Investigative Question

Why did Spain establish missions? And how did they gain control? What impact did this encounter have upon Native peoples, Spanish missionaries and military, the Spanish/Mexican settler population, and California’s natural environment? Mission set 2 sub-question: How did the missions change the environment and the economy in California, and what did this mean for California Indians?

After studying both indigenous life in California and the motivations and practices of European explorers to the new world, students investigate what happens when two different cultures intersect: What impact did this encounter have upon Native peoples, Spanish missionaries and military, the Spanish / Mexican settler population, and California’s natural environment?

To secure the northwestern frontier of New Spain, King Charles III began colonizing California in 1769. While soldiers arrived to defend the territory, Franciscan missionaries came to convert native peoples to Christianity. Initially, missions attracted many Indians who were impressed by the pageantry, material wealth, and abundant food of the Catholic Church. Over time, as Spanish livestock depleted traditional food sources and the presence of the Spanish disrupted Indian village life, many other Indians arrived at the missions seeking a reliable food supply. Once Indians converted to Catholicism, missionaries and presidio soldiers conspired to forcibly keep the Indians in residence at the missions. In addition to their agricultural labor at the missions, Indians contracted with Presidio commanders to build presidio fortresses. Cattle ranches and civilian pueblos developed around missions, often built by forced Indian labor. Spanish culture, religion, and economic endeavors, combined with indigenous peoples and practices, all converged to shape the developing society and environment during Spanish-era California.

With so few colonists, Spanish authorities believed they could transform Indian peoples into loyal Spanish subjects by converting them to Christianity, introducing them to Spanish culture and language, and intermarriage. The introduction of Christianity affected native peoples, many of whom combined Catholicism with their own belief systems. Vastly outnumbered by native peoples, missionaries relied on some Indian leaders to help manage the economic, religious, and social activities of the missions. Colonists introduced European plants, agriculture, and a pastoral economy based mainly on cattle. (This unit of study may allow for the teaching of the Environmental Principles and Concepts (see Appendix F)). Under the guidance of Fray Junipero Serra 54,000 Indians became baptized at the missions where they spent anywhere from two to fifty weeks each year laboring to sustain the missions.

The historical record of this era remains incomplete due to the limited documentation of Native testimony, but it is clear that while missionaries brought agriculture, the Spanish language and culture, and Christianity to the native population, American Indians suffered in many California missions. The death rate was extremely high; during the mission period the Indian population plummeted from 72,000 to 18,000. This high death rate was due primarily to the introduction of diseases for which the native population did not have immunity, as well as the hardships of forced labor and separation from traditional ways of life. Moreover, the imposition of forced labor and highly structured living arrangements degraded individuals, constrained families, circumscribed native culture, and negatively impacted scores of communities. Nonetheless, within mission communities, Indian peoples reconstituted their lives using Catholic forms of kinship—the compadrazgo (god parentage)—to reinforce their indigenous kinship relations. Owing to missionaries’ dependence on Indian leaders (alcaldes) to manage mission affairs, elders who exerted political authority in their Indian villages often assumed positions of leadership in the missions. Mission orchestras and choirs provided yet one more avenue for Indian men to gain positions of importance in the missions. Some mission Indians sought to escape the system by fleeing from the padres, while a few Indians openly revolted and killed missionaries. Sensitizing students to the various ways in which Indians exhibited agency within the mission system provides them with a more comprehensive view of the era. It also allows students to better understand change and continuity over time, as well as cause and effect. Students can also gain broader contextual knowledge of missions by learning about how they operated farms like at Mission San Luis Rey, and by learning about the roles played by different groups of people in such settings. For example, students can frame their understandings of the mission system by considering, How did the lives of California Indians change during the Mission Period? How did they stay the same?

California’s missions, presidios, haciendas, and pueblos should be taught as an investigation into the many groups of people that were affected by them. Sensitivity and careful planning are needed to bring the history of this period to life. A mission lesson should emphasize the daily lives of the native population, the Spanish military, the Spanish/Mexican settler population, and the missionaries. The teacher might begin the lesson by asking students: How were peoples’ lives affected by missions? The teacher may wish to focus on a specific mission if it is nearby and can provide resources, or he/she can focus broadly on the impact of them throughout the region. Once students have learned that they will investigate the multiple perspectives of people who lived during the mission period, the teacher presents carefully-selected primary and secondary sources, as well informational texts written for children that provide information and context about each of the groups of people. Teachers can use literature, journals, letters, and additional primary sources that can be drawn from the local community to provide information about the mission. These sources can be challenging for all reading levels, so it is important for teachers to excerpt and support students when reading dense primary-source texts by providing them with vocabulary support, and making the sources accessible to all learners with literacy strategies.

