Join me as I dive into another listener request!
This week's topic comes thanks to long time listener Sam, who requested I dive into the history of the California Missions.
Those of us who grew up in California likely remember learning about, and potentially even visiting, the Missions spread throughout the state. But what prompted their creation? Who lived in the Missions? And why do they continue to loom so large in California history?
California As I Saw It: First Person Narratives of California’s Early Years: 1849 to 1900. “Spanish California.” Library of Congress. Digital Collections. (LINK)
California As I Saw It: First Person Narratives of California’s Early Years: 1849 to 1900. “The Missions.” Library of Congress. Digital Collections. (LINK)
California As I Saw It: First Person Narratives of California’s Early Years: 1840 to 1900. “Mexican California.” Library of Congress. Digital Collections. (LINK)
“California Indians, Before, During, and After the Mission Era.” California Missions Foundation. (LINK)
Castillo, Edward D. “Short Overview of California Indian History.” State of California Native American Heritage Commission. (LINK)
Chapman, Charles E. “The Jesuits in Baja California, 1697-1768.” The Catholic Historic Review, April 1920, Vol. 6, No. 1 (April, 1920), pp. 46-58. Catholic University Press of America. (LINK)
“History of the Landmarks Program.” Office of Historic Preservation. (LINK)
Reynolds, Christopher. “A history of California’s missions.” The Los Angeles Times. September 6, 2014. (LINK)
“San Francisco Solano.” California Missions Foundation. (LINK)
Starr, Kevin. California: A History. New York: Modern Library, 2005.
NCC Staff. “The Mexican-American War in a Nutshell.” Constitution Daily, National Constitution Center. May 13, 2021. (LINK)
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Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee.
Hey peeps. Welcome back.
This week, I am diving into another listener request. Sam - a long time supporter and listener of the pod, requested I dive into the history of the California mission system. You can listen to Sam over at Two Songs, One Couple where she and her husband break down songs and give you the back story and amazing factoids of the music they choose for each other. We did a collaboration a few months back; I would highly recommend it if you haven’t listened to it yet.
But getting back to her request; If you’ve ever visited California, then you may be aware there are a series of missions spread throughout the state, stretching from San Diego to the city of Sonoma. The original structures themselves have long since collapsed and been rebuilt, with only small remnants still viewable. There are a total of twenty one missions you can visit and learn more about California and missionary history. I remember when I was in school, the history of the missions was focused on the franciscan priests and how each outpost was about a day’s journey by foot. However, like with most things in history, there is a bit more beneath the surface.
So what was the mission system? Why did it arise? What were its impacts? And why did it end?
Grab your cup of coffee, peeps. Let’s do this.
Before diving into the establishment of missions, let’s first dive into when and how Europeans came across the California shores. Spanish travelers initially found their way to the California coast in the sixteenth century, circa the 1530’s. While Spanish explorers saw the potential in securing their place along the rocky shores of the territory, the crown had neither the finances nor overwhelming desire to commit themselves to developing the land and therefore left the area basically untouched for over a hundred years. The interest in further exploring the mountainous coast came back around towards the late 1600’s, but one major problem still remained: just who would be sent in to develop and establish Spanish communities.
And this is where the highly influential organization known as the Jesuits come into play. Established missionaries committed to converting local populations to Catholicism while working within their existing culture, the Jesuits held significant sway and power when looking at developing new territory. Originally, the Spanish government tried to convince Jesuit priests to take up the cause, offering a sum of 40,000 pesos per year for their efforts. This offer was initially rejected as the Jesuit order felt the payment insufficient given the landscape and lack of population of California. However two priests, Eusebio Francisco Kino and Juan Maria de Salvatierra, later became interested in further exploring the territory and expanding their missionaries west.
While Spain wanted a blended secular society, the Jesuits were committed to their model. As historian Kevin Starr noted in his overview of California, the priests were more interested in quote: “jesuit-controlled communities, oriented toward and staffed by Native Americans, with only a minimal presence of secular soldiers or colonists,” end quote. After much back and forth, the priests were given permission to move into Baja California and they erected the first mission community in 1697. The Jesuits found success in developing their missions, eventually creating eighteen missions in the region and maintaining their system for seventy years.
