How did native people live at the Spanish missions in Alta California? What were their jobs? What did they eat? An in-depth look at Native American life in the California missions.
Prior to the arrival of Spanish explorers, missionaries and soldiers, human beings had occupied the territory that would later be known as Alta California for as many as 15,000 years. Important changes occurred in Native American life with the establishment of the California missions.
- 1 Spanish Exploration
- 2 Establishing Missions
- 3 Presidios
- 4 Mission Location
- 5 Living Quarters
- 6 Who Lived in the Mission?
- 7 Gentiles, Neophytes and Gente de Razón
- 8 Native American Languages at the Missions
- 9 A Working Farm
- 10 Food
- 11 Native American Clothing
- 12 Daily Life in the California Missions
- 13 Mission Work Schedule
- 14 Jobs at the California Missions
- 15 Specialized Jobs
- 16 Men’s Jobs
- 17 Women’s Jobs
- 18 Children’s Jobs
- 19 Military Service
- 20 Illness and Disease
- 21 Fugitives
- 22 Secularization and the End of the Missions
- 23 More Resources About Native American Life in the California Missions
Europeans, particularly the Spanish, began to explore the coastline of North America as early as the 1530s. However, in the late 18th century, thanks to competition with England and Russia, Spanish leaders decided to establish a military presence in Alta California, as a deterrent against their foreign rivals.
An important part of Spanish policy in North America was the establishment of missions. In places such as the coastal areas of Florida, Georgia and New Mexico, missions were founded in the midst of Indian towns with the agreement of the local chieftain or leader.
In Alta California, the Spanish established missions near Native American settlements and encouraged them to join the missions, persuading them of the advantages they would obtain.
Such advantages would include access to a stable food supply, protection from their enemies by becoming allies of the King of Spain, and a new religion (Christianity), which promised eternal life for the people and freedom from the power of shamans or native religious leaders.
Along with missions as a way of establishing alliances with indigenous people, Spanish policy foresaw the founding of army garrisons, called presidios, and eventually, civilian towns, known as pueblos. With the establishment of missions, presidios and pueblos in Alta California, the life of native groups along much of the western coastline was changed profoundly.
In Alta California, missions were usually founded in locations where there was good land for agriculture and a reliable water source. This would happen after consultations and negotiations with local Indian groups, which was crucial, since the the mission could be destroyed if it was not supported by local native people.
According to Spanish and Church law, Indians could be persuaded, but not forced to join the mission. Once they did join, however, they were considered citizens of the mission and of Spain, and were expected to live within its boundaries. These boundaries corresponded roughly to the borders of their traditional lands, unless they joined the mission from far away, as was the case with many Yukuts people from the San Joaquin Valley.
Of course, not all Indians in areas under Spanish control joined the missions or became Christians. Long into the Mexican era, there were Native American settlements or rancherías in many places in Alta California. We also know of cases where non-Christian Indians lived and worked in towns and ranchos, speaking Spanish and even adopting Hispanic dress.
In the early years of the establishment of a mission, Indians would live in their traditional dwellings, usually conical-shaped houses made of tree branches.
As time went on, however, some Indians would build permanent houses for themselves made of adobe bricks, or move into the pre-existing adobe family quarters close to the mission church.
Natives could travel outside the mission periodically to visit kin, go on trading or hunting trips, or take part in military expeditions. Others would live in asistencias or doctrinas, native ranches that were connected to a particular mission.
At some missions, such as San Diego de Alcalá, Christian Indians would live in their own villages among non-Christian natives. They would come to the mission church for Mass and to receive the sacraments. Some families, usually those with the highest social status within their communities, would live within the mission compound, close to the padres’ quarters.
Who Lived in the Mission?
Native American mayordomos or supervisors would oversee the day-to-operation of the mission. These were normally chosen from among Indians who had become most familiar with and adapted to the mission lifestyle. Spanish law also required that the Indians elect alcaldes (a combination of mayor and judge) and regidores (town councilmen) from amongst themselves, as the political representatives of the people on the mission.
At the height of the mission period, as many as 1,500 native people could be living within the boundaries of each mission.
