The primary instrument of colonization in California was the mission. In the 18th century the Spanish crown considered it a religious duty to reduce heathenism and to bring as many native peoples as possible the virtues of Catholicism. The Franciscan order was selected to establish the missions of Alta California and the first mission was founded at San Diego in 1769, and others followed toward the north, the last being Sonoma Mission, established in 1823. Believing that effective Christianization could not be separated from the larger process of acculturation, the missionaries attempted to bring about a rapid and thoroughgoing transformation in all aspects of the native people's lives. They were to be Hispanicized in religion, social organization, work habits, dress, and food habits. To accomplish this, the Indians were "reduced" from their "free, undisciplined" state and concentrated at the missions, thus making it easier to control the Indians as well as exploit their labor.
Initially, missions recruited converts from local villages; once baptized, the Indians moved to the missions, a process that initially did not occur rapidly. Through the early 1800s many traditional villages coexisted alongside the missions. Eventually, the supply of unconverted local Indians was exhausted and the search for replacements reached out into an ever-widening circle, eventually requiring forays into the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys.
Opinions vary as to whether the Indians were willing or forced participants in the missionization process. The Catholic church holds that baptism was voluntary and the labor demands modest. Detractors of the system argue that there was forced recruitment and virtual slave labor. There is some truth to both views. While it is true that Catholicism requires conversion to be voluntary, it is also true that the vast majority of Indians did not understand the sociopolitical and cultural ramifications of baptism. After baptism the Indians were required to remain at the missions (by force if necessary) and had to conform to Hispanic cultural precepts. Priests regulated the native people's every action, monitored all their behavior, and taught them (by whatever means) the "correct" mental and spritual attitudes and behaviors.
Were the Indians rounded-up at gun point and forced into the missions? Initially, probably not. In the beginning, some came voluntarily, drawn to the missions by a variety of factors: the dazzle of Spanish goods (metal, cloth), certain practical knowledge and skills possessed by the Spanish, and the implied supernatural power the Spanish possessed over animals such as the horse. The missions also created new political dynamics in local villages. When an individual was upset or angry with her/his life situation, the missions beckoned. Or when a family felt its interests were being ignored, it could move to the mission. But coercion was used. Often, children or women with children were forcibly removed to the missions and used as leverage to bring the rest of their families in. An American ship's capitan noted that the "christianizing padres...converted the Indians by sending the gauchos...into the field to cath them with the lasso, and mark them with the cross!" Overall, the missionization process, and the mass socio-cultural transformations that took place, are best viewed as the result of hundreds of decisions, made by thousands of individuals within the context of a steady deterioration in the level of tribal socio-cultural well-being.
Although the stated goal of the missions was to convert the native peoples to christianity, the real goal was to acquire a source of cheap labor for the missions, presidios (forts), and later the pueblos and ranches. The missions were more working farms and factories than institutions for conversion from one faith to another. Each mission had two priests, one for spiritual teaching and the other for vocational instruction. The Indians learned to be carpenters, leatherworkers, smiths, masons, cheesemakers, farmhands, domestics. And while the labor demands made upon the Indians was felt by the missionaries to be no greater than those demanded of european peasants, the reality is the Indians were serfs in the fields and captives in the missions.
Life was harsh. Just how harsh can be gleaned from the writings of non-Spanish observers of the mission system, many of whom likened conditions at the missions to those they had witnessed on slave plantations in the Carribean. In 1786 Jean Francois de La Pérouse visited the California missions, noting that at mission San Carlos Borromeo,
Everything reminded us of a habitation in Saint Domingo, or any other West Indian slave colony. The men and women are assembled by the sound of the bell, one of the religious conducts them to their work, to church, and to all other exercises. We mention it with pain, the resemblance to a slave coloy is so perfect, that we saw men and women loaded with irons, others in the stocks; and at length the noise of the strokes of a whip struck our ears.
Another visitor noted the Indians were driven not only to work by the lash but also
every Indian, male and female is obliged to attend the worship; and if they lag behind, a large leathern thong, at the end of a heavy whip-staff, is applied to their naked backs.