All that changed by 1765 as Spain became convinced the Jesuits held too much power and the desire to expand Spanish rule took priority. The Spanish government began seizing Jesuit holdings and banning them from the territory. But just as the Jesuits were banished, the Franciscans moved in, ready to further the mission of colonizing the California territory and quote unquote civilize the savages indigenous to the area. Whereas the Jesuits often worked within established cultures of the people they sought to convert, the Franciscans had a much different approach and opinion of the people they worked to baptize under God.
It is the Franciscan established missions that are preserved today and what most of us learned about in school. In the franciscan model, the purpose of the mission system, in theory, was to provide a chance for conversion and education for the locals with the intent to eventually assist the native population with integrating into a secularized society, allowing the missionaries to move on and establish a new post further inland or up to the coast. The land where the missions were built would be transferred to the native population to work and earn a living, further supporting the supposed need to teach them the skills of brick making and plowing. In practice, the missionaries never left, arguing the local population was never quite ready to live on their own. Of those who did successfully convert, often referred to as neophytes or mission indians, few were given this promised land and even fewer found success at working their plots.
In southern california where the mission system originated, the native population was composed of several tribes such as the kumeyaay and serrano, who had, for generations, worshiped and honored their own set of gods and deities. To entice the first americans, the franciscan priests promoted their trading ability, often offering beads and food to gain the interest of the locals. This act of coercion worked given the environmental upheaval brought on by Spanish settlement, which upset the local communities balance with their surroundings. Given the exploitation of local materials and plant life, many of the resources indigenous communities relied on for centuries became less reliable and the guarantee of a consistent food source acted as a carrot to get locals to participate in the mission system.
The first mission founded under the franciscans was San Diego de Alcala, established by the famed father Junipero Serra on July 16, 1769. Like the Jesuits, the Franciscans wanted to convert as many as possible; but unlike the Jesuits, the Franciscans were disinterested in allowing the local tribal members to maintain their own culture and way of life. As I mentioned previously, part of their religious training included learning the tasks and trades required for future integration into the european model of living. This meant teaching them skills such as farming, weaving, carpentry and leather working, among other touted useful tools that would increase their ability to become a productive member of the local society. This approach, of course, failed to take into consideration that the local population managed to survive without said skills for generations.
Once baptized within the mission, the local tribes' people were expected to stay within the community and work in exchange for their religious education. Though local tribal members were lured with the offer of trade and food, once they were inside the mission, they were not allowed to leave and had to live in a manner deemed acceptable to the priests who oversaw the mission. And while some went into the system initially by choice, this wasn’t always the case and many were taken by Spanish soldiers. From historian Kevin Starr, the local indigenous population was quote: “being forced from their homelands, brought into the mission system - frequently against their will - and treated as children not yet possessed of full adulthood” end quote.
To ensure the native population lived in a manner deemed acceptable by the priests, the missions were separate and distinct communities, sectioned off from local tribal villages. The priests often promoted intermarrying between the tribes, blending cultures and creating further separation between indigenous americans and their historic experiences. Indigenous women were at an especially high risk for exploitation, often falling victim to sexual assault by Spanish soldiers who also carried with them venereal diseases. And speaking of disease, the forced tight living quarters served as a perfect breeding ground for airborne illness and diseases the indigenous americans had no natural immunity to, leading to the death of thousands of first americans, only further eroding the preservation of indigenous culture.
All of this contributed to a sustained resistance to this forced method of living. Local tribesmen often attacked the missions, burning the buildings to the ground. Serra’s first mission, dedicated in 1769, made it only a year before it was attacked by locals and burned down. The Native population actively and sometimes violently resisted this encroachment onto their way of life and some priests were murdered as a result. In 1775, a group of local first americans attacked the Mission San Diego, killing the priest on site, Father Luis Jayme.
