What was daily life like for Native Americans at Mission San Diego de Alcalá? What did they eat? What jobs did they do? An introduction to life at Alta California’s 1st Spanish Mission.
- 1 Who Founded Mission San Diego de Alcalá and When Was It Founded?
- 2 Where is Mission San Diego Located?
- 3 What Native Americans Lived at Mission San Diego?
- 4 Native American Housing at Mission San Diego
- 5 The Interrogatorio
- 6 Who Else Lived at Mission San Diego?
- 7 Indian Clothing at Mission San Diego
- 8 What Languages Were Spoken at Mission San Diego?
- 9 Daily Schedule at Mission San Diego
- 10 What Jobs Did People Do at Mission San Diego?
- 11 Men’s Jobs at Mission San Diego
- 12 Women’s Jobs at Mission San Diego
- 13 Children’s Jobs at Mission San Diego
- 14 Food at Mission San Diego
- 15 Illness and Disease at Mission San Diego
- 16 Mission San Diego Closed
- 17 To Learn More
Who Founded Mission San Diego de Alcalá and When Was It Founded?
Mission San Diego de Alcalá was founded by Fr. Junípero Serra on July 16, 1769. It was the first mission founded in Alta California (what is today the State of California).
Where is Mission San Diego Located?
Mission San Diego de Alcalá is located along the San Diego River, about six miles east of Mission Bay. It was originally established near the San Diego Presidio on a hill overlooking the bay (modern day Presidio Hill), near a native village named Cosoy. Fr. Serra petitioned to move the mission in 1774 in order to be in order to be in a more fertile location and closer to a village called Nipaguay by the local Indians.
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.
Spanish missionaries would negotiate with the leaders of Native American communities to join the mission. Once they did join, 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 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. They would speak Spanish and even adopting Hispanic dress.
What Native Americans Lived at Mission San Diego?
The people who lived at Mission San Diego are the ones today known as Kumeyaay, though there were two groups who spoke slightly different languages. Anthropologists have used the name the Ipai for those who lived more to the north, and Tipai, for those who lived more to the south. The Spanish referred to them all as Sandiegueños or Diegueños because they were affiliated with the San Diego mission.
Native American Housing at Mission San Diego
In the early years of the establishment of the mission, the Kumeyaay 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 Mission San Diego de Alcalá, Christian Indians would often live in their own villages among non-Christian natives, and 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.
Some of the most important information about the lifeways of California Indians during the mission era comes from the Interrogatorio (Questionnaire) that the Government of Spain sent to the priests of the California Missions in 1813. Each mission answered in more or less detail, depending on the temperament and experience of the missionaries, who replied according to their observation of native life in the mission and their understanding of indigenous customs outside the mission. Fray José Sánchez and Fray Fernando Martín wrote the answers for Mission San Diego de Alcalá.
Who Else Lived at Mission San Diego?
At the mission there were two Franciscan padres and the Native Americans (whom the padres called “neophytes”). There were also soldiers stationed at the presidio a few miles away:
Two classes of people are served at this Mission San Diego: the neophytes and the military of the neighboring Presidio of San Diego. Among them there is one European.
Indian Clothing at Mission San Diego
Once Native American people came to the mission, they were given some clothes to wear. Here the padres describe the men’s clothes.
These neophytes dress in cloth fashioned like a short shirt, a blanket, and a sash about half a yard in width, which they tie at the waist in front and which comes down in back.
According to the priests, the women dressed differently:
The women’s clothing is made up of a tunic, a blanket and a petticoat. The last-named article is not possessed by all due to a lack of wool. Those not possessing a petticoat make a garment in the style of a net and very closely woven. This they tie at the waist and it reaches to the knee.
The padres complained that livestock were being allowed to graze on the mission property and that made it hard to raise enough sheep for wool. The answer they proposed was
“to clear the fields owned by the neophytes of this mission of alien herds because then they will raise a larger herd for wool and consequently will have more wool to clothe everyone and enable all to go about better clothed.
What Languages Were Spoken at Mission San Diego?
The Kumeyaay people of the mission spoke their own languages. The younger people also learned Spanish.
The language which. these neophytes speak is called mau, it is so named because to say yes, they use the word faa and to say no, the use the word mau. They, especially the younger generation, also understand and speak our Spanish.
Daily Schedule at Mission San Diego
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 they end of the workday, unless they had already finished their tasks, in which case they could do what they pleased. At sunset, people once again gathered for prayers and then supper.
What Jobs Did People Do at Mission San Diego?
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, it was usually time to sow the seeds of crops, while 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. The rest of the year might be spent in various maintenance tasks.
There were also more specialized workers who made soap, tanned leather, did weaving, or worked as blacksmiths year round. 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. An example would be 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.
Men’s Jobs at Mission San Diego
Common male occupations, were the jobs of vaqueros (cowboys), shepherds, cobblers, masons, carpenters, blacksmiths, tanners and farmhands.
Women’s Jobs at Mission San Diego
Typical women’s jobs included weaving cloth, washing, sewing or grinding wheat.
The padres also reported that some neophytes from Mission San Diego, both men and women, would ask to go work for the soldiers at the nearby Presidio of San Diego. The padres wrote that
“the soldiers have the obligation like fathers of families to clothe and feed them, to provide for their education and to give them good example.”
Children’s Jobs at Mission San Diego
Even children did work at the missions, though not the type of work adults performed. Usually children would be responsible for things such as keeping birds or small animals out of the gardens. They also served at Mass or other religious functions.
Food at Mission San Diego
Indians generally ate both the food grown at the mission and things they gathered or hunted. For Mission San Diego de Alcalá, the padres described the type of meals the mission supplied to the Native Americans:
This is the menu: mornings, mush made of barley, wheat or corn; at noon, pozole, i.e. boiled barley, wheat or corn; evenings, atole, the same as for the morning meal. Every fifteen days, twenty-four head of cattle are slaughtered. Meat is not given more often because the supply of the mission does not permit it.
Illness and Disease at Mission San Diego
In the early 19th century, one of the biggest problems that affected Mission Diego was disease. Many Native Americans died because of epidemics. The padres complained because they did not have the means to cure the Indians, and many were dying.
During the last four years in this area deaths exceeded baptisms and during this last year, 1814, deaths numbered 118 and baptisms 75. This count includes the adult baptisms of pagans.
Mission San Diego Closed
Mission San Diego de Alcalá was eventually closed by the Mexican government in 1834. Although according to the law the mission property belonged to the Native Americans who lived there, government officials eventually sold the lands to local ranchers. Native Americans continued to live in the area, or eventually settled in reservations after the U.S.-Mexico War.
To Learn More
There is much to learn about Indian life at Mission San Diego de Alcalá and the Kumeyaay people. Below you can find some further resources to help you understand more.
- Mission San Diego de Alcalá Facts
- Native Americans of Southern California: The Kumeyaay
- Kumeyaay Tribe Facts
- Native American Life at the California Missions (An Overview)
- Book: Native Americans of San Diego County (Images of America)
- Book: The Painted Rocks
- Book: Many Worlds — Native Life Along the Anza Trail