By Heather Ye
Note: Click on the pictures to enlarge them
Missions were an important part of America’s history. They had a huge impact on America today.
Missions were formed by the Spanish in 1769 to colonize the territory of Alta California, and to convert Native Americans to the Catholic religion. At that time, they didn't know what to do with the missions though. There were a few suggestions for the purpose of the missions, but it was hard sailing from Spain to Alta California with the rough waves and the powerful waves to sail against. Spain also had other priorities. What caught Spain's attention was that the Russians started going farther down the west coast of North America from Alaska. The Russians were spotted near present day San Francisco in the 1760s.
Spain sent some settlers to the missions, but not very many wanted to go into the wilderness. The Spanish had good results in using the missions to claim other parts of North America.
The Franciscan padres saw this as an opportunity to convert the Native Americans to Catholic Faith. Most of the Native Americans were forced to go to the missions to be baptized, and others either came by choice or curiosity. Once they were baptized, they followed their traditions and lived in the missions. They thought that they could transform the Native Americans into “good people” before they died.
Father Junipero Serra formed the missions. Father Serra was a Spanish Franciscan friar and a Catholic priest. Father Serra’s goal was to Christianize the Native Americans. He was born on November 24, 1713, on a Spanish island of Mallorca, which is in the Mediterranean Ocean. His parents, Margarita Ferrer, Antonio Serra, sent him to a Franciscan school. In 1749, he traveled with his fellow Franciscans, who intended to work at a mission near Mexico City. Father Serra took went to Vera Cruz by ship. Despite his ill condition from the voyage, he insisted on walking all the way to Mexico City, which was over two hundred miles away.
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For about fifteen years, Father Serra worked in Mexico with the same tasks as he had in Spain, but he also took in the missionary work. In 1767, the Spanish emperor had missions built in both Baja California and Alta California.
Father Serra spent the rest of his life as the leader of the Franciscans and working at the missions in Alta California, but he was in a bad condition. He was over fifty years old, and he was alarmingly thin, suffering from asthma, and badly injured in one of his legs, determined Father Serra continued to found missions. He also is famous for his punishment caused by shame: wearing shirts with pointed wires jabbing in at his body, whipping himself until he was bleeding, and holding a lit candle to his chest, scarring his body.
Father Junipero Serra died on August 28, 1784, at the age of seventy, and is buried at Mission San Carlos Borroméo in the church. Near the end of his life, he told his friend and confessor, Father Francisco Palou: “I desire you to bury me in the church, quite close to Father Juan Crespi for the present; and when the stone church is built, they may put me where they want.”
There were twenty-one missions built in all from 1769 to 1823 in Alta California, mostly near the coast from San Diego to north of San Francisco. The chain of missions stretched for over five hundred miles. The first mission was Mission San Diego de Alcalá, founded on July 16, 1769, by Father Serra. The last mission to be was Mission San Francisco Solano, founded on July 4, 1823. There was also an extra nine missions in Baja California.
In order, the missions go from: Mission San Diego, Mission San Carlos Borroméo, Mission San Antonio, Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, Mission San Luis Obispo, Mission San Francisco, Mission San Juan Capistrano, Mission Santa Clara, Mission San Buenaventura, Mission Santa Barbara, Mission La Purisima Concepcion, Mission Santa Cruz, Mission Nuestra Senora, Mission San Jose, Mission Juan Bautista, Mission San Miguel Arcángel, Mission San Fernando Rey, Mission San Luis Rey, Mission Santa Ines, Mission San Rafael Arcángel, and Mission San Francisco Solano. The missions go from southern Alta California to northern Alta California.
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The missions had to have fresh water, good soil for growing crops, land for livestock, and Native California villages.
All of the missions had bells. The bells were usually hung in a bell tower or a companario. In some missions, they kept their bells in a bell wall.
Bells were used to call people to church at dawn. They were also used to notify people of the time and day, and to control daily life at the missions. In the mission period, nobody had watches. These mission bells started the day. Bells were also rung at midday to indicate a meal, and also at dusk to show that work was over.
In the early missions, the bells were sent by ship with other supplies from New Spain, also known as Mexico. They were seen as necessary. Even when the mission wasn’t built yet, they would hang a bell at the top of a pole.
The missions had a big effect on America. It changed the lives of most of the Native Americans. Once they were in the missions, most weren’t allowed to practice their own religions and had to follow the Catholic religion. Some of the Native Americans tried to run away, but they were caught. They adjusted to the mission life. Everyday at the mission was very uniform, the people ate meals at scheduled times, the Native Americans learned a new language (Spanish), and they would work for the rest of the day until the bell rings to call them back to their homes.
