The Missions

California natives’ lives were reshaped more by the mission fathers than by the townspeople of the pueblos or the soldiers of the presidios. The Franciscans came to California to convert the tribes to Christianity and train them for life in a European colonial society. Conversions were not always voluntary. The converts were required to live in settlements sponsored by missions, where they were taught Spanish and the tenets of their new religion. They were also trained in skills for their new lives, such as brickmaking and construction, raising cattle and horses, blacksmithing, weaving, and tanning hides.

The natives lived at the missions until their education was complete. They were then meant to establish homes in the nearby pueblos. As the native people of one area were Christianized and educated, the missionaries were supposed to move on, leaving the old missions behind to become parish churches as they built new missions in distant locations. Neither the Spanish government nor the Franciscans ever judged any of the natives ready for life outside the mission system. Christian natives or "Mission Indians" and their descendants remained at the missions until the system was abolished in 1834.

By 1834, the number of California's native people had decreased by half to about 150,000 as a result of sixty-five years of exposure to Europeans, who brought new diseases to which the natives had no resistance. Thousands of Indians died in epidemics. Crowded, harsh living conditions at the missions contributed to the Indians' health problems. Infant mortality and death rates among young children soared.

Source: The Missions
Library of Congress

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