San Fernando de Béxar (now San Antonio) was founded in 1731 between the San Antonio River and San Pedro Creek, to the east of the presidio established at the same location in 1718. It was the first chartered civil settlement in Texas and was named in honor of the heir to the Spanish throne, the future Fernando VI. From 1773 until 1824, when Texas was joined to Coahuila, San Fernando served as the provincial capital. In 1718 Governor Martín de Alarcón established a settlement he called Villa de Béxar near the headwaters of San Pedro Creek, but civilian settlement did not materialize. Royal authorities, hoping to reduce the expense of a purely military settlement, decided on a plan to transfer 400 families of Canary Islanders to Texas, some of whom would be located near San Antonio de Béxar Presidio. The immigrants had rights as first settlers to form a town government, to receive generous land grants, and to carry the noble title of hidalgo. Logistical problems, Indian hostilities, and the unfamiliarity of the Canary Islanders with frontier conditions caused Capt. Juan Antonio Pérez de Almazán to locate the new settlers adjacent to the presidio.
Throughout the Spanish period San Fernando suffered from retarded development. Apache, Comanche, and other nonsedentary Indians raided cattle and horse herds, attacked farmers in the field, and often made communications with the interior of New Spain hazardous. The proximity of the new town to the military settlement and to five Franciscan missions led to considerable friction over land, water, and livestock among the Hispanic inhabitants of the area over the next few decades. Population growth was slow; approximately 500 settlers lived in the town and presidio in 1750, and triple that number at the end of the eighteenth century. The population grew somewhat more rapidly after 1803, but rebellion and filibustering during the second decade of the nineteenth century caused a drastic decline. In 1820 the population of the town and neighboring missions was approximately 2,000. Economic activity was correspondingly limited. Agriculture was largely for subsistence and confined to irrigated farms, one on the south side of San Fernando (established in 1731), another north of town (1777), and those of the missions as these were secularized. The farms were subdivided into individual, privately owned plots. Ranching was the most profitable activity and the source of greatest friction between townspeople and the neighboring missions. San Fernando's more prominent residents acquired large landholdings along the Medina and San Antonio river valleys in the direction of Goliad, including mission lands vacated between the 1750s and 1820s. San Fernando was also the scene of an active contraband trade between Louisiana and the interior of Mexico.
From 1811 to the mid-1830s San Fernando was the scene of political and military upheavals that further obstructed growth. In January 1811 a retired militia officer, with the assistance of some civilians, managed to gain the allegiance of the local garrison and overthrew royal officials. By March the town's leading citizens had organized a counterrevolt, for which they earned for the town the status of ciudad (city). The Gutiérrez-Magee expedition captured the city in April 1813, however, and held it until August, when an army under Joaquín de Arredondo defeated the filibusters at the battle of Medina. Indian depredations, inspired by the chaotic conditions in the province, unrealistic demands on the local population by the military, and the loss of a substantial number of residents who had sided with the insurrectionists, contributed to a collapse of the town's economy. During the 1820s and 1830s San Fernando suffered further as it became both politically and economically marginal to the region. The Constitution of 1824, which joined Coahuila and Texas in a single state, led to the transfer of political authority to Saltillo. San Fernando served only as the seat of the jefe politico, as the governor's lieutenant in the department of Texas was called. In 1831 and 1834, when the departments of the Brazos and Texas were established, San Fernando's jurisdiction was further reduced. When hostilities between Texas and the Mexican national government erupted in the autumn of 1835, San Fernando became a base of operations and scene of battles. Too exposed to Indian and Mexican attack and removed from the bulk of the new republic's population, San Fernando, renamed San Antonio, was again reduced in status to the seat of Bexar County in 1837. See also FRANCISCANS, RANCHING IN SPANISH TEXAS, SPANISH MISSIONS, and SPANISH TEXAS.