Three unprecedented events characterized Spain's epic year of 1492. On January 2, the last Moorish stronghold in Granada fell. Regaining the country after seven centuries solidified the Spanish ego, sense of identity, and purpose, and it was now time for the married Catholic rulers Fernando and Isabel—he the heir to the throne of Aragon and she the heiress to the throne of Castile—to establish Christian dominance over the country's widespread landholdings. Next, Alexander Borgia, a Spaniard, was elected Pope Alexander VI, providing the king and queen with a strong ally in their Christianizing efforts. Lastly, Columbus's foot, planted on the sandy soil of Hispaniola, introduced the New World to the power, authority, and might of the Spanish empire's imperialism—and to the Spanish Roman Catholic mission system.
Throughout history Christianity has shown great success in propagating itself because it has had a chameleon-like ability to mirror, reflect, and occasionally include stylized aspects of the traditional ways of worship it seeks to replace. This determination has transformed social relations, cultural meanings, and personal experience among indigenes worldwide and has been a cataclysmic event that caused a lasting sea change among thousands of American Indians.
As an example of the progression of the Spanish mission system westward across the United States, active Spanish exploration began with four men: Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca and three companions who had been shipwrecked off the coast of Texas in the late 1520s. They swam to shore, escaped in 1534 from captivity by hostile Indians, and marched toward the setting sun where they joined a Spanish slave ship anchored off the coast of Guaymas, Mexico (Stockel, 2004, 1). Safely situated in Mexico City, Cabeza de Vaca addressed the viceroy and told of his experience, which led to two subsequent explorations by Fray Marcos de Niza in 1539 and by Francisco Vasquez de Coronado in 1540. The eventual settlement of northernmost Mexico's region followed, including what was to become New Mexico and Arizona.
A set of written guidelines, the Laws of the Indies (Cutter and Engstrand, 1996, 64–65), promulgated in 1573, directed all Spaniards' behavior in the New World, stating, for instance, that the primary purpose of occupation was to convert the Indians to Christianity without injury to them. Twenty years later, in 1595, explorer Juan de Oñate signed a contract for the conquest and settlement of New Mexico but the long march did not begin until 1598. Eighty-three wagons and almost 7,000 head of livestock stretched out along the trail northward from Mexico City for about four miles. Eight Franciscan priests and two lay brothers, eager to work mainly among the Pueblo Indians, participated in the expedition; more than twenty villages containing thousands of Natives awaited.
The area of Spanish religious colonization was in the Rio Grande Valley, reaching from what is now El Paso, Texas, to Taos, New Mexico (Burke, 1974, 84). Along the way the friars might have discussed and planned how to accommodate the Indians' religious beliefs and at the same time instill Christianity. They did not realize that the Puebloans did not represent a unified group, were independent of each other, and had no tribal or political organization or that many did not speak the same language. Shared traditional religious beliefs rested on the fact that their forebears originated near the center of the earth and, after generations of overcoming obstacles through cooperation that helped them climb upward, eventually emerged into the light at the surface of the earth; the most important aspect of pueblo life remained the common good, or the welfare of the group rather than the person. Consequently, Christianity's emphasis on individual salvation was a totally foreign concept and directly at odds with a powerful belief that had been passed down through the generations. Nonetheless, using several methods of persuasion such as introducing agricultural tools and techniques, and teaching construction methods, the friars gradually ingratiated themselves. Another means of convincing skeptical Indians that the Europeans meant no harm was through entertainment. At one village's plaza, colonists staged a mock battle simulating Spain's ancient conflict between Christian kings and invading Moors. Although the pantomime afforded a welcome diversion, it also was meant to convey the impression that the Indians were the current Moors and would be defeated if they resisted (Kessell, 2002, 78).
The plaza was a mission's central site and was usually ringed by the church, missionary's residence, Indians' shelters, carpenter and blacksmith shops, spinning and weaving rooms, stock corrals, fields, and irrigation ditches. The missions were thought to be relatively inexpensive to establish and were expected to continue evangelizing, proselytizing, and indoctrinating Indians for up to ten years, at which time they would become self-supporting, secular entities responsible to a diocese and would serve as a hub for colonization.
