Printable Version

Secularization of the Missions
Digital History ID 540

Author:   Narcisco Dúran

Annotation: As early as the late eighteenth century, the mission system had begun to decay. Missions received less aid from the Spanish government and few Spanish were willing to become mission priests. In increasing numbers Indians deserted and mission buildings fell into disrepair.

Mexican independence led to the final demise of California's mission system. Soldiers, rancheros, and farmers coveted the rich coastal lands that the missions controlled. Between 1834 and 1836, the Mexican government confiscated California mission properties and exiled the Franciscan friars. The missions were secularized--broken up and their property sold or given away to private citizens.

Secularization was supposed to return the land to the Indians. The plan for secularization of 1834 assigned one half the mission lands and property to neophytes in grants of thirty-three acres of arable land along with land "in common" sufficient "to pasture their stock." In addition, one half of the mission herds were divided proportionately among the neophyte families. In actuality, however, most Indians either were put to work on ranchos or went to live among Indians in the interior. Some former mission Indians congregated in local rancherías (dwelling areas on the perimeter of a hacienda) where an indigenous Spanish and mestizo culture developed.

By 1846, mission land and cattle had passed into the hands of eight hundred private landowners called rancheros. The rancheros controlled eight million acres of land, in units ranging in size from 4,500 to 50,000 acres. The ranchos, which mainly produced hides for the world leather market, relied heavily on Indian labor. Bound to the rancho by peonage, the Native Americans were treated virtually like slaves. Indeed, the death rate of the Native Americans who worked on the ranchos was twice that of southern slaves. In this selection, a leading California official, Narcisco Dúran, opposes the immediate secularization of all of California's missions.

Document: [Instead of secularizing all the missions at once] it appears to me that another principle...ought to be adopted, one that is less exposed to irreparable and sad mistakes, and which would not involve the loss of what has been achieved in half a century. This principle, according to which we should judge a mission ripe for secularization, should be gathered from the neophytes. It should regard the shorter or longer period since which the last pagans were received into the mission, and the greater or less aptitude noticed in them for living by themselves in a civilized manner; for it is evident that the less connection these Christian missions have with the pagan, the more must they be considered to have abandoned the vicious habits of the latter, and to have advanced in civilization; and from the greater or less inclination observed in them for work, the greater or less must their fitness to live by themselves be judged.

Following this principle, I am of the opinion that a trial secularization could be made at the missions of San Juan Capistrano, San Buenaventura, Santa Barbara, Purisima, San Antonio, San Carlos, Santa Cruz, and San Francisco; for in all these missions it is many years since a pagan Indian was admitted. On the other hand one sees in these neophytes some interest to cultivate their little gardens, which they care for moderately well and raise some produce when conditions are favorable, as when they are given the aid of implements, animals, and other conveniences, though not without the pain of seeing them lose those articles through the vice of drink, which has spread among them horribly. These might be secularized along with the missions if a certain amount of property which they might enjoy as their own were allotted to them. The rest of the property could be reserved in order that there might always be a fund or capital belonging to the community, and administered by themselves through mayordomos of their own choice and race, for expenses of Divine Worship, spiritual administration and others that might occur. In the beginning it would be well that the missionary have some kind of authority over said fund, but without any coercion of the mayordomos and alcaldes, because these are to bear all the responsibility before the government for the losses that may result for not appreciating the fatherly advice of the missionary. All this should be carried out with the warning to the neophytes that they will be put back to the old conditions under the missionaries, whenever it should be discovered that through sloth, preference for wild fruits, or an inclination to vagrancy or other vices, they neglect their property and frustrate the advance of civilization and agriculture which the government expects of them. At the same time, the government should see that similar results are observed in the white people, so that the natives may receive practical lessons through the eyes, which is the shortest road to progress. With these precautions the difficulties and drawbacks following the secularization of the missions may partly be overcome.

However, as soon as the experimental secularization of the said eight missions has been decreed, two difficulties will present themselves to the government. The one is the indifferent and slothful disposition of the neophytes, the other is the necessity of supporting...the maintenance of the troops who for twenty-three years have been subsisting upon the toil of the unfortunate Indians.... The indolent and slothful disposition of the neophytes is surely notorious and evident, since any one can observe with what little eagerness they do all that pertains to the community, notwithstanding that they know they are working for themselves. Nor is their activity much more lively and steady when working at some private task, or when they cultivate a piece of land allotted to themselves, inasmuch as for the sake of a diversion or some festivity in a neighboring mission they will abandon everything to damage from animals, and in one day with indifference allow the hopes of a whole year to be destroyed. It was only by means of the hard work and care of the missionaries that, under God, the great miracle of supporting these communities has been accomplished. It is true that their indifference and indolence is not quite so remarkable in keeping their own fields and gardens; but when they shall have to supply their own implements and tools, as will have to be the case when they become emancipated proprietors, it is much to be feared that they will not plant nor achieve much. If they evince some interest in having a garden, it is because some exemptions from community work are allowed them, and some liberty to roam about, which they would not have if they did no private planting.

As yet the missionaries have not the pleasure of seeing their neophytes devote themselves to agriculture for love of work; for this is against their naturally wild disposition and habits, which they inherited from their pagan state, so that it costs them much to lay aside the freedom natural to wild beasts, in which condition rude nature in a manner provided the necessaries without personal labor. This is the liberty they still crave.

The other obstacle to secularization is the necessity for these communities to support the troops whom the government does not pay in such a manner that with their pay they can procure subsistence wherever they find it. It is now twenty-three years that these poor soldiers know nothing about their salaries. Had it not been for the communities of Indians under the management of the missionaries, there would not have been any soldiers for the internal peace and the external defense, because they would have perished from hunger. Consequently, after the missions have been secularized, we can no more rely on them for anything; for, if the Indians notice that they must pay taxes on their private property, they will soon manage to have nothing, will abandon everything, and go off to the wilderness and tulares in order to live on the products of nature, and there will be no possibility of forcing them from their haunts. In their opinion they will thus gain, inasmuch as they will find themselves free from necessities whose absence in their savage state they never felt. It is the place of the governor to know his resources, and whether they can support the troops independently of these communities.

Source: Zephyrin Engelhardt, The Missions and Missionaries of California (San Francisco, 1913), Vol.III, 488-95.

Copyright 2021 Digital History