Back to Inquiry Set

4.2a.6 Letter from Fr. Mariano Payeras (circa 1820)

The missions became places where disease epidemics spread quickly, as many Native people lived close together. In particular, unmarried Native girls and young women worked and lived in rooms (called monjerios) with little fresh air at many missions. However, disease struck California Indians of all age. Pregnant women, babies, and young children suffered an even higher death rate than other groups of people. In addition, the food that Native people ate in the missions was less varied and did not have the nutrients that their bodies were accustomed to in their Native diets. Many Native people also reported that living at the missions while so many of their family members fell ill and died took a major physical and emotional toll that led some to flee (known as fugitivism).
Cutter, Donald, Translator and Editor.
1995
Book
Payeras, Mariano. Writings of Mariano Payeras. Translated and edited by Donald Cutter. Santa Barbara: Bellerophon Books, 1995.

A Russian visitor to California in 1816 noted the “maladies” or sicknesses of many Native people in the missions. Similarly, Father Mariano Payeras, who was president of the California missions when he wrote this quote in 1820, worried about the high rate of death and sickness at the missions. Contact with the Spanish exposed Native Californians to several deadly diseases for the first time. These diseases had come from Europe with the Spanish. The Spanish also brought animals such as cows, horses, and sheep that ate a lot of Native people’s food. This caused problems with hunger and weakened immune systems for many Native people. The Spanish did not intend to spread diseases on purpose, but many Native people in California quickly became ill as a result of their contact with the missionaries and soldiers.

 

How do you think the high death rate in and around the missions influenced how Native people related to the Spanish and to the Catholic religion?

The missions became places where disease epidemics spread quickly, as many Native people lived close together. In particular, unmarried Native girls and young women worked and lived in rooms (called monjerios) with little fresh air at many missions. However, disease struck California Indians of all age. Pregnant women, babies, and young children suffered an even higher death rate than other groups of people. In addition, the food that Native people ate in the missions was less varied and did not have the nutrients that their bodies were accustomed to in their Native diets. Many Native people also reported that living at the missions while so many of their family members fell ill and died took a major physical and emotional toll that led some to flee (known as fugitivism).
“Every thoughtful missionary has noted that while the gentiles [unbaptized people] procreate easily and are healthy and robust (though errant) in the wilds, in spite of hunger, nakedness, and living completely outdoors… as soon as they commit themselves to a … Christian life, they become extremely feeble, lose weight, get sick, and die. This plague affects the women particularly, especially those who have recently become pregnant” (225).