The first part of the seventeenth century has been characterized as a golden age of missions. The friars had established their own rules, answering to the head of missions, a man who was known until 1616 as the "father commissary." He reported to his superiors in the New World, through them to the Franciscan Order in Spain, to the king, and finally to the head of the church, the pope. The priests divided the region into districts, each managed by one Franciscan who was responsible for seeing that a church, a school, and a convent were built. Usually the missionary lived among the Indians while they were creating a large mission complex, but periodically traveled to the smaller villages to serve mass, preach, baptize, and marry or bury the Natives who had become Christians.
New Mexico's Franciscans supervised and Pueblo Indians built approximately fifteen churches in the villages along the Rio Grande. Construction routinely began with the priest marking a church's outline on the ground, after which women and children made and laid adobe bricks and plastered the thick walls. The men cut, hauled, and peeled the logs, called vigas, used for roof beams. They next placed branches, called latillas, close to one another, often on an angle, across the beams and covered them with loose earth, which became packed down and hardened in time by rainwater and the sun; frequently grass and weeds sprouted from the soil.
Both the New Mexico and Arizona missions were supplied by caravans of thirty-three wagons that left Mexico City every three years. A great deal of space was allotted to articles essential for missionization, especially tools such as metal axes, saws, adzes, augurs, and planes and small materials—nails, latches, and hinges. Religious furnishings for the churches—like sacred vessels, fabrics, bells, a painting or two for the chancel, incense, and missals for the mass—were necessarily included. If any room remained, it was packed tightly with clothing and personal items that had been requested by the priests: Sackcloth for new robes, sandals, and linen were popular requests. Miscellany such as beeswax candles and incense for the censer, as well as sheets of music, could only come northward from Mexico.
The mission system in New Mexico reached its peak around 1640 and stabilized for fifteen years, but it never reached the desired quota of sixty-six priests throughout the area. Animosities developed between the religious and secular authorities, driving a wedge of competition for free Indian labor. (Surviving Natives had become increasingly disabled and unable to work due to the effect of imported communicable diseases.) But at least two external conditions brought the religious and secular authorities together in the late 1660s and into the next decade: A serious drought affected the amount of food available, and raids by Apaches demanded an alliance of the authorities, particularly since the Puebloans were looking toward the military forces for protection. By 1680 deteriorating trust in Spanish power and prestige motivated a Pueblo revolt that drove the priests, political personnel, and settlers southward, out of New Mexico and into El Paso; thirty-four priests and innumerable Spaniards were killed (Kessell, 2002, 119–124).
Twelve years later, a bloodless reconquest of Santa Fe and the rest of New Mexico brought the Spaniards back. During the intervening years, the Puebloans endured such severe raids from Navajos and Apaches that they welcomed the returning Europeans, including the priests. Missionary and secular work was cautiously resumed. Under the watchful eye of seventeen Franciscans, Indians repaired the churches that had fallen into ruin since the revolt and built new edifices. Once again, however, Indians in some of the pueblos were close to rebellion, and in 1696 another revolt broke out in which five missionary priests and more than twenty Spaniards were killed. Within a few months the military had the situation under control, the mission system became invigorated, and it continued with only a few interruptions.
In spite of continuing Indian threats, the Franciscans stood fast and managed their missionary and exploring activities among the non-Christianized tribes, but success was elusive. Franciscan influence declined over the years and friars either departed or died. Since the supervising Bishop of Durango did not have sufficient diocesan priests to replace them, many churches and chapels in the pueblo villages were vacant by the end of Spanish rule in 1821.
An overlap between Franciscan and Jesuit religious efforts in northern Mexico (present-day Arizona) happened during the early 1600s before the Franciscans were forced, because of a political conflict, to leave the area and concentrate their efforts in New Mexico. Later, in 1636 the first Jesuit stood on Indian ground in Ures and loudly proclaimed the Word of God; by 1649 the Jesuits had the Sonoran mission field to themselves. Here, the process of mission building began with carefully selecting a site, usually a spot that had been an Indian ceremonial center (Stockel, 2004, 54). The indoctrination of the indigenes into Christianity started by applying a policy of reducción/congregación—moving Indian populations out of their villages and resettling them in mission communities where European diseases quickly gained a deadly foothold. (Not incidentally, the policy also left most Indian lands open to appropriation by colonizing Europeans.) Under Spanish supervision in the missions, the disruption of Indian cultures occurred daily as the Natives became ill and were forced to hear about European religion, ideas, customs, and behavior. Importantly, the Jesuits enforced indoctrination into Christianity through supervision, control of labor, and the threat of discipline.
