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  • History Friday – Plaza Mayor

    Posted by Sgt. Mom on April 25th, 2014 (All posts by )

    San Fernando Cathedral and the Plaza Today

    That is what they were called in towns and cities in Spain – the main plaza or town square, which served as the center of civic life, around which were ranged the important civic buildings, the biggest church; this the regular market place, the assembly area for every kind of public spectacle imaginable over the centuries. Every plaza mayor in every Spanish town is alike and yet different; different in size and shape, and in the confirmation of the buildings around it. Some are bare and paved in cobbles, and some have trees and gardens in them now.

    This custom carried over into the New World, and San Antonio is no exception. The town as originally laid out early in the 18th century was more or less in the shape of a cross, outlined by four intersecting streets, incorporating a large square with the church (later cathedral) of San Fernando in the center of it. This essentially split the plaza into equal halves – Main and Military plazas. The oldest streets in town – Soledad and Lasoya, Navarro, Dolorosa and the road which led out past the mission across the river, the Alameda – now East Commerce – are the heart of historic San Antonio. Well, that and the old mission, out at the then-edge of town and over a loop of the San Antonio River. The house belonging to the commander of the Spanish presidio’s garrison – which may have been the largest of the early dwellings – occupied part of the western boundary of Military Plaza. Late in the 19th century, San Antonio’s city hall would take up much of the center, where once soldiers had drilled, and General Lopez de Santa Anna’s soldiers had bivouacked. The Bexar county courthouse would take up another side of Main Plaza – but not until the Plaza had been the center of life for San Antonio de Bexar for more than a century.

    It is a curiously restful place, these days, considering that invading and resident armies fought over San Antonio and around the Plaza several times. A momentous peace treaty between the residents of Spanish Texas and the eastern Apache was marked by a formal (and one assumes eventually rather raucous) ceremony in the Plaza involving the ritual burial of weapons of war … including a live horse, while the Apaches and the Bexarenos danced in celebratory circles. The catastrophic failure of 1842 peace negotiations with the Comanche at the Council House – a civic building on the Plaza set aside for that sort of thing – led to a running bloody fight in the streets and gardens of San Antonio and more than three decades of bitter warfare with the Comanche. The first stagecoach to arrive from the east stopped in the Plaza – the first commercial hotel was there. At the very beginning of the Civil War, according to some stories, a senior U.S. Army officer commanding the Department of Texas was unceremoniously hustled from his residence on the Plaza by Confederate sympathizers, taken to the edge of town and told in no uncertain terms to leave at once. As the story has it, the officer had voiced it as his opinion that assisting in a Texas withdrawal from the Union would betray the principles of the Founding Fathers. In a private letter, the officer had condemned the so-called Cotton States for a selfish and dictatorial bearing, and for wanting to re-establish the commerce in slaves from Africa. Kidnapped or not, Colonel Robert E. Lee went to spend some quiet quality time at the cavalry post at Fort Mason, before returning back East and withdrawing his services from the U.S. Army upon the secession of his home state of Virginia from the Union.

    Everything happening in San Antonio until the arrival of the railway tended to happen in the Plaza Mayor; a lively and eccentric community split into three different ethnicities by the mid-19th century, as Frederick Law Olmsted realized during his visit to Texas in the mid-1850s.
    One of the local peculiarities which Olmsted and other visitors noted were the numbers of open-air restaurants – moveable feasts in various public squares, beginning with the most august of them – the ancient Military Plaza – local cooks, most but not all Hispanic – set up tables and benches, and cook-kettles full of chili simmering over mesquite-wood fires. Local musicians played – often hired by the proprietresses to entice patrons … as if the taste of peppery meat and bean stew for hungry patrons wasn’t enough. The picturesque spectacle of the ‘Chili Queens’ tables – as they would come to be known – enchanted locals and travelers well into the 20th century. Imagine – good, simple – and tasty food – all eaten in the open air. The after-sundown breeze rustles the leaves of the trees fringing the swift-flowing San Antonio River, oil and kerosene lanterns flicker, the musicians play, while stars sparkle in the sky overhead and the evening business of certain establishments spill out into the relative cool of a South Texas evening …yes – that would be a draw, especially to people accustomed to cooler and less highly-spiced localities. The popularity of things like canned chili and specialty chili seasonings came about when an enterprising cook and owner of a saloon and beer garden in New Braunfels – Willie Gebhardt – developed a process for making and packaging a dried seasoning powder – chili powder. Up until then, the chili had been a local and seasonal specialty, but Gebhardt’s process, which preserved the flavor of the chili peppers, and which he sold himself from the back of a wagon, grew into a million-dollar business and inadvertently popularized Mexican food … including chili … when his company published a small cookbook instructing cooks who were unfamiliar with Tex-Mex cuisine in how to use his product.