Despite the consistent and often forceful pushback to the establishment of these communities, Franciscan priests continued their efforts to further colonize the california territory, slowly moving up the coast and establishing new missions about thirty miles, or a day’s journey, apart. Over a fifty four year period, twenty one missions were established throughout California, with the final mission established on July 4th, 1823 in what today is known as the city of Sonoma. So why did the missions suddenly stop midway through the state?
In 1821, Mexico was at war with Spain for control over their territory and successfully gained their independence. Unlike Spain, Mexico was not interested in continuing the practice of conversion via the mission system and supported the idea of creating secularized societies, shaping their government into a republic to emulate the United States. Additionally, the Mexican government likely saw the writing on the wall and the impracticality of trying to maintain a system that had thus far been unsuccessful and was consistently met with violent opposition.
In 1833, Mexico passed legislation ending the mission system and ordered the land distributed to “hispanicized indians” and new entrants to the territory. The secularization efforts began in earnest in 1834 and it took Mexico just a few years to meet their goal, with the final mission being completed in 1836. And as for the land distribution? Well I do not think I have to tell you that the indigenous americans who were supposed to inherit their promised land rarely saw this commitment fulfilled.
As often the case throughout history, some less than scrupulous individuals undercut the Mexican government’s plans by securing ownership to the land grants and made off with nearly ten million acres, half of which was supposed to be designated for the support of the indigenous population who had been forced to live within the mission walls and work the land. The desire for land within the California territory only exploded under the nationalist sentiment of Manifest Destiny, culminating in the Mexican-American War in 1846 where California, and several other soon to be states, were secured with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
The fight over land within the golden state would explode just a few years later as gold was discovered in the waterways in 1849, leading to one of the largest influxes of immigrants in United States history, and putting the territory on the fast track towards statehood in 1850.
The mission system lasted from 1769 to 1834, and according to the meticulous church records kept by the priests, nearly 90,000 baptisms and over 24,000 marriages took place throughout its short history. Of course these records neglect to capture the devastation the mission system wreaked upon the indigenous population. Scholars estimate that before the mission era, nearly three hundred thousand native americans walked the california territory. By 1834, only an estimated twenty thousand individuals remained.
As the missions were abandoned, the buildings quickly fell into disrepair and deteriorated rapidly. Neglect, combined with damage from natural disasters, led to the destruction of the adobe based buildings. So if the system was terminated and the buildings destroyed, why are the missions such a consistent presence in California history?
After California became a part of the United States, a sense of romanticism about the mission era prompted several individuals to raise money to restore the buildings and a newfound focus on preserving California history and it’s landmarks spread. In 1895, the Landmarks Club was established in Los Angeles; their focus was historic preservation and they began with the missions.
Though a brief span in history, the impact of the mission system continues to be felt in California today. Many of the highways that run throughout the southern half of the state match the trails navigated by the indigenous and later the spanish priests as they developed their mission communities. And throughout the state the influence of spanish architecture, art and language is palpable; from the spanish style homes of coastal towns like Santa Barbara to the agriculture prominent throughout the state, California still bears the marking of its Spanish past.
In the last few years, public historians have made a concerted effort to provide the full account of the mission system and include the stories of the forgotten residents, sharing the names of those who lived and died within the mission walls and the ramifications of european contact. At the Sonoma Mission, there is now a dedicated plaque containing the names of the indigenous residents who were buried on site.
Thanks again to Sam for suggesting a dive into the history of the California missions. I am always fascinated by the topics you all choose and have fun learning - or in this case - relearning history. If you have a topic you want me to dive into, please let me know. You can reach me through all of the various social channels - instagram, facebook, twitter or via the website www dot civics and coffee dot com. The website has all sorts of good stuff like source material, transcripts and information on how you can help support the show.
And with that peeps, I bid you adieu. I’ll see you next week.
Thanks for tuning and I hope you enjoyed this episode of Civics & Coffee. If you want to hear more small snippets from american history, be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening and I look forward to our next cup of coffee together.