Friendly, sedentary Indian tribes who depended on agriculture for their sustenance were easy targets for the Jesuits, but the nomadic groups, such as the suspicious Apaches, remained elusive. Regardless of the apparent level of cooperation, however, varying degrees of resistance existed among Native peoples while living with the religious Europeans in the missions. Established rules and precepts dictated the type of discipline to be meted out to unruly Indians, ranging from mild punishment such as briefly withholding food and water to the most severe such as flogging or worse.
Before 1687, when the venerable Jesuit Eusebio Francisco Kino arrived and led the Christianization effort in northern Mexico, the Jesuits had already indoctrinated thousands of indigenes into the European ways. Still, Kino's proselytization and evangelization were invaluable examples to the toiling priests; his written description of one village church is testimony to the successes.
The mission has its church adequately furnished with ornaments, chalices, cups of gold, bells, and choir chapel; likewise a great many livestock fields, a garden with various kinds of garden crops, Castilian fruit trees, grapes, peaches, quinces, figs, pomegranates, pears, and clingstones . . . a forge for blacksmiths, a carpenter shop, a pack train, water mill, many kinds of grain, provisions from . . . harvests of wheat and maize, and . . . horse and mule herds . . . a few gifts and attractions with which, together with the Word of God, it is customary to contrive to win the minds and souls of the natives (Stockel, 2004, 56).
By the middle to late 1700s, Apache raids on the missions had become uncontrollable and political intervention was necessary to avoid the continuing destruction of the religious complexes. Under the Instructions of 1786 (Stockel, 2004, 79), which effectively created "peace establishments" out of the missions, all hostile tribes were offered the option of surrendering and living in these facilities under the watchful eye of Spanish military administrators, or of remaining free and risking total annihilation by an increased army presence. Although this policy shift diminished the Franciscans' role by replacing religious authority with military jurisdiction, the priests nonetheless continued proselytizing whenever possible at the peace establishments. Mexico's successful war of independence from Spain ended the Spanish mission system in 1825 when financial support ceased.
By 1683, a short-lived mission had been established at Loreto in Baja California. Two years later, however, Loreto was abandoned due to the lack of water and difficulty in obtaining supplies. It was not until 1697 that a permanent compound, Misión Nuestra Señora de Loreto, was founded by Jesuit Juan Maria de Salvatierra and became home of the mother mission. A positive relationship developed between the Jesuits and many Baja Natives even though the missionaries demanded hard work in the fields and in building the mission complex. Abundantly available stone, rather than adobe, was the choice material in Baja. Friendly, cooperative Indians were taught crafts, trade, preparation of European foods, and they were educated in the Spanish language and Catholic dogma.
The Jesuit era here also ended in 1767 but, during their years at Baja, eighteen cabceras (main missions), located from the southernmost tip of the peninsula at Cabo to Santa Maria, 600 miles to the north, were constructed under only sixteen Jesuits' jurisdiction. The tragedy of the Baja effort derived from the European diseases that so overran the missions and decimated the populations that about 25,000 died, leaving only 7,000 souls at the time of the Jesuits' departure.
In 1768 Franciscans Junípero Serra and Fernando Parrón assumed responsibility for the Baja missions, using Loreto as headquarters. With the exception of Serra, the friars stayed in Baja for five years, until 1773, struggling to gain the same authority and respect enjoyed by the Jesuits, but only one new mission was established, Misión Santa Maria, which became the site of Serra's departure for Alta California in 1769.
The Dominicans followed the Franciscans into Baja and established their first mission in 1774. The following years were filled with struggle and failures. The missions in the south had badly deteriorated and those in the north were always subject to hostile Indian attacks. The Dominican regulations, meant to guide their behavior toward the Natives, called for "swift and sure punishment for all offenses," a striking and—for the Indians—confusing change in policy from the Franciscans' attitude. Remaining constant, however, was the effect of the diseases, so severe that by 1834 the Baja missions were nearly deserted; the last Dominican missionary departed the peninsula in 1855.
