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People & Ideas: Catholic Missions

Catholic Missions

Native Americans at mission in CaliforniaSource: Bancroft Library, Berkeley, CA

Members of the Order of St. Francis, the Franciscan friars had elected to live in poverty, reject the temptations of the flesh, forswear sex and maintain a regimen of strict discipline that they believed would bring them closer to Christ. To symbolize their vow of poverty, they shaved their heads, wore coarse and simple clothing, and often went barefoot or clad simply in sandals.

From 1610 to 1640, the Franciscan friars undertook an intense period of mission building in present-day New Mexico. Between 30 and 50 churches were constructed, many of them along the Rio Grande. Here, the friars worked to convert the Native peoples they named Pueblos, after the Spanish word for "town." Their efforts were supported by the Spanish Crown and supplied by wagon trains that made the long journey from Mexico every three years. Provisions included 45 gallons of sacramental wine; 85 1/2 pounds of candle wax, 26 gallons of oil, 100 yards of sackcloth, one ream of paper and two blankets. Two images of Christ were shared among five friars.

In California, between 1770 and the early 1840s, Franciscan missionaries established 21 missions from present-day San Diego in the south to San Francisco in the north. Their aim was to transform the Native Californian Indians from hunter-gatherers into novice Catholic farmers. While the Franciscan missions varied in size, most maintained at least two Spanish padres to serve as religious leaders for the 1,000 or more Native Californians that lived on each mission. A small, armed guard also resided on each mission to ensure order.

For the Native Californians, daily life rotated between the field and the church. A visiting French traveler observed in 1786 that the Indians spent seven hours laboring and two hours in prayer on weekdays. On the Sabbath, Natives spent five hours in prayer. Though left with little free time, they were still permitted to hunt and fish for themselves, often donating a portion of their kill to the padres.

Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association Library

But not all the Californian Indians willfully submitted to life on the missions, and relations between the Franciscans and the Natives were often contentious. The Spanish and the Californian cultures clashed, and each maintained different attitudes about sexuality, marriage and religion that were difficult to reconcile. In order to bring the Californians into line with European culture and Catholic dogma, the missionaries suppressed traditional cultural practices and often treated the Natives as children sin razón, lacking the necessary understanding and awareness to make decisions for themselves. The Native Californians were taught European-style agriculture, crafts and trades and were forced to adopt Western-style dress. To ensure compliance, the padres punished all who broke the work or prayer schedule, whipping, beating and using other coercive measures.

When Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821, secularization swept across the missionary communities. The Mexican authorities cared little for the Natives' salvation and saw the missionary system as both anachronistic and economically inefficient. The Natives, too, clamored for increased control over their land and livestock that the Franciscans had stringently regulated for the past 50 years.

In 1826, the Indians were fully emancipated from the missions. Many relocated to California's burgeoning towns and cities, plying the trades and crafts they had learned on the missions. Some even continued to work the land as Mexican ranchers and planters took over the former Franciscan missions.

But this brief spell of autonomy ended in the 1840s. A smallpox epidemic ravaged the Indian communities in 1844; in 1846, the United States seized California from Mexico during the Mexican-American War. Despite pledging to protect Native rights in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the Americans denied them voting rights and negotiated treaties that forced them to renounce all of their land claims within the state. Although the Franciscans and Mexicans were often harsh rulers, they had attempted to incorporate the Indians into their society. The Americans felt no such compulsion, and gold rushers and settlers overran the Indian communities.

  • Sources
  • Julia G. Costello, ed., Documentary Evidence for the Spanish Missions of Alta California (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1991
  • Steven W. Hackel, Children of Coyote, Missionaries of Saint Francis: Indian-Spanish Relations in Colonial California, 1769-1850 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005).
  • Kent G. Lightfoot, Indians, Missionaries, and Merchants: The Legacy of Colonial Encounters on the California Frontiers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).


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Published October 11, 2010

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