Every mission would be staffed by one or usually two priests from the Franciscan Order. One would focus on the administrative aspects of the mission, and another would address the spiritual needs of the Indians. There was also a small cadre of 5-7 soldiers who, if they were married, lived with their families on the mission grounds. These were there to guard the mission against attack, and to serve as a police force.
Gentiles, Neophytes and Gente de Razón
Much of the information we have about native life at the California missions comes from the records kept by the priests who administered the missions. They were bound to record the times that they baptized, married or celebrated other sacraments in their communities.
A particularly important source of information are the answers to the questionnaires or interrogatorios that the Spanish government sent to each mission community regarding Indian life in 1812. The information that the missionaries provided gives a precious snapshot of native life at each of the missions through the padres’ eyes.
The Spanish government and the padres had a way of classifying people according to their level of acceptance of Christianity and Hispanic culture. Those who were not Christian were known as gentiles. In the Roman Empire, the word “gentile” was one that Jewish people used to indicate people who did not belong to the Jewish faith.
Indians who had accepted Christianity, but who had not fully adopted Hispanic customs were known as neophytes. This term had its origins in the early days of Christianity, when those who had recently embraced the Christian faith, but were still learning about it, were called neophytes. Thus, Indians who lived on mission lands were generally referred to as neophytes.
People who lived according to a Hispanic lifestyle, including settlers, soldiers, priests, were known as gente de razón or “civilized people.” This category also included Indians from other parts of the Spanish empire who came to settle in Alta California.
Native American Languages at the Missions
When the Spanish arrived in Alta California, there were as many as 80 different languages spoken among native people. Sometimes neighboring Indian groups were not even able to understand each other’s languages.
For example, at Mission Santa Clara de Asís, three or four different Indian languages were spoken amongst the native people there. Where possible, the padres learned the local Indian languages.
Fr. Felipe Arroyo de la Cuesta of San Juan Bautista wrote grammars of local native languages. At many of the missions, the missionaries composed catechisms, or short books about the Christian faith, in native languages.
When more than one group lived at a mission, communication could be a challenge, though younger people would often learn Spanish. Indians learned Spanish through their dealings with local soldiers and settlers, and because the padres would often teach them.
Because more than one tribe would often live together at a particular mission, groups that had traditionally been enemies would sometimes be in the same area. This could be a source of friction and conflict, but the padres encouraged people to marry spouses from other tribes, and with time, some of these conflicts could be overcome.
A Working Farm
Native American life in the California missions followed an agricultural rhythm. Each mission was a functioning ranch or farm. Cattle ranching was especially important, because the beef that was produced fed the mission Indian population, and products derived from cattle, especially the hides, would be traded or sold to the military, and to merchants who came on ships from other places.
Most missions produced a large number of agricultural goods to feed their community, especially grains like wheat, but also fruits and vegetables, grapes for wine and olives for oil.
Some Indians, if they showed interest, were given their own teams of oxen and seeds to sow for their own personal use.
Typically three meals a day were administered at the missions. At breakfast there would be a type of corn soup called atole, which is still very popular in Mexico today. At lunch, people would generally eat boiled wheat, corn, peas, beans and vegetables, as well as seasonal fruit. At dinner they would have the same type of meal as at breakfast. Cattle were slaughtered regularly, so mission members also ate a great deal of beef throughout the year.
In addition to the communal meals offered at the mission, Indian families would eat in their own homes. They would often go hunting or fishing or gather their traditional foods.
One Spanish ship’s captain who visited Monterey in the 1790s observed Indians from the Mission San Carlos Borromeo hunting deer. According to him, the men kept
the skins of some heads of these animals with their horns and part of the neck, and skinned with much care. Next, they fill these with dry grass, trying to conserve the shape that they had when they were attached to the head. On going out to hunt, they fit these caps over their heads.”
They would then wait, moving their heads from time to time, in order to attract the deer. As the deer would approach, the men would be able to shoot them with their arrows from a close range.