After the Mexican War of Independence, in 1833, the missions were secularized and sold by the Mexican Government. The mission land was either sold or given away. The Mexico’s leaders wanted to make Alta California’s economy stronger. Half of the mission land went to people who would start farms and ranches. That would bring trades to California. The other half was supposed to go to California Indians, but as usual, they were treated unfairly and very little California Indians got land. Most of the land grants went to Californios and new settlers. Even if the California Indians got land, they couldn’t understand Spanish and didn’t know what the people were saying.
When the mission land had been sold or given away, the buildings crumbled. It wasn’t until the 1900s when the missions were repaired. Even so, Alta California had changed. Father Serra had converted thousands of Native Americans and introduced agriculture to California. Unfortunately, the Native Americans were not able to continue their own religion.
Missions changed many lives of people and brought new ways of life to California. It would not be the same if missions had not been formed.
Mission San Juan Capistrano
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Mission San Juan Capistrano, “Jewel of the Missions”, was the seventh mission. It was first planned on October 30th, 1775, by Father Fermín Lasuén. It was quickly abandoned because there was news that there was a revolt on San Diego. The padres and soldiers decided to leave San Juan Capistrano and to go to San Diego to help them. The mission building crumpled during an earthquake. It was finally re-founded on November 1, 1776, when Father Serra led a party of people to San Juan Capistrano.
The Great Stone Church only stood six years until on December 8, 1812, when the earthquake shook most of Southern California. The church bell tower fell into the church, killing a few people. When the shaking finally stopped, about forty people had died and the church was in ruins. It was never rebuilt.
It took a long time to build Mission San Juan Capistrano. For the first two years, there was not enough water in the area to drink or water the growing crops. They decided to move near the an Acagchemem tribe where the water supply was large. But the friars and soldiers still needed help building the mission. They decided to be cunning and led the Indians by attracting them with food and jewels. The Indians were also curious at the tools that the Spanish were using. Eventually, some of the Acagchemem joined the missions and helped build it.
Some of the Acagchemem and the Spanish people gathered the materials in the area. They chopped down trees and cut the trees into planks.
Like the six missions before Mission San Juan Capistrano, it was to expand the boundaries for Spain, and to spread Christianity among the Native Americans here, to “save their souls”.
The tribe that was near Mission San Juan Capistrano was mainly Acagchemem tribe. When the Spanish arrived, they called the Native Americans the Juaneño. This tribe did not have a written history, but historians have been able to learn their way of life through artifacts and stories that have been passed down from generation to generation.
Like many other Native American tribes in Alta California, the Acagchemem lived in a small village, most of them near a source of water. They made their homes in a cone shape using a wooden build with reeds and brush on top of it. The outer parts were put on by layers, like a roof on a house, to keep the inside dry. These huts were called kiitcas.
The Acagchemem tribe’s life had a lot to do with nature. Their religion, clothing, food, homes, and weapons were all made or had nature to do with it. This was a good thing; when they needed to survive by on their own, they know what they need to get from their environment.
Though the Acagchemem were very attached to their way of life, the Spanish wanted them to follow Spain’s ways. The tribe’s lifestyle was changed forever when Mission San Juan Capistrano was founded. The missions baptized the Native Americans and taught them how to make adobe bricks for the walls.
Mission San Juan Capistrano was named after a 14th century theologian, Saint John of Capistrano. He was a Franciscan friar as well as a Catholic priest.
This mission is famous for the return of the swallows. The miracle of the swallows happens on March 19th, St. Joseph's Day, at Mission San Juan Capistrano. As these little birds fly all the way to Mission San Juan Capistrano every year, the village of San Juan Capistrano is alive with people that have come from around the world to witness the migration. When they arrive at Mission San Juan Capistrano at early dawn, they start rebuilding the mud nests that hang on to the remains of the Great Stone Church.
After spending a summer in the sheltered walls of the old mission, the swallows leave to South America, about 6,000 miles, returning next spring. On the Day of San Juan, October 3rd, they leave after circling the mission as if they were saying goodbye.
Mission San Juan Capistrano is built along the coast of California, on the coast, in present-day San Juan Capistrano, Orange County, Southern California. The founders noted that it was important to build it here because of the water source, three streams and the Trabuco Creek. The sea routes were very important, and that is why Mission San Juan Capistrano is built near the ocean. Some people come to the missions by ship.
The population in Mission San Juan Capistrano grew steadily. In 1797, there were 1,000 neophytes. The highest the population ever went was in 1812, where there were 1,361 people. When Mission San Juan Capistrano was secularized in 1833, there was still 861 neophytes.
