The Spanish captain responsible for protecting the San Saba mission sensed grave danger on March 10, 1758.
The Apaches viewed the 17th-century arrival of the Spaniards with alarm and apprehension. The Europeans’ preoccupation with their eternal enemies — the Comanches, Tejas, Tonkawas and other East Texas tribes — was interpreted as an act of aggression.
Sixty years of constant conflict eventually convinced the Spaniards to turn their attention to the troublesome thorn in their western side. A treaty was signed with the Apaches in 1749 and plans were made to tend to the spiritual needs of the long-neglected nomads.
Saying exactly what the gullible white men wanted to hear, the Apaches really laid it on thick in a conference with Father Alonso Girabldo de Terreros in September 1756. Much to the padre’s delight, they expressed a fervent desire to become practicing Christians and loyal subjects of the Spanish king. To expedite their conversion, the Apaches stressed the importance of a mission in their midst.
Although the governor of Texas opposed the project, the church cleverly exploited the viceroy’s fear of the fierce warriors coming under French influence. The last obstacle was removed when Father Terreros informed the tight-fisted bureaucrat that a wealthy cousin would pick up the entire tab for the first three years.
In April 1757, a caravan of clergy and soldiers reached the site of the mission and presidio near the present town of Menard. To clearly distinguish the heavenly from the military in the minds of the skittish savages, the two structures were built several miles apart on opposite sides of the San Saba River.
Father Terreros supervised the speedy construction of the religious outpost only to be kept waiting by the Apaches. Three thousand finally dropped by that summer on their annual buffalo hunt but left as soon as the charitable clergymen ran out of free food and clothing.
From time to time, roving bands of antsy Apaches stopped at the mission just long enough to replenish supplies. Worried that a huge war party of eastern adversaries was headed their way, they promised to return when the danger passed.
The understandably skeptical priests dismissed this ominous talk as another lame excuse. However, by March 1758, the evidence of a hostile presence in the San Saba region was irrefutable.
Positive an attack was imminent, the garrison commander pleaded with Father Terreros on March 15, 1758, to abandon the mission for the safety of the presidio. Equally certain no Indian would harm the agents of God, he ignored the potentially life-saving advice.
At dawn the next day, 2,000 well-armed braves descended upon the mission. The corporal of the five-man guard peeked through the cracks in the flimsy stockade and recognized many familiar faces from his tour of East Texas. Jumping to the fatal conclusion that the visitors had come in peace, he threw open the gates.
But Father Terreros was not so sure. The grim demeanor of the Comanche chief in charge caused him to doubt this was a courtesy call. Why, for example, was everyone wearing war paint?
Anxious to get the guests off the mission grounds, he offered to accompany the chief to the presidio. The Comanche nodded in agreement, and the priest quickly called for his horse.
Followed by a single soldier, Father Terreros rode through the gate into the sullen swarm. A silent volley of arrows pierced their chests killing both men in the saddle.
The howling horde rushed the remaining missionaries and military escort. Too busy mutilating the bodies of their victims to bother with four Spaniards barricaded inside the sanctuary, the Indians set fire to the thick walls and went about their bloody business.
The garrison captain ordered a rescue party across the river the instant flames began to dance above the treetops. When several hours passed without word from the nine soldiers, he knew he had sent them to their doom.
The commander waited until late that evening before dispatching a second detachment. In the darkness, the Indians mistook the 14 Spaniards for a far larger force and fled into the night. Expecting to find no one left alive, the soldiers could not believe their eyes as four survivors crawled out of the red-hot ruins of the sanctuary.
For years the motive for the San Saba massacre remained a mystery. After finally restoring relations with the Comanches that carried out the raid, the Spaniards learned the chilling truth. The slaughter was their old friends’ way of telling them not to get too cozy with the Apaches.