Franciscan missionaries established Mission Santa Cruz de San Sabá in 1757 to Christianize the eastern Apache Indians. The site, rediscovered in the fall of 1993 and proved by archeologists in January 1994, is on the San Saba River about three miles east of the present town of Menard and four miles from the ruins of San Luis de las Amarillas Presidio, which was built to protect the mission. A mission for the Apaches had been advocated for years by the Franciscans at San Antonio to end the perpetual warfare that had plagued that settlement almost from its beginning in 1718. As early as 1725, Fray Francisco Hidalgo sought permission to go unescorted into Apachería to spread the gospel as an antidote to that tribe's hostility. The petition was denied. After Hidalgo's death the following year, fathers Benito Fernández de Santa Ana and Mariano Francisco de los Dolores y Viana took up the cause.
After several military campaigns against the Apaches, peace between the Spaniards and the Indians was celebrated at San Antonio in November 1749. Explorations for a site for the Apache mission were made into the region to the northwest in 1753 and 1754, and reports focused on the broad San Saba River valley, which was suitable for irrigated farming. As additional incentives, prospects of mineral veins in the intervening central mineral region were noted, and warning was given that, without a Spanish entry, the area might soon be overrun by the French. Against admonitions from the reigning Spanish governor, Jacinto de Barrios y Jáuregui, who warned that the eastern Apaches were interested only in the Spaniards' ability to protect them from their hostile Comanche enemies, plans for the undertaking advanced. Further support came from two events. The end of the San Xavier missions and the presidio on the San Gabriel River provided the religious ornaments and furnishings for the mission and part of the military garrison needed to protect it; and Pedro Romero de Terreros, wealthy mine owner of Pachuca, offered to underwrite the cost of up to twenty missionaries from the colleges of Santa Cruz de Querétaro and San Fernando de México for three years. Romero stipulated that his cousin, Fray Alonso Giraldo de Terreros, should head the enterprise.
Col. Diego Ortiz Parrilla, appointed commander of the San Sabá presidio, was ordered in September 1756 to take charge of and transfer the San Xavier garrison of fifty men to San Sabá and to enlist others at San Antonio and in Mexico. With 100 men, his presidio was to become the largest in Texas. The group spent the winter of 1756–57 in San Antonio, a season marred by a bitter feud between two priests over control of the new mission. After repeated delays, Ortiz at last ordered the march for the San Saba River on April 5, 1757. Most of the soldiers, the six missionaries, and others, a total of about 300, arrived at their destination on April 17. No Apaches were there to greet them. After Ortiz Parrilla had spent five days exploring the riverbanks in search of the most suitable site, he laid out his presidio on the north side of the San Saba. From available timber the friars built quarters for themselves and a temporary church downstream 1½ leagues from the presidio on the opposite bank. The priests hoped that the distance between the presidio and the mission would reduce the possibility of military harassment of the Indians, but they failed to realize that such placement would make the mission vulnerable to attack.
Although work on the first of the two projected missions had begun, the Indians still failed to appear. In mid-June, however, the Franciscans were heartened when some 3,000 Apaches, traveling north to hunt buffalo and fight the Comanches, camped near the nascent mission; but the Indians were unresponsive to the missionaries. When the Indians moved on, they left two of their number who were ill and promised to join the mission after their foray. Three of the missionaries from Querétaro, meanwhile, decided that the project was doomed to failure and withdrew. Plans to begin a second mission, for the friars of San Fernando, were shelved.
When small bands of Apaches began to return, they stayed only briefly. Rumors were heard that the northern tribes were gathering to make war on the Apaches and to destroy the new mission and presidio. A bitter winter killed the livestock. On February 25, 1758, Indians raided the pasture and ran off fifty-nine horses. Soldiers sent in pursuit found large numbers of hostile Indians throughout the surrounding countryside. Terreros turned aside Ortiz Parrilla's urging that the three missionaries and thirty-three others at the mission take refuge inside the presidio. The father president agreed to effect certain security measures, but too late. On the morning of March 16, the mission gates swung closed as 2,000 Indians-some Comanches among several Wichita bands and others, including Tejas, Bidais, and Tonkawas-surrounded the log enclosure. Many were armed with muskets, swords, or lances. The presence in the throng of groups formerly friendly to the Spaniards helped the Indians to convince some of the missionaries of their friendly intentions. While dispute over whether to allow the Indians inside the mission continued, the Indians somehow managed to remove the bars from the gate and enter the compound.
