San Marcos Like a Local

The Fascinating History of One of the Oldest Places in Texas

March 19, 2018

The vibrant downtown of San Marcos, which is one of the fastest growing cities in Texas. San Marcos Convention and Visitor Bureau

From the Alamo in San Antonio to the Fort Worth Stockyards, Texas is filled with historical sites. But it would be a mistake to overlook the charms of San Marcos, one of the oldest towns in the state—and also one of its most beautiful. Located just 30 miles southwest of Austin and 50 miles northeast of San Antonio, San Marcos is a charming city with a colorful downtown district, picturesque parks and a rich cultural background. It is home to Texas State University, the largest outlet shopping center in the nation and has become a popular destination for outdoor lovers.

People from nearby towns flock here to float, swim or fish the rivers in the area, which include the San Marcos and the Blanco. However, there is more to this area than inner tubes. In fact, the fascinating history of San Marcos dates back roughly 12,000 years—and some of it may surprise you.

The History of San Marcos

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Rio Vista Park is just one of the places to enjoy the natural beauty of the area. San Marcos Convention and Visitor Bureau

The lush area surrounding the rivers made this region a popular place to settle in early American history, but according to recent findings, Texans were making a home here long before the word "Texas" was ever uttered. An archeological dig at Spring Lake conducted by Dr. Joel Shiner from Southern Methodist University uncovered evidence that Clovis Man lived around the headwaters of the San Marcos River more than 12,000 years ago. The Clovis culture was a Paleo-Indian group that lived in the southwestern United States, and scientists believe to have hunted mastodons and other large game with bow and arrow.

In the following centuries, the springs drew countless Native American tribes to the area, including the Tonkawa, Apache and Comanche. Native peoples were the only ones settled in the area until 1689, when Spaniard Alonso de Leon led an expedition from Mexico to establish missions in the area. The trail he blazed would become known as Camino Real, and eventually, the Old San Antonio Road. His travels took him through San Antonio, San Marcos, Austin and eventually all the way up to Natchitoches, Louisiana, leaving the mission of "New Spain" in his wake.

His mission opened the doors to European and North American settlers, and by the early 1800s, San Marcos finally had its name. In 1808, a small group of Mexican families settled in the area, naming it the Villa de San Marcos de Neve. However, the venture was short-lived. After a tragic bout of plague and crop failure, the settlement was abandoned in 1812.

The town stayed vacant until 1846, when the first Anglos settled near San Marcos Springs. The Texas Legislature officially designated San Marcos in 1848, and after that, the population soared. A dam built on the upper reaches of the river powered several mills (including one in present-day Sewell Park), and marked the beginning of rapid industry growth in the area. Over the following decades, San Marcos would expand into the cotton and cattle trades, and become a center for commerce and transportation.

San Marcos Today

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The MARC is a San Marcos favorite for live music. San Marcos Convention and Visitor Bureau

Today, San Marcos is home to countless delicious restaurants, picturesque parks, vibrant nightlife, live music, and of course, plenty of Texas barbecue. The town is consistently recognized as one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States, and in 2013, it landed on Business Insider’s list of the most exciting small cities in America. The crystal clear waters of the San Marcos River and the colorful scenery of the Texas Hill Country make it a beautiful place to call home and a popular place to visit.

There is no shortage of fun things to see and do in town. Here, you’ll find everything from classic car museums to dance halls and gorgeous natural springs.

Wonder World, a natural theme park built around the Balcones Fault Line Cave, is one of the area’s most sought after attractions. Spend the day here enjoying theme park rides, touring the underground caves and exploring the wildlife petting park. If you’d like to do some shopping while in the area, you can either roam the quirky shops downtown or head to the outlet malls to score some serious deals. And history buffs should not overlook the LBJ Museum, which focuses on the early years of the former president’s life.

To get a close-up look at Aquarena Springs, opt for a Glass-Bottom Boat tour, or simply take a hike in the area. And whether you’re an outdoor enthusiast or not, joining the throngs of locals floating down the river in summertime is something you should try at least once.

Once the adventuring has come to a close and the sun begins to set, the bars and restaurants in town welcome tired Texans and tourists alike for a true dose of southern hospitality.

Written by Sarah Strohl for RootsRated Media in partnership with San Marcos CVB.