This article was posted on Friday, Sep 01, 2023

The construction of Spanish missions was cabined by limitations on skilled labor, available building materials, and the priestly desire to create notable buildings, perhaps even reminiscent of the grand public buildings in Spain. This article briefly summarizes the effect of Spanish rule on the Indians providing the unskilled labor that first constructed and later supported the various Alta California missions.

Presidios (4) – Spain, in the years prior to 1769, occupied herself in furthering her empire in what are now the states of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. There was no significant interest in Alta California until Spain learned that Russian fur traders had crossed into Alaska and were following the coast south.
Spain’s response to the Russian encroachment, devised by Spain’s King Carlos III, was to reinforce Spanish hegemony by establishing a series of fortified military stockades (presidios), agricultural towns (pueblos), and missions (proselytizing centers) along the Alta (upper) California coast. Concurrently, the king ordered the California Indians to be educated and Christianized, thereby transforming them into Spanish subjects and reinforcing Spain’s claim to the land. King Carlos did not, however, provide the necessary funds. The local Spanish governors, already operating on a tight budget, lacked the financial and military resources necessary for such an undertaking. The governors turned to the Franciscans for help.

The church overlooked the requirement to educate the California Indians, but did agree to Christianize them in exchange for their uncompensated labor. The fact that no one thought to discuss this with the Indians may suggest that their agreement was not required.

The church appointed Friar Junipero Serra, head of the missionaries in Baja California, as the chief of the civilian contingent to Alta California. Serra then associated  himself with a company of the Spanish military (under separate leadership) to form the expedition. Together, they developed, over time, a few fortified stockades defended by infantrymen and the occasional canon. Presidios came to be located in four Alta California locations: San Diego, Los Angeles (no longer extant), Monterey and San Francisco. 

Soldiers had both military and civilian tasks. They disciplined recalcitrant Indians, caught runaways, and put down any resistance from the civilian colonists. But they also surveyed land, carried mail, and designed and built public works like roads and bridges. Historically, these were not new responsibilities. Roman soldiers faced the same military-civilian duality millennia before. Some of the stone roads the Romans built on their way to Hadrian’s Wall can be admired even today.

Pueblos (8) – Civilians established agricultural towns (pueblos) whose purpose was to provide a portion of the foods necessary to the Presidio and the local mission. These foods included fruits and grains, vegetables and meat animals. The latter consisted of cows, pigs, the occasional horse / or mule, and the ever-abundant chickens. Lack of refrigeration and the risk of spoilage caused chickens, and their eggs, to be the most common protein source. A family could consume a single chicken at their Sunday meal with very little waste. The bones were used for broth and the feathers for pillow-stuffing. Even the eggs consumed at breakfast were beneficial. The eggshells became a source of the calcium needed by laying hens. They were dried and crushed, then recycled in chicken feed. A chicken fed adequate calcium laid more eggs and the eggs had sturdier shells, meaning they were less likely to break.

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Missions (21)Missions were constructed with an eye towards civilizing local Indians via (i) forced religious conversion, (ii) training in semi-skilled labor, and (iii) the demonstration of proper respect towards their Spanish masters. 

This tripartite mission system (military presidios, civilian pueblos, and religious missions) had served Spain well in their incremental occupation of what is now Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Christian missions became the major colonizing instruments for the Spanish. By the 1750’s the pattern of presidios, pueblos, and missions gave Spain a grip on her North American possessions.


Site Selection

Following receipt of authority to build, the on-site workmen would search for a location that had access to a good water supply, sufficient wood for fires and building material, and ample fields for grazing herds and raising crops. When a likely plot was found and approved, the site would be blessed by the religious authorities and the work of construction begun.

First, the corners of the church would be pegged. Then the remainder of the mission complex would be laid out. Per Wikipedia, the typical mission complex, in addition to the church, would contain priests’ quarters, kitchens, a refectory (dining hall), workshops, soldiers’ and servants’ living quarters, various storerooms, and a convent, where the unmarried women and girls were kept. 