In selecting sources and directing students’ investigations, attention should focus on the daily experience of missions rather than the building structures themselves. Building missions from sugar cubes or popsicle sticks does not help students understand the period and is offensive to many. Instead, students should have access to multiple sources that identify and help children understand the lives of different groups of people who lived in and around missions, so that students can place them in a comparative context. Missions were sites of conflict, conquest, and forced labor. Students should consider cultural differences, such as gender roles and religious beliefs, in order to better understand the dynamics of Native and Spanish interaction. Students should analyze the impact of European diseases upon the indigenous population. And as much as possible, students should be encouraged to view sources that represent how missionaries viewed missions and how natives lived there, and the role of the Spanish/Mexican settler population in facilitating the system. In addition to examining the missions’ impact on individuals, students should consider its impact on the natural environment. The arrival of the Spanish, along with their imported flora and fauna, catalyzed a change in the region’s ecosystem as well as its economy. What had once been a landscape shaped by hunter-gatherer societies became an area devoted to agriculture and the distribution of goods throughout the Spanish empire. Students can analyze data about crop production and livestock in order to better understand how people used the land and intensified the use of its natural resources. (See EEI Curriculum Unit, Cultivating California 4.2.6.)

The Mexican War for Independence (1810-1821) ultimately resulted in the end of Spanish rule, and with it, the mission system in California. Criticism of the mission system led to a campaign to secularize the missions as early as the late 1700s, when the region was still under Spanish rule. Secularization was never formally instituted, however, until the new Mexican Republic, established in 1823, began to liquidate and redistribute mission lands through land grants to Californios in 1834. Native Californians were supposed to receive half of the mission land, but many did not receive the land they were promised.

Native people lived in California for thousands of years before newcomers from Europe came into contact with Native Californian communities in the 1500s and 1600s. Native Californian people, especially those who lived along the coast, were profoundly impacted by the consistent presence of Spanish settlers, soldiers, missionaries, and government officials beginning in 1769. For centuries, the Spanish relied on Native laborers to do most of the work throughout Spain’s colonies in the Caribbean and in Central and South America, which kept labor costs extremely low and made colonies financially lucrative. The Spanish worked to establish a self-sufficient system of settlements to protect Spain’s land claim against other European empires that began to show interest in Alta California (generally, the region known today as California).

Spanish Catholic Franciscan priests, soldiers, and Native laborers from Baja California traveled to Alta California in the spring and summer of 1769 to establish the first set of outposts: the first in San Diego, followed by a northern site in Monterey that would serve as the capital of colonial California. As referenced in the HSS Framework excerpt, missions were central to this self-sufficient economy in California. Missionaries and soldiers established missions and urged local Native people to join the communities. When Native people were reluctant to join mission communities, soldiers sometimes coerced Native people with threats or acts of violence.

The Spanish considered Native peoples’ acceptance of the symbolic act of baptism as a concrete commitment to assimilate into mission life and abide by colonial Spanish community standards. This assimilation included giving up most aspects of their indigenous cultures and languages, accepting to live and work within the mission community, and having very restricted contact with unbaptized (gentile) members of their indigenous communities. Due to language barriers, short instruction periods in Catholicism, as well as social and cultural misunderstandings, many Native people who accepted baptism probably did not fully understand the lifelong commitment that Spanish priests expected.

Native experiences and missionary leadership styles varied at each of the eventual twenty-one missions. Some priests allowed Native people to perform ceremonies, sing, dance, and speak their language; other priests were extremely cruel and harshly punished Native people for seemingly minor offenses. At some missions, the missionaries rarely allowed baptized Native people (known as neophytes) to leave and sent soldiers to find fugitives; at other Spanish settlements, neophytes lived in villages away from the mission. This distance provided them with more autonomy.

Despite variations among sites, Spanish missions and settlements more generally had overwhelmingly negative impacts on Native people in California. While many people in California felt some degree of change following the arrival of newcomers, Native people who lived along the coast and approximately 60 to 100 miles inland of mission sites experienced major social, cultural, and environmental disruptions. Native people in California did not have immunity to European diseases. Sustained contact with the Spanish directly led to the severe decline of Native Californian populations. Scholars estimate that nearly half of the indigenous population in California died between the late 1770s and 1830.