In response to the threat of the foreign occupation of Alta California by Russia, the Franciscan Order directed Serra to leave Baja for the northern territory. There, on July 16, 1769, he founded the first Franciscan mission by raising a cross, singing, and calling out the Word of God to curious and unfriendly Indians from under a ramada (crude shelter) at San Diego on July 16, 1769; the Monterey mission was next, 650 miles to the north, on June 3, 1770.
Twenty-one Franciscan missions were ultimately founded by Serra and his successors, each begun as a temporary ramada, a shelter of stakes with roofs of thatch or reeds, which was eventually replaced by buildings of stone or adobe; each mission was a day's horseback ride or fast march from one another through hospitable terrain mainly of lush grasses and free-flowing water—a landscape often in direct contrast with New Mexico's and Arizona's harsh environmental settings.
When functioning at a high level, the Alta California missions hummed: Men were tanning, blacksmithing, making wine, tending stock, constructing, and working in the fields. Women cooked, sewed, spun, and weaved. However, the education of the Natives in the Spanish language, customs, and religion, the expected by-product of missionization, was difficult to achieve because "the culture of the Indians was so backward." This belief may have fostered the friars' prevalent view of the indigenes as "children who offered little companionship for a highly educated man. Nor could he [the friar] count on his military escort for much personal communion," but his associate, the second Franciscan [pairs were usually assigned to each mission], kept him from being too lonely in the remote regions of Alta California.
Most mission Indians presented no threat, but still a guard of about half a dozen soldiers at each mission maintained order and returned runaways. Although the military were often in conflict with the priests regarding how best to discipline the recalcitrant Indians, the usual punishment was a day or two in the stocks, quite a contrast with the more severe reprisals in New Mexico and Arizona missions.
Despite this difference, other major procedures, processes, and events occurring among the three missions were similar: The indigenes were congregated in an intense environment controlled by the Europeans, educated when possible in the European culture and religion, forced to erect structures and tend the fields and livestock, punished when necessary, and exposed to diseases against which they had no immunity; in time the survivors were expected to pay taxes to the empire. However, success at indoctrination into Catholicism depended on the individual Indian. While many sincerely adopted the European religion and were converted to Christianity in the Spanish missions, others paid only lip service and hid their ancestral ways in their hearts.
Many descendents of those Indians today practice Christianity openly, but still revere and venerate their rich heritage. Many ancient rituals are still practiced by tribes as they had been long ago. Other ceremonies have been modified in various aspects but still reflect ancestral ways. Even though the Spanish mission system was a powerful force in introducing Christianity to preliterate indigenous peoples of the New World, the Europeans spread illnesses so devastating that the entire religious effort saved only a fraction of the souls initially evangelized and proselytized for what the Spanish in their imperial heyday saw as the greater glory of God and empire.
H. Henrietta Stockel
The California Missions: A Pictorial History. Menlo Park, CA: Sunset Magazine.; Burke, Rev. James T. 1974. "This Miserable Kingdom:" The Story of the Spanish Presence in New Mexico and the Southwest from the Beginning until the 18th Century. Santa Fe, NM: Cristo Rey Church.; Cutter, Donald, and Iris Engstrand. 1996. Quest for Empire: Spanish Settlement in the Southwest. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing.; Drain, Thomas A., and David Wakely. 1994. A Sense of Mission: Historic Churches of the Southwest. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.; Kessell, John L. 2002. Spain in the Southwest. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.; Parsons, Francis B. 1975. Early 17th Century Missions of the Southwest. Tucson, AZ: Dale Stuart King.; Polzer, Charles W. 1976. Rules and Precepts of the Jesuit Missions of Northwestern New Spain. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.; Stockel, H. Henrietta. 2004. On the Bloody Road to Jesus: Christianity and the Chiricahua Apaches. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.; Vernon, Edward W. 2002. Las Misiones Antiguas: The Spanish Missions of Baja California 1683–1855. Santa Barbara, CA: Viejo Press.