Missions & Presidios of the United States

Mission San Jose, San Antonio, Texas by Kathy Alexander

Mission San Jose, San Antonio, Texas by Kathy 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 and 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, convert the Indians to Christianity, and 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 Alexander.

The first missions and presidios were established in the mid-16th Century in the Southeast United States — in Florida, South Carolina, and Georgia. Except for Presidio St. Augustin (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 over 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, threatened Spain’s territory. 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 Alexander.

The first of these, founded in 1690 near Weches, Texas, failed because of the Indians’ hostility, but others were founded in east Texas after 1716, and some 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. He founded missions San Xavier and San Gabriel in Arizona 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 to turn 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 northern Mexico and the southwestern United States. The missionaries were often the first Europeans to enter frontier regions 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, leather, and land to develop fields for crops. The inhabitants were expected to maintain the ranches and fields to survive. The mission also contributed to the economy in other ways. It established necessary industries such as weaving, ironworking, and carpentry, which were important to maintaining the Spanish American frontier’s entire military and political structure. Missionaries established manual training in European skills and methods to support these efforts. Everything consumed and utilized by the natives was produced at the missions under the supervision of the priests.

In seeking to introduce Catholicism and European agriculture methods, 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. The style developed differently in California, 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 and an economic function, and sometimes, as a fortress to protect its area residents against attack. However, specific structures were established to protect the Spanish priests and their followers — the presidio.

San Xavier del Bac Mission, Tuscon, Arizona by Carol Highsmith

San Xavier del Bac Mission, Tuscon, Arizona by Carol Highsmith

Often a presidio would be built along with a specific mission or in vulnerable areas. Its purpose was to provide military support for the mission and later settlements until these communities could support themselves. The main purpose of a presidio was to protect the colonists from Indian attacks. Presidio soldiers were also expected to bring back natives who ran away from the mission. In addition, they protected groups bringing supplies from the Rio Grande. Soldiers also guarded herds of cattle and horses to keep them from being stolen by Indian raiders.

Presidios were built from local materials, such as logs, adobe, or stone. Most presidio compounds were rectangular, with four tall walls and lookout points on each corner. Within the Presidio were barracks for the soldiers, separate sleeping quarters for officers, a chapel, and storage rooms. The only entrance was a huge main gate. These defensive garrisons of the expanding Spanish frontier encompassed a chain of over 20 presidios extending from San Augustine, Florida, to San Francisco, California.

De Soto At Tampa Bay, Florida, 1539

De Soto At Tampa Bay, Florida, 1539

Even though Spanish military life could be unpleasant, dull, and harsh, most presidio soldiers enlisted for ten years. The soldiers faced years of hard work and constant danger from hostile Indians and often did not get along with the priests they were ordered to protect. Many conflicts arose over how to deal with the Native Americans in and around the settlement. These disagreements sometimes led to long-term distrust and resentment between the mission residents and the soldiers who were supposed to protect them.

In addition to the hardships and disagreements, presidio soldiers were not paid well. They had to use much of their pay to buy their own uniforms, weapons, and other equipment at the commissary, where the prices were very high. Outside the presidio compound, local merchants, craftspeople, farmers, and livestock owners saw the soldiers as customers for their goods. Many soldiers had to take extra jobs in the settlement to buy food, clothing, and supplies for themselves and their families.

Mission Santa Barbara, California by Carol Highsmith

Mission Santa Barbara, California by Carol Highsmith

The Spanish colonies and missions varied enormously in their economic and religious success. Some could not support themselves, while others developed fertile fields, vineyards, and huge herds of cattle. The native population reacted to the mission system in several ways. Some participated fully, mixing their traditions with Spain to create a new Hispanicized and Christianized culture.

The Spanish then called them gente de razón, or “rational, reasonable people,” like the Spaniards themselves. Other Indians moved in and out of the missions, returning to more familiar surroundings during a season when the natural environment was rich with food. Some refused to join at all, continuing to live in their traditional ways. Virtually all successful religious conversions were among the sedentary Indians, who were easier to control and more adaptable to agriculture and herding. The few attempts to convert such warlike nomads as the Apache and Comanche failed dismally.

