Nuestra Señora de los Dolores de los Ais Mission was one of the six missions established in 1716–17 on the northeastern frontier of New Spain by Franciscans from Zacatecas and Querétaro. First established in January of 1717, the mission was abandoned in 1719 with the advent of hostilities between Spain and France. In 1722 the Aguayo expedition reestablished the Spanish presence in its easternmost province. This time the Spanish founded six missions and two presidios. Los Adaes Presidio, just seven leagues from the French post at Natchitoches, was designated the capital of the province of Texas. By 1730 the three western missions had been moved to San Antonio and their presidio abandoned. With cessation of hostilities between Spain and France in 1763, the Spanish government sent the Marqués de Rubí to inspect the internal presidios and Father Gaspar José de Solís to inspect the missions. As a result of these inspections the presidio and civil settlement and the missions, including Dolores de los Ais, were dismantled and their inhabitants sent to San Antonio.
When Mission Dolores was reestablished in August 1722, Father Antonio Margil de Jesús moved it one-fourth league east of the previous site; the new location was elevated and near a stream and a large tract of level land that could be used for cultivation. Recent research has located the site on a hill next to Ayish Bayou within the present city limits of San Augustine. The initial task of Aguayo's army in late August of 1722 was to build a church and a dwelling for the padres. In 1727 Father Pedro Muñoz noted that the church at the Ais mission was beautifully furnished and decorated with the required colors. Later, Father Solís stated that the wooden church is neat and clean and that "the wooden dwellings are also adequate, sheltered and decent." Typically, these structures were constructed of wooden poles or logs set vertically in the ground and walls plastered with mud. Mud pits for plaster were apparently later used as cooking pits or refuse dumps. A well and portions of what may have been an adobe block structure were also discovered. Margil, in choosing the second location, intended that the nearby water and flat land be a primary subsistence source for the mission. Father Muñoz noted that by 1727 a small forest on the lower land had been cleared to plant five or six almuds of corn, but that the creek did not offer enough water for irrigation. He also commented that the low yield, due to seasonal reverses, made farming a waste of work. Later, Solís reiterated that the creek could not be used for irrigation and that what little was sown was in the regular season. In addition to the sown crops, Solís also described a small hand-irrigated orchard with peach, fig, and native fruit trees. In terms of material goods, the mission was relatively poor. Muñoz's report mentions "an axe and hoes, a sickle...agricultural implements with a yoke of oxen and nine head of cattle." In 1767 Solís wrote that the mission had "a few horses, about fifteen to twenty mules, about ten to twelve cows, and about the same number of bulls. It has from eight to ten yoke of oxen."
Archeological research has enhanced considerably our view of everyday life at Mission Dolores. Cow and ox bones, common in the excavated trash pits, give clues on butchering techniques and preferred cuts of meat. In addition to the cow bones, deer and goat bones are also numerous. Such recovered items as gun flints and other parts, broken knife blades, and horse trappings were probably associated with the soldier guards living at the mission. Pieces of broken pottery, especially Indian-made wares, are plentiful at the mission site. It would appear that the inhabitants relied heavily on locally made utensils. Interestingly enough, French pottery fragments far outnumber those from Spanish wares. Although trade with the French post at Natchitoches was forbidden, it is obvious that the inhabitants of these frontier missions, supply lines being what they were, ignored the prohibitions. French trade was also probably the source of the English creamware and salt-glazed dinnerwares that occur at the site, although English traders may have been trespassing on Spanish territory as well.
Mission Dolores and other missions were established to convert the local Indian populations to Christianity and to entice them to live under Spanish control at the mission. The Ais Indians were also known as Aays, Aix, Aliche, and Yayecha, part of the Eyeish or Haish group related to the Caddos. During its existence, Mission Dolores was the home of a number of priests, occasional lay brothers, and a few soldiers and their families, but the Ais, except for short periods of time, refused to live at the mission. In 1727 Pedro de Rivera y Villalón noted a single padre resident at the mission. On an inspection tour in 1744 Thomas P. de Winthuisen noted that the mission had two priests and a guard of two soldiers, but no Indians in residence. In 1767 Nicolás de Lafora noted that the entire population at Dolores was composed of two priests, a lay brother, and two soldiers with their families. The failure of the padres to recruit the Indians to live at the mission was the source of a proposal, in 1754, to close the mission. In defense, Father Vallejo wrote that the Indians, when at the mission, were obedient and docile, and the men served as herdsmen, workmen, and escorts, while the women carried out various domestic duties. Apparently, the Indians could be enticed to the mission for short periods of time for alms, but left when the goods played out. Interestingly, Father Vallejo only mentions two periods (length unknown) in thirty-two years in which there was an Ais presence at the mission. Earlier, Father Ciprián had commented on the problem of the mission's failure to attract the Indians. Twenty-eight years of effort had yielded small results, Ciprián thought, because the Indians significantly outnumbered the Spanish military and therefore could not be brought under civil control. He also considered it superfluous to maintain the missions because they depended on the Indians for their livelihood. Father Ciprián also pointed out that since most of the souls saved were obtained in articulo mortis, the Ais Indians feared baptism because they associated it with the death of the baptized.
For almost fifty years the Spanish padres at Mission Dolores wandered the reaches of Ayish Bayou attempting to minister to the inhabitants, but with little success. When the order came in 1773 to abandon Los Adaes and the mission, the civil population at Los Adaes petitioned to be allowed to settle at the Ais mission, but to no avail. The mission complex was finally abandoned.
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Herbert Eugene Bolton, Texas in the Middle Eighteenth Century: Studies in Spanish Colonial History and Administration (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1915; rpt., Austin: University of Texas Press, 1970). Carlos E. Castañeda, Our Catholic Heritage in Texas (7 vols., Austin: Von Boeckmann-Jones, 1936–58; rpt., New York: Arno, 1976). James E. Corbin et al., Mission Dolores de los Ais (Papers in Anthropology 2 [Nacogdoches, Texas: Stephen F. Austin State University, 1980]). Peter P. Forrestal, trans., The Solís Diary of 1767, ed. Paul J. Foik (Preliminary Studies of the Texas Catholic Historical Society 1.6 [March 1931]). Juan Antonio de la Peña, Peña's Diary of the Aguayo Expedition, trans. Peter P. Forrestal (Preliminary Studies of the Texas Catholic Historical Society 2.7 [January 1935]).
Missions, Presidios, and Camps
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
James E. Corbin,
“Nuestra Señora de los Dolores de los Ais Mission,”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed August 10, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
Most Recent Revision Date:
August 11, 2020