Native American Clothing
In most California Indian communities, it was not customary to wear much clothing. Women often wore skirts made of animal skins or plant fibers woven together. Men generally went about completely naked, except when they dressed up for ceremonial dances or other special occasions. Indians had to adjust to the idea of wearing clothing at the missions.
For the padres, nakedness was a sign of poverty, an idea that originated in the ancient Near East and was transmitted through the Bible. So for them it was important that the Indians received a minimum of clothing.
When both men and women entered the missions, they were given a shirt with long sleeves called a cotón, and a blanket. Both were made of wool. Women were also given a woolen petticoat and men received a breechclout to cover their groin area. Each year everyone would receive a new set of garments.
Those who took up certain occupations, such as vaqueros or cowboys, would wear clothes appropriate to their jobs. Vaqueros, for example, would wear trousers and boots suitable for horsemanship. As the years passed, and Indians became more accustomed to dealings with soldiers and settlers, many would adopt clothing similar to what was worn throughout Latin America.
Daily Life in the California Missions
In order for the ranch and the farm to function, everyone had a task, and most Indian members worked as members of the farm. In general, they worked approximately five hours per day during fall and winter time, and between six and seven hours per day during spring and summer, Monday through Saturday.
Sundays were reserved for rest and religious services, as were the special feast days of the Catholic calendar. There could be as many as 92 throughout the year.
Mission Work Schedule
For Indians on the mission, the church bell marked the rhythms of the day. Each day would begin with prayers and mass, then breakfast. After breakfast each person would go to work on his or her particular occupation until midday.
At midday they would gather for prayers and lunch, followed by a break, which often involved a nap or siesta, as was common all over Spain and Latin America.
After the break, they would return to work until about an hour before sunset, which was the end of the workday. If they had already finished their tasks, they could use the time as they pleased.
At sunset, people once again gathered for prayers and then supper.
Jobs at the California Missions
Since the majority of crops grown at the missions was seasonal, the agricultural tasks the Indians carried out would change throughout the year:
From December through March, for example, it was time to sow the seeds of the various crops. In April and May, it would be time for shearing sheep, branding cattle and other livestock-related jobs. June through September was spent harvesting the crops planted earlier in the year. During the rest of the year, there were plenty of maintenance tasks to take care of.
There were also more specialized workers who made soap, tanned leather, did weaving, or worked as blacksmiths year round. Some of these jobs were performed by men, others by women.
The jobs of cowboys, shepherds, cobblers, masons, carpenters, blacksmiths, tanners and farmhands were common male chores at the California missions.
Women often did chores such as washing, sewing or grinding wheat. Many of these more skilled tasks would be taught by artisans from Mexico, or Indians from missions in Baja California, who immigrated north.
Most work was done on a quota system. Each person would have a set amount of number of things to produce each day or week, like a certain number of adobe tiles to make or cloth to weave. Once they met their quota, the workers were free to spend their time as they wished.
Even children did work at the missions, though not the type of work adults performed. Typical children’s jobs would things like keeping birds or small animals out of the gardens, or serving at Mass or other religious functions.
In addition to working in agricultural tasks, Indian men would often serve on military expeditions. Since the earliest days of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, Indians has fought alongside Spanish soldiers. In Paraguay, for example, Indian militias had defeated Portuguese slave traders.
The Spanish couldn’t supply enough soldiers to keep their rivals, the English and Russians, from moving into Alta California, so their plan was to have Indians serve as militiamen to protect the coast. Many of the soldiers who came to Alta California in the first Spanish expeditions had native ancestry themselves.
As time went by, and especially during the Mexican era, Christian Indians from the missions would help protect the missions from attack by hostile tribes, or go out with soldiers on military missions.
There were cases when natives of nearby settlements, at times in alliance with Indians who had left the missions, would attack a mission. In 1775, Kumeyaay warriors assaulted Mission San Diego, killing one of the missionaries and other people.
In 1824 a dispute with soldiers at Mission Santa Inés sparked a revolt among the Chumash people. The revolt eventually involved Mission Santa Inés, La Purísima and Santa Bárbara.
Illness and Disease
The fathers who had responsibility for the missions kept records about the number of people whom they administered the sacraments.
