When Spanish Queen Isabella I (1451–1504) proclaimed the New World to be a part of the Spanish Empire in 1493, she ordered that its native peoples were to be treated humanely and converted to Christianity. Spanish settlement then proceeded quickly in the Caribbean islands and Mexico, where gold and silver attracted large forces of Spanish conquistadors (conquerors) and settlers. Despite the queen's intentions, the process of converting the native people to Christianity was often brutal and was almost always secondary to obtaining their labor in the mines and fields.
The process of settlement was very different in the northern borderlands of New Spain , a region that would one day be part of the United States and included present-day Florida , Texas , the Southwest, and California . There, no great riches were found to draw the conquistadors. In many cases, the Spanish missionaries led the settlement and early government of these remote outposts.
Spanish missionaries were people who were sent by the Roman Catholic Church and the Spanish royal authorities to other lands to convert people to Christianity. The missionaries who served in the northern borderlands of New Spain served under one of two major Roman Catholic orders: the Franciscans (members of the Order of Friars Minor, a religious order of men founded by Francis of Assisi [1181–1226]) and the Jesuits (an order called the Society of Jesus founded by Ignatius de Loyola [1491–1556] in 1534).
The model for the missions
In the early seventeenth century the Jesuits in South America began establishing communities called reducciones, from the Spanish word reducir, “to bring together.” A few priests and their assistants usually presided over a community of several thousand Indians, teaching them European agriculture, music, architecture, and religion.
Spain wanted to establish similar communities throughout its new territories, creating Christian towns that would quickly be able to govern themselves. The Spanish crown sent both priests and soldiers to establish these communities. Each mission received a ten-year charter (authority to run a town); at the end of that period the mission communities were expected to become independent towns.
To found a mission, the missionary priests would select a spot near an Indian settlement. There they would erect a temporary chapel and a few crude log cabins. After setting up, they would immediately begin working to convert the Indians, usually getting their attention by giving them glass beads, clothing, or blankets. Once the bare essentials of a mission community had been established, the priests usually requested military protection. The Spanish crown then sent soldiers to establish a military outpost near the mission.
Over the years, many missions grew into thriving farming, religious, and commercial complexes. The military outposts expanded into armed garrisons, or presidios. The inhabitants of the presidios needed the necessities of life—food, clothing, and manufactured goods. Civilian settlements quite often developed near mission/presidio complexes to satisfy such needs.
Missions in La Florida
The first mission in the northern borderlands of New Spain was San Augustín (St. Augustine), founded in the territory of La Florida (presentday Florida) in 1565 by Jesuit missionaries. By 1655 Florida had several more missions. The new missions had converted an estimated twenty-six thousand Indians to Catholicism and extended from San Augustín north to the Carolinas and west to the Gulf Coast. The La Florida missions did not survive long, however. Between 1702 and 1706, British troops stationed in South Carolina invaded Florida and burned all the missions to the ground. Some missionaries were massacred and thousands of Indians were sold into slavery in Charleston.
Two Spanish missions were founded in what is now east Texas in the late seventeenth century. They were established there to stop the French from settling in the area. Some of the native peoples in the area were hostile to the Spaniards, and the missions were abandoned in 1693. They were later reestablished, but by 1773, the east Texas missions had declined in importance and most settlers moved to San Antonio. There, five missions were built along the San Antonio River that flourished throughout the eighteenth century. By the end of the century, however, most of the missions had fallen into disrepair. Texas missions as a whole produced few lasting results among the native people.
Missions in New Mexico
In 1598 Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate led four hundred colonists to the lands along the Rio Grande north of present-day El Paso. The new colony was to engage in ranching and included in the group were twelve Franciscan missionaries to provide the local Pueblo Indians with religious instruction. The Pueblos already had a stable economy, elaborate social structures, and a sophisticated religion, but the missionaries did not appreciate the virtues of Pueblo civilization. They established a missionary program to eliminate the religious practices and beliefs of the Pueblo and to teach them Christianity and European ways.
The Pueblos were trained from childhood to cooperate and to adapt to social pressure. Thus, for decades they did not outwardly resist the missionaries. In the 1670s famine, disease, and mounting war casualties convinced most Pueblos that they had been wrong to accept the outsiders' religion. They believed it was time for them to return to their traditional ways.
In August 1680 an alliance of Pueblo warriors led by leader Popé (d. 1692) attacked the Spanish colonists, forcing them to flee. The revolt was specifically aimed at the religious mission. Twenty-one out of the thirty-three missionaries in New Mexico at the time were killed. Angry Indians burned churches and destroyed records of baptisms, marriages, and burials while also destroying all the religious statues and altars they could find. This coordinated uprising expressed their determination to reject Christianity and to maintain their own religion and culture.
