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Missionary Activity in New Spain's Northern Frontier
Digital History ID 523

Author:   Alexander Forbes

Annotation: Writing shortly after the California missions were closed, a British traveler provides a vivid portrait of what mission life was like.

Document: Each mission has allotted to it...a tract of land of about fifteen miles square, which is generally fertile and well suited for husbandry. This land is set apart for the general uses of the mission, part being cultivated, and part left in its natural condition and occupied as grazing ground.... Most of the missionary villages or residences are surrounded by a high wall enclosing the whole; others have no such protection but consist of open rows of streets of little huts built of bricks: some of these are tiled and white washed and look neat and comfortable; others are dirty and in disrepair and in every way uncomfortable....

The Indian population generally live in huts...; these huts are sometimes made of adobes, but the Indians are often left to raise them on their own plan; viz. of rough poles erected into a conical figure, of about four yards in circumference at the base, covered with dry grass and a small aperture for the entrance. When the huts decay, they set them on fire, and erect new ones; which is only the work of a day. In these huts the married part of the community live, the unmarried of both sexes being kept, each sex separate, in barn-like apartments, where they work under strict supervision....

The object of the whole of the Californian or missionary system being the conversion of the Indians and the training of them up, in some sort, to a civilized life, the constant care of the fathers is and ever has been directed towards these ends.... The zeal of the fathers is constantly looking out for converts from among the wild tribes on the borders of their territories.... It must be admitted that with their particular views of the efficacy of baptism and ceremonial profession of Christianity in saving souls, the conversion of the Indians even by force, can hardly be otherwise regarded by them than as the greatest of benefits conferred on these people and therefore justifying some severity in effecting it. No one who has seen or known any thing of the singular humanity and benevolence of these good Fathers will for a moment believe that they could sanction the actual cruelties and bloodshed occasionally wrought in their name by the military and more zealous converts.

Source: Alexander Forbes, California (London, 1839).

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