Lithograph of San Antonio in 1886
At the time of European encounter,
Payaya Indians lived near the
San Antonio River Valley in the
San Pedro Springs area. They called the vicinity
Yanaguana, meaning "refreshing waters". In 1691, a group of Spanish Catholic explorers and
missionaries came upon the river and Payaya settlement on June 13, the feast day of
St. Anthony of Padua. They named the place and river "San Antonio" in his honor.
It was years before any Spanish settlement took place.
Father Antonio de Olivares visited the site in 1709, and he was determined to found a mission and civilian settlement there. The viceroy gave formal approval for a combined mission and presidio in late 1716, as he wanted to forestall any French expansion into the area from their colony of
La Louisiane to the east, as well as prevent illegal trading with the Payaya. He directed Martín de Alarcón, the governor of Coahuila and Texas, to establish the mission complex. Differences between Alarcón and Olivares resulted in delays, and construction did not start until 1718.
 Fray Antonio de Olivares built, with the help of the
Payaya Indians, the
Misión de San Antonio de Valero (The Alamo), the
Presidio San Antonio de Bexar, the bridge that connected both, and the
Acequia Madre de Valero.
The families who clustered around the presidio and mission formed the beginnings of Villa de Béjar, destined to become the most important town in Spanish Texas.
 On May 1, the governor transferred ownership of the
Mission San Antonio de Valero (later famous as the Alamo) to Fray Antonio de Olivares.
 On May 5, 1718 he commissioned the
Presidio San Antonio de Béxar ("Béjar" in modern Spanish orthography) on the west side of the San Antonio River, one-fourth league from the mission.
On February 14, 1719, the Marquis of San Miguel de Aguayo proposed to the king of Spain that 400 families be transported from the
Havana to populate the province of Texas. His plan was approved, and notice was given the
Canary Islanders (
isleños) to furnish 200 families; the Council of the Indies suggested that 400 families should be sent from the Canaries to Texas by way of Havana and Veracruz. By June 1730, 25 families had reached Cuba, and 10 families had been sent to Veracruz before orders from Spain came to stop the re-settlement.
Under the leadership of Juan Leal Goraz, the group marched overland from Veracruz to the
Presidio San Antonio de Béxar, where they arrived on March 9, 1731. Due to marriages along the way, the party now included 15 families, a total of 56 persons. They joined the military community established in 1718. The immigrants formed the nucleus of the villa of San Fernando de Béxar, the first regularly organized civil government in Texas. Several older families of San Antonio trace their descent from the Canary Island colonists. María Rosa Padrón was the first baby born of Canary Islander descent in San Antonio.
During the Spanish Mexican settlement of Southwestern lands, which took place over the following century,
Juan Leal Goraz Jr. was a prominent figure. He claimed nearly 100,000 sq miles (153,766 acres) as Spanish territory and held some control for nearly three decades: this area stretched across six present-day states. San Antonio was designated as Leal Goraz's capital. It represented Mexican expansion into the area. With his robust military forces, he led exploration and establishing Spanish colonial bases as far as San Francisco, California. Widespread bankruptcy forced Leal Goraz Jr.'s army back into the current boundaries of Mexico; they fell into internal conflict and turmoil with neighboring entities.
Memorial to the
San Antonio grew to become the largest Spanish settlement in Texas; it was designated as the capital of the Spanish, later
Mexican, province of Tejas. From San Antonio, the
Camino Real (today Nacogdoches Road), was built to the small frontier town of
Nacogdoches. Mexico allowed European-American settlers from the United States into the territory; they mostly occupied land in the eastern part. When
Antonio López de Santa Anna unilaterally abolished the
Mexican Constitution of 1824, violence ensued in many
states of Mexico.
In a series of battles, the
Texian Army succeeded in forcing Mexican soldiers out of the settlement areas east of San Antonio, which were dominated by Americans. Under the leadership of
Ben Milam, in the
Battle of Bexar, December 1835,
Texian forces captured San Antonio from forces commanded by General
Martin Perfecto de Cos, Santa Anna's brother-in-law. In the spring of 1836, Santa Anna marched on San Antonio. A volunteer force under the command of
James C. Neill occupied and fortified the deserted mission.
Upon his departure, the joint command of
William Barrett Travis and
James Bowie were left in charge of defending the old mission. The
Battle of the Alamo took place from February 23 to March 6, 1836. The outnumbered Texian force was ultimately defeated, with all of the Alamo defenders killed. These men were seen as "martyrs" for the cause of Texas freedom and "Remember the Alamo" became a rallying cry in the Texian Army's eventual success at defeating Santa Anna's army.
Juan Seguín, who organized the company of
Tejano patriots, who fought for Texas independence, fought at the
Battle of Concepción,
Siege of Bexar, and the
Battle of San Jacinto, and served as mayor of San Antonio. He was forced out of that office, due to threats on his life, by sectarian newcomers and political opponents in 1842, becoming the last Tejano mayor for nearly 150 years.
An aerial view of San Antonio in 1939
In 1845, the United States finally decided to annex Texas and include it as a state in the Union. This led to the
Mexican–American War. Though the US ultimately won, the war was devastating to San Antonio. By its end, the population of the city had been reduced by almost two-thirds, to 800 inhabitants.
 Bolstered by migrants and immigrants, by 1860 at the start of the Civil War, San Antonio had grown to a city of 15,000 people.
Post-Civil War to present
Following the Civil War, San Antonio prospered as a center of the cattle industry. During this period, it remained a frontier city, with a mixture of cultures that was different from other US cities. In the 1850s
Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who designed
Central Park in New York City, traveled throughout the South and Southwest, and published accounts of his observations. In his 1859 book about Texas, Olmsted described San Antonio as having a "jumble of races, costumes, languages, and buildings", which gave it a quality that only
New Orleans could rival in what he described as "odd and antiquated foreignness."
In 1877, following the
Reconstruction Era, developers constructed the first
railroad to San Antonio, connecting it to major markets and port cities. Texas was the first state to have major cities develop by railroads rather than waterways. In Texas, the railroads supported a markedly different pattern of development of major interior cities, such as San Antonio,
Fort Worth, compared to the historical development of coastal port cities in the established eastern states.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the streets of the city's downtown were widened to accommodate street cars and modern traffic. At that time, many of the older historic buildings were demolished in the process of this modernization.
Since the late twentieth century, San Antonio has had steady
population growth. The city's population has nearly doubled in 35 years, from just over 650,000 in the 1970 census to an estimated 1.2 million in 2005, through both population growth and land annexation (the latter has considerably enlarged the physical area of the city).
 In 1990, the
United States Census Bureau reported San Antonio's population as 55.6% Hispanic, 7% black, and 36.2% non-Hispanic white.