Missions in Spanish California, 1769-1836

Posted on October 23, 2012


The 21 missions established after 1769 in Spanish California were, in fact, the primary economic engines of Spanish and then Mexican California.  The mission lands comprised hundreds of hectares of fields where wheat, barley, corn and other crops were grown and where orchards were cultivated. Within their acreages were also thousands of head of cattle and sheep. The missions long made the Fernandino padres who ran them the dominant players in the California power structure.

The missions were built, of course, entirely with Aboriginal labour, only some of it voluntary.  Their production in foodstuffs and other goods was also entirely the result of Aboriginal labour, only some of it voluntary.  So it is not correct to say that the padres were responsible for what the missions produced, although they are often given credit for it.  The padres recruited the labour, directed its confinement and planned its tasks, but Aboriginal people built and worked the mission complexes almost entirely.

The typical mission housed two padres (mostly recruited from Spain and trained in Mexico city) half a dozen soldiers of mixed blood ancestry (Spanish-African, Spanish-Aboriginal) and from 500 to 1200 Aboriginal “neophytes” who did the work.

Each mission was designed as a community on its own, with its own agricultural and craft facilities.  These complexes took twenty to thirty years to mature.  Most followed the same basic plan.  A central quadrangle was built around a square courtyard and work area.  Housed in the quadrangle were the church, the priest’s quarters, visitors’ quarters, kitchens, storage rooms, craft areas and dorms for young girls and unmarried women.  Outside the quadrangle was the “neophyte” village.

A visitor to Mission San Luis Rey in 1827, Auguste Duhaut-Cilly, encountered such a neophyte village and described it as made up of “thatched huts of different shapes but most of them conical, scattered or grouped in no planned order over a large expanse of ground.  Each holds one family, and all of them together contained at that time a population of more than two thousand people.”

When they could manage it, the padres preferred to substitute the Aboriginal people’s indigenous architecture in these villages with adobe structures, linear apartment blocks, one room wide, divided into single room apartments.  Each apartment housed a separate family, had small yards in front and back, doors in front and back, a central hearth and a back window.

Also located outside the central mission quadrangle, usually on the side opposite the “neophyte” village, were the mission guard quarters.

Not too far from the central mission complex could be found corrals, reservoirs, dams and canals for irrigation, walled gardens, fountains for bathing and washing clothes, and irrigated fields where vegetables, fruits, grapes and grains were grown.  Also housed or located nearby were pottery kilns, tanning vats and grist mills.  Farther away were fields for dry farming and ranges for cattle, horses and sheep.  Outlying territories were organized into ranchos where livestock was raised and some farming done.  Mission stations were established in outlying areas to serve rancho workers.

Pueblos established in Los Angeles, San José and Branciforte provided some support, but most food, goods and labour on the Spanish frontier was supplied by the missions.  The missions traded food and goods to the military presidios for credit redeemable in Mexico City, where an agent purchased on their behalf prayer books, trading beads, wool blankets, cloth, paper, spices, wine, rice and chocolate.

As gigantic, labour-intensive operations, the California missions had an impact on California that went well beyond their early economic importance.  The importation of European crops and animals had an epochal impact on California’s ecology.  And of course their social, economic, ecological, cultural and demographic repercussions in respect of Aboriginal people were devastating, not only for those unfortunates who were caught directly within their walls and operations, but by many communities who never felt a padre’s whip.

It was intended at the start that the missions were to eventually become the property of the Aboriginal people they were nominally established to serve, who after all built them and provided the original land. However, the padres never deemed the Aboriginal converts ready to take ownership. When everything changed, when the Mexicans wrested control from the Spanish in 1821, it became too late to carry out the original plan even if anybody still remembered it.

In the years following Mexican independence, the Californios, Hispanic residents of California, complained about the priests’ control of the best farmable land on the coast.  In 1834 to 1836, in response to these complaints, the lands were finally secularized and fell into Californio ownership.

When this happened, when the mission properties were divided up and redistributed, the Aboriginal people who had farmed the fields, fed and supplied California with their mission labour since 1769, the Aboriginal people whose land it originally was, were disinherited and forgotten.