San Antonio Fun Fact #1: Why it’s called San Antonio.

Feb 16, 2020 | U.S. Cities | 0 comments

San Antonio is named after the Spanish Mission, named for the river, named for the Portuguese / Italian saint, who took his name from the chapel dedicated to an Egyptian monk.

Confused? Ok, let me explain. If you’re familiar with Saint Anthony you may think that the city of San Antonio is named for him. That’s partly true. But the city actually takes its name from the San Antonio River which was discovered by the Spanish some 30 years before the town was settled. So how’d the river get its name?

The first documented record of the river was from Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca on his explorations of Texas in 1535. The river was later named after San Antonio de Padua by the first governor of Spanish Texas, Domingo Terán de los Ríos in 1691. On June 13, 1691, Governor Terán and his company camped at a rancheria on a stream called Yanaguana. They renamed the stream “San Antonio” because it happened to be Saint Anthony’s Day.

San Antonio River from Mill Bridge

At this point of the story it would help to know a bit about Saint Anthony of Padua (the Catholic priest and friar for whom Saint Anthony Day is celebrated). He was one of the most quickly canonized saints in church history. He was noted by his contemporaries for his powerful preaching, expert knowledge of scripture, and undying love and devotion to the poor and the sick. And he is the patron saint of lost things.

St. Anthony Preaching to the Fishes (c.1630). Attributed to Francisco de Herrera the Elder [IMAGE: Detroit Institute of Arts]
St. Anthony Preaching to the Fishes (c.1630). Attributed to Francisco de Herrera the Elder [IMAGE: Detroit Institute of Arts]

But Saint Anthony of Padua was not always known as “Saint Anthony.” He was born in 1195 in Lisbon, Portugal as Fernando Martins de Bulhões. After his ordination to the priesthood, Fernando joined a small hermitage in Coimbra, Portugal where he adopted the name Anthony from the name of the chapel located there, Santo António dos Olivais. The chapel itself was dedicated to Saint Anthony the Great – of Egypt.

With that in mind, let’s get back to our town in Texas…

On May 1, 1718 a Spanish expedition from Mexico established the Mission San Antonio de Valero west of the San Antonio River near San Pedro Springs. The mission (later called the Alamo) was one of five founded in the area. On May 5 a presidio (or military garrison) known as San Antonio de Béxar was established nearby. That site, on the river’s west bank, became a stopping place on the trail through the Texas wilderness between missions on the Rio Grande and those in East Texas.

San Antonio Alamo (under six flags)

Over a decade later, in 1731 settlers from the Canary Islands laid out the town of San Fernando de Béxar near the presidio, where a civilian community had been planned when the presidio and mission were established. It’s important to note that San Fernando de Béxar was named in honor of the heir to the Spanish throne (the future Fernando VI), NOT our Fernando Martins de Bulhões (the future Saint Anthony).

Stay with me, we’re almost home…

During its early years the settlement of San Fernando de Béxar suffered from raids by Apache and Comanche tribes. The mission was secularized in 1793 and became a military post. It functioned as the provincial capital from 1773 to 1824, but in subsequent years its political authority waned. By 1837, when it became a county seat of the Republic of Texas, it was renamed San Antonio.

And THAT, in short, is how the city of San Antonio got its name.


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