Many words used to describe people and objects in Alta California are unfamiliar to us today.
Some words are architectural or military terms. The words in italics are mainly Spanish words, but which have changed meaning with time or are specific to the area that used to be called New Spain or Nueva España. Below are some of the more common vocabulary words with their definitions.
Spanish words include a phonetic spelling: syllables are divided by dashes (-) with the stressed syllable in italics; long vowels are written ā, ē, ī, ō.
(ah-dō-bā) A building material made from mud and mixed with other materials, like straw, animal manure. Adobe construction goes at least as far back as the ancient Egyptians.
(ah-lah-bah-dō) A hymn of praise to God sung at all the Spanish missions. This prayer was common throughout Latin America, from Paraguay to California, often at daybreak and at sunset.
(ahl-kahl-dā) Municipal officer in charge of administrative and judicial affairs. In the Alta California missions, native alcaldes were responsible for maintaining order in the Indian community. The office has roots in both Islamic and Roman occupations in the Iberian Peninsula.
(ahl-fe-rez) A military rank equivalent to first or second lieutenant in the army.
The institution in which Franciscan friars were prepared for work in the missions. The Apostolic College of San Fernando in Mexico City is where Junípero Serra and many of the missionaries in Alta California received their training prior to coming to the territory.
In Catholicism, an angel of high rank. The Bible names three archangels: Michael, Gabriel and Raphael.
(ah-sē-sten-sēah) A branch or extension of a mission. Oftentimes far-flung native communities would be organized into an asistencia, connected to a larger mission. These communities did not usually have a resident priest, but would receive regular visits.
(ah-tō-lā) A traditional hot drink from Mexico made from cornmeal.
(ow-dē-en-sya) A royal council in charge of overseeing the administrative and legal affairs of a specific region of the Spanish Empire.
(bahl-sah) A lightweight boat or raft, normally designed to carry 2-3 people at most.
(cahm-pah-nah-rēō)Spanish for “bell tower” from the word campana, meaning “bell.”
(cah-re-tah) A cart, usually pulled by oxen. Carretas normally had two wheels, but at times had four.
(cō-mis-yo-nah-dō) A soldier whose job it was to be the representative of the presidio on nearby towns or missions. The comisionado had authority over the *alcalde and other civilian officials.
(cōm-pahd-rahs-gō) God-parentage. A very important social institution that established ties between parents of a baptized child and the child’s godparents.
(cōn-ven-tō) Area of a mission quadrangle that housed the priests. It also contained other rooms, such as the library and guest quarters.
(crē-oy-ō) A person of Spanish descent born in the Americas. This term was used all over Spanish America, but rarely in Alta California.
(dē-puh-tah-dō) In Alta California, an elected member of the Territorial Assembly. This was the legislature put in place after the declaration of the Mexican Republic to govern the territory.
(eh-scōl-tah) The Spanish word for “escort.” In Alta California, the word often referred to the military guards stationed at a mission.
(eh-spah-dan-yah) A type of bell tower that has window-like holes in which bells are suspended.
(fah-neh-gah) A Spanish unit of weight that was the equivalent of approximately 55.5 liters or 1.575 bushels, although it varied according to time period and geography.
A member of the Order of Friars Minor, founded by St. Francis of Asisi.
Gente de razón
(hen-tā dā-rah-zōn) Literally, “people of reason” in Spanish. Referred to people who followed Hispanic/European customs.
In the Bible, the word “gentile” referred to nations that were not Jewish. In Alta California, the missionaries used the term to refer to native people who had not accepted Christianity.
(leg-wah) A Spanish measure of distance, approximately 2.6 miles.
(mī-or-dō-mō) In a mission, the majordomo was the foreman who oversaw workers.
(mā-stē-sō)A person of mixed Spanish and indigenous heritage.
(mōn-hā-rē-ō) In the Alta California missions, young, unmarried women would often be housed in a separate dormitory called a monjerío, in order to protect them from possible abuse. It comes from the Spanish word for convent, or place where nuns live.
(muh-lah-tō) A person of mixed African and European heritage.
A Christian Indian belonging to a mission community. In early Christianity this word referred to a person who was recently baptized into the faith.
(pah-drā) The Spanish word for “father.” Often in English “padre” refers to the Spanish missionaries who came to California and the Southwest.
A servant, usually a young man or boy, who would also receive a higher level of education or training in exchange for his service. The tradition of pages originated among the noble classes of medieval Europe.
A women’s undergarment worn under a skirt or dress for warmth or to give the desired shape.
(pō-sō-lā) A traditional soup or stew from Mexico made from corn and meat, and which may be seasoned or garnished with vegetables and spices.
(rahn-chā-rē-ah) An Indian settlement where dwellings are not permanent and are scattered some distance from each other.
(rā-hē-dor) A member of a town or city council or cabildo. At the missions, there would a group of native regidores to oversee the life and affairs of the Indian community.
In the Spanish Empire, the process whereby missions were to be transformed into Indian pueblos (or towns), and their chapels into parish churches. In Alta California this operation began to take place in earnest in 1836. In most cases, however, the missions were dismantled, but instead of becoming pueblos, their lands became ranchos, while buildings fell into disrepair.
(shah-mahn) In many native cultures of the Americas, a shaman was a combination of religious leader, healer and even political leader. Shamans generally derived their authority from the ability to commune with spirits of both people and animals.
Strong tissue that connects muscles to bones. Sinew could be used to make many items on the frontier, including strings for a bow and arrow.
Soldado de cuera
(sōl-dah-dō dā kweh-ra) Soldiers of the Spanish army in New Spain known for their leather jackets. The cuera was a jacket made of several layers of leather to protect them from arrows or other sharp weapons (the Spanish word for leather is cuero). Also called “leatherjacket soldiers” in English.
(teh-meh-scahl) A sweat house used by indigenous people all over the Americas. The word originally comes from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs of Mexico.
the harder fat of sheep, cattle, etc., separated by melting from the fibrous and membranous matter naturally mixed with it, and used to make candles, soap, etc.
(bah-kā-rō) The Spanish word for “cowboy.” The practice of herding cattle on horseback was introduced to the Americas by the Spanish, who brought their traditions dating back to Medieval times. The vaqueros of Alta California were particularly adept at ranching and horsemanship.
(bah-rah) A Spanish unit of measurement that was the equivalent of approximately 33 inches, although it varied according to time period and geography.
An official who governs a region on behalf of the king. In the Americas, there were several regions known as virreinatos (“viceroyalties” in English) overseen by a viceroy. Alta California was part of the viceroyalty of New Spain.