The native peoples did not thrive during the mission period and the death toll was exorbitant. In the brief span of 65 years of mission operation, extending from the first founding (1769) to the secularization on the missions (1834), 81,000 Indians were baptized in the missions, and 60,000 deaths were recorded. Causes for the high death rate varied. Foremost were the European diseases (smallpox, measles, diptheria) against which the Indians had no natural immunity. Additional causes include a diet high in carbohydrates, but low in vegetables and animal protein, working conditions, harsh life-styles imposed by the missionaries, and poor sanitation and health care. Native health care practioners were prohibited from employing their skills and knowledge and at night the Indians were forced to sleep in dank, dark dormitories. Thomas Farnham, an early Anglo-American visitor to Mission Santa Barbara, was repelled by the evidence of massive death he found there. He noted the mission cemetery was so filled with dead Indians that their bones had to be exhumed periodically to make way for new bodies. In the mission's courtyard he saw
three or four cart-loads of skulls, ribs, spines, leg-bones, arm-bones, etc., lay in one corner. Beside them stood two hand-hearses with a small cross attached to each. About the walls hung the mould of death!
Similar scenes could be witnessed at most of the other missions. By 1834 there remained about 15,000 resident neophytes in the 21 missions. Missionization had been an unmitigated disaster for the Native Californians.
Despite the important roles the missions played in the "reduction" and destruction of many California Indian societies, very little information about these roles are available on the Internet. However, there is one excellent site, Mission Santa Cruz and the Ohlone and Yokuts Indians, which goes into great detail on the founding of Mission Santa Cruz and the lives of the California Indians residing there. An allied site discusses the attack in 1793 on the mission by members of the Quiroste tribe, an Ohlonean group living in the area of Año Nuevo and the mountains to the east. This attack was probably the first extended resistance against the Spanish in the entire San Francisco Bay Area. Another interesting site to visit is California Missions, hosted by Mindscape. The site gives a slightly different view of the missions than that presented above, as well as a brief overview of what was required of the Indians after becoming a part of the mission system.
From South to North
For an animated map showing the sequential founding of the below listed missions click here.
|Name||Native Peoples From Whom Mission Workforce Were Drawn|
|16 July 1769||San Diego de Alcalá||Tipai, Ipai, Kumayaay (formerly called Diegueñ0|
|1818||Asistencia de Santa Ysabel||Ipai, Tipai, Cupeño, Cahuilla, Luiseño|
|13 June 1798||San Luís Rey de Francia||Luiseño, Gabrielino|
|1816||Asistencia de San António de Pala||Luiseño, Cupeño, Cahuilla|
|1823||Asistencia Las Flores||Luiseño, Juaneño|
|30 November 1775||San Juan Capistrano||Luiseño, Juaneño, Gabrielino|
|1830||Asistencia de San Bernardino||Gabrielino, Cahuilla, Serrano|
|8 September 1771||San Gabriel Arcángel||Gabrielino, Serrano, Tataviam (?), Vanyume (?)|
|8 September 1797||San Fernando Rey de España||Gabrielino (&Fernandeño), Chumash, Tataviam, Kawaiisu|
|31 March 1782||San Buenaventura||Chumash, Kawaiisu, Yokuts (?)|
|4 December 1786||Santa Bárbara Virgen y Martir||Chumash (formerly called Canalino)|
|17 September 1804||Santa Ynéz (or Inés)||Chumash|
|8 December 1787||La Purísima Concepción||Chumash|
|1 September 1772||San Luis Obispo de Tolosa||Chumash, Yokuts|
|1831||Asistencia de Santa Margarita||Chumash|
|25 July 1797||San Miguel Arcángel||Salinan (Miguele&etilde;no), Yokuts, northwest Chumash|
|14 July 1770||San António de Pádua||Salinan (Antoniaño), Yokuts, Esselen|
|9 October 1791||Nuestra Señora Dolorsísima de la Soledad||Salinan (Antoniaño), Yokuts, Esselen, Ohlone (formerly Costanoan)|
|3 June 1770||San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo||Esselen, Rumsien Ohlone|
|24 June 1797||San Juan Bautista||Mutsun Ohlone, Yokuts|
|28 August 1791||Exaltación de la Santa Cruz||Ohlone, Yokuts|
|12 January 1777||Santa Clara de Asís||Ohlone, Yokuts, Miwok (Plains, Lake, Coast)|
|11 June 1797||San José de Guadalupe||Ohlone, Yokuts, Miwok (Plains, Lake, Coast)|
|9 October 1776||San Francisco de Asís||Ohlone, Miwok, Patwin|
|14 December 1817||San Rafael Arcángel||Coast Miwok|
|4 July 1823||San Francisco Solano||Coast Miwok, Patwin (Suisun), Wappo|
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