Nuestra Señora de Loreto Presidio, popularly called La Bahía, dates from April 4, 1721, when Capt. Domingo Ramón occupied the site of La Salle's Texas Settlement on the right bank of Garcitas Creek five miles above its mouth in Lavaca Bay. Ramón, as part of the Aguayo expedition, was to hold this crucial site while the main thrust of the expedition, led by the Marqués de San Miguel de Aguayo, proceeded into East Texas. Aguayo’s purpose was to drive out any French and reestablish the missions abandoned in 1719 ahead of the French invasion—actually a feeble French thrust known as the Chicken War, the Texas manifestation of the War of the Quadruple Alliance.
A year after Ramón’s occupation, April 6, 1722, the Marqués de Aguayo laid out the plan for construction of fortifications at the La Salle settlement site, in southern Victoria County. The new presidio was to guard the coast against possible French intrusion: a prescient move in view of the fact that French maritime expeditions had probed the coast in 1720 and 1721, seeking “La Salle’s bay” with expectations of building fortifications.
The location of the early Spanish outpost and the La Salle settlement was identified by historian Herbert E. Bolton in 1915 as being on the Keeran Ranch in southern Victoria County. It remained for the 1996 discovery of La Salle’s eight cannons, buried there by Spanish General Alonso De León in 1689, to silence the plethora of divergent theories. Subsequent archeology conducted by the Texas Historical Commission revealed the juxtaposition of the two historic settlements, the Spanish presidio overlapping the French post. The THC project, carried out from 1996 to 2002, recovered 157,726 artifacts from the site. With approximately 10 percent of French provenance, the remainder are of Spanish and Indian origin.
The Marqués de Aguayo, arriving at the site in late March 1722, began drawing the lines for the presidio after the passage of Holy Week. He drew the palisade in the shape of a 16-point star. That the construction actually followed this design was confirmed by THC archeologists with one exception: where Aguayo’s drawing showed three rings of jacales (huts for housing the soldiers) within the palisade, only one was found. Mindful of the account of expedition diarist Juan Antonio de la Peña that “nails, pieces of gun locks, and fragments of other things used by the French were found” in digging the foundation, the archeologists probed magnetic anomalies outside the main presidio area. The effort paid off in the discovery of structural remains that correlated with descriptions by Henri Joutel of the La Salle expedition and those of Alonso De León. Excavations, by and large, established conclusively the location of both La Salle’s settlement and the later Spanish presidio.
With construction begun, Aguayo placed Captain Ramón in charge of the fort and its ninety soldiers and turned his attention to the founding of Nuestra Señora del Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga Mission, which Peña says was “close to the presidio.” The site of this effort to Christianize the Karankawan tribes, however, has not been definitely identified.
Scarcely two years into Ramón’s administration of the presidio, he proved so inept in dealing with the mission subjects that it cost him his life. When the entire Indian population became aroused over what should have been a minor incident in the house of a soldier, the captain ordered all the Indians, including women and children, imprisoned in a small hut. Official reports of the episode claim he planned to remove them a few at a time to be hanged. Some of the Indians tried to escape, and, in the melee that followed, Ramón was stabbed in the breast. He died of the wound eight days later.
Domingo’s son Diego then was placed in command, but an official investigation resulted in formal charges of negligence against him. He was summarily removed and replaced by Juan Antonio de Bustillo y Ceballos. Faced with continuing troubles with the Karankawas, authorities moved the mission and presidio in 1726 to the Guadalupe River, near Mission Valley (in present-day Victoria County), twenty-odd miles farther inland. For the next twenty-six years, the mission and presidio prospered with farming and cattle ranching that furnished food for themselves and the mission settlements in East Texas and at San Antonio. Herds were established that were to become the foundation of the Texas cattle industry.
When Bustillo y Ceballos became governor of Texas in 1730, he was succeeded by Gabriel Costales, who had been involved in La Bahía’s founding in 1721. Costales’s effort to work a salt mine fifty leagues down the coast was frustrated by the lack of manpower. Now situated a considerable distance from the Gulf, Presidio La Bahía accomplished little in the next fifteen years to fulfill its original purpose of guarding the coast.
In 1749 the presidio and mission were again moved, this time to a place called Santa Dorotea, the site of present-day Goliad, as part of colonizer José de Escandón’s plan to make them the northern anchor of the colony of Nuevo Santander. The San Antonio River was to be the colony’s northern boundary. The captain of Presidio la Bahía, Joaquín del Orobio Basterra, oversaw the move, but the plan to bring the presidio under the Nuevo Santander jurisdiction failed for a number of reasons. The Nueces River, rather than the San Antonio, became the colony’s northern boundary.