The Spanish later returned to New Mexico, but Spanish authorities never allowed the priests to have as much power as they once had. Even so, the Pueblo were forced to accept the strong presence of the Catholic Church. Many Pueblo communities and individuals attended Catholic services while practicing their own religion in secret.
Eusebio Kino and Arizona's missions
In 1687 Jesuit missionary, explorer, and mapmaker Eusebio Francisco Kino (1645–1711) set out from Mexico City as a missionary in the region then called Pimería Alta (modern northern Sonora, Mexico, and southern Arizona ). This land of deserts and mountains was inhabited by the Pima Indian tribe. From his base at Mission Dolores in the southern part of the region, Kino pushed northward, establishing missions in one river valley after another until his network of missions extended far into present-day Arizona. Kino personally baptized some forty-five hundred Indians.
A born organizer, Kino provided a sound economic base for his missions, teaching the Pima to raise cattle and to grow new crops like wheat. The combination of economic planning and a broad tolerance for Indian customs was the basis of Kino's success in his campaign of peaceful conquest. He trained some of the Indians he converted to Christianity to win additional converts among their own people. Communities of these Christians became self-sufficient spiritually as well as economically.
The California missions
The Spanish did not seriously explore the region that is today known as California until 1769. That year, when explorer Gaspar de Portolá (1723–1784) led an expedition into California, seasoned Franciscan missionary Junípero Serra (1713–1784) went with him. Serra was on hand when Portolá proposed to open a new section of the borderlands around the head of the Gulf of California. Serra and his Franciscan colleagues, accompanied by a handful of soldiers, explored the new areas to establish additional missions. The Spanish king wanted to establish mission communities in California to stop other countries from settling in the region.
In 1769 Serra founded the mission of San Diego, the first of nine California missions established during his lifetime. The following year he founded San Carlos Borromeo much farther north on Monterey Bay, choosing this second mission settlement as his headquarters. The Franciscans, who served as guides for Serra, subsequently founded San Antonio (1771), San Gabriel (1771), San Luis Obispo (1772), San Francisco de Assisi (1776), San Juan Capistrano (1776), Santa Clara (1777), and San Buenaventura (1782). The work continued after his death, and between 1769 and 1823 a total of twenty-one missions were built. The missions were placed a day's walk from each other, and extended 650 miles along the California coast.
Life in the missions
The earliest buildings in California mission compounds were crude structures with dirt floors and thatch roofs. In time these were replaced by adobe
buildings with stone floors and tile roofs. Typical mission sites featured a rectangular enclosure that contained a church, a convent, dormitories, a school, storerooms, and workshops. Miles of surrounding countryside contained the orchards, gardens, fields, and livestock that fed and clothed local inhabitants. At their peak, the mission communities collectively owned 230,000 cattle, 268,000 sheep, 8,300 goats, and 3,400 swine. In their most prosperous years, the mission farms yielded 125,000 bushels of grain together with a wealth of produce from vineyards and orchards.
Once an Indian converted to Christianity he or she was taken into the mission to live and could not leave. Daily life consisted of prayers, meals, hard work for adults either in the fields or at simple industries, and school for children.
The missionaries enforced their demands of work and obedience with physical punishments involving whippings, shackles, stocks, and the barbed lash; they also used solitary confinement, mutilation (cutting or amputation), branding, and even execution as punishments. Some of the missionaries were appalled at the cruelty and tried to help the Indians, but they were outnumbered by their colleagues who favored strong disciplinary action. Mission Indians were often undernourished and extremely vulnerable to new diseases brought over by the European settlers, especially given their cramped, poorly heated, badly ventilated living quarters. The death rate in the missions was even higher than in the general Native American population. The Spanish missionaries systematically discouraged Native ceremonies and traditions as well as the use of Native languages.
The end of the mission system
For better or worse, the Spanish missionaries “settled” much of the Southwest and California by entrenching Spanish authority there. They did it using only a smattering of troops and at almost no cost, since labor was performed by unpaid Indians. At a high cost to the Indians within, the missions became the centers around which the settlements, towns, and cities of the northern borderlands developed. Historically, culturally, and architecturally, the early Spanish missions left their mark on the American West.
Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1810. Most Mexicans believed the missions oppressed Indians and had to be eliminated. In many areas of the Southwest, secularization took place on its own, since the missions had prepared their communities for independence. Secularization is a process in which the church compounds became towns, and their Native inhabitants became taxpaying citizens. The Catholic Church retained the missions' chapels and priests' quarters and operated them as community churches. The rest of the land and its buildings were given to the community. California missions were slow to accept secularization. In 1834 Mexico passed an act for the secularization of California missions, and in the following years the Franciscans began to abandon their missions. After secularization, Indians deserted the California missions. Despite Mexico's intentions that the Indians would maintain the mission community for their own gain, the mission lands fell into private hands.