The History of Spanish Missions in California

SpanishMissionIf you want to know the history of California then you must know the history of the Spanish missions in California. The mission era has a deep influence over agriculture, architecture, fine arts and economy of California.  The mission era also affected many place names of California.

Why these missions were established:

In 1768 king Charles III of Spain faced a difficult circumstance. Spain was able to claim a vast area of land 200 years before. The land was fertile and located near sea. There were many suitable areas to start cities. There were also many good locations along the coastline where safe harbors for Spanish ships could be established. Until then there was no Spanish settlements there. The king was also informed that the Russians were interested to establish settlements there. If something was not done soon the land would fall to the Russians. So the monarch finally came up with the idea of establish missions.

Now questions may arise that why the missions were preferred to other forms of settlements. It was decided that a series of farms would be established along the coast. The farms would be situated a day’s of horse ride apart. It was hoped that the farms would be able to support the future cities and harbors and these cities and harbors would trade goods and information. All these plans were fine except one thing; it was the lack of labor. To solve this problem the farms were turned into missions. The missions started to convert the Native Americans into Christians. The Native American converts started to work in the missions. Thus the problem of the lack of labor was solved. Converting the Native Americans into Christians was also another reason why the missions were established.

Founding the missions:

In 1969 Father Junipero Serra started the California Mission Chain. The missions were along the El Camino Real and the entire span of missions spanned 650 miles. Father Serra founded 9 missions before his death. In total 21 missions were established between 1769 and 1863. The missions had similar appearance. The shape of the missions was like a quadrangle. Usually the church was in one corner of the square. The church was built as tall as the tallest tree in that area so that it can be seen from a great distance. In the back there was a kitchen. Usually native unmarried women worked in the kitchen. The other three sides had rooms for the priests, mission office, workshops, storing foods and other materials. Around the mission there were huts for the rest of the Native American. There were vast fields surrounding the missions for agriculture and feeding livestock.

Influence of missions on the Local Indians:

The missions tried to convert the natives into Christians. Some of them willingly joined the missions, other left their native lands. The Spanish soldiers treated many natives badly and forced them to live on the missions. The Spanish considered themselves superior and the natives inferior. Unfortunately the mission era meant the end of the Native Californians’ lifestyle. Also many natives were killed by unfamiliar diseases which were brought by the Spanish people. Many natives were beaten and starved and somehow assimilated into the Spanish culture. It is estimated that there were about 300,000 Native Californians before the Spanish came. We know by the 1834 records that at that time there were only 20,000 Native Californians.

The community:

Many large cities such as San Diego, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Monterey, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, San Luis Obispo, San Jose, San Gabriel, San Juan Capistrano started as pueblos of the missions. All these cities grew up as a part of the mission system. Without the missions, these cities and towns would not exist. The missions are a large part of the remains of Spanish and Mexican heritage which can be found almost everywhere in California.

Secularization – The End of the Mission Period:

After Mexico became independent it could no longer afford to keep the missions running. In 1834 Mexico ended the mission system. All the lands of the missions were sold. In 1863 an act was signed by the American President Abraham Lincoln. As a result the 21 missions in the California mission chain become the property of the Catholic Church.  In 2004 President George W. Bush signed HR 1446 and as a result the “California Mission Preservation Act” turned into law. At present the missions have become a great part of California’s historic consciousness.

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