Thanks to these notes, we know that at times the mortality rate of Indians living on mission lands was particularly high. This was often because of the outbreak of epidemics and exposure to diseases carried by Spanish and Mexican soldiers and settlers.
Since medicine was very primitive on the California frontier, many native people lost their lives to these diseases.
There are a number of letters conserved in archives in which Spanish missionaries complain of the lack of doctors and urge the Spanish government to send some to care for the Indians.
Some Indians abandoned the mission after a period of time and became fugitives. They did not like life at the missions or had committed some offense. Often other Indians from the mission would be sent to persuade them to return, or the padres themselves would go to speak with them. At other times, soldiers would go to try and retrieve them.
This began to happen especially after 1810, when the Spanish government stopped supplying the presidios. Missions were ordered to provide food and other goods to the military garrisons. This greatly increased the amount of work Indians were asked to do and created resentment among many natives.
One of the most famous cases of fugitives is that of Estanislao, an alcalde from Mission San José. Estanislao led a large group of fugitives into the San Joaquín valley in 1828-1829 and resisted the Mexican army. After a number of battles with the army and native troops, Estanislao eventually returned to the mission and spent the rest of his life there.
Secularization and the End of the Missions
The missions were not meant to be permanent institutions. The Spanish government’s plan was that each mission would develop into a town, with the same structure as the towns throughout Latin America. Ideally, this was supposed to happen within ten years after the founding of a mission.
In Alta California, the missionaries generally believed that ten years was not enough time for indigenous people to fully adapt to Hispanic ways, so they were resistant to the Spanish government’s timeline.
Nevertheless, after Mexico gained its independence from Spain, Mexican officials set this process, known as secularization, into motion. By the mid-1830s they removed the missions from the authority of the Franciscans.
Native American life in the California missions changed after secularization. After the missions were secularized, civilian administrators were put in charge of each mission. Their job was to transfer the goods and property of the missions into the hands of the government, and to oversee Indian labor.
These men were unpopular with the Indians, who claimed that they took the mission goods for themselves. Julio César, an Indian born at Mission San Luis Rey, talked about native life in the missions after secularization. He said that one administrator managed to take even the glasses and plates from the mission.
Most of the land that had previously belonged to the mission was sold or distributed to the families of local ranchers or to the administrators themselves. Occasionally Indians from the missions would be granted parcels of land, as was the case of Rancho Ulistac in Santa Clara. Most Indians did not receive a land grant, and either went to live in areas far away from the Hispanic population, or used the skills they had learned at the missions to become laborers in towns or on local ranches.
Native American life in the California missions underwent many changes from the founding of the mission chain.
Do you still have questions? Is there any information you did not find here? If so, leave a comment at the bottom of this page!
- How did the Spanish try to persuade native people to join the missions?
- Where were missions usually located?
- Where did native people live before joining the mission? Where did they live after joining the mission?
- Who oversaw Native American life in the California missions?
- What languages did native people speak at the mission?
- What did native people eat before they joined the mission? What did they eat after joining the mission?
- What was their work schedule like at the mission?
- What kind of jobs did native people do at the mission?
- What is a fugitive, and who is one of the most famous fugitives from the missions?
- What happened to the land that belonged to native people after the missions were closed down?
More Resources About Native American Life in the California Missions
- All of the most important information about the Indian tribes of the California missions at your fingertips. Use it as background for your own lessons, or assign it to students for their Native American or mission research projects. Includes an introduction to California Native American life before, during and after the mission period. The California Native American groups are arranged in alphabetical order by name and provides information about their ancestral territories, the missions they were linked to, and the groups that represent them today.
There are a number of books that provide information about Indian life at the California missions. The ones below are some of the works that were used to prepare this article:
Donald C. Cutter. California in 1792: A Spanish Naval Visit.
Maynard Geiger. The Indians of Mission Santa Barbara in Paganism and Christianity.
Lee Panich and Tsim Schneider. Indigenous Landscapes and Spanish Missions: New Perspectives from Archaeology and Ethnohistory
George Harwood Philips. Vineyards and Vaqueros: Indian Labor and the Economic Expansion of Southern California, 1771–1877.