- 1 How did the Missions Affect California?
- 2 Spanish Place Names
- 3 Christianity
- 4 Hispanic Presence
- 5 Native People
- 6 Ethnography
- 7 Transforming the Landscape
- 8 Mission Agriculture
- 9 Mission Trade
- 10 Attracting Visitors
- 11 Mission Art and Architecture
- 12 Music at the California Missions
- 13 Mission Education
- 14 Mission Libraries
- 15 Mission Tourism
- 16 Cities in California named for missions:
- 17 Further Reading
How did the Missions Affect California?
Much of the culture of California has its roots in the history of the Spanish missions. And although the missions were only fully active for about 60 years, their presence had a major impact on many areas of life in California. In this article we’ll talk about some of the most important.
Spanish Place Names
Among the first things that visitors to California notice are Spanish names of cities, towns and other landmarks. Places like San Francisco, San Diego and San Juan Capistrano all take their names from missions and their patron saints. Many other geographic names come places associated with the missions, such as ranchos or pueblos.
The main intention of the mission padres was to introduce Christianity to the native people of California. And for many years, the Franciscan missionaries were the only Christian clergy in the whole territory of Alta California. Not only did they try to communicate Christian teachings and values to the Native Americans, but they also ministered to the soldiers and their families who lived at the presidios and the missions.
For many years there was no bishop (Catholic spiritual leader) in California, and the mission priests were in charge of all religious matters for Catholics in the territory. When church leaders eventually named a bishop for both Baja and Alta California in 1840, it was a Franciscan, who resided at Mission Santa Barbara. This was the case until after California became a state in 1850.
Although the missionaries’ main intent was to spread Christianity, one of the reasons the Spanish government supported their effort was to create outposts of Hispanic presence in California. The Spanish kings hoped that such places would keep the Russian and English empires from laying claim to California.
Learn more about Spanish colonization of California.
Both empires sought to establish bases in California, and the presence of missions, along with presidios, aimed to discourage these countries from doing so. The Russians operated a trading and hunting colony about 40 miles north of San Francisco, known as Fort Ross. The English set up outposts along the northern coast of the Pacific, in what is today British Columbia (Canada) and the state of Washington.
Through the presence of missionaries, soldiers, and Indian people from Mexico who settled in the region, the language, traditions and customs of the Hispanic world took root in California and have remained to this day.
More than anyone, the missions affected the first inhabitants of California, the Indians. The missions impacted their lives in the many ways. Because of the missions, native people learned farming and ranching skills from Spain and Latin America. They also integrated a whole host of new foods into their diet. They also learned the Spanish language and were incorporated into the Catholic Church. Because of living at the missions, Native Americans from different tribes and regions intermarried with one another. They also intermarried and with Hispanic settlers and soldiers.
Through life on the missions, Native Americans also suffered from high rates of disease and population decline. Exposure to germs from which they had no natural immunity and lack of access to doctors and medicines caused many deaths among Indian people. By the mid-19th century, the native population of California had diminished greatly.
Franciscan missionaries helped preserve information about Native American customs, traditions and languages. Fr. Felipe Arroyo de la Cuesta, who lived at Mission San Juan Bautista, wrote grammars of the Mutsun and Tulare languages spoken by native peoples at the mission. Fr. Gerónimo Boscana wrote an important treatise about the traditions of the Indians of San Juan Capistrano. He named the treatise Chinigchinich, after a central character in Native American mythology. Chinigchinich is one of the most complete accounts of California Indian traditions produced before the 20th century, and anthropologists still study it today.
Transforming the Landscape
The California missions transformed the landscape of coastal California from a wild place to an agricultural region. Crops and plants from Latin America and Europe came to live alongside of, and sometimes replace, the native plants and grasses of the California landscape. Domesticated animals such as cows and horses, chickens and pigs made their home in the valleys and plains of California. Footpaths developed by native people were widened to accommodate horses and oxcarts.
California is the most important agricultural state in the U.S., with millions of acres of land dedicated to farming and ranching. What many people don’t know is that the missions were the first large-scale farms and ranches in California. Because of them, many food products that originated in Latin America and Europe were first grown in California. Crops that we associate with California, like olives, corn, wheat, grapes and fruit trees were first grown at the missions. Other crops include bananas from South America, citrus fruits like oranges and lemons (originally from the Far East and India ) and wheat from Northern Mexico.
The nopal or prickly pear cactus, so common in many parts of California, originated in Mexico. The sweet fruit and leaves of the cactus could be eaten, and the spiny plant was used as fencing for livestock. Finally, the cochineal beetle that feeds on the plant was used to make a deep red dye for clothing.
Along with crops, livestock like cattle, horses, pigs and sheep all arrived in California thanks to the Spanish missions. Cattle in particular were important for their meat, and also for other products, such as leather from their hides, or tallow from their fat.
Most people know that California is one of the most important wine producing regions in the world, and the first wine in California came from mission vineyards. Spanish missionaries needed wine to celebrate Mass, and so began to plant grapes. They also used the grapes to produce other liquors such as sherry. George Vancouver, a British sea captain who visited Missions San Francisco de Asís and Santa Clara in 1792, said that mission grapes were very good for cognac. Many decades later, the modern California wine industry started with grapevines from mission San Francisco Solano in Sonoma.
