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.


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