California Missions and Native Americans

The establishment of Californian missions and the rise of Neophytes

Jiameng Wang

The first Spanish mission founded in 1769, San Diego De Alcalá, marked the beginning of more than twenty-one missions lining the coast of what is today California state1.  This post will introduce some of these parishes specifically and focus on these aspects; architecture, cultural clash between Europeans and Natives, daily life, and the demise of the Spanish “civilizing” missions.  Lastly, we’ll examine the parishes that survived fires and earthquakes and what purposes they serve today.

Prior to the 1700s, the Spanish empire made no efforts to colonize California, believing the peninsula of Baja California in Mexico (then termed New Spain) actually extended all the way through upper (Alta) California, thereby making California an island.  Alta California was a strip along the coast and did not extend as far inland as it does today.

In 1768, the Spanish empire acted when Russians were reported to be seal hunting in California, far from their territorial claims on coastal Canada and Alaska.  Spain, having no intent of ceding the area, sent Franciscan leader Junipero Serra and soldiers under Gaspar de Portola to San Diego to establish a mission3.  Junipero Serra and fellow friars had different motives.  They wanted to establish a religious-based mission that was separate from colonizing settlements2.  The Pueblo revolts, initiated by Pópe, were a recent reminder of the consequences of forcing both religion and conquest upon the Natives.

When four ships arrived in San Diego to found San Diego De Alcalá, the crew members brought livestock, seeds, and foreign diseases that soon reached the Southern Californian tribes, such as the Luiseňos3.  Since coastal Natives had minimal contact with Europeans, diseases such as chickenpox and smallpox reduced the population in tribes by about 60%.  The dwindling tribes gave little resistance to the establishment of missions; warriors were disadvantaged without guns and powder.  Some Native Americans were willing to try Catholicism in their desperation, seeing that the priests were immune to the “demons” that afflicted them.  Others, termed gentiles, were not attracted to the new religion and withdrew to their tribes.  Those who rebelled, though, were controlled by Gaspar de Portola and his military unit2.  The converts who were housed in mission compounds faced food and water shortages, as European farming ways were ineffective in the scrubland3.  The continued harassment by the military, and conversion that extended beyond spirituality into the natives’ way of life led to the riot of 1776.  The parish was burned and another built under the instruction of Serra, which today is a historical site and still functions as a Catholic church 1

With the completion of San Diego De Alcalá, Franciscans looking to establish new parishes traveled by land along the Royal Highway, or El Camino Real3.  The Franciscan Antonio Peyri tended to the largest of missions, San Luis Rey de Francia, founded in 17981.  San Luis Rey was located near the Quechnajuichom tribe and like the San Diego De Alcalá mission, transmitted diseases to the local population.  Along with the ill conditions in which Native orphans arrive to the parish (and died), children were housed in sometimes unsanitary, sex-segregated compounds2 while Franciscan leaders (known as padres) had access to chefs, military protection, musicians and livestock4.  Native converts, or neophytes, had no such luxuries and labored in the fields tilling European crops such as barley, corn, and wheat, used to sustain the mission and feed its non-native inhabitants.  Surplus harvest would be taken from the natives and sold to further the Spanish economy.  However, the banal daily routines were freshened by walks in the garden, featuring exotic plants and a gargoyle water fountain, or discreet practices of traditional rituals or games (at the risk of being chastised).  The white stucco façade with Spanish, Moorish, and Mexican influences is an architectural delight: San Luis Rey features tiered bell towers and arched entrances typical of Californian parishes.  Such parishes embody the airy and sunny coastal skies4.

Mission San Luis Rey de Francia in Oceanside, California. Robert A. Estremo4.

San Luis Rey was secularized and sold in 1846, despite the Native’s efforts to preserve the mission3.

San Fransisco De Asís (est. 1776) in San Francisco bay, known as Mission Dolores, was discovered by Gaspar de Portal and established as a military base.  With the arrival of Spaniards, an outbreak of measles spread to the Miwok tribe and killed about 5000 natives.  Natives were reluctant to enter the mission and be baptized in the often cold and damp weather of the bay area1.  Once the natives were integrated into the mission, they were worked full-time (up to 40 hrs per week) in the fields in exchange for a blanket per year, some belongings and meager food rations that resulted in malnutrition and further exacerbation of flea and disease infestations.  But as natives were viewed in the same category as wildlife and therefore needed to be utilized to serve God and the Spanish empire or gotten rid of, the Friars were confident that manual labor would make the “uncivilized” Indians useful in the new economy.  These newly converted natives, or neophytes, were previous tribe members voluntarily seeking out a mission or abducted at a young age, baptized without a full understanding of the ceremony.  The new concept of time constructed around the ringing of a bell was thrust upon them, and seasonal gathering of shellfish and wild roots and bulbs was forfeited.  To add to the confusion, misbehavior, “paganism”, or whatever reason the Padre decreed, were punished with frequent floggings5.  Of course, each mission varied in its treatment of natives and some natives became so attached to their mission that they attempted to preserve the mission from secularization and occupation by the U.S. Army.  Unfortunately, San Fransisco De Asís was used as a gambling and drinking tavern during the California Gold Rush1.

Ohlone neophytes, courtesy Bancroft Library.5

Works Cited

1. “California Missions.” BGC Internet Services. Web. 11 Apr. 2010.


2. Castillo, Edward D. “Short Overview of California Indian History.” California Native

American Heritage Commission. California Native American Heritage

Commission. Web. 10 Apr. 2010. <;.

3. McDowell, Jane. “Mission History.” Web. 11 Apr. 2010.


4. “San Luis Rey.” Wikipedia. Answers.Com. Web. 11 Apr. 2010.


5. Glass, Fred. “NATIVE AMERICANS in the MISSION.” Foundsf. MediaWiki. Web. 11

Apr. 2010. <;.


6 Responses to “California Missions and Native Americans”

  1. 1 Ian Hilgers April 13, 2010 at 11:20 pm

    I think the most interesting part of this post is the fact that it hits upon so many of the repeated problems faced by Native Americans. We see that the same problems these people in California in the late 18th century was dealt with by Natives on the East Coast back in the 15th and 16th centuries. From diseases wiping out tribes to the conversion of some natives, the similarity hundreds of years is remarkable.

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