The Payaya, San Antonio's Earliest Inhabitants

Few people in San Antonio know about the indigenous tribe who roamed what is now Hemisfair and San Pedro Springs area. 

Before San Antonio was given its current name, it was called Yanaguana and was inhabited by the Payaya. The Payaya predates the Spanish settlement on the San Antonio River, and yet, their history is basically unknown to San Antonians.

The Payaya referred to their village along the river as Yanaguana. That name lives on in the Yanaguana Garden in the Hemisfair area where the Payaya once lived. However, there is no mention of the Payaya, further continuing the erasure of the tribe’s history.

According to San Antonio: The Tricentennial History by Char Miller, “the creation of a colonial outpost, subordinating the indigenous people, and integrating them into the rigors of a sedentary life framed around religious liturgy and bounded within mission walls, is essential to the city’s history.” 

Moreover, the Payaya did not make it past the 18th century due to the geopolitics and cross-cultural interactions at the time.

The Payaya foraged plants and animal life more than 10,000 years before the Spanish came, defining a wide range of food.

Prickly pear cactus photo on Flickr by Kenneth Bosma
The Payaya people's diet included the paddles and fruit of prickly pear cactus, which grow in dense thickets in the South Texas area.

They were able to take advantage of the variations in regional areas. The tribe’s self-reliance was based on their mobility as they followed migratory animals. Every fall, they burned the landscape as a way of driving out prey. Although it seems destructive, the fire produced nitrogen rich soil and a fire-adapted environment, allowing a variety of species to dwell on the landscapes.

However, although we think of the Spanish as being a prime suspect of infringing the indigenous way of life, in reality, the Spanish were the least of their worries. The threat of the Comanche and Apache were far greater. The domain was ruled by indigenous control rather than Spanish control. For the Comanche, human trafficking was essential to their economy and they often didn’t care about who they enslaved or sold. As for the Apache, they searched for horses and plunder wherever they could find them. Moreover, the Payaya had to endure European diseases as well. 

In order to save themselves from total destruction, the Payaya decided that the food, shelter, and the defense of the missions were compelling. So the tribe allied themselves with the Spanish and began living on the missions. 

According to Miller, “There was a limited degree to which the Payaya could remain a distinct people and ‘indigenize’ the Spanish, and that limitation became clear by the mid-eighteenth century: the Payaya as Payaya were no more.”

Around the end of the seventeenth century, T.N. Campbell, an archaeologist, wrote that the Payaya and other Texas Indians were facing “what most hunting and gathering peoples of the world have had to face: population decline, territorial displacement, segregation and ideological pressure, loss of ethnic identity, and absorption by invading populations.”

Today, the Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nations exists as a tribal community of affiliated bands and clans that include the Payaya, Pacoa, Borrado, Pakawan, Paguame, Papanac, Hierbipiame, Xarame, Pajalat, Tilijae nations who once occupied South Texas and Northern Mexico.