incident light


Original city limits? Not so fast

February 2, 2014

San Antonio Cultural Geography in a nutshell: Civilization is to be found in the 36 square miles of “the original city limits” -- a perfect square, six miles on a side, with the dome of San Fernando Cathedral at the center. Stray outside The 36, and you are likely to be devoured by naked, ululating savages.

Even San Antonians who are not explicitly familiar with The 36 nonetheless recognize its status implicitly when they refer to the cultural wilderness “North of Hildebrand,” the arterial street that lies just inside the northern boundary of The 36.  

The 36 has official cachet. On its web site, the city’s Office of Historic Preservation informs us that it has conducted a survey of historic resources. “The survey area covers the original city limits as defined in 1856 and encompasses a land area of 36 square miles."

City Limits
Three versions of San Antonio's
historical city limits. Click image for a larger view.

But this “original city limits” business is complicated.  Old maps show two other boundaries, both pre-dating The 36. One area is much smaller, the other much larger, taking in all of the presnt city of Olmos Park, a portion of Alamo Heights, and even a short stretch of Loop 410, way north of Hildebrand. 

Both of those earlier boundaries appear on a map, titled “Plat of the City Tract of San Antonio de Bexar.”  The map was drawn by Jore Gentilz “from field notes furnished me by Francis Giraud in 1852, by which map the city lots were sold” Francois (the usual spelling) Giraud was an architect and, from 1849 to 1853, the city engineer of San Antonio. He would serve as mayor from 1872 to 1875.

The City Tract (called the Town Tract on later maps) was based on a survey conducted by John James Feb. 1-11, 1846, soon after the annexation of Texas by the United States on Dec. 29, 1845.  William Corner’s “San Antonio de Bexar: a guide and history,” published in 1890, explains the origin and importance of that survey:

"The original City Grant from the King of Spain having been lost in the troublous revolutionary days, the city found it advisable to sue out its title.... Then followed the celebrated suit of the City versus Nat Lewis, senior, in which the City sues Nat Lewis and others for certain lands specified to be within the confines of the Original royal Grant to the people and inhabitants of the town of “San Fernando” (San Antonio). The Lower Courts first decided and established the boundaries of the Original Grant to the city (John James, Sr., surveying the same) and gave judgment for the city. The Supreme Court [of the Republic of Texas] affirmed the decision, and upon this rests the title to all lands situated within the 'Town Tract,' as it is now called."

A footnote in Corner’s book reproduces James’s field notes, which make Town Tractfascinating reading: “Beginning at an old stone dam on the Concepcion ditch from the southeast corner of which a pecan 30 in. in diameter bears south 27° west, 7 1/4 varas, this place being pointed out to me as the presita of the Concepcion ditch, by Rafael Herrera and Manuel Cadena. Thence north 83° east, 6800 varas to a pecan tree 10 in. in diameter, on the west bank of the Salado Creek....”

The Town Tract was a very irregular polygon with its northern vertex near the present-day intersection of Vance-Jackson and Jackson-Keller Roads, a short distance outside of Loop 410; the southern tip was well to the south of the present Port San Antonio (formerly Kelly Air Force Base). Much of the Town Tract boundary survives into the present as busy arterial streets -- Jackson-Keller Road, Hillcrest, Acme Road, Nogalitos and its extension as Somerset Road, and Aransas Street.

1852 map of the City Tract, later called the Town Tract, ostensibly reconstructed the original Spanish land grant.  Click image for a larger view.

Bexafr County 1879 detail
Detail of a Bexar County property map from 1879 shows the Town Tract but not the 36-square mile city limits defined in 1856.  Click image for larger view.
A Bexar County property map of 1879 shows the Town Tract, but not The 36, the city limit officially established in 1856. A Bexar County map of 1887 shows both boundaries, with The 36 drawn in thicker lines and evidently taking precedence.

But go back to that Giraud-Gentilz map of 1852 in which the Town Tract first appears. That map also shows a rectangular boundary, the northern leg of which coincides with the present Grayson Street and falls a little south of the present San Pedro Springs Park. The southern leg almost coincides with one leg of the Town Tract boundary between the Paso Nogalitos (where Nogalitos Street meets San Pedro Creek) and that pecan tree on the Concepcion ditch, roughly where the present Roosevelt Avenue meets the railroad tracks.

A portion of the eastern side of this rectangle is identified as the “Old 2 League Grant Line” on a map that appears in an 1894 ruling by the  Texas Court of Civil Appeals. (The details of the lawsuit will put you to sleep, so I’ll not repeat them here.) The map also shows the “Present City Limit Line” (as designated in 1856) less than half a mile farther east.


To make a long story short, by the 1850s the Old 2 League Grant Line was “always well known, and established on the ground,” according to the court. The city commissioned the Giraud map of the Town Tract to gain or regain control over a much larger swath of territory that, ostensibly, comprised the original Spanish land grant.

The 36-square mile boundary of 1856 apparently has no basis in the city’s Spanish or Mexican history but was a Yankee interloper --  an artifact of the Public Land Survey System established by the Continental Congress of the United States. Under that system, townships were generally surveyed as squares, six miles on each side, and oriented so that their boundaries ran north-south and east-west.

What is not clear to me is why the city adopted the 36-mile boundary so soon after designating the much larger Town Tract boundary of 1852. Texas continued to recognize Spanish land grants after statehood, in a hybrid system that also used the national survey scheme.

At any rate, it seems to me that the city ought to pay respect to both of the earlier boundaries, but especially to the Town Tract, which has the deepest historical roots and which continues to leave traces on the street map into the present.

Mike Greenberg
Map in an 1894 court case shows portion of "Old 2 League Grant Line" in relation to "Present City Limit Line" of 1856.