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Missionary Activity in New Spain's Northern Frontier
Digital History ID 525

Author:   Captain F. W. Beechey
Date:1831

Annotation: A major instrument of Spanish settlement along its northern frontier was the religious mission. Although Spain tried to establish missions throughout Mexico's northern frontier, the mission system was only truly successful in coastal California. Through flight and armed revolt, Indians in other areas successfully resisted missionizing.

In New Mexico, efforts to set up missions among the Apaches, Hopis, Navajos, and Zunis all failed. In southern Arizona in the late seventeenth century, Jesuit missionaries founded missions at Tumacacori and San Javier del Bac. But after Spain expelled the Jesuits from its possessions in 1767 and the Yuma revolted in 1781, no missions remained in the area. Twenty-seven missions were established in Texas in the century after 1690, but by the end of the eighteenth century, Texas had only six functioning missions in the region.

The first California mission was built in 1769. By 1821, there were twenty-one missions along the California coast. Unlike the New Mexico missions, which were churches and friars' quarter adjacent to Indian pueblos, the California missions were meant to be self-sustaining communities. Indian neophytes were taught skills like masonry, carpentry, smithing, weaving and leatherwork. By the 1830s, over thirty thousand Indians lived in these missions, raising crops, tending livestock, and producing handicrafts. In this selection, Frederick Beechey, a British sea captain, describes the operation of the California mission system.


Document: The object of the missions is to convert as many of the wild Indians as possible, and to train them up within the walls of the establishment in the exercise of a good life, and of some trade, so that they may in time be able to provide for themselves and become useful members of civilized society. As to the various methods employed for bringing proselytes to the mission, there are several reports, of which some are not very creditable to the institution: nevertheless, on the whole I am of [the] opinion that the priests are innocent, from a conviction that they are ignorant of the means employed by those who are under them.

Immediately the Indians are brought to the mission they are placed under the tuition of some of the most enlightened of their countrymen, who teach them to repeat in Spanish the Lord's Prayer and certain passages in the Romish litany; and also to cross themselves properly on entering the church. In a few days a willing Indian becomes proficient in these mysteries, and suffers himself to be baptized, and duly initiated into the church. If, however, as it not infrequently happens, any of the captured Indians show a repugnance to conversion, it is the practice to imprison them for a few days, and then to allow them to breathe a little fresh air in a walk around the mission, to observe the happy mode of life of their converted countrymen; after which they are again shut up, and thus continue to be incarcerated until they declare their readiness to renounce the religion of their forebears....

The Indians are so averse to confinement that they very soon become impressed with the manifest superior and more comfortable mode of life of those who are at liberty, and in a very few days declare their readiness to have the new religion explained to them. A person acquainted with the language of the parties, of which there are sometimes several dialects in the same mission, is then selected to train them, and having duly prepared them takes his pupils to the padre to be baptized, and to receive the sacrament. Having become Christians they are put to trades, or if they have good voices they are taught music, and form part of the choir of the church. Thus there are in almost every mission weavers, tanners, shoemakers, bricklayers, carpenters, blacksmiths, and other artificers. Others again are taught husbandry, to rear cattle and horses,; and some to cook for the mission; while the females card, clean, and spin wool, weave, and sew; and those who are married attend to their domestic concerns.

In requital of these benefits, the services of the Indians, for life, belong to the mission, and if any neophyte should repent of his apostasy from the religion of his ancestors and desert, an armed force is sent in pursuit of him, and drags him back to punishment apportioned to the degree of aggravation attached to his crime. It does not often happen that a voluntary convert succeeds in his attempt to escape, as the wild Indians have a great contempt and dislike for those who have entered the missions, and they will frequently not only refuse to re-admit them to their tribe, but will sometimes even discover their retreat to their pursuers. The animosity between the wild and converted Indians is of great importance to the missions, as it checks desertion, and is at the same time a powerful defense against the wild tribes, who consider their territory invaded, and have other just causes of complaint. The Indians, besides, from political motives, are, I fear, frequently encouraged in a contemptuous feeling toward their converted countrymen, by hearing them constantly held up to them in the degrading light of bestias! [beasts] and in hearing the Spaniards distinguished by the appellation of génte de razón....

The children and adults of both sexes, in all the missions, are carefully locked up every night in separate apartments, and the keys are delivered into the possession of the padre; and as, in the daytime, their occupations lead to distinct places, unless they form a matrimonial alliance, they enjoy very little of each other's society. It, however, sometimes happens that they endeavor to evade the vigilance of their keepers, and are locked up with the opposite sex; but severe corporal punishment, inflicted...with a whip...is sure to ensue if they are discovered.... It is greatly to be regretted that, with the influence these men have over their pupils,...the priests do not interest themselves a little more in the education of their converts, the first step to which would be in making themselves acquainted with the Indian language. Many of the Indians surpass their pastors in this respect, and can speak the Spanish language. They have besides, in general, a lamentable contempt for the intellect of these simple people, and think them incapable of improvement beyond a certain point. Notwithstanding this, the Indians are...clothed and fed; they have houses of their own...; their meals are given to them three times a day, and consist of thick gruel made of wheat, Indian corn, and sometimes acorns, to which at noon is generally added meat....

Having served ten years in the mission, an Indian may claim his liberty.... A piece of ground is then allotted for his support, but he is never wholly free from the establishment, as part of his earnings must still be given to them.... When these establishments were first founded, the Indians flocked to them in great numbers for the clothing with which the neophytes were supplied; but after they became acquainted with the nature of the institution, and felt themselves under restraint, many absconded. Even now, notwithstanding the difficulty of escaping, desertions are of frequent occurrence, owing probably, in some cases, to the fear of punishment--in others to the deserters having been originally inveigled into the missions by the converted Indians or the neophyte....

Source: Captain F. W. Beechey, Narratives of a Voyage to the Pacific and Bering's Strait (London, 1831), 3: 1-23.

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