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December 2007 Park of the Month
Goliad State Park & Mission Espíritu Santo State Historic Site

Goliad State Park A Must See for Texas History Buffs and Nature Lovers

Mission Espiritu Santo gleams like a snow-capped mountain amid wheat-colored farmland on the outskirts of the South Texas town of Goliad in a bend of the San Antonio River. The resurrected Spanish mission, which dates to 1749, represents vital chapters in Texas history that await discovery by Goliad State Park guests.

Earl Nottingham photo © Tx. Parks & Wildlife Dept.
View a larger version of this image.
Mission buildings and grounds at Goliad
State Park sparkle with thousands of lights &
luminaries during the "History of Lights"
that lasts through the end of the year.

Reconstructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps more than 60 years ago, this Birthplace of the Texas Cattle Industry serves as the focal point of 188-acre Goliad State Park. Visitors can immerse themselves in 250-plus years of Spanish colonial and Texas history, camp on the wooded banks of the San Antonio River and enjoy the area's natural beauty by bike, kayak, canoe or on foot.

The state park glows with a special luster from Thanksgiving through the end of December during "History in Lights" when the mission's buildings, paths and grounds sparkle with thousands of holiday lights. Day visitors should plan to spend a minimum of 30 minutes to an hour touring the church, granary, workshop and grounds of the Mission Nuestra Senora del Espiritu Santo de Zuniga. The mission established by Franciscan friars to convert Native Americans to Christianity and lay claim to this part of the New World for the King of Spain. The park entry fee is $3 for persons 13 and older.

Today, the mission sports a fresh look thanks to recent renovations funded by Proposition 8 monies that financed the repairs to the chapel's leaking roof and water-damaged interior walls, upgrades to park electrical systems and resealing of the chapel's deteriorating limestone and stucco exterior. But visitors can still glimpse the mission's original stone walls in the restored granary adjacent to the church.

Originally settled in the 18th century as the settlement of La Bahia, Goliad's historic significance is often overlooked.

"This is one of the very few representations of the Spanish colonial era in Texas," explained park superintendent Leah Huth. "Many people when they think of Goliad are thinking of the Battle of Coleto Creek, where Fannin surrendered during the Texas Revolution. Our history here starts with the arrival of the Spanish in 1749."

Settled by Spanish missionaries in 1749 as La Bahia, the community's original moniker derived from La Bahia del Espiritu Santo (the Bay of the Holy Spirit) near present-day Lavaca Bay, where the Spanish originally established a fort and mission in 1722. The presidio and mission were later moved inland, ultimately ending up at their present locations. La Bahia's influence over commerce and other aspects 18th century life impacted Texas for more than half a century. It occupied a huge expanse of land stretching some 60 miles between the Guadalupe and San Antonio rivers.

Granted jurisdiction over this domain was Mission Espiritu Santo. During its heyday in the 1700s, the mission and its sister fort, Presidio La Bahia just south of the river, oversaw 40,000 head of cattle and housed hundreds of people, including indigenous Native Americans who were schooled in Spanish ways and Catholicism. Vaqueros from the mission played a role in the Revolutionary War in the 1770s by herding cattle to Louisiana to support the struggle for American independence from the British.

Rob McCorkle © Tx. Parks & Wildlife Dept.
View a larger version of this image.
Goliad State Park superintendent Leah Huth
holds a candle in the chapel baptistery at
Mission Espiritu Santo established on the
San Antonio River in 1749 .

The mission fell into disrepair in the 1830s. In subsequent years, it was used as a school and Protestant college. In 1932, the land was deeded to the state, and was painstakingly restored by the federal Works Progress Administration and the CCC before being transferred to the State Parks Board in 1949.

Vintage photos and dozens of exhibits inside the mission museum, which is housed in the former granary, help interpret the mission's early years and chronicle its restoration. Artifacts, such as cut nails, lance points, steel and lead shot, a church bell fragment, a hammered copper door ornament and hewing hatchet, attest to the success of the archeological excavations.

Just four miles away at another Goliad State Park site, archeologists are still unlocking keys to the past at Mission Rosario. Stabilized mission walls mark the location of the 1754 Spanish mission established to serve the more nomadic and fiercely independent Karankawa, who unlike Mission Espiritu Santo's more settled Aranama and Tamique Indians, resisted attempts to change their culture. Las Pastores (the Shepherd's Play), to be held Jan. 12, recreates the play the Spanish employed to teach Native Americans about good and evil.

The cooler winter and early spring months prove an ideal time to enjoy the park's natural riparian setting and amenities. Popular with park visitors are the shaded campgrounds with water, electricity and pull-through RV sites with 50-amp service. Campsites range from $8 a night (water-only tent sites) to $15 (full hook-ups), and can be rented weekly and monthly as well, which proves convenient for the increasing number of Winter Texans who visit on their way to and from the Rio Grande Valley.

The park features two separate trailer camping areas - one in the front part of the park offering full hook-up sites -- and the other in the back of the park with water and electricity offering spacious sites conductive to larger groups. A group pavilion, which in the future will be enclosed, heated and air-conditioned, can accommodate 75 people and be rented daily for $65. Fourteen riverside campsites with water only cater to tent campers. A handful of screened shelters can be rented, as well, for $16 a night.

Ready access to the tree-shaded San Antonio River for fishing, canoeing and other water sports gives Goliad State Park an appealing dual personality. The takeout point for the new Goliad Paddling Trail is located within park boundaries. Each November, participants in the Fall Flotilla end their float and eat a catered lunch at the park.

Swimming in the park's Junior Olympic-sized pool, biking, hiking, bird watching and Saturday nature and history tours provide a variety of recreational and educational opportunities during longer park visits.

While you're in the Goliad area, take time to visit the Fannin Battleground where the Texian hero and his troops fought the Mexican army before surrendering, being briefly imprisoned and facing a firing squad. The common burial site of Fannin and his troops can be visited at the Fannin Memorial Monument next to Presidio La Bahia, a restored fort operated by the Catholic Diocese and open to tours. Next door is another unit of Goliad State Park, the Zaragoza Birthplace. A statue and a tiny, reconstructed house pays tribute to Texas-born Ignacio Seguin Zaragoza, who led Mexican forces to victory against the French army at Puebla on May 5 (Cinco de Mayo), 1862.

Goliad State Park is located just south of the Goliad town square on U.S. 183/77A. It is one of 110 state parks that make up the Texas State Park system. For more information about the park visit the Goliad State Park & Mission Espíritu Santo State Historic Site web site.

Article by Rob McCorkle

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