On this day in 1981, photographer W. D. Smithers died in Albuquerque at the age of eighty-five. Smithers was born in Mexico, where his father was the bookkeeper for an American mining company. The family moved to San Antonio in 1905. Smithers dropped out of high school and learned photography through a volunteer apprenticeship at a local studio. In the course of his career, most of which he spent in West Texas, Smithers took more than 9,000 photographs of a wide range of subjects, including such notables as Katherine Stinson, Pancho Villa, and Will Rogers; mining in Terlingua; border skirmishes between the United States cavalry and Mexican raiders; the attempts of the Texas Rangers to control smuggling; and the wildlife and landscape of the Big Bend. His best work documents Mexican-American culture in the Big Bend region. Smithers viewed his camera not as a creative tool, but as an instrument to document the events he witnessed and the people he met. He summarized his goals as a photographer in his 1976 autobiography, Chronicles of the Big Bend: A Photographic Memoir of Life on the Border. Most of his original negatives and prints are in the Photography Collection of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin.
On this day in 1699, San Juan Bautista Mission was founded and so named in honor of the feast day of St. John. Franciscan fathers Francisco Hidalgo, Antonio de San Buenaventura y Olivares, and Marcos de Guereña of the College of Santa Cruz de Querétaro established the mission on the Río de Sabinas about twenty-five miles north of Lampazos, Nuevo León, Mexico. A few months later they moved the complex to a site near present-day Guerrero, Coahuila, thirty-five miles down the Rio Grande from Eagle Pass. Regarded as the mother of Texas missions, San Juan Bautista served as a gateway for expeditions to the Texas interior. In 1716 Domingo Ramón set out from San Juan Bautista on an entrada to reestablish missions in East Texas. Two years later Governor Martín de Alarcón launched his founding expedition to San Antonio there. Soldiers of the mission’s presidio provided supply trains and escorts for travelers into Texas. Though the significance and role of the mission complex had diminished by the early 1800s it did serve as a staging area for troops as late as the Mexican War.
On this day in 1851, Fort Belknap was established in what is now Young County, in north central Texas. Since the chosen site lacked water, the fort was moved two miles to its present location beside the Brazos River. Fort Belknap was a four-company post. Companies from the Fifth and Seventh U.S. Infantry, Second U.S. Dragoons, and Second and Sixth U.S. Cavalry served there at various times. Belknap was the northern anchor of the chain of forts protecting the Texas frontier from the Red River to the Rio Grande. It became the hub of a network of roads, the most notable being the Butterfield Stage route from St. Louis to San Francisco. The fort was abandoned in September 1867. Some of the buildings have been restored to form a recreational and cultural center that hosts more than 30,000 visitors annually.