Unfortunately, the mission and settlement arrangement exposed the Indians to European diseases, against which they had little immunity. For instance, an epidemic in New Mexico killed 3,000 Indians in 1640. The mission system destroyed much of the Indians’ native culture, and rebelling against the exploitation and forced labor, there were sporadic rebellions. The biggest rebellion, known as the Pueblo Revolt, was led by a New Mexico Puebloan Religious Leader named Popé in 1680, where almost 400 Spaniards were killed. The rest were driven from Santa Fe and northern New Mexico and would not retake control until 1692.

No single description can cover the entire experience of the missions. It is possible, though, to depict some of its most important elements. Religion was the most important factor in shaping the day. At dawn, the church bells rang, calling the people to morning prayer, followed by 30 minutes to an hour of instruction in the Catholic faith. At noontime, the bells tolled again to assemble everyone for more prayer, and in the evening, there was another service and more instruction.

The rest of the day, the Native Americans were expected to work. Many men were led to the fields or military drills by a missionary or a soldier, while others remained in the compound to work in one of the shops weaving, candle making, woodworking, or engaging in other crafts. Women and older girls often made pottery or baskets, while others worked in the kitchen or operated spinning wheels. Children spent their days in several ways: helping the adults, Spanish lessons, school, or playing games with each other. Everyone came together to eat the day’s largest meal at noontime, followed by the rest period known as a siesta. They remained inside for the hottest part of the day, then returned to their duties until early evening. They would have a light meal before the last service of the day, then enjoy some relaxation.

Indian worker bringing in the harvest, photo by the Detroit Publishing Company, about 1900

Indian worker bringing in the harvest, photo by the Detroit Publishing Company, about 1900

Daily life in the missions was unlike anything the Native Americans had experienced. Most had routine jobs to perform every day, and the mission priests introduced them to new ways of life and ideas. The priests supervised all activities in the mission and would often physically punish uncooperative natives. For the most part, these natives did not care for mission life. Many were never converted to the Catholic faith. Those who came into the mission often only stayed for a few months. Many ran away only to be captured again by presidio soldiers and punished by the priests. Some returned on their own to escape hunger and the cold winters. Those Native Americans who did adopt the Spanish way of life usually remained at the mission, marrying and having families on small plots of land near the mission.

In the late 18th century, the missions began to change. The Spanish crown had begun to view the missions as a drain on Spanish finances, as the missions had not grown enough to give the money back to Spain. Also, maintaining presidios to protect the missions became too expensive. Before long, secularization — turning the settlements into civil rather than religious communities — began. The Spanish government withdrew much of its financial support and ordered mission lands and livestock to be divided among the mission Indians converted to Christianity.

In 1824, after Mexico achieved independence from Spain, secularization swept across the missionary communities. The Mexican authorities cared little for continuing the missions’ objectives, viewed them as the Natives’ salvation, and saw the missionary system as economically inefficient. The Native Americans also wanted increased control over their land and livestock that the Franciscans had so stringently regulated.

The settlement of the new Spanish frontier had significant and far-reaching effects on the development of the United States, both politically and culturally. The missions were directly involved in the military, religious, and cultural development, influencing policy­making across the Southwest. The contribution of the missions to agriculture and commerce was critical to the growth of the state and the southwest. The remaining buildings provide a unique record of the Spanish colonial period’s architecture, art, and sculpture.

San Francisco de Assisi Mission Church in Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico still serves a congregation today.

San Francisco de Assisi Mission Church in Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico, still
serves a congregation today. By Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

© Kathy Weiser-Alexander/Legends of America, updated May 2023.

Also See:

Ancient & Modern Pueblos

Forts & Presidios Across America

San Antonio Missions National Historic Park

The Spanish Explore America


Kanellos, Nicolás; Handbook of Hispanic Cultures in the United States, Arte Publico, 1994
McGraw-Hill, Texas and Texans, 2003
NPS – South & West Texas
NPS – Spanish Missions
PBS – Catholic Missions
Wikipedia – Spanish Missions in the Americas