Category: History
Life in a California Mission

Life in a California Mission: The Journals of Jean François De La Pérouse gives an insight into the lives of Native Americans during the 18th century from a European perspective. This was a period referred to as “Age of Discovery” since most people, cultures, and societies, who dominated unexplored regions of the world, were now being discovered. In the same period, 1769 – 1833, several missions came up between San Diego and Sonoma that were each day’s journey estimated at 30 miles apart. Each mission had two priests to oversight and a group of soldiers provided protection for the mission. Life there consisted of long days of hard, repetitive work with only holiday celebrations providing the needed time off for the community in missions. The Europeans were now exploring all the territories in the various regions. The Spanish started the first undertaking in California on July 16, 1769, and at that time, California estimated 310,000 Indians, but during the next 80 years the number of Indians, their lifestyle and culture had changed drastically. There was a complete mixture of economic, political and religious motives in the Spanish policy for Indians. They would become subjects of the Crown who received the Sacraments of Christianity. During the period of mission establishment in California, Indians settled and stabilized in their communities that were subjects of the King and God’s children. This indicated that the mission conversion of California was not only religious but also cultural.

La Pérouse’s recount

Life of California mission’s navigator and explorer Jean Francois de La Pérouse looking at the system of the mission gave a brief recount of all his observations. It included his judgment about the natives, who lived there as he had traveled and traversed with his voyage. While going to church one day, he passed by a place where the Indians sat in a row with each sex seated on its own row. For instance, he recounts seeing Indian men and women as he left the church. The missionary also provides a description of the Indian villages before and after the introduction of their mission work. The village mostly had cabins, which served as housing for Indians, and they were in a miserable condition. From his description, the cabins were tiny and served all the family members, hence lacked the private space. The men and women assembled by the sound of the bell. The churchmen would instruct the villagers on their daily duties whether on the farm, church or at home. We talk about it with pain, when men and women work on the same level with the same tools and equipment and some are punished, yet not too harsh.

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La Pérouse was set to create new territories, one being a strong northern territory, which was later on called the New World. One interesting point that he noted about Native Americans was that despite their uncivilized lifestyles and industries, they were full of skills and culture. He criticized his fellows, who were philosophers, regarding the wrong judgment they had and the period when religion served less as a pretext of violence. The manners of the remote nations are described by the navigators as completing man and their main aim was to endeavor, diffuse their knowledge, and make the people, who honor their visit, happier and multiplied.

La Pérouse recounts his mission in San Carlos and the church had bearable beautiful, Italian copied pictures. One of them was the picture of hell that strikes the imagination, yet Protestants would find it impossible to progress. The church was straw-thatched neatly within the village that had approximated fifty huts and seven hundred forty inhabitants of both sexes. They would gather there near the bell and conduct to work and church by the missionaries. Indians loved fresh air because they lived in the village. When their houses were burnt down they rebuilt them within two hours and liquidated from fleas. He mentions with deep pain how he saw people loaded with iron and stocks. His ears, at that moment, were struck by the noises from the strokes of a whip. Instilling of corporal punishment using iron and stock was for those who were impious and committed many sins, which in the European community were left to the Divine Justice. According to baptism, one had to live within the realms of what baptism posed, like one who had taken a vow of life. If a person fails to do this, he is recounted three times to return and refuse, a governor is involved in this event. Missionaries assigned to the governor send his soldiers to seize him/her from the family to be an example to the other missions. In the missions, one would be condemned to other whiplashes. Each punishment was adjudged by caciques who were Indian magistrates, three of them worked in each mission and were chosen by their own people who had not been excluded. They were to perform their superior’s will, maintain order and serve as beadles in the church. This, he saw, was a cruel treatment and exploitation of the poor Indian victims by the Spanish.

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Missions and history

Missions and history in regards to human achievement is an interesting subject. In the California context, we see how Latin progress and the future are symbolized by all these. History and the past experience were in the hands of the missionaries and how the missions were handled and organized, give a foresight of what the future holds. It also highlights how far progress has gone and where people go. It has given California its definition and many sort-after studies in Missions. Missions served multiple functions in the education sectors, spiritual context and in social activism. Missions in California introduced the tourism with San Juan Capistrano being the frequented site in the Orange County. From the view of multiple usages over time and space, missions become ideal and provide room for further studies and understanding the purpose of history linked to the identity crisis and authenticity of California experience. At the end of the last century, missions were viewed as the defining purpose of California and this gave a foundation for history studies and understanding the identity of this region.

Scholars in several generations who have tried to study the existence of the Indians- Europeans relationships in colonial America have come there. The mission system portrayed the missionaries as holy, righteous men while the natives despite their passivity were cooperative. This meant that the Franciscans who did the missions succeeded only when Indians cooperated. However, Indians cooperated only when knew they would receive something from the new religion they accept or they realized they would lose a lot if they resisted. The Franciscan system in California was more than an enlightened policy that reduced Indian influence and population it was defined as a shortened Indian utopia. Its facility for the mission was perceived as a prison camp with all the corporal punishment inflicted there like in the Nazi Third Reich. In 1960, a new breed of historians realized what would change the view of the previous historians. It has changed the view of the victimization of California natives by the Spanish. It involved harshness and oppression, which was not the case earlier.

The treatment of the Indians during the Mission period resulted in major reduction in the population of the Natives of America. American natives at the fall of the mission began to enjoy and sustain their lives using the skills they had already acquired. The portrayal of Indians who have been victims of the harsh and cruel treatment by the Spanish was suitable at the end of the era. However, with the emerging paradigm shift to American history, people agreed to the ideology. They have new roles now of being humble and most contented people who have protection and care from the mission fathers. The mission is now romanticized in a golden mix of myth and memory of a just society. Historians still have much to offer to the world in addressing the issues of California's development because of the natives of Native America, the migration and the integration of different cultures.


Over time, there have been varied opinions on the impact the missions had on the Indians and legality of racial discrimination. They faced several historians in an effort to present their sentiments, but have come to realize the romanticized missions and missions as the symbols of a harmonious and hierarchical California.

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