If you walk in through the courtyard you would see a fountain in the courtyard. In front of you, there are the storerooms. To the left are the the workshops and to the right is the Serra Church. If you turn around, you would be facing the kitchens. When you go in the Serra Church from the courtyard, in front of you would be the cemetery. If you go all the way back to the entrance of the mission, on one side of the kitchen, is the soldiers’ quarters, and on the other side of the kitchen is the friars’ quarters. The bell wall is on the right of the friars’ quarters, and the Great Stone Church is on the right of the bell wall.
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Mission San Juan Capistrano, with its beautiful architecture with the Great Stone Church in a heap on the ground, is probably one of the most scenic missions.
A Day in the Missions
October 12, 1793
I woke up with a start, the bells ringing loudly. Another day at the mission. The routine for the missions was always the same for me: wake up, eat breakfast, work, eat lunch, work some more, eat dinner, and sleep, all at certain times and places. I wasn’t used to this schedule when I first joined the missions. Life for California Indians was very free, and that was what I wanted and enjoyed.
As I slipped out of bed, I thought about how I once tried to escape the missions. How clever the missionaries were to lure me into the missions with beads, and how foolish I was to fall into the trap! I live in a dormitory-like building called a monjerío. Unmarried women and girls over the age of eight lived here. Outside of the building was the only exit and entrance of the monjerío, the courtyard. An older woman, a matron, would guard the monjerío, either from harm or to prevent them from escaping. A couple of other girls tried to escape with me. We somehow all got past the matron, but some other guards caught us and we were led back to the mission and given a punishment.
I walked out of the building and into the kitchen where I took a bowl for a serving of food. I was still not used to eating this kind of food. It was very different from what I used to eat with my tribe. I looked longingly at the potatoes, beans, onions, peppers, squash, and some fruit on the counter, and wished I was eating freshly hunted and cooked venison, along with some blackberries and acorn meal. Even though I did eat beans and squash before, I didn’t like the rest of the food. But when the lady piled some food in my bowl, I ate it all anyway. There’s no point starving yourself when you have a full day of work ahead of you.
I finished my food quickly and waited until the bell rung again. It was time for work. I returned my bowl and headed outside. I walked into a room where the weaving loom was, and saw a pile of wool and some fresh string in a pile on the table. I was a weaver. It was very important work - we made our clothing, rugs, and blankets from weaving. We usually used wool from sheep. The men sheared the sheep every spring. I work at the loom, but some other people use hand carders to clean out the wool and make them into string. If I finished my work early, I usually help them or make some grass baskets. When we joined the missions, we continued making these baskets. Even the missionaries agreed that they were useful.
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There was no one there yet. Most people are a few minutes late. I took the wool, placed them into a grass basket, and set up the string onto the loom. Because all of the stuff is where it’s supposed to be, I began weaving. A few other people come in to help me. Smiling as my friend sat next to me to weave with me, we exchanged a few little quiet conversations. We aren’t supposed to talk while doing work, but since no one really comes in to check what we’re doing, I guess it’s alright to talk a little, as long as we’re still doing our work just as fast and good. Some other people positioned themselves at a loom, while others sit at the table and start combing the wool.
I worked at my loom until the bell rung again, summoning us to the kitchen for lunch. I walked back into the kitchen, grabbed my bowl, and scooped a serving of lunch. I eat all of my bread, apples, and potatoes. My fingers were a little sore from working at the loom for hours. I flexed my fingers before returning the bowl back on the counter with a loud clang. I watched people hurrying to places through the empty doorway before stalking back to my room where my loom was. After a while, the bell rang, and people poured out of the kitchen and separating into different rooms to continue their work.
I found that some people are already working. I quickly sat down and arranged the string on the loom. Threading the yarn in and out of the holes in the loom, I started wondering what my brother might be doing. I rarely get to see him once I joined the missions, since he’s not a weaver. What might he be doing right now? Feeding the animals? Shearing the sheep? Making soap and candles? Building houses out of adobe? I had no idea.
Interrupting my thoughts, my neighbor tapped on my shoulder. “Need more string?” she asked. It was one of the people who clean the wool. In her hand was a large bundle of yarn. I shook my head. Nodding to indicate she understood, she moved on, asking everyone if they needed more string. I looked down at my loom and concentrated on weaving.
When the bells rung again, my hands were aching. All of the people that I worked with slowly turned their heads away from the loom and stood up. I wandered outside and into the kitchen. I got my bowl and sat down. Without bothering to look what was in my bowl, I started eating it with my fingers. Finishing it quickly, I hurry back to my room, the sky darkening, but still continuing my work. My thoughts made me behind schedule.
I finish working on the loom and sat on the floor to weave some baskets. My fingers fly across the dry grass, pulling and stringing. The bell rung for us to go to sleep, but I kept on working on the basket.
When I was finally done, I sneaked out of the empty room and silently tiptoed back to my room. The guard was not there yet, so I crawl inside my room and drop into bed. The world faded away as I wearily fell asleep….
Startled, I woke up, the sounds of bells ringing in my head. Outside of my room, people were already hustling to places. The sounds of shouts, voices, and bells all woke me up. At first, I thought this was strange. Why would these people wake up so early? But then I reminded myself that this was nothing strange. Just another day at the mission.
The Importance of the Missions
The missions bought many things to California and had a certain importance in its history. First, they bought Catholicism to America. By converting the Native Americans, they were spreading their religion to California. Although many Native Americans wished to be left alone and to continue their own religion, it was a new lifestyle for all of them.
Secondly, the missions bought many trades such as hides and tallow. When the missions were secularized, the land was given to many people who have cattle, and they became ranchos. The land given away were called land grants. This trade, the hides and tallow from the cows, lured many ships, which brought money to the missions, another two reason why the missions were important. There were also many other trades that the missions brought by being secularized and turning it into something else. All someone had to do to claim the land was to draw a picture of it.
Twice a year at the ranchos, they held rodeos to round up the cows and brand the calves. When the rodeo was over, the fiestas started, which was another thing the missions started. These were often celebrated after people came to California. After the ships came, or people came by land, it also meant people were settling in California. This raised the population of California greatly.
Also, when the missions were founded, the presidios and pueblos were built. The pueblos were small towns near the missions, which became larger towns today. The missions were often a large part of a city. The pueblos and missions also required presidios, which protected both of them.
There were some hardships that formed because of the missions though. For example, they completely changed some Native Americans lives. When they were baptized, they were no longer allowed to go back to their tribe, forced to go by their tradition.
The Spanish also brought along diseases that killed many of the natives, nearly wiping out numerous tribes. They killed about ninety percent of the native’s population. Although they didn’t intentionally bring the diseases to use as a weapon, it greatly affected their people.
The journey to Alta California was hard and tiring for the explorers. Even if they did survive the brutal trip, they were taking over the Native Americans land. By building the missions, they were stealing their land without permission.
If they succeeded in getting the land (which they almost always did), there was the building of the missions to think of. Because they had to toss so many goods and supplies out in the tiresome expedition, they had to find new building materials in their surroundings. Since they weren’t really familiar to the plants and elements around them, who would they ask? The Native Americans. The buildings were hard to build because they first had to make a sturdy brick made of earth, straw, and manure. Then they had to be dried before it could be solid.
The Native Americans were not pleased by this arrangement. They often planned revolts, which included setting fire to buildings, killing the missionary people, and other attacks of this sort.
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As the missions had to be protected by presidios, the soldiers at the presidios had a hard time. They had a big job - protecting the missions and pueblos. It was the soldiers’ job to defend the other people from the revolts and predators.
Apart from the Native Americans not being happy about the missions, they were also sad that they had to be separated from their families. Some people had to be separated from their family because they were forced into the missions, but if they were lucky enough to be with their family, they were separated in the missions.
It was hard work, working at the missions all day. People’s fingers grew sore, they were exhausted from harvesting the plants, they walked all day trying to find a dim-witted and curious tribe to lure back to the missions, they were stiff and tired from hauling bricks to the builders, and other jobs.
For instance, Mission San Juan Capistrano, the seventh mission, is still being used today. The people who work there use great effort trying to preserve the mission itself. Some people go to the church regularly. Others may go there to visit the museum. Mission San Juan Capistrano is open to all people. It is both a historic landmark and a museum.
One place worth visiting is the Great Stone Church. Although it has never been rebuilt after the earthquake, it’s interesting to see the wreckage. Many people gather at Mission San Juan Capistrano every spring to see the swallows that make a temporary home at the Great Stone Church. Mission San Juan Capistrano is known for many things today and the swallows that wing their way back here with the crowds cheering them on will never be forgotten.
All in all, the missions brought many traditions and although it didn’t work out for the Native Americans who were here long before the Spanish, California might have been completely different if the missions weren’t here.
- Houghton Mifflin, History Social Science, California Edition, Grade 4, Boston, 2007
- “California Missions Resource Center”, www.missionscalifornia.com, 13th of March 2015
- “The Spanish Missions of California”, www.californias-missions.org, 13th of March 2015
- “Mission Life and Style”, www.studiesweekly.com, 13th of March 2015
- “The California Missions Trail”, http://www.parks.ca.gov, 24th of March 2015
- “Junipero Serra”, www.pbs.org, 24th of March 2015
- “Te Missions”, www.californiamissionsfoundation.org, 31st of March 2015
- “The California Missions Trail”, www.parks.ca.gov, 1st of April 2015