Native Americans came to the California missions for a variety of reasons. Some of these were: protection from their enemies, access to stable food sources, attraction to Spanish culture and religion, fear of Spanish weapons and a desire to stay together with their clans and kin.
- 1 Were Native Americans Forced to Enter the California Missions?
- 2 Reason 1: Protection from Enemies
- 3 Reason 2: Keeping Families Together
- 4 Reason 3: Access to Stable Food Sources
- 5 Reason 4: Attraction to Christianity
- 6 Reason 5: Fear of Spanish Weaponry and Attraction to Spanish Society
- 7 Did Native Americans Flee the Missions?
- 8 Mission Revolts
- 9 Conclusion
- 10 Suggested Books
Were Native Americans Forced to Enter the California Missions?
Many people assume Indian people entered the California missions because they were forced to. There were times that Native Americans were forced to return to the missions after they joined. But both Spanish law and Catholic Church law made it clear that Native Americans were not to be forced to enter the missions against their will.
In order to join a mission, native people had to accept becoming Christian and being baptised. According to Catholic Church law, a person can be baptized only if they freely do so, or in the case of babies and children, only if their parents freely agree to do so. Otherwise such a baptism is not considered valid. So in order for a person to be baptized, they needed to give their consent.
Spanish civil law also forbade forcing Indians to join the missions. In fact, missionaries and Spanish government officials didn’t always agree. There were times in which Spanish government officials argued that Indians shouldn’t join the missions at all. Sometimes they preferred to offer Indians jobs on ranches and farms that weren’t connected with the missions or to have Native Americans settle in Spanish pueblos.
That doesn’t mean that Native Americans were free to leave the missions once they joined. When Indian people became part of a mission community, they were expected to stay part of that community for the rest of their lives. Although they could travel to visit relatives or hunt and fish, it was for a limited time, and they were expected to return to the mission.
The following are several reasons why Native Americans entered the missions. They are not necessarily in order of importance, because we cannot always know the exact reasons for the choices of people in the past. Nonetheless, these are main reasons that we can find in documents and studies.
Reason 1: Protection from Enemies
One very important reason Native Americans came to the California missions was protection from enemies. As we know from the testimony of Pablo Tac, a young Indian man from the San Luis Rey mission, native tribes in Alta California had rivalries and conflicts between one another. Some of these feuds even lasted for generations.
According to Pablo Tac, “We were always at war. There was always fighting day and night with those who spoke another language. It seems that our enemies were those that are now called Dieguiños by the Spanish, and quichamcauichom by us. This means ‘the Southerners’…life was very miserable then, because their was always fighting.”
Learn more about Pablo Tac by reading Memories of Life at a Mission: The Account of Pablo Tac, Luiseño.
Native people often viewed the Spanish or Mexican armies as potential allies against their rivals. By joining a mission, they would be able to rely on Spanish soldiers and military power to protect themselves against other enemy tribes or clans. One example of a native leader who became an ally of the Mexican army was Sem Yeto (also known as Chief Solano). He fought alongside the troops of General Mariano G. Vallejo.
To learn more about Sem Yeto and Gen. Vallejo, read Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo: General of the Northern Frontier.
Of course, in many cases Indian tribes who were rivals would also share space on the same mission lands. This could often lead to conflicts as well. At the same time, by intermarrying, many of these rivalries could be overcome with time.
Reason 2: Keeping Families Together
Many times the leader of a Native American community would decide to be baptized and join the mission. Because of his power and authority, the leader could convince other members of the same community to join the mission. This provided a way to stay together with family and friends and not be split up.
At times a whole village went into the mission and families would be baptized together. At other times one or two persons would enter or be baptized, and slowly other family members would follow their example and go to live on the mission lands. This was not always the case, however. In places like San Diego, there were villages where Christian and non-Christian Indians lived together. However, in order to join a mission and live within its boundaries, it was necessary for a native person to be baptized.
The wish to stay together became especially important as more and more people entered missions and villages shrank in size. Indians who had remained in the villages became fewer and therefore more vulnerable. They therefore began to see the need of being together with their kin as a more attractive option. Nevertheless, in some places under Spanish control there were native groups and families who never became Christians or entered the missions.
