End the mission madness
A personal perspective
A typical fourth-grade mission model created by a student.
If you attended fourth grade in the state of California, chances are good you built a model of one of the 21 Spanish missions stretching from San Diego to Sonoma. Chances are also good that you remember almost nothing important about the missions’ critical role in California history nor the painful and fascinating story they tell.
Knowing how the missions were built is the least interesting thing about them – who built them and why is the story that is really worth learning. For example, when I was a docent at the San Francisco de Solano Mission, I could have casually mentioned that the original chapel stood on the western side of the four-sided complex. The more interesting tidbit is that the chapel had to be rebuilt because it was burned down by Native Americans revolting against Fr. Altimira’s tyrannical rule (yes, the man for whom one of Sonoma’s middle schools is named).
My favorite thing about history is that it’s surprising – shocking even. You would think that historians would really have this pinned down by now, that we would know definitively everything that every happened and why. The reality is that the past is as expansive as the future. If you ask the question, “What really happened?” you can spend a lifetime chasing the answer.
I love California history because it is practically a telenovela – full of unexpected twists and turns and lots of crazy characters. To that end, I’d like to take you back to fourth grade and share some of the things you should have learned when you were instead gluing together sugar cubes and spray-painting macaroni. (If you were wondering what you were supposed to learn, please refer to History and Social Science Standard 4.2 on Page 13. Note that “Students must be able to build a scale model of a mission” is not indeed a standard. If anyone has insight into the origins of this tradition, please let me know!)
California was not empty. It’s hard to say exactly, but it has been estimated there were more than 200,000 Native Americans, speaking more than 100 languages, living in California when colonizers started showing up. (You think our state is diverse today?)
Back then, everyone wanted a piece of California. The first explorers to land here hailed from various world powers – England, Spain, Russia. Those countries’ rulers were doing anything they could to get a foothold and get control of California’s abundant resources.
Spain’s approach was to found missions, with military outposts alongside them, that were supposed to become fully functioning towns.
The mission fathers were benevolent AND cruel. It’s hard to make a broad generalization about an entire group of people. First and foremost, remember that these priests were political operatives, tasked with turning Native Americans into Spanish-speaking, Catholic citizens of the crown. They grew so powerful that the Spanish crown eventually expelled all the Jesuits from the new world, secularizing the church’s assets.
That said, they were on the front lines and anyone well knows that things look different from the frontier than they do from headquarters. I won’t discount the good works that individual priests did in their mission communities or the advocacy of those like Spanish priest Bartolome de las Casas, who was one of the few people at the time who chronicled and protested the mistreatment of Native Americans. But the priests were also spreading and perpetuating a system that did tremendous harm to California native peoples, and that, too, cannot be discounted.
The Native Americans got the raw end of pretty much every deal. If you think that slaves in the south liked having a master, then maybe you also like to imagine that the missions were happy-go-lucky places and the Native Americans were always thrilled to be there.
The treatment of Native Americans is one element of mission history that is probably most disputed, and I would encourage anyone who cares to read different perspectives. But if the only one you’ve heard is “Spanish priests were doing God’s work to save the souls of the Natives and give them food and shelter,” please dig deeper.
Yes, many Native Americans signed up at the missions by choice. But, once baptized, they did not have the choice of leaving and were forcefully kept there and even hunted down if they ran away.
There were a lot of different factors at play – this was a period of huge change. One factor that drove Native Americans into the mission system was that the Spanish introduced livestock to California, which had a huge impact on the environment that Native Americans relied upon for their traditional hunting and gathering. There was also the devastating impact of disease, made worse by the concentration of the population at the missions, which helped disease spread more quickly. The Native American population dropped by an estimated 90 percent during this period. Please try to imagine 90 percent of the people you know dying.
Apart from life under the mission system, the period that followed was possibly worse (refer to the novel, “Ramona,” which is California’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”). Once most Native Americans were fully dependent on the mission economies they had built up through their labor, the Mexican government decided to secularize the missions. There was talk of splitting the land among the neophytes, but ultimately most of it went to powerful and wealthy men, the Native Americans were thrown out with nothing and ended up having to work on the new ranchos.
If you thought the Spanish and Mexicans were bad … The Americans soon proved to be just as bad, if not worse, in their treatment of the Native Americans. Spain at least had the stated goal of preparing Native Americans to be citizens with full rights. The United States had no such intention. With the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ending the Mexican-American War, the United States took over many of the former mission properties, generally didn’t recognize the land titles held by Native Americans and put the reservation system in place.
This is far from a definitive account of the history of the California missions, but I hope it spurs students to visit a mission nearby and find out more. And when your child’s fourth-grade teacher demands you spend your weekend building a model of a mission, I suggest you take your cue from the mission Indians and revolt.