To maintain a peaceful atmosphere, the priests gave the Indians gifts of tobacco and trinkets, which led to a demand for additional gifts and horses. Unable to supply the animals and beginning to feel alarm, Terreros granted the Indians' request for a note of safe passage to the presidio, where the Indians hoped to obtain more. Meanwhile, looting and a search of the compound for Apaches began. After some time the Indians who had left for the presidio returned, saying they had been fired upon and had lost three men. Father Terreros then offered to return with the Indians to the presidio, but he and an accompanying soldier were shot dead at the mission gate. The rest of the mission company took refuge inside the buildings, leaving two dead in the patio, while the attackers set fire to the stockade. Ortiz Parrilla, with his garrison of 100 soldiers reduced to a third by various assignments, was unable to send effective relief. A patrol dispatched after dark created a diversion that enabled the mission survivors-including the two Apaches, the mission's only converts-to escape the burning structure. The Indians then moved to the vicinity of the presidio and waited for an opportunity to attack. They withdrew, however, sometime during the night of March 17–18, after the presidio had been reinforced by a supply train. After the fighting Ortiz Parrilla determined that seventeen Indians and eight Spaniards had been slain. The charred, headless body of Father José de Santiesteban Aberín was found in the chapel, where he had remained at prayer. Of the three missionaries, only Father Miguel Molina, who was severely wounded, escaped. As late as April 8 five soldiers wounded in the attack remained in grave condition and were given little chance of survival. Terreros later commissioned the San Sabá Mission painting to commemorate the attack.
In the fall of 1759 Ortiz Parrilla and a force of about 600, seeking to punish the attackers, were repulsed at the Taovaya (Wichita) village on the Red River near the site of present-day Spanish Fort. That failure, added to the destruction of the mission, emphasized the changes European influence had brought to armed conflict in the area. With French firearms and Spanish horses, the northern tribes now constituted a stronger force than the Spaniards themselves could muster. As Governor Barrios had foreseen, the Apache mission attempt marked the beginning of warfare in Texas between the Comanches and the European invaders. It signaled retreat for the Spanish frontier. Though historians have often ascribed to the Comanches the dominant role in the San Sabá Mission attack, there is strong evidence to the contrary. A key participant in the 1759 expedition, Juan Ángel de Oyarzún, seems to credit the Taovayas as the instigators; he provides a partial list of other tribes that took part "as their friends and companions": "Cumanches, Yascales, Taguacanas, Paisas, Quichais, Yanes, Caudachos, Yatase, Nochonas, Nasones, Nacaudachos, Ainai, Nabaidachos, Bidas, and many other nations." The participants thus ranged from the Comanches of the Texas high plains to members of the Natchitoches confederacy of Louisiana. A later attempt to missionize the Apaches on the upper Nueces River (El Cañón) was more enduring but hardly more successful. The San Sabá mission itself was never rebuilt. The Presidio de San Sabá, as it came to be called, managed to remain for another decade.
Discovery of the mission site, on property owned by Dionitia and Otis Lyckman, culminated a search begun in 1965 by Kathleen Gilmore and Dessamae Lorrain. The quest had been carried on since then by a variety of individuals and agencies. The find, more than a mile east of the 1936 historical monument that tentatively marked the site, ultimately resulted from genealogical research of Mark Wolf, a descendant of one of the soldiers assigned to the mission when it was destroyed. Wolf enlisted the aide of Kay Hindes, a historian, and Grant D. Hall, a Texas Tech University archeologist. Hall directed the 1993 archeological work at the site, which authenticated it with recovery of more than three hundred Spanish artifacts. These included musket balls, religious ornaments, majolica shards, and fired-clay daub, as well as nails, hinges, and other hardware. The site discovery was one of two episodes that renewed interest in the San Sabá Mission in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The other was controversy surrounding the painting, The Destruction of Mission San Sabá, which was confiscated by United States customs agents and returned to Mexico after having been offered for sale in Texas. The painting, done soon after the mission attack and evidently based on eyewitness accounts, is said to be "the earliest extant easel painting by a professional artist depicting an event in Texas history."