California Missions

The California missions are the series of 21 religious missions that were established between 1769 and 1833 by the Catholic monks of the Franciscan order. The main goal of those missions was to evangelize the Native population in order to increase Spanish expansion of the land and to strengthen its political power and influence on the new territories of North America. It is usually believed that Franciscan missionaries managed to peacefully introduce to the Native Americans their superior culture, while the latter willingly accepted it. However, the detailed analysis of the history of the California missions, particularly the Mission Santa Cruz, demonstrates that although the natives partly accepted the new culture, the path of public approval was marked with significant rejection and resistance to the monks’ efforts to assimilate local people.

Despite the initial hostile reaction of the Native Americans, the missions became the most productive and influential institutions of social organization launched by the Spanish colonialists in California. The first nine missions were founded between 1769 and 1784 by Father Serra, who decided to locate them every fifty to seventy-five miles between San Francisco and San Diego (Rice et al. 80). The colonists forced neophytes to build the missions with the simple materials. Stick, straw, and mud buildings were sometimes relocated to escape natural disasters, such as floods, and other negative phenomena, including water shortages or attacks of hostile Indians. By 1803, nine more missions had been established by Fermin de Lasuen, who reduced the distances between them and thus strengthening the control of the Spanish over the territories. He also improved the productivity and self-sufficiency of the missions: Lasuen supported the development of irrigation and agricultural projects which allowed the economic and industrial expansion and the rapid growth of the missions’ population.

Although the activity and the impact of the Franciscan missions may be contradictory, it is impossible to claim that their role was insignificant for the citizens of California. The majority of the first settlers, who served the missions, were very devoted, deeply religious, and especially idealistic monks. They believed that one of their goals was to save the souls of the Native Indians. Additionally, their leaders insisted on the acceptance of the European traditions and worldview by the locals. In fact, for the Spanish monks, acculturation was impossible without the religious conversion. The rejection to assimilate into the new culture meant failure. Thereby, the missionaries tried to control the daily routine of the neophytes – they regulated the time of waking, eating, sleeping, working, and worship. Moreover, they generally treated locals as small children, and their attitude towards Indians ranged from paternalism to race-based hatred (Rice et al. 80). Therefore, due to total control and complete disrespect for their native traditions, the indigenous people usually resisted the new mode of life imposed by the colonialists.

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In order to protect the missions and to maintain its military presence in California, Spanish officials started establishing presidios fortified with firearms and artillery. The fortresses aimed at guarding local districts and strategic roads to San Diego, Monterrey, Santa Barbara, and San Francisco. Additionally, up to ten heavily armed soldiers were in every mission to train neophytes and to control the natives (Rice et al. 81). Moreover, those soldiers were engaged in other activities of the communities. They helped to construct buildings, roads, and churches, carry mail, and supervise the land. In future, the presidios turned into the marketplaces and government centers. Since Spanish officials demanded the establishment of agricultural communities to support missions and to reduce the import from Europe, the colonists started forming “pueblos” which grew and became the large centers of secular life.

The main goals of the missions were to establish relationships with the Native Americans, to present them with European worldview, to spread Christian values, and to assimilate these peoples. Although many Indians were impressed by the culture, knowledge, and goods brought by the newcomers, they usually did not want to abandon their native lifestyle. Nonetheless, due to the persistence of the monks, the great number of local people learned Spanish and acquired new knowledge on the agricultural methods and the distinct industrial art – they learned how to produce and use metal knives, fishhooks, plows, arrowheads, and kettles (Rice et al. 89). Moreover, those who worked closely with the missions accepted Catholicism.

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Those factors affected their economic and cultural life because the natives cooperated closely with the soldiers and civilians of Spanish origin both outside and inside the missions. Consequently, due to social interaction, the monks managed to spread Spanish culture to the nearby regions located beyond the territories which belonged to the missions. For example, the southern areas were especially receptive. By the middle of the 19th century, many Indian tribes started herding sheep, horses, and cattle (Rice et al. 89). Moreover, they began growing European crops and started using irrigation techniques presented by the Spanish. Thereby, the majority of the native population became partly converted to the European religion and life.