Convents were considered a necessity by the priests, who were convinced that captured Indian women must be protected from their nighttime desires regarding the resident men, Indian laborers and Spanish soldiers alike. The men sometimes had similar feelings during breakfast.

Due to cramped and unsanitary conditions within the convent the death rate of both women and children was high. In 1832 the mission fathers performed 87,787 baptisms and recorded 63,789 deaths. This 73% mortality rate was referenced by author and attorney Carey McWilliams (Chief of the Division of Immigration and Housing of the State of California, 1938 – 1942) as support for his argument that “the Franciscan padres eliminated Indians with the effectiveness of Nazis operating concentration camps.”


Elias Castillo

The late Elias Castillo (b: 1939 – d: 2020), in response to Sen. Barbara Boxer’s proposed California Mission Preservation Act, authored an opinion piece (“The Dark, Terrible Secret of California’s Missions”) for the San Francisco Chronicle. It was published on Nov. 8, 2004, after Sen. Boxer (D CA) proposed legislation providing $10,000,000 in federal funds towards restoring California’s missions. Sen. Boxer’s legislation identified the missions as “places where Indians and friars lived in harmony”. 

The Castillo article refuted Sen. Boxer’s description with the observation “. . . that the missions were little more than concentration camps where California’s Indians were beaten, whipped, maimed, burned, tortured, and virtually exterminated by the friars.” 

Castillo’s research was read into the Congressional Record. Before the bill passed all language praising the missions was removed. 

The article stirred enough interest that Castillo expanded it into a book. The hardcover edition was published in 2015, a few days after Pope Francis took steps to declare Serra a saint. Pope Francis said of Friar Serra, “He learned how to bring to birth and nurture God’s life in the faces of everyone he met; he made them his brothers and sisters. Junipero (Serra) sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it.” 

Friar Junipero Serra, Castillo said, was a brilliant man and a devout Catholic, but unfamiliar with mercy. Elias Castillo referred to Serra as a man whose “. . . attitude was that he was there to save souls for God, and it didn’t matter what type of life the Indians had in the missions. If they died quickly, then that’s more souls to heaven. That’s what was in his mind: to keep the Indians free from sin.” 

Elias Castillo demurred, referring to Serra as “a madman who, blinded by his single-minded goal of saving souls, oversaw the enslavement and deaths of thousands of California Indians”.

Indians held in the mission were housed in overcrowded, filthy conditions and forced to labor without pay on the missions’ ranches and farms. The Indians, Castillo wrote, found the foods consumed by the Spanish to be unpalatable, and avoided eating them as much as possible. Indians subsequently suffered from malnutrition. As evidence, Castillo pointed to bones found at mission Indian burial sites and compared them with their pre-Hispanic counterparts. “The pre-Hispanic Indian bones were fine and robust, but those who died in the missions were considerably stunted and far smaller” he wrote.

It wasn’t only the displeasing diet. There were also harsh punishments, especially for running away. In a 1775 letter published in Castillo’s book, Serra wrote to his military commander, “I am sending [these runaways] to you so that a period of exile and two or three whippings which your Lordship may order applied to them on different days, may serve for them and the rest, for a warning may be of spiritual benefit to all. This last is the prime motive of our work.”

Mexico declared independence from Spain in 1821 and the Franciscans left. The Indians were freed from their involuntary labor at the missions a little over a decade later but, according to Castillo’s book, their mistreatment continued.

California’s first elected Governor, Peter H. Burnett, signed an executive order in 1851 to exterminate all Indians in the state. Estimates published in Castillo’s book judged the pre-Spanish coastal California Indian population at between 133,000 and 300,000. By 1890 it had fallen to under 17,000. 

Twenty-six years later, in March 1916, Ishi, the last wild Indian in California, died.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended as professional advice. Klarise Yahya is not a financial planner. Nothing in this article is presented as investment guidance. For specific circumstances, please contact an appropriately licensed professional. Klarise Yahya is a Commercial Mortgage Broker specializing in difficult-to-place mortgages for any kind of property. If you are thinking of refinancing or purchasing real estate, perhaps Klarise Yahya can help. For a complimentary mortgage analysis, please call her at (818) 414-7830 or email [email protected].