Saturday, November 3, 2012

California Missions ~ Chapter Five

The Darker Side of Mission Life

Thinking back to the Spanish inquisition and other medieval horrors perpetrated on non-believers and recent converts in the name of the Catholic church, it seems that the Spanish padres of the late 18th century somehow still felt that cruelty was necessary to keep converts in line with their teachings.  

The presence of Indians in California dates back 8,000 to maybe as far back as 15,000 years. It is estimated that around 100 Indian nations, with a total population of about 300,000, lived in Alta California at the time the Spanish arrived. The Indian cultures were rich in spiritual traditions; they knew the moon, the tides and the earth. While they knew the way of the hunter, they also knew the importance of caring for the land, rivers and lakes. And of course they knew love of family and children. However, Indians were held in very low regard by both the padres and the Spanish military. 

Child, Adult, Sun ~ Chumash Rock Art

Among some Indian nations, there was initially a strong resistance to the Franciscans, expressed in attacks on both Spanish soldiers and Franciscan missionaries. As a result of Indian hostility, the work on building the missions was slowed and the Franciscans had to rely more and more on the military for protection.

As time went on and more settlers arrived, the life of the Indians became increasingly difficult. Missions spread over vast areas and rancheros sprung up across Indian lands. Cattle grazed the hills where Indians had lived for thousands of years, destroying their water supplies and native plants. This may have led some to join the missions, but many were also forced to live there.

Rafael, a Chumash Indian who communicated with anthropologists.

For example, the Chumash Indians of Central California, who came to live at the Santa Barbara missions, which included Missions Santa Inez and La Purisima, were mostly a friendly people. They were skilled at crafts and willing, at first, to work at the missions. 

But once an Indian agreed to become part of a mission, he was forbidden to leave without a padre's permission. As the years went by, Indians were allowed less and less freedom; they were cut off from their old way of life and forced to assimilate into Spanish culture. Indians were frequently subjected to corporal and other punishments, as determined by the padres. The cruelty of the military and some of the padres was often extreme as Indians were frequently beaten and sometimes killed.

Foreigners, who visited the missions, commented that they resembled slave plantations, in that the padres' control over the Indians seemed excessive, but necessary, due to the white men's isolation and numeric disadvantage. Indians were not paid wages nor considered free men.

As I noted in Chapter Four, the padres forced women to live separately from men in what were often abysmal conditions, resulting in very high rates of illness and death among the women. There was also an alarming rate of stillborn babies. In 1810, Padre Payeras at La Purisima mentioned in a letter that, "the majority of pregnant women have produced stillborn babies." And A.L. Kroeber, the noted anthropologist, observed "an alarming spread of the practice of abortions among the Indians." 

 Many Indians were also killed by European diseases unknown to them, such as smallpox and measles. During a three-month period in 1806, a quarter of the mission Indian population in the San Francisco Bay area died during a measles epidemic. Thousands of California Indians are buried in mission cemeteries.


Sadly, a long chapter was needed to describe the darker side of mission life. I hope to finish this general overview of the California Missions next Sunday, with both the Indian revolts and the end of the mission period in California. After that, and I'm really looking forward to it, I plan to write about each individual mission. With some of my personal experiences added to those I have visited.  

Sources: Wikipedia, including all photos, and La Purisima State Historic Park booklet.


  1. this part of history is not well known at all. it is shameful, truly.

  2. This to me is the true meaning of pain,not only in body but in soul.These natives did not see this coming,only until they were there.
    History repeated itself in the following years to alot of reservations not only in California but across the states.

  3. The way the Indians were treated is a shameful chapter in our country's history. Now that I'm back in the blogosphere, I'm really looking forward to your posts about the missions.

  4. Our missions here in California are beautiful but, to me, they also carry a heaviness and sadness from the horrible inhumanity of the padres to the Indians.

  5. This was a very sad period of history!

  6. i did not know this, i knew about the cruelty in the Catholic church way back when, but did not know about the native Indians. shameful as were and are all people who are enslaved.
    your headed is fantastic

  7. Sometimes it pays to be suspicious. The rampaging or triumphant military leader with religious leanings always looks down on those they consider their lessers. Human nature hasn't changed much.

    Looking forward to your mission series, Inger.

  8. It makes me feel sick to my stomach to know the things that happened...the Pres and I were just talking about it!...:)JP

  9. Another GREAT header!! WOW!

    The treatment of the 'native people' was abysmal and something that should never be forgotten., so as never to be repeated.

  10. A very sad part of the mission history, but one that needs to be told.

  11. Dear Inger, some famous writer once coined the phrase "man's inhumanity to man." But as your story so well shows us, throughout the history of human kind there has been great inhumanity practiced by some over many others--both men and women.

    The Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote a number of philosophical books on his evolutionary theory. He believed that all generations throughout time were moving toward the Omega point of perfection. That is, each generation moves forward in becoming more fully realized as human beings.

    I've always embraced Chardin's theory, but a dear friend, who is much wiser than I, doesn't accept his ideas on the evolution of goodness. She says, quite correctly, that every period has its tyrants and persecutors and haters of human kind. So humans seem stuck in the mire of brutality.

    I don't agree with her, but so much I see today reflects the brutality of those Franciscan missionaries you write about. It's a conundrum, isn't it? Peace.

  12. Dear Dee, I believe that fear has to be removed before goodness can fully evolve.

  13. Oh a very sad but important to know history.
    Love your header Inger. B

  14. Intressant läsning igen....hoppas allt är bra..

  15. Thanks Inger....native history it seems no matter where one lives seems to have the same story...our native Mi'kmaq have horrendous stories to tell as well.

  16. Interesting reading Inger. Wish you all the best from your "home country"!
    A gorgeous morning with minus and sun!

  17. Thank you Inger for another wonderful, albeit sad, look at your home.

    The subjugation of native people by invading forces is as old as time. No amount of arrogance can drive a people towards being "perfect human beings"

  18. I share your interest and desire to tell the story of the Native Americans in California, with a particular focus on the Mission Period. I always feel a particular hush when I walk among the many headstones and unmarked graves in the Mission San Gabriel cemetery. I have been spending some time at the Autry Museum doing a little more research on the Gabrielinos. There are important stories to tell and I do have a desire to know more. I really enjoyed your post and look forward to what you share next.


Thanks for leaving a comment.. ~~ Inger


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