Missions & Presidios of the United States


Mission San Jose, San Antonio, Texas by Kathy Weiser-Alexander

Mission San Jose, San Antonio, Texas by Kathy Weiser-Alexander


Spanish Missionaries by Jose Cisneros

Spanish Missionaries by Jose Cisneros

De Soto Landing

Spanish explorers landing in America

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, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Her possessions reached their maximum extent between 1783 and 1803 when they ranged in a crescent from Florida to California.

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 Christopher Columbus had discovered, not island outposts of Cathay (China), 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.

Castillo San Marcos outer wall

Castillo San Marcos outer wall by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

The 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, Florida, Spanish occupation in this region was short-lived, as their holdings were attacked by hostile Indians, captured by other countries, or quickly abandoned. 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 1763.

In the meantime, the Franciscan friars were busily building missions in present-day New Mexico. From 1610 to 1640, the ambitious priests built between 30 and 50 churches, many of them along the Rio Grande. Here, the friars worked to convert the residents of Native villages, which they called Pueblos, after the Spanish word for “town.” The San Miguel Mission in Santa Fe, New Mexico, built between approximately 1610 and 1626, is claimed to be the oldest church in the United States.

In the late 1600s, 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.

Goliad-Presidio La Bahia - Mission

Goliad, TX – Presidio La Bahia Loreto Chapel. Photo by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

The first of these, founded in 1690, near what is now Weches, Texas, failed because of the Indians hostility, but, others were founded in east Texas after 1716, and some of them prospered. San Antonio 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 Native 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 States. Between 1687 and 1711, he founded over 20 missions in eight mission districts. In Arizona, he 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 in California established between 1770 and 1823. The last was San Francisco Solano, located in the Sonoma Valley. The aim of the priests was Indians from hunter-gatherers into novice Catholic farmers.

The missions 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.

Mission San Jose, San Antonio, Texas

Mission San Jose, San Antonio, Texas

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 priests.

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.

Feast Day at Estevan del Rey Mission, Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico by Charles F. Lummis, 1890

Feast Day at Estevan del Rey Mission, Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico by Charles F. Lummis, 1890

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 Native Americans. 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 styles and furnishings, and traditions.

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 St. Augustine, Florida, the oldest established city in the country, founded in 1565. The style that developed in the Southwest incorporated Pueblo design influences from the indigenous Puebloan peoples’ architecture. In California, 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 Aguayo in San Antonio, Texas; San Juan Capistrano, in California; 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 — the presidio.

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