Fourth grade is the first and last time most people learn anything about the mission period in California. In case you don’t know, the state social studies curriculum mandates that all fourth graders be able to “describe the social, political, cultural, and economic life and interactions among people of California from the pre-Columbian societies to the Spanish mission and Mexican rancho periods.” A tall order, isn’t it?
But if you ask most Californians what they know about the mission era they will tell that you all they remember is their fourth grade project, which usually involved building a model of a mission church.
So it is crucial that kids get good information to help them understand this complex and fascinating time in history.
One of the things people often ask about is what life was like on the California missions, especially Indian life. Some of the most important accounts of California Indian life at the missions come from the Interrogatorio (Questionnaire) that the Spanish Government sent to the priests of the California Missions in 1813.
Friends often ask me where they should begin in learning about the California missions. There are are so many books about the California missions out there — some of which I’ll review later — that it is hard to know where to start. Below are a few books that have helped me. All of these are ones I own and have used to over and over again.
1. General overview: The California Missions: A Complete Pictorial History and Visitor’s Guide (Sunset Pictorial) by the editors of Sunset Books. I think this is the first book I read on the California missions. Although it was originally published in the 1960s (1970s?), the basic information it contains is good and thorough enough for someone who wants to get a good idea about the missions and their history. Each mission is listed, along with its historical background and a selection of artwork and photographs. It is a great book to leaf through as you decide which mission or missions you want to visit.
2. For parents and children: People of the California Missions series (see below for links to books in the series) by Jack S. Williams and Thomas L. Davis. Jack S. Williams is a respected scholar of early California who has put together a series of books aimed at elementary school students studying the mission era. Each volume is dedicated to a specific group of people who lived on the California mission frontier. They are short books that are written in very accessible language and offer great illustrations, yet provide a wealth of information about the historical and cultural context of the mission period.
Books in the series:
- Padres of the California Mission Frontier
- Townspeople and Ranchers of the California Mission Frontier
- Soldiers and Their Families of the California Mission Frontier
- Indians of the California Mission Frontier
- Craftsmen and Craftswomen of the California Mission Frontier
- Sailors, Merchants, and Muleteers of the California Mission Frontier
3. In-depth history of the California missions: The Missions and Missionaries of California by Zephyrin Engelhardt. The Missions and Missionaries of California is a multi-volume work that was published between 1908 and 1915, and is probably the most comprehensive history of the California missions that anyone has written to date. Although long, the books are written in an engaging and passionate style, which has caused some scholars to question the author’s objectivity. As you can imagine, Engelhardt’s writing at times reflects the common prejudices of his era and can be offensive to modern readers. Nevertheless, The Missions and Missionaries of California is an encyclopedia of historical information for anyone seriously studying the California Missions.
Had I written this post a few years ago I might not have recommended these books to a person starting out — in order to get access to them you would have had to find a library that had copies or else do like I did and order the set used from Abe Books for $200. Fortunately with sites like Internet Archive or Google Books you can read these online, or print-on-demand copies through Amazon.
4. A good introduction to Junipero Serra and his life: Blessed Fray Junipero Serra: An Outstanding California Hero by Francis J. Weber. This accessible book offers an overview of the life of Junipero Serra, from his birth on the island of Mallorca and his early missionary activities in Mexico to his founding of several Alta California missions. It is made up of extracts from a much longer, comprehensive biography of Serra written by Maynard Geiger with additions by the author, Msgr. Francis J. Weber, who spent a lifetime studying Serra and his life. As you can tell from the title, the author is a big fan of Serra, so if you are looking for a book that offers a more negative view of Serra, this is not the one. Overall a good point of departure for further reading.
5. A serious and thoughtful biography of Junipero Serra: Junípero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary by Rose Marie Beebe and Robert M. Senkewicz. If you have been introduced to Serra’s life and you still want to know more about who he was, this recent biography is one of the best places to go. For me the two things that make this book stand out are first, that the authors let Serra speak for himself. The volume is filled with Serra’s letters to friends, colleagues, government officials and superiors. Through them you can get an idea of who this controversial man was and what were his passions, priorities and concerns. Secondly, the illustrations. The book is filled with drawings, maps and photos in both color and black and white. These pictures really help bring to life the day-to-day realities that surrounded Fray Junipero. Be forewarned, however — the book is 500 pages long — it won’t easily into your pocket! But for anyone interested in really learning about Junipero Serra, his life and the founding of the first California missions, this is a must-read by two of the premier scholars of the California missions, who also know how to write for a general audience.
As I mentioned above, there are so many books about the California missions and Junipero Serra, it is hard to know where to begin. So I hope this has been helpful. All of the books I’ve mentioned above have been useful for me, and are still available through Amazon or other places at the time I am writing this.
I’ll be adding reviews of more books as time goes by, so keep checking in. Are there any books that have been helpful to you?