Reason 3: Access to Stable Food Sources
Although California Indians had developed successful methods for living off the land, like hunting, fishing and harvesting native plants, there were many times in which food was in short supply. When food sources became scarce, Indian groups were forced to move the great distances to find food.
By joining the missions, Native Americans learned farming techniques that could allow them to raise abundant foods in a predictable way. Raising cattle and other livestock allowed members of the mission community to have easy access to beef, for example. Cattle raising was much more predictable than hunting or trapping wild game.
Read more about Native American jobs at the California missions: Indian Life at the California Missions
Nevertheless, even after Indian people did join the missions, they would continue to hunt and fish whenever they could. Hunting and fishing would be important sources of supplemental food when droughts or other difficulties threatened the foods grown on mission farms. Scholars have also suggested that as European crops and livestock became more widespread, native foods became more and more difficult to find.
Reason 4: Attraction to Christianity
Some Native Americans were attracted to the California missions out of religious reasons. They saw the missionary priests as kind and charitable. They also saw them as spiritually powerful. Some Native Americans were resentful or fearful of the power of the shaman or religious leaders of their tribes. They either felt that Christianity was more powerful than the religion of the shaman, or they saw it as a more attractive alternative. Some were drawn to the music and the rituals of the Catholic Church.
Over time many Native Americans saw their friends and relatives being baptized, and they decided to join them and not be left out. By joining the Christian faith, they could have also have access to Hispanic society and the opportunities that it presented. And many native people mixed practices from Christianity and their ancestral religions together. It is difficult to tell how many native Americans adopted Christianity in a sincere way, but many certainly did.
Reason 5: Fear of Spanish Weaponry and Attraction to Spanish Society
Native Americans in California had never encountered a group as well-organized, powerful and efficient as the Spanish military. With advanced technology such as horses and writing, weapons such as pistols, muskets, swords and lances, the Spanish were a very impressive force. Spanish ships, larger than anything ever seen before, arrived on the coast. And Spanish fortresses, known as presidios, were stronger and more permanent than anything native people had seen. Although Spanish soldiers were few in number compared to Native Americans, they could instill fear.
Another important factor is that the Spanish did not treat the Indians as enemies. Instead, they invited them to be allies and even become part of Spanish society. Many of the Spanish soldiers themselves were of Native American ancestry. They also brought with them Indian people from Baja California and other parts of Mexico as interpreters. These native people also helped model the Latin American lifestyle to the Native Americans of Alta California. By inviting native people to join Spanish society, they offered access to the type of power and resources that many Indians saw as beneficial.
Did Native Americans Flee the Missions?
There were many times when Native Americans did not feel free and fled the missions. Sometimes they did so because or they felt the work was too hard, or the punishments too harsh. Sometimes they just missed their old homes and wanted to return to them. When epidemics struck the mission community and people were dying, many Native Americans ran away out of sadness or to escape the diseases.
When Indian people fled the missions, other native people from the mission would go to convince them to come back. If they refused to return, soldiers would also be sent to retrieve them. In this way they would be forced to return.
At times there would be revolts, where a large number of Native Americans would leave a mission and take up arms to resist the soldiers sent to bring them back. The number of these revolts increased in the early decades of the 19th century. At that time, supplies from Mexico were cut off, and Native Americans had to work extremely hard to support not only their mission communities, but also the presidios.
Some of these revolts were quite violent and ended with many lives lost. One of the most famous revolts was that of Estanislao, an Indian from Mission San José, who fought against the troops of General Mariano G. Vallejo. Although Estanislao was very successful as a military leader, he eventually returned to the mission and lived the rest of his life there.
As you can see, there were many reasons why Native Americans joined the missions. Sometimes they did so because they felt it was the best thing to do for themselves and their families. Other times they probably felt that they had few options. We can never know all of the reasons, but certainly each individual had a choice to make.
If you want to find more in-depth information on the subject of why Native Americans entered the missions, the books below offer a great starting point. Click below to find them on Amazon.com: