Missions of California: A history

Posted by dawson12 on March 26th, 2015

During the 17th century, when new territories were being annexed, Spanish Franciscan priests started building religious and military stations in California. The purpose of this effort was to spread the message of Christianity among the local community there, mainly the Native Americans. From 1769 to 1833, the Catholic priests built 21 such outposts throughout the region. They are now commonly known as the Missions of California.

The effort of the Franciscans was a pioneering achievement in the scheme of colonization of the Pacific coast of North America which was the furthest extent of the Spanish empire. While the priests introduced the native people to European ways of life, the interaction between the Spanish and the Native Americans had detrimental results too.

Aims of the missions

  • The primary aim of the missions of California was becoming self-sufficient. The work of the missions began with farming where they started growing staple food such as flour, barley, wheat, cereals, etc. This was also the time when California’s world renowned citrus industry had its inception. The priests began growing berries, apples, grapes, peaches, etc. The missions of California saw the growth of ranches as raising cattle became part of their life’s work.
  • There were bakeries, tanneries, carpentry shops, foundries, forges, etc. within the premises of the mission. They made soap, medicine, candles, wool and many other daily necessities themselves.
  • Each of the missions of California were responsible for providing the local “presidio” or Spanish fort with their daily provisions.
  • However, in spite of all the practical purposes served by the missions, their main goal was to spread Christianity among the local people simultaneously. Rudimentary education was imparted to the Native Americans by the priests.

Military outposts

California under Spanish occupation was divided in to four separate military zones at the head of which was a presidio. Each of these missions or military outposts were responsible for protecting the other missions and Spanish communities living within their territory. Due to the very opposed nature of the work carried out by the missions and the military outposts, their relationship in the balance of power was always conflicted. They clashed on almost every issue – from distribution of supplies to the negative nature of the soldiers’ duty. 

The religious mission of the Franciscans

Spain used the papal right of evangelisation to impose their rule on the Native Americans of California. During their stay at the missions of California, the Franciscan priests baptized new believers from among the indigenous population. Once they were accepted in to the faith, they lived in settlements that relied on the mission. They worked there as well. While the men were made to work in the fields, herding cattle and other harsh physical labour, the women were made to make dresses, embroider, knit, cook the food, wash clothes and do general cleaning and housekeeping chores.

After a period of being supervised by the Spanish, the missions of California passed into the hands of the local government and now serve as sites of historical interest.

One of these Missions is Old Mission San Luis Rey – to learn more about California Missions visit Old Mission Museum and take virtual tour. More information gather at this link http://www.sanluisrey.org/museum/

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