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.
The Padres’ Answers
Each mission answered the questions with more or less detail depending on the temperament and experience of the missionaries.
The padres recorded their observations of the life of the native people at the mission and often wrote down what they understood about indigenous customs outside the mission boundaries. What follows are excerpts from the replies of the Franciscans at Mission San Miguel Arcangel and describe the lives of the Salinan people that lived there.
Mission San Miguel
Mission San Miguel was founded in 1797 and is located in central California, about 3 hours south of San Francisco and about 3 hours north of Los Angeles, along what is today’s Highway 101. During the Spanish and Mexican periods, the mission boundaries extended north and south approximately 18 miles each way, east 66 miles into the San Joaquin Valley and west 35 miles to the Pacific Ocean. Salinan Indians are still very active community members in area today.
The answers were written in April of 1814.
Who was living at the mission?
The population at San Miguel was fairly typical of the California missions at the time:
“The Population of this Mission is divided into three classes: — a) The two Missionary Fathers, who are Europeans; —b) the soldiers of the garrison, the mayordomo, and their families, who are Spanish Americans; — c) the Indians, who are natives of the district of the Mission.”
As you can see, the only two Europeans at a typical mission were the missionary priests. The soldiers and their families, as well as the mayordomo, were “Spanish Americans”: people born in what is today Mexico, and usually of mixed ancestry (European, Indian and sometimes African). The mayordomo was essentially the ranch foreman of the mission. He oversaw the day-to-day activities and tasks and helped keep track of mission products and tools.
What languages did the Indians speak?
Almost 17 years after the founding of the mission, most of the native inhabitants did not speak Spanish (Castilian), but instead spoke their own languages, which probably means that the padres either learned the local languages or communicated through interpreters:
“The neophytes of this Mission speak four idioms or languages: a) that of San Antonio, which is reputed the principal one; b) that of the seashore, which is the one spoken by those collected on the sea-coast; c) the Tulareno, which is spoken in the Tulares region; d) and in the fourth place that spoken to the south of the Mission. As yet they understand little Castilian, and that much, thanks to the efforts of the Missionary Fathers.”
The missionaries had a high opinion of the capacity of native youths to learn, though instruction was mainly centered on learning liturgical music:
“The little boys of the Mission in a few months learn anything, as reading in Spanish or Latin, and learn to read from manuscripts, to sing the plain as well as figured music. Their ancestors had no idea whatever of paper or its equivalent.”
Charity towards others
As followers of St. Francis of Assisi, the padres were very impressed with the way the native people of the area offered hospitality and generosity to others:
“It seems that charity is the principal virtue of these natives, because we have seen innumerable times that whoever, Indian or white, reaches their huts finds the table prepared, and in the same charity the women excel.”
Illnesses and treatments
The Salinan Indians of the mission and its surrounding areas had remedies for many illnesses, some of which the padres admired, some of which they criticized:
“It is undeniable that the Indians have their healers, who apply to the sick the simple juice of various roots, bark, and leaves of various plants, the names of which I do not know. They make use of thermal waters for various skin diseases and for rheumatism. They also have recourse to bleeding, which is effected simply by scarifying the affected parts with a flint and sucking the wound. This bleeding usually has bad effects so as to cost the life of many. The froth of the thermal waters, which are three leagues to the south of the Mission, together with soap-root, serves them as an excellent purging.
Here the narrative turns toward the saddest aspect of mission life in the early 19th century, the high mortality from contagious diseases and the lack of doctors to treat them:
The dominant infirmity is the Galico [syphilis], which sends them to the grave quickly; for it has been experienced that in the first years we had more births than deaths, afterwards as many deaths as births; but at present there are four deaths to three births. For this malady I do not believe they have any effective remedy. I have experienced that the Indian who has seen anyone cured by means of our remedies, not only has no repugnance to taking the medicine, but asks for it; and so, if there were a physician or surgeon at the Mission, many would recover.”
In their pagan state they divided as we do, the year into spring, summer, fall and winter. They had no calendars. Half an hour after sunrise, a little more or less, having taken their breakfast of atole, the neophytes assemble in the church to hear holy Mass, during which they recite the catechism or Doctrina in their language. From the church they go to their homes, take up their implements and work till half past eleven. Then they take their meal, which consists of boiled wheat, corn, peas, beans. Then they rest till two o’clock, in winter till three at which time they go to work at their tasks till an hour before sunset. They then take their supper of atole as in the morning, return to church to recite the Doctrina or catechism, and sing the Alabado or the Salve, or Adoro te, Santa Cruz. Having finished the function of the church, they return to their homes. This is the daily exercise. On Saturday from 25 to 30 cattle are slaughtered, the meat of which is distributed to the Indians in the Mission.
If we take a typical day day in late summer, work usually started at about 8am and lasted until 11, with a three hour break until 2pm, with work going until about 7:30pm. From what I know, these were the typical working hours in much of the Hispanic world until very recently.
The money of the Indians have been and are beads, which they now loan without profit. In their pagan state they would loan, for instance, a real’s worth of beads, which would increase every day to the whole value, so he who offered the loan remained in the hands of the lender. This custom was practiced by the Indians east of the Mission. They had no other contracts than the loan and sale.
Beads, especially shell beads, were an important trading commodity up and down the California coast and well into the interior throughout the mission period. Archaeologists today use them to understand the trade networks that existed among California Indians within and outside of the mission system.
They are much inclined to music, and, in time, they play with facility and perfection any instrument. In their pagan state they had no musical instrument other than what hardly merited the name of flute. For the rest, they sing what the missionary teaches them, as was already said.
Many mission orchestras and choirs were well-known for their technical excellence and were made up of multiple instrumentalists and singers.
The men dress in a cotón [a type of long shirt in Spanish] and a broad cloth sufficiently to appear with decency. The women wear a cotón and petticoats, and all wear blankets. Their outer dress is of wool, either blue, or white and blue, at least mixed black and white (gray).
The missionaries, influenced by the ancient Biblical tradition which ascribed multiple layers of significance to clothing and garments, and which considered “clothing the naked” to be a work of mercy, did not have much appreciation for native dress.
Their lack of clothing was such, and the poverty of these poor things, which I saw in the Tulares about 28 leagues from the Mission that many women are without more decency on their whole body than a small apron of tules hanging down the front and rear held together by a sort of belt. Some wore two after the same manner. Those more particular covered themselves with tanned deer skins, all that the decency of their sex demanded.
– Source, Zepheryn Engelhardt, San Miguel, Arcangel: The Mission of the Highway
As you can see, I’ve only included a few of the answers to these questions, but they give us a basic idea about some important aspects of life on a typical mission. I think the best way to visualize mission life as a working farm or ranch. It was a life harder than what most of us are used to, but not an unusual one.
By the way, Mission San Miguel is one of the most fascinating of the missions, and the only one that maintains original native artwork on its interior walls. It sustained some damage in a serious earthquake in 2003, but has been repaired and looks great. It’s really worth a visit.