    From civic architecture – to chili powder; how eccentric is that?

     

    5 Responses to “History Friday – Plaza Mayor”

    1. Gringo Says:

      Everything happening in San Antonio until the arrival of the railway tended to happen in the Plaza Mayor; a lively and eccentric community split into three different ethnicities by the mid-19th century, as Frederick Law Olmsted realized during his visit to Texas in the mid-1850s.

      For those who are not inextricably wedded to the Amazon MOBI universe of e-books, there are non-paying options for reading Frederick Law Olmstead’s books on traveling south of the Mason Dixon line. These are available in EPUB or PDF formats. While Project Gutenberg has books available in either MOBI or EPUB formats, it doesn’t cover Olmsted’s books. Google Books and Web Archive do.

      These books alone would have earned Olmsted a place in history, but he is best known for his work as a landscape architect- such as Central Park.
      Following are links to some of his travelogues.

      A Journey Through Texas, Or, A Saddle-trip on the Southwestern Frontier

      Journeys and Explorations in the Cotton Kingdom. Vol 1

      Journeys and Explorations in the Cotton Kingdom. Vol 2

      <b?A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States in the Years 1853-1854 Also available, but I don’t want to overload the spam filter with too many links

      A Journey in the Back Country in the Winter of 1853-4

    2. Gringo Says:

      Link correction on The picturesque spectacle of the ‘Chili Queens’ tables.

      While it is undoubtedly true that Mexican ways exerted a strong influence on Central and South Texas in the 19th century- and also in our 21st century- cross-border influence worked both ways. German and Czech immigrants to Central Texas brought accordions and polka music to Texas. Hispanics living in Central and South Texas adopted accordions and polka music as their own. Polkas and accordions migrated across the border to Mexico.
      While Mexicans consider Norteñas [Notherners] to be music from nothern Mexico, they originated from North of the Border, in Tejano polka and accordion music. Which originated from the Czech and German immigrants to Texas.

      Norteñas: music of Imperialism!

    3. Sgt. Mom Says:

      Thanks, Gringo – yes, there was much more in the way of cross-cultural exchanges between ethnic groups in Texas than people expect!

    4. MikeK Says:

      It’s interesting that William T Sherman had a similar exchange with the citizens of Pineville, Louisiana when the Civil War was approaching. He warned them that the South was making a huge mistake.

      You people of the South don’t know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don’t know what you’re talking about. War is a terrible thing! You mistake, too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people but an earnest people, and they will fight, too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it… Besides, where are your men and appliances of war to contend against them? The North can make a steam engine, locomotive, or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on Earth—right at your doors. You are bound to fail. Only in your spirit and determination are you prepared for war. In all else you are totally unprepared, with a bad cause to start with. At first you will make headway, but as your limited resources begin to fail, shut out from the markets of Europe as you will be, your cause will begin to wane. If your people will but stop and think, they must see in the end that you will surely fail.[30]

      In January 1861, as more Southern states were seceding from the Union, Sherman was required to accept receipt of arms surrendered to the State Militia by the U.S. Arsenal at Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Instead of complying, he resigned his position as superintendent and returned to the North, declaring to the governor of Louisiana, “On no earthly account will I do any act or think any thought hostile … to the … United States.”[31]

      He left peaceably and was sorely missed by the citizens. After the war, he donated the two cannons that fired on Fort Sumpter to the school, which became LSU and they stand there today.

    5. Kirk Parker Says:

      In your first paragraph, don’t you mean ‘configuration’ not ‘confirmation’?