Mission-Presidio Life in the United States
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Between 1513, when
Juan Ponce de Leon first set foot in
Florida, and 1821,
when Mexico gained her independence, as well as the Spanish
possessions in the present United States, Spain left an indelible
influence in the United States. Spain was the leading European
power in the early imperial rivalry for control of North America and
for centuries, dominated the Southeastern and Southwestern parts of
what was later the United States -- particularly the States of Florida,
California. Her possessions reached their maximum
extent between 1783 and 1803, when they ranged in a crescent from
Spain's motives for colonization were threefold: to locate mineral wealth,
to convert the Indians to Christianity, and to counter French and English
efforts. The Spanish colonization system was highly successful. First, an
armed force subdued the natives and established forts, or presidios, for
future protection. Then, zealous missionaries moved in to convert the
Indians to the religion of Spain and teach them the arts of civilization.
Finally, representatives of the King founded civil settlements in
conjunction with the presidios and missions. The Crown controlled the highly
centralized process through a bureaucracy that burgeoned as the empire
expanded. But, the story begins in the first years of the 16th century, when
Spain first realized that
Columbus had discovered, not island outposts of
Cathay, but a New World!
In the two decades after the first voyage of
Columbus, Spanish navigators only began to realize the nature and extent of
his remarkable find. After Cortes' conquest of Mexico in 1519, the Spanish
moved north in search of further riches and potential converts.
first missions and presidios were established in the mid 16th Century in the
Southeast United States -- in Florida,
South Carolina, and
Georgia. With the exception
Presidio St. Augustin later (Castillo
De San Marcos) in St. Augustine,
Spanish occupation in this region was short-lived, as their holdings were
attacked by hostile Indians, captured by other countries, or quickly
However, the Spanish held Presidio at
St. Augustine, founded in 1565, for more
than two centuries. Eventually, it too would be lost -- to Great Britain in
In the meantime, the Franciscan friars were busily building missions in
New Mexico. From 1610 to 1640, the ambitious priests built
between 30 and 50 churches, many of them along the Rio Grande River. Here,
the friars worked to convert the residents of Native villages, which they
called Pueblos, after the Spanish word for "town."
San Miguel Mission in
New Mexico, built between approximately 1610 and 1626, is claimed to be the oldest church in the United States.
In the late 1600's, the French, already in Canada, explored the Mississippi
River to the point where it emptied into the Gulf of Mexico. The landing,
led by Robert Cavelier de La Salle in 1684,
posed a threat to Spain's territory and Spain responded by extending
its settlements into what is now
Texas, thereby creating a buffer between
the wealth of Mexico and French Louisiana.
The first of these, founded in 1690, near what is now Weches,
because of the Indians hostility, but, others were founded in east
after 1716, and some of them prospered.
became the home of
several missions, including San Antonio de Valero (the Alamo). The
Franciscan mission of Nuestra Señora del Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga, built at
Matagorda Bay in 1722 to help protect the coast from the French, was later
moved inland. Today, it is known as Aranama Mission or Mission La Bahia.
In the Spring of 1687, a Jesuit missionary named Father Eusebio Francisco
Kino lived and worked with
Americans in the area called the Pimería
Alta, or "Upper Pima Country," which presently is located in the areas
between the Mexican state of Sonora and the state of
Arizona in the United
Between 1687 and 1711, he
founded over 20 missions in eight mission districts. In
founded missions San Xavier and San Gabriel along the Santa Cruz River.
When the Spanish began to settle in
California, Father Junípero Serra
accompanied the expedition of José de Gálvez in 1769 and founded the Mission
San Diego de Alcalá at San Diego. It was the first of 21 Franciscan missions
between 1770 and 1823.
The last was San Francisco Solano, located in the Sonoma Valley. The
aim of the priests was
from hunter-gatherers into
novice Catholic farmers.
were an integral part of the northern frontier of New Spain, established
over a vast area.
From the early 17th century to the early 19th, Franciscan, Dominican, and
Jesuit orders of the Roman Catholic Church built missions throughout what is now
northern Mexico and the southwestern United States. In many cases, the
missionaries were the first Europeans to enter frontier regions in an
attempt to convert native populations to Christianity.
The missions were also
important to agricultural production. Each had a ranch for raising sheep, goats,
and cattle that supplied necessities like meat, wool, milk, cheese, and leather;
as well as land to develop fields for crops. The inhabitants were expected to
maintain the ranches and fields in order to survive.
The mission also contributed
to the economy in other ways. It established necessary industries such as
weaving, iron working, and carpentry, which were important to the maintenance of
the entire military and political structure of the Spanish American frontier. To
support these efforts,
missionaries established manual training in European skills and methods.
Everything consumed and utilized by the natives was produced at the missions
under the supervision of the
In seeking to introduce both Catholicism and European methods of
agriculture, the missions encouraged the Indians
to establish settlements nearby, where the priests could give them religious
instruction and supervise their labor.
The Spaniards intended that the Indians
would become skilled laborers and loyal subjects of the Spanish crown.
The presidio, the mission, and the civil settlement became related frontier
institutions for supporting Spanish colonization.
In attempting to
mold their new environment to their needs, the Spaniards began reproducing
their culture in
Hispanic arts, customs, values, and beliefs among the
Thus, they transplanted their architecture, town-planning, designs, and
way-of-life upon the people and their colonies, much of which can still be seen
in modern day place names, distinctive architectural syles and furnishings, and
In design, the missions reflected Gothic, Moorish, and Romanesque
architectural styles of the various cultural influences brought by the
Spanish. It was sometimes marked by the contrast between the simple, solid
construction demanded by the new environment and the Baroque ornamentation
exported from Spain.
The Spanish Colonial style in
the United States can be traced back to
oldest established city in the country, founded in 1565.
The style that developed in the Southwest incorporated Pueblo design
influences from the indigenous
peoples architecture. In
the style developed differently, being too far for imported building
materials and without skilled builders, into a strong simple version.
Among the best surviving examples are Missions San José y San Miguel de
San Juan Capistrano, in
and San Xavier del Bac near Tucson,
Arizona. Often the mission served multiple purposes -- its specific religious
function, as well as an economic function, and sometimes, as a fortress to
protect its area residents against attack. However, there were also specific
structures established to protect the Spanish priests and their followers --
Feast Day at Estevan del Rey Mission,
New Mexico by Charles F. Lummis, 1890.
Image available for photo prints & editorial
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