Native people responded to Spanish intrusion in a variety of ways, including moving further inland to avoid interacting with the Spanish, actively resisting through revolts and rebellions, fleeing the missions, adapting to changes in their economies, and finding ways to maintain their cultures, languages, and traditions in the face of significant pressure to change. Native people also learned new skills in the missions, such as carpentry, blacksmithing, farming, ranching, weaving, and leather-working. Once the Mexican government dissolved the mission system, through a process known as secularization, many Native people were able to use these skills in the Mexican rancho economy that developed in the mid-1800s. Ultimately, though, many Native Californians today view the mission period as a time of forced assimilation and cultural destruction that wreaked havoc on their communities and has continued to affect people into the present day.

The following two inquiry sets — framed around the questions How did the missions impact California Indian traditions and beliefs? and How did the missions change the environment and the economy in Spanish California, and what did this mean for California Indians? — are designed to help students understand the changes instigated by the Spanish in California. Cause and effect and change over time are emphasized in the sequence of the sources. The final source set — How did the various people living in California experience the missions? — addresses the different perspectives of the missionaries, presidio soldiers, and Native Californians involved in the missions. Students can investigate each of the sources in the third inquiry set not only for what it says about the life of the author of the primary source but also for what it reveals about the experiences of those nearby. The sets are organized as follows:

Set 1: How did the missions impact California Indian traditions and beliefs?

  • Indian spirituality and culture in the pre-mission era
  • Indian spirituality and culture in the missions
  • Long-term impact of the missions on California Indian culture and spirituality

Set 2: How did the missions change the environment and the economy in California, and what did this mean for California Indians?

  • Native environment and economy before the missions
  • The impact of California Missions on the local environment and economy
  • The long-term impact of California Missions on the local environment and economy

Set 3: How did the various people living in California experience the missions?

  • Spanish missionary perspective
  • Spanish soldier and missionary perspective on relationship to California Indians
  • Perspectives of Indians at missions

As students examine these sources, it is helpful to project a map that shows the location of the 21 missions as well as a map of the California Indian tribal groups (available in grade 3 sources). One key challenge in studying the California Mission period is that California Indians left few written accounts of their experiences. The Spanish left many documents, including letters, journals, reports, and more. In some instances these Spanish sources included testimony from California Indians in contact with the Spanish. These are valuable sources for what they reveal about Native people’s verbal accounting of their experience with the missions, but it helps to keep in mind that a Spanish colonizer recorded these words for others within the Spanish empire.

To account for the lack of Native voices in the historical record, these sets also include excerpts from contemporary indigenous people about the histories of their people. Working with the primary sources available to us, students examine these sources to gain the knowledge and perspective to complete an assignment that addresses the complexity of the mission era, one that is entirely different from the mission construction project.

Directions: The three California mission inquiry sets focus on life before and during the mission system, with an emphasis on helping students understand how Native peoples in California responded to the changes in their work and their environment, as well as the introduction of a new belief system — sometimes adapting to, sometimes resisting, and always helping shape how these changes unfolded. Students have the opportunity to investigate the perspectives of those involved in the missions, from indigenous groups to the Spanish missionaries and soldiers engaged in a colonizing venture. Through careful analysis of the individual primary and secondary sources, students can begin to understand how the lives of Native Californians changed during the mission era.

In total, there are 18 different sources in this three-part inquiry set. Analyzing just one of the three sets will take considerable time, especially given the fact that each set is designed for students in the fourth grade. However, given the importance of this subject, both in our state’s and in our nation’s history, we believe that providing students with sufficient time and support to understand this period both acknowledges the importance of this topic and sets the necessary foundation for further historical study. It is vitally important that California students understand the impact of the Spanish mission system on Native Californians, the natural environment, and the state’s development.

To facilitate your students’ analysis of these sources, we’ve developed a three-part strategy to guide their investigation, which simulates the work of teams of investigative reporters: (1) students analyze the raw data; (2) students organize the data into categories, to develop their interpretation(s); and (3) students share their findings with their classmates, teachers, and parents.

Special note: This project is a group assignment that requires students to work collaboratively with close monitoring, feedback, and, if necessary, redirection by the teacher. It is not a take-home assignment and should be completed in class.

Below you’ll find a step-by-step process designed to take students through each of these three parts. We think there are two ways to conduct this investigation:

  • Full investigation. In the full investigation, each group analyzes sources from each of the three sets. The group uses this larger investigation to develop an answer to the question How did the Spanish mission system impact California’s people and its environment? After analyzing the sources and organizing their research, all groups present publicly.
  • Short-version investigation. In the short-version investigation, each group analyzes sources from one of the three sets. After analyzing the sources and organizing their research, all groups present publicly. Each group conducts a more narrow investigation to develop an answer to one of the following questions.
    • Traditions, Beliefs, and Health (set 4.2a): How did the missions impact California Indian traditions and beliefs? The sources in this set give clues to the impact of the missions on Native traditions and beliefs.
    • Environment and the Economy (set 4.2b): How did the missions change the environment and the economy in California, and what did this mean for California Indians? The sources in this set give clues to the impact of the missions on the natural environment and the economy.
    • Perspectives (set 4.2c): How did the various people living in California experience the missions? The sources in this set illustrate the differing perspectives of Spanish missionaries, the Spanish military, and Native peoples in California.

