California's Mission System
Digital History ID 531
The missions constituted one basis of the Spanish plan to settle Alta California; the others were the presidios, or military garrisons, and the pueblos, or civil towns. The missions were the most important, for they became the granaries and the educational, religious, and cultural centers for the Indians who lived in areas surrounding them. Several cities grew up around the missions.
Recently, three artists and a historian produced a multimedia exhibition on California's mission system. A book accompanying the exhibition included a multiple choice quiz, which posed these questions:
The mission system is characterized by its:
b. "civilizing influence"
c. "social efficiency"
d. "forced-labor system"
Before the arrival of the missionaries, in what is now the state of California, there lived:
a. a larger number of Indians than anywhere else in what is now the United States
b. Indians whose detailed knowledge of the ecology enabled them to meet the nutritional needs of this large population
c. Indians with civilizations based on complex religions and ethical values
d. all of the above
To appreciate the missions today, you must view them:
a. in the gentle gold of predawn
b. in the fiery afterglow of sundown
c. under the silvery cast of the moon
d. through rose-colored glasses
Aside from conversion of the Indians, the missions' purpose was to turn them into productive citizens who could hold the land for Spain. Some missions, notably San Fernando, San Luis Rey, and San Gabriel, became centers of agricultural production, where armies of Indians provided unpaid labor. Others, such as San Francisco and Soledad, struggled against bad weather and Indian resistance to regimentation and Christianization.
The Franciscans lured Indians into the missions with various trinkets and ornaments. When food was scarce, Indians came to the missions for food. Once they were baptized the friars did not allow them to leave. Within the missions, the Indians were lodged separately by sex and were required to work growing crops, tending livestock, and constructing mission buildings. Indian laborers formed sand, clay, straw, and manure into bricks and covered the exteriors with plain stucco or plaster. Indian women scrubbed clothes. Indians who tried to escape were flogged. To ensure that they remained, some Franciscans prohibited them from growing crops outside of mission lands and forbade them from learning to ride horses.
Prior to the arrival of the Spanish California's Indians had not been a "primitive" people. They had complex systems of social and political organization and an elaborate system of religion, and had adjusted successfully to a wide variety of geographic and climatic conditions. But the missions were built under the assumption that their "pagan" cultural and religious practices had to be eradicated.
Smallpox, measles, tuberculosis, dysentery, and other diseases introduced by the Spaniards cut through the Indian populations. From approximately 300,000 in 1769, the number of California Indians fell to just 100,000 in 1834, when the mission system ended, largely as a result of disease, malnutrition, and a reduction in the birth rate.
In this selection, Pablo Tac, a Christianized Indian, describes life on a California mission in 1835, when the missions were being closed.
In the Mission of San Luis Rey de Francia, the Fernandino Father is like a king. He has his pages, alcaldes, major domos, musicians, soldiers, gardens, ranchos, livestock, horses by the thousand, cows, bulls by the thousand, oxen, mules, asses, 12,000 lambs, 200 goats, etc. The pages are for him and for the Spanish and Mexican, English and Anglo-American travelers.... The musicians of the Mission for the holy days and all the Sundays and holidays of the year, with them the singers, all Indian neophytes. Soldiers so that nobody does injury to Spaniard or to Indian; there are ten of them and they go on horseback. There are five gardens that are...very large. The Fernandino Father drinks little, and as almost all the gardens produce wine, he who knows the custom of the neophytes well does not wish to given any wine to any of them, but sells it to the English or Anglo-Americans, not for money but for clothing for the neophytes, linen for the church, hats, muskets, plates, coffee, tea, sugar and other things. The products of the Mission are butter, tallow, hides, chamois leather, bear skins, wine, white wine, brandy, oil, maize, wheat, beans and also bull horns which the English take by the thousand to Boston....
When the sun rises and the stars and the moon go down...the old man of the house wakens everyone and behind with breakfast which is to eat juinis heated and meat and tortillas, for we do not have bread. This done, he takes his bow and arrows and leaves the house with vigorous and quick step. (This is if he is going to hunt.). He goes off to the distant woods which are full of bears and hares, deer and thousands of birds.... His old woman staying at home makes the meal. The son, if he is man, works with the men. his daughter stays with the women making shirts, and if these also have sons and daughters, they stay in the mission, the sons at school to learn the alphabet, and if they already know it, they learn the catechism, and if this also, to the choir of singers.... The daughter joins with the single girls who all spin for blankets for the San Luiseños and for the robe of the Fernandino Father. At twelve o'clock they eat together.... The meal finished they return to their work.... Before going to bed again they eat what the old woman and old man have made in that time, and then they sleep....
Source: Pablo Tac, Indian Life and Customs at the Mission San Luis Rey, ed. by Minna Hews and Gordon Hews (San Luis Rey, Calif., 1958).
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