October has been declared “Texas Archaeology Month” by the Texas Historical Commission to “celebrate the spirit of discovery.” Among the stated purposes of Texas Archaeology Month is to recognize the historic significance of the state’s archaeological sites. There will be many programs and events across the state that will highlight prehistory and early history of Texas. The Office of Historic Preservation and the South Texas Archaeological Association will be featuring an event that includes artifact identification and other activities at the Harris House at San José Mission on October 12.
But you do not have to go outside the neighborhood to experience archaeological history. A Spanish Colonial acequia system lies beneath King William. Acequias were aqueducts or ditches dug by the Spanish, usually with Indian labor, to move water through the early settlement and fields. There are several parts to this system that occur on both sides of the San Antonio River in the King William neighborhood. The greater acequia network was designated a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by the Society of Civil Engineers in 1968.
The map showing the various components of the acequia system (page 3) is based on the late Waynne Cox’s master map on file at the Office of Historic Preservation. Sections of Acequia Madre, which started at Madre Dam, now in Brackenridge Park, flowed down the valley east of the San Antonio River behind the Alamo and down S. Alamo Street, eventually emptying into the San Antonio River across from Blue Star. A diversion ditch, or desague, fed off of this acequia along Wickes Street to the river at Eagleland.
Another important ditch, Pajalache or the Concepción acequia, followed the path that is now S. St Mary’s Street, beginning at La Villita and extending down to Roosevelt Park where it turns toward Mission Concepción.
The San Pedro acequia, one of the most important to the infant settlement of San Antonio de Bexár, tapped San Pedro Springs and was constructed about 1734-1738 on the high ground between San Pedro Creek and the San Antonio River. It was to provide a source of fresh water to the Spanish presidio and the Villa of San Fernando de Bexár settled by the immigrant Canary Islanders, and to irrigate the fields of the villa, which were located on each side of the ditch south of the presidio.
As the villa and commercial activity grew in and around San Fernando and the main plaza, pollution of the ditch became a major problem, not the least of which was a tannery north of the presidio and the butchered and discarded human remains of two Comanches killed in the Council House massacre. The polluted acequia water was the source of severe cholera epidemics in 1849 and again in 1866. Problems with pollution and maintenance led to the abandonment of the ditch, which was officially closed in 1912, although it had ceased to function as a source of water by the mid 1880s. A segment of this ditch is exposed at the SAHA offices on S. Flores Street. Also, the Commander’s House on S. Main Avenue has preserved a segment of this acequia by using the acequia as a planter that can still be seen today.
San Antonio has the longest continuous cultural history of any city in the state. One might be surprised as to what history and prehistory lies beneath our streets, yards and houses, but that is yet another story.
- Harry Shafer, PhD