Nonetheless, despite the new knowledge offered by the missioners, only a very small number of Indians became completely Hispanicized. Even assimilated Indians only used what they believed was valuable for their existence or household from the new culture while maintaining their old lifestyle. Similarly, Christianity was not fully accepted because many neophytes, who participated in mission activities, preserved their local customs and traditions (Rice et al. 89). Even though the native population utilized goods brought by the Spanish and spoke their language, they never stopped hunting, gathering, speaking old local dialects, and wearing indigenous costumes. Moreover, they continued using their tools, celebrating their rites and feasts, consulting shamans, and being loyal to their leaders. Thereby, the missionaries did not manage to completely assimilate the Indian population as it was expected by the colonial leaders. The monks assisted in reaching the confluence of two completely different worldviews.

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Regardless of the failure to meet a primary goal, the missions significantly changed the lives of local communities. It is obvious that due to the reorganization of both the natural environment and the lifestyle conducted by the Spanish, the reversion to the traditional ways of existence became almost impossible for the natives. Even though the system of missions collapsed and all native neophytes were able to leave, they still continued living and working for farmers at the nearby “pueblos.” Besides, they remained loyal to their old missions and continued practicing paganism and Catholic rites brought by the Franciscan monks (Rice et al. 89). Thereby, the impact of the Christian missions on the local population was irreversible.

One of the most interesting cases related to the establishment of missions in California was the foundation of the Santa Cruz mission. It started successfully but declined due to the variety of negative circumstances and the settlement of unpleasant neighbors. The Mission Santa Cruz was established by the Franciscan order on the territory of the contemporary Santa Cruz Island. However, the area around the northern shore of Monterey Bay received its name much sooner than the real mission was founded. One of the missionary priests Juan Crespi, who traveled and camped near the banks of the San Lorenzo River in 1769, named the location Santa Cruz, which translates as “Holy Cross” from Spanish (Castillo 117). In 1774, Father Francisco Palou traveled across the San Lorenzo River and became impressed by the favorable conditions of the land. He noted that the area was full of lush vegetation and forests of tall trees. He concluded that such a fertile land would maintain the prosperous life of a big community.

Father Fermin Lasuen chose the location of the mission. However, he was not able to attend the dedication. The foundation of the mission was an important event for the citizens of Northern California. Moreover, the Franciscan monks from Santa Clara and the officials of the San Francisco Presidio attended the ceremony. The visit of the latter demonstrated an improvement in the relationship between the military and the monks. On the 28th of August, 1791, Father Lasuen raised the cross on the location where Mission Santa Cruz had to be erected, and on the 25th of September, 1791, it officially became the 12th mission in California.

That mission was named for the Exaltation of the Holy Cross – the Christian feast that takes place on the 14th of September and celebrates the cross used for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The Holy Cross turned into the primary symbol of Christianism. During the construction of the mission, the relationship between the Church and the state was positive, which allowed a very quick erection of the permanent buildings. Moreover, other prosperous missions sent gifts to Santa Cruz in order to support their activity. Thereby, the population around the mission grew very fast due to the active involvement of Christian community.

After moving the first mission to a higher location due to permanent floods caused by the San Lorenzo River, the monks started erecting the new main church out of stone in 1973, which had been serving the mission for 65 years. Later, other infrastructure buildings, such as the gristmill and weaving rooms, were built. By 1796, approximately 500 people had joined the mission. They mainly came from Ohlone and Yokut (Engelhardt 502). The majority of them came because they were curious about the new religion. Additionally, if a chief decided to join it, the entire tribe followed him. The first neophytes were allowed to live in their villages, while the mission bells summoned them to work or to church.

