jacal” in San Antonio. While it shows the typical jacal framing members and grass thatch roofing, the structure is actually a ramada since there are no walls. photograph
1907 postcard image of a “Mexican jacal”  showing multiple construction episodes. The original residence is a gabled palisade structure. The kitchen structure to the left is a shed roofed palisado structure, complete with an exterior, mortared fireplace and chimney. It should be noted that the chimney is probably an Anglo-American influence. The third structure is a relatively late addition built of saw cut lumber planks. photograph


The jacal has a simple design but one of extraordinary flexibility, which allowed for an adaptation of construction techniques in response to the variety of conditions faced by the Spanish and French across the great width and breadth of Texas. Jacal is the Spanish adaptation of the Nahuatl word xahcalli, which described the domestic dwellings of the native people of Central Mexico. Jacales were introduced to East Texas by the Spanish and would have been built at Mission Dolores during its 1721-1773 occupation.

The best feature of the jacal was that it could be built with limited construction knowledge using a variety of materials and with very few tools. It could also be built quickly but could last for a very long time if built properly and periodically maintained. Using natural building materials readily at hand, the jacal could also be built inexpensively.  Plus, the jacal could be modified or added to with little effect or damage to the original structure.  No wonder it was such a popular building style!

The basic shape for the jacal was a single room of rectilinear layout.  Postcard image from the early 20th century give good visual examples of the basic jacal framing.  In most cases, the room was covered with a gable roof frame.  Thus structurally, the center of the narrower end walls would have the tallest pole columns – usually with a ‘Y’ of a branch at its top – placed in the center of the wall line.  A long ridge pole would be placed in the notch of this branch ‘Y’, forming the peak of the roof. Posts of lesser heights would then be placed at each corner of the room, with additional beam poles placed at the top of the posts to form the low side of the roofline.  

Posts were also placed at each side of any door or window opening for stability.  In most cases, the posts were placed into shallow holes especially dug for each post. In the case of palisado wall construction, a trench was dug along the length of the wall to support the ends of the vertical posts placed next to each other to create a complete wall.

Archeologists look for signs of both of these conditions during excavations, revealed as post molds or wall trenches marked by soil patterns with a different and usually darker color or matrix.  In some cases, these trenches or post molds can also include cultural material (daub, charcoal, pottery sherds) which can date or clarify occupation phases related to the structure. 

The space between vertical posts was filled with small rocks and mud or lime chinking.  Smaller, thinner branches would sometimes be placed vertically between the framing pieces. These branches would also be placed horizontally. Such methods created very substantial walls which would be finished with another coat of daub, sometimes with a final a plaster coat on the more refined jacales. Aligned rocks possibly used as chinking or fill material in an exterior wall have been observed in archaeological excavations at Mission Dolores. Sometimes these infilled walls would simply be finished out with palm fronds or with grasses similar to the roof construction. And sometimes the rooms were simply open air and had no walls.

As is known from comparable 18th century Spanish missions, it is likely that the church at Mission Dolores may have been a more substantial structure than the simple jacales that would have been residences for the priests, the two soldiers, and their families. The church at Mission San Sabá appears to have been the most substantial building in the complex, surrounded by what appear to be jacal type structures. The structures depicted on the Los Adaes map which are located inside the presidio appear to have dressed lumber frames and a smooth external appearance, while the houses surrounding the presidio are described in 1768 as by Pierre Marie François de Pagès, a French visitor, as “. . . around forty miserable houses, constructed with stakes driven into the ground.” Pagès stayed in one of these houses and describes is as follows, “I went to sleep in the corner of his house, which by the bye, scarcely deserved that name, for the roof was only supported by a sort of paling, the greatest part of which had fallen to the ground from negligence and length of time.”

The houses at Los Adaes described by Pagès were undoubtedly jacales, and this type of structure would also have been present at Mission Dolores. Given the fact that Pagès described the houses at Los Adaes as consisting of vertical posts stuck in the ground, it is likely that these jacales were the palisado variety. At least one small structure identified during the archaeological investigations at Mission Dolores on the basis of post holes and wall trenches appears to be a palisado. The large pits filled with refuse excavated at Mission Dolores originally may well have been pits resulting from digging clay for making adobe blocks and for covering the jacal structures.

The same Spanish expedition that built the church and priest’s residence at Mission Dolores in 1721 also built the same structures at Los Adaes, so it is likely that the building style is similar, if not identical. Unfortunately, we have no surviving documents with precise descriptions of the mission church at Mission Dolores. All that can be concluded with confidence is that the structure was made of wood and not stone. Urrutia's drawing of the Los Adaes mission complex shows a church and priest’s residence forming part of the compound wall, which appears to be a type of wooden fence. The simulation model for Mission Dolores also uses the walls of one of the structures as part of the compound walls based on Corbin’s discovery of the traces of a wall trench and adobe block building. The roofs of the buildings at Los Adaes are described as wood shingle roofs. Pagès also passed through Mission Dolores, but he makes no mention of what he saw, possibly because there wasn’t anything much different than what he had seen at Los Adaes. 

Mission Dolores Simulation Design

Wolf has designed a wonderful plan for a simulation at the Mission Dolores Museum and Visitors Center. This simulation includes a mission complex, agricultural fields, and an Ais village. The first thing that entering visitors will see is the Ais village, followed by the agricultural field and then mission complex. Wolf has proposed that the major architectural elements—the poles of the buildings—be constructed of lightweight cast concrete and that the roofs and infilling be authentic material. The art of casting lightweight concrete to simulate wooden frameworks has been perfected by Carlos Cortes, a descendent of an artist who made concrete castings of wooden objects in the 1920s that are still on display today in San Antonio at the Palace of the Governors and at one of the missions.  The overall simulation will provide a visual rendering showing of the relationship of the Spanish, the Ais, and the land.


Jacal type structure showing palisade style construction with rock chinking and mud infilling overlain by horizontal lathing and finally plastered on the exterior. As the walls have deteriorated, the rock chinking is deposited along the wall lines. SFA Archaeological Laboratory. photograph
Excavation exposure at Mission Dolores of a linear stain pattern running through the center of the photo (bottom to top) of slightly darker color with occasional postmolds and rocks. This feature (Feature 25)  is interpreted as the likely perimeter wall of the mission compound. SFA Archaeological Laboratory. photograph
Early 20th century photo of a substantial jacal residence in Matamoros, Mexico with vertical grilles covering window openings. The typical structure has smaller branch infill palisado walls covered with daub (note the replastering of the wall at one window). Horizontal strips provide additional wall stability. Also note the extended roof framing members and the overhang of the gable thatch roof. The door is located in the end wall. photograph
Early 20th century colorized postcard showing a domestic compound near Harlingen, Texas. Clearly visible are two jacales with three abutting ramadas, or open-wall shade awnings. Both jacales have horizontal branch infill walls, doors in the end walls, and grass thatch roofing. photograph
Early 20th century postcard photo taken in Tamaulipas, Mexico of a typical jacal with apparent palm frond roofing and wall finish. Note that the door is centered in the long wall. photograph
Preliminary plan of the proposed simulation of Mission Dolores de los Ais by San Antonio architect Mark Wolf. The simulation depicts an Ais village, agricultural fields, and mission complex, all along the Ayish Bayou. photograph