Capt. Manuel Ramírez de la Piscina, the new commander, undertook the physical improvement, including temporary housing for the soldiers and their families, the captain’s own house (built of stone at his own expense), and a chapel. He also directed the building of permanent structures for Mission Espíritu Santo and Nuestra Señora del Rosario Mission. The garrison of fifty men—spread dangerously thin when Comanche and Lipan Apache Indians began raiding in the area—guarded not only the presidio but also the two missions and the horse herd pastured several leagues downriver and were sent occasionally to escort travelers and supply trains between San Antonio and San Juan Bautista.
In response to recommendations of the Marqués de Rubí following his inspection of the late 1760s, another fortification, San Agustín de Ahumada Presidion, was closed in 1771, leaving Presidio La Bahía alone to guard the Gulf Coast. Within a year, English traders were moving in among the Akokisa Indians in the very area the Spaniards had abandoned. Capt. Luis Cazorla of La Bahía responded with an expedition to the San Jacinto, Trinity, and Brazos rivers to counter the intrusion. A few years later, Cazorla’s investigation of a shipwreck on one of the coastal islands found the vessel plundered, its crew massacred by Karankawas. Cazorla’s recommendations for a coastal patrol was denied. English traders continued to operate on the coast with impunity—except when their ships were cast upon the beach to be victimized by the Indians. The captain’s influence over a Karankawa chief, however, prevailed to save a French crew that was storm driven upon the Texas coast.
As Mexico’s political unrest intensified, ultimately leading to revolution, La Bahía was caught in the backwash with episodes such as the Gutiérrez-Magee expedition of 1812-13, the Henry Perry campaign of 1817, and the James Long expedition of 1821. After Mexico won independence from Spain, the presidio assumed a new role: protecting and supervising the various colonies coming into the region.
During the Texas Revolution a Texas force under George M. Collinsworth captured the fort, which was then commanded by Philip Dimmitt. It served as the base of operations for the Lipantitlan expedition. The Goliad Declaration of Independence was signed there. During the disastrous Goliad Campaign of 1836 Col. James W. Fannin, Jr., rebuilt the fort, calling it Fort Defiance. After the Fort was captured by Mexican general José de Urrea it was the site of the notorious Goliad Massacre, on March 27, 1836.
During the Republic of Texas period, La Bahía suffered the invasions of Rafael Vásquez and Adrián Woll in 1842. In early statehood United States soldiers discharged after the Mexican War of 1846–48 damaged the place. Most of the presidio was now in ruins, but from 1846 to about 1854 Judge Pryor Lea, a notable public official and railroad promoter, used the chapel, still intact, as a residence and the old parade ground as an experimental garden. About 1853 the Catholic Church reestablished its ownership of La Bahía Presidio and its chapel and again began conducting services there.
The presidio chapel, virtually intact since 1749, was restored as a New Deal public-works project about 1935, and in 1936 the structure was recorded in the Historic American Buildings Survey. At the urging of Bishop Mariano Simon Garriga and with permission of the Catholic bishop of Corpus Christi, Nuestra Señora de Loreto Presidio was completely reconstructed of stuccoed limestone between 1963 and 1967, with funds from the Kathryn Stoner O'Connor foundation and under the direction of architect-restorer Raiford Stripling and archeologist Roland E. Beard. Stripling and Beard had also directed the restoration of Mission Espíritu Santo. The fort was rebuilt in accord with an old picture by a New York lithographer and with use of the notes and map drawn by Joseph M. Chadwick, Fannin's topographical engineer and supervisor of fortifications. The excavations revealed nine layers of previous occupation and thousands of artifacts, such as sherds and guns, now on display in the museum located in the restored officers' quarters. The restoration is praised as one of the most authentic in the United States and as the finest example of a presidio.
The site was signed over to Bishop Thomas Drury on August 25, 1966. On April 9, 1968, Claudia A. (Lady Bird) Johnson, in her role as first lady, dedicated the national historic landmark plaque now located at the presidio entrance. A state historic landmark medallion was affixed in 1969. La Bahía is now owned and operated by the Catholic Diocese of Victoria and is closely associated with Goliad State Park and Historic Site. Annual Cinco de Mayo celebrations are held at the site in honor of Ignacio Seguín Zaragoza. In 1985–86, as part of the Texas Sesquicentennial celebration, the Crossroads of Texas Living History Association reenacted scenes of life during the Collinsworth, Dimmitt, and Fannin occupation. Prior to the archeological investigations that began in the mid-1990s, the approximate location of Nuestra Señora de Loreto Presidio on Garcitas Creek was examined by Herbert E. Bolton in 1914 (later published in 1915) and was archeologically investigated by the Texas Memorial Museum in 1951 and by Kathleen Gilmore in 1973. Numerous French and Spanish artifacts were unearthed and are now at the museum.