Mission agriculture was very successful in part because padres introduced systems for irrigating crops. Because many parts of California a very dry, it was sometimes necessary to transport water across long distances using aqueducts or long, above-ground channels. To this day, California depends heavily on aqueducts to transport water to areas that would normally be too dry to support agriculture and for providing drinking water to cities and and towns.
Because the missions produced so many goods, they also engaged in trade. Merchant ships from the east coast of the U.S. loaded many products, especially hides from mission cattle. These hides would later made into goods such as shoes and belts for people in places like Boston, New York and Philadelphia. American author Richard Henry Dana, who visited Alta California as a young sailor in the 1830s, wrote a book about his experiences, Two Years Before the Mast. In it, he spoke about how sailors had to spend days taking heavy hides onto ships anchored off the coast of California.
Books like Two Years Before the Mast helped stir up interest in California among Americans living on the U.S. East Coast. In it, Dana portrayed California as an attractive, but sleepy and undeveloped area. His opinion of the Hispanic people who lived there was very low. According to Dana, if Americans were in charge of the territory, they could better exploit its potential. Reports like Dana’s helped attract a large number of foreign visitors and immigrants to Mexican California from the U.S.
Mission Art and Architecture
Missions and presidios were the first examples of European architecture on the Pacific coast. Mission buildings contained paintings, statues and religious items imported from Europe and Latin America. Artisans and craftsmen from Mexico came to work in the construction and decoration of the mission churches. They also taught native people their skills.
Anyone who visits California is familiar with the mission-inspired architecture found on houses and buildings throughout the state, especially in Southern California. Red tile roofs, stucco walls and wrought iron gates all draw their inspiration from the California missions, presidios and ranchos.
Music at the California Missions
At the California missions Spanish Franciscans taught native people to sing and play music from the European middle ages. Music was essential to the Catholic Masses celebrated at the missions, and most of the hymns were in Latin, the language of the Roman Catholic Church. Many were in a style known as Gregorian chant, which dated to at least the year 900. In addition to Gregorian chant, Native American singers learned songs and hymns from the Renaissance and later.
In order to properly perform these melodies, all of the missions had choirs. Some even had orchestras made up of Indians. The author Robert Louis Stevenson attended a Catholic Mass at Mission San Carlos Borromeo in 1879, when it was in ruins. The ceremony took place in the only room that still had a roof. But Stevenson said that a choir made up of Native Americans sang the ancient hymns in “Latin so correctly that I could follow the meaning as they sang.”
Although ranching and farming were the daily tasks of the mission communities, they were also places of education. In them, Native Americans learned the skills necessary to operate a working farm and ranch. They also learned the Spanish language and the doctrines of the Catholic Church. As mentioned before, some learned to read and play music and sing hymns in Latin.
The first university in California, Santa Clara College (now Santa Clara University) was founded in 1852, at Mission Santa Clara.
Books were also an important part of mission life, and the missions had the first libraries in California. Missionaries needed books to offer Mass, for their own personal growth and education, and to help with mission activities. When an inventory of Mission Santa Clara was performed in 1851, the mission library contained almost 250 books. Many of the books were of a spiritual of theological nature. But there were also encyclopedias, grammar books, dictionaries, books on geography, history and even chemistry.
After secularization, the California missions had mostly fallen into disrepair. But by the end of the 19th century, Americans began to see missions as reminders of California’s Spanish heritage. Civic groups in the state started to promote tourism and collect money for their restoration. Groups like the California Federation of Women’s Clubs and the Native Daughters of the Golden West launched efforts to mark out El Camino Real, the route between the missions.
Learn more about the end of the mission era.
In the 1900s, the El Camino Real Association began to place bells around the state. They chose places the saw as with the missions. The California State Automobile Association later maintained and replaced them, and they came to be identified with California’s mission heritage. In1915, the Panama-California Exposition in San Diego drew worldwide attention to the missions. Thanks to this attention, many of the missions began to undergo repairs. They soon became a magnet for tourism in California.
Since then, millions of people have visited California and its missions. The restored missions continue to be a major source of revenue for the state. They play a crucial role in the economy of the cities and towns where they are located.
Cities in California named for missions:
- San Diego
- San Francisco
- San Gabriel
- San Juan Bautista
- San Juan Capistrano
- San Luis Obispo
- San Miguel
- San Rafael
- Santa Barbara
- Santa Clara
- Santa Cruz
Two Years Before the Mast. For anyone interested in 19th century California, Dana’s classic book is still a treasure trove of information.
California’s El Camino Real and Its Historic Bells. This is the go-to book on California’s iconic mission bell markers.
California: A History. A well-written and engaging read by the dean of California historians, the late Kevin Starr.
California Vieja: Culture and Memory in a Modern American Place. Author Phoebe Kropp details how modern Americans came to imagine and exhalt California’s Spanish past.
Vineyards and Vaqueros: Indian Labor and the Expansion of Southern California. George Harwood Phillips offers insights into how California Indians used skills learned on missions an ranchos to become the key labor force in Southern California.