In the beginning, the mission was very successful. The fertile soil near the river allowed growing orchards and crops; cattle and sheep had plenty of land to graze; the locals were engaged in weaving, blacksmithing, spinning, and making tiles. Moreover, the efficient agriculture made it possible to send food to the missions in the south (Engelhardt 503). However, after the six years, the mission started encountering the variety of difficulties. In 1797, the local officials decided to build a pueblo of Branciforte near the mission (Engelhardt 508). The settlers of that town wanted the natives to work on their land. They offered them money for their work and lured them away from the mission. Since many criminals lived in pueblo, cattle, sheep, and food were stolen from the Santa Cruz mission. Moreover, Villa de Branciforte turned into the criminal center, where citizens drank, gambled, and gathered to discuss smuggling operations.

The establishment of the pueblo was the turning point, which caused the decline of the Mission Santa Cruz. Since many Indians were tempted by the new lifestyle presented by the secular colonists, they ran away from the mission. Thereby, by 1798 the population of 500 neophytes had reduced to 300 (Engelhardt 510). However, the townspeople did nothing to help the mission. Instead, they belittled the importance of the mission and rarely helped them. For example, in 1818, Hippolyte de Bouchard, a famous pirate, was raiding and burning the nearby settlements. The priests of the Santa Cruz mission decided to evacuate all the residents in order to save them and asked the officials of Branciforte to keep the valuable items of the mission (Engelhardt 518). Even though the town agreed to help, the citizens vandalized mission’s property. After the priests and other inhabitants returned, they found that people of Branciforte looted the mission. They burned the buildings, ruined the food and wine storehouses, and stole valuables.

Due to the negative influence of the neighboring town, the priests of the mission were forced to severely restrict the movements of the natives. Simultaneously, the locals believed that such a strict confinement was unreasonable. The confrontation led to the murder of one of the mission’s priests (Castillo 121). However, the disobedience of the native population was not the only problem which the missionaries had to face. Another reason why the Mission Santa Cruz had the lowest population in California was the inability of the local population to fight European diseases. Since such illnesses as scarlet fever, flu, and measles were new, all priest’s attempts to cure them were useless. Neither European methods of treatment nor the shamans’ medicine helped. Thus, while thousands died, others simply escaped to avoid diseases.

The cruelty of the mission’s priests was the final reason why the majority of the native population ran away. The soldiers were often ordered to punish the neophytes by beating for working slowly or visiting pueblo. Other types of punishments included jail or leg irons. The mission leaders also restricted the natives to return to their homes in the hills after they were baptized. Regardless of the restrictions, many locals tried to leave. Those who were captured received even more cruel punishments. In 1812, two neophytes were beaten with a wire-tipped whip: even children, who did not reach eight years, were beaten to punish their parents (Castillo 118). The natives usually did not resist violently to such a cruel attitude. On the contrary, they simply stole, worked poorly, refused to speak Spanish, and continued practicing their native ceremonies and rites.

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Thereby, due to those circumstances, many Native Americans either died or ran away. By the beginning of the 19th century, the population of neophytes in and around the mission had reduced greatly. In order to recruit the new working force, the priests traveled to the central regions, but the local people refused to join the mission. The monks violated the Spanish laws, which restricted them forcing the natives to join the mission, and ordered the soldiers to capture the locals and to bring them to Santa Cruz. Nonetheless, the newcomers also escaped illnesses and the cruel attitude of the priests. Therefore, the population of the Mission Santa Cruz remained one of the smallest. In fact, it did not manage to return to the success it had during the first years of its establishment.

In conclusion, the impact of the Spanish missions in California should not be underestimated. Even though the main goal of the Franciscan monks was to baptize the indigenous peoples of the North America, the missions also contributed to the establishment of towns and pueblos, which turned into significant secular centers of public life. Simultaneously, the example of the Mission Santa Cruz demonstrates not only that the process of assimilation of the native people was difficult and complicated but also that the state colonization policy conducted by the Spanish officials, who started and supported the activity of the missionaries, sometimes caused the decline of its own missions.

 

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