Whether you choose to have your students conduct a full or short-version investigation, the strategy is the same.

1. Organize students in groups of 3 to 4.

2. Tell students that each group represents an investigative reporting team whose task is to develop a report that tells the real story of the California missions. Optional: Have students develop a fictional name and logo for their television station or media website.

    1. If students are completing a full investigation: Tell students their job is to answer the following question: How did the Spanish mission system impact California’s people and its environment?
    2. If students are completing a short-version investigation: Have 1/3 of the groups answer the first question, 1/3 answer the second, and 1/3 answer the third:
      1. Traditions, Beliefs, and Health (set 4.2a): How did the missions impact California Indian traditions and beliefs?
      2. Environment and the Economy (set 4.2b): How did the missions change the environment and the economy in California, and what did this mean for California Indians?
      3. Perspectives (set 4.2c): How did the various people living in California experience the missions?

3. Distribute one set of sources per group. Distribute multiple copies of Student Handout 1: The Reporters’ Notebook. Before students begin their analysis, demonstrate for the whole class how to complete the collection sheet.

  1. Have each group complete one Reporters’ Notebook sheet for each source.
  2. Post Student Handout 2: Definitions on the wall (or project on the screen). Go over these terms with students to make sure they understand what they need to focus on as they analyze the set’s sources.
  3. Circulate during their analysis of the primary sources to make sure students are able to connect the source with the investigative question at hand.

4. Provide each group with a large piece of butcher paper.* Using Student Handout 3: Source Organization template, help students classify or organize their sources into topics, deas, or themes. If students need assistance, you may want to consider guiding their discussions around the following categories:

  1. Traditions, Beliefs, and Health (set 4.2a): How did the missions impact California Indian traditions and beliefs? The sources in this set give clues to the impact of the missions on Native traditions and beliefs.
  2. Environment and the Economy (set 4.2b): How did the missions change the environment and the economy in California, and what did this mean for California Indians? The sources in this set give clues to the impact of the missions on the natural environment and the economy.
  3. Perspectives (set 4.2c): How did the various people living in California experience the missions? The sources in this set illustrate the differing perspectives of Spanish missionaries, the Spanish military, and indigenous peoples.

5. Before students move onto the development of their reports, each group will need to meet with the teacher, or their “editor.” Ask each group to explain their butcher paper organization/categories. If needed, correct misunderstandings or assumptions, and make sure students can connect their “thesis” to evidence from their assigned sources.

6. Students use Student Handout 4: Preparing Your Report, to conceptualize, prepare, and present their findings to their editor (you), their peers (their classmates), and the public (parents and other educators). *Note: This poster activity has been adapted from a prewriting strategy developed by Daniel Diaz and Cindy Mata at the UCLA History-Geography Project.

 

Handouts

4.2 Mission Sets Student Handouts

4.2 Mission Sets Teacher Handout

  • The Library of Congress. The Library of Congress’ Primary Source Analysis Tool supports an inquiry model of instruction by asking students to first observe, then reflect, then question. Their customizable tool includes specific prompts for student interrogation of books and other printed materials, maps, oral recordings, photographs and paintings, and many other types of primary sources.

 

  • The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). NARA has developed a vast collection of document analysis worksheets, ready for classroom use. Their website offers teachers a wide collection of customizable tools – appropriate for working with photographs, maps, written documents, and more. NARA has also customized their tools to meet the needs of young learners, and intermediate or secondary students.

1. Conversion and baptism are not the same thing when discussing Native Californians and the missions. Use the term baptized instead of converted or conversion. Frequently, Native people who accepted baptism were not fully aware of its long-term and real-life implications.

2. El Camino Real, the road that supposedly connected the missions, was only a dirt trail during the late 1700s and early 1800s. There were no mission bell markers to delineate the path like we see today along the 101 freeway. These bells were installed by tourism booster organizations in the early 1900s.

3. Romantic depictions of the mission era that portray all Native people as happy participants in the Spanish settlements misrepresent the lived experiences of most Native people who had contact with the Spanish. As a result of Spanish contact, many Native Californian communities experienced extreme destruction to their populations, cultures, religions, and languages. This historical trauma still affects many Native communities today.