Life in the Spanish Missions

By Joseph P. Sánchez

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

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

The histories of life in the Spanish Missions of the United States are controversial and romanticized and have long influenced our views of Spanish colonial heritage. History reveals the native struggle for independence throughout the Americas, as rebelling tribes quickly returned to their old native ways while preserving Christian practices and values, which they had integrated into their traditions and customs. But, in the end, the Spanish influences made their mark on cultures that survive today.

The missions had many purposes. They were places for religious conversion and served as acculturation and economic centers, vocational training schools, and defensive structures. In many cases, the missionaries came to the native peoples, such as those in the Pueblos of New Mexico. At other times, individual Indians voluntarily committed themselves to conversion, acculturation, and servitude.

Once in the mission, new converts were expected to remain there until they were fully converted and became full members of the congregation. However, full conversion was rare for individuals, as was the conversion of an entire tribe or pueblo to Christianity. Though tradition says that the missionaries never forced anyone into a mission, but once there, they could not leave. Those who ran away were often tracked down and returned. Further, those who did not succumb to the missionaries or saw the friars as threats to their cultures, beliefs, and spiritualism became enemies.

Franciscan Missionaries

Franciscan Missionaries

The missionaries lived a life of piety and poverty and were in constant danger and fear. Along with their Indian charges, they, too, toiled in the missions, farmlands, and ranches. They were responsible for those who lived with them and their welfare, often being the first to rise in the morning and, after bed check and prayers, the last to go to bed. They were tough frontiersmen who believed that the discipline they meted out to their converts was for their own good.

In 1659, the friars of New Mexico reported:

“The religious of this kingdom, sire, who live by themselves in a convent without the enjoyment of company from his brothers, countrymen, and relatives have no other conveniences. [They live] daily at great risk from enemies and even the Christian [Indians], who for one word of reprehension about their views take their lives.”

The isolation they suffered was exemplified by the fact that they walked “ten, twenty, and thirty leagues one way to the next convent and more for the return trip.” Their only “stipend, alms, subvention or collection money at the altar, which they received, came to one hundred and fifty pesos, which the king gives every year to each priest.”

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

The missionary paid allegiance to two masters: the Church and the State. While missionaries truly believed in doing God’s work, they were also agents of the State whose job was to pacify areas, particularly those with mineral wealth or other valuable resources. With pacification, the land would be opened to settlers and investors. Settlers, such as farmers and ranchers, provided food supplies to miners who extracted tin, iron, copper, salt, mercury, and other important resources to enrich the State and provide resources for trade, economic stability, and wars in Europe. The missions provided foodstuffs produced by converts for such ventures. Thus, religious conversion, acculturation, and vocational training served the needs of both Church and State, pacifying a given area for economic, settlement, and military purposes; and Christianized citizens would emerge to serve both the Church and the State.

Regimentation marked the lives of mission Indians in several ways. They were expected to convert to Christianity and learn about their new religion through the catechism or religious instruction. They were expected to learn Spanish and, through hymns, learn to sing or chant in Latin. They were expected to serve the friars as laborers, cooks, herders, gardeners, acolytes, sacristans, and porters. Friars waved the rule of obedience over their heads, and the mission guard meted out whippings to punish disobedience. The Indians were expected to learn a new cultural norm: customs, traditions, behavior, and obedience to Church and State. A calendar of holy days, obedience to Spanish law, and taboos of the new culture regarding bigamy, concubinage, and sorcery exposed the mission Indians to new ways. The Ten Commandments and the Laws of the Indies provided other lessons in strict obedience. Baptism was the first step in the converts’ commitment to a new way of life. Finally, mission Indians were expected to learn a new vocation or trade that would make them loyal and productive citizens of the State.

Missionaries kept busy throughout their long days, offering their work as a small sacrifice to God. Most missionaries belonged to mendicant orders, who, unlike Jesuits, took the vow of poverty. Most lived by begging, but in the Americas, the Crown granted each one a yearly stipend to purchase needed goods. In the missions, they served as teachers, not only instructing natives about Christian doctrine but also teaching them to read, write, sing, and play musical instruments. Missionaries also taught their charges trades such as shoemaking, tailoring, husbandry, herding, blacksmithing, carpentry, and masonry. They also taught about the holy sacraments while they served as administrators who found time to fast and perform other spiritual exercises or say their own prayers throughout the day — including praying the Mass, Matins at midnight, and observing other holy hours.

Mission San Jose, San Antonio, Texas by Kathy Alexander.

Mission San Jose, San Antonio, Texas by Kathy Alexander.

Frequent rebellions rocked the missions of northern New Spain throughout Texas, New Mexico, Pimería Alta (northern Sonora, Mexico, and southern Arizona), and California. Revolts ended with many deaths of missionaries and settlers and often with the capture and execution of rebel leaders. The oldest missions in New Mexico and present-day Chihuahua, Mexico, were the first to feel the pressures of rebellion. From 1599-1604, when tribes of the Sierra Madres spontaneously rebelled against colonial rule and missionary demands, to the planned revolts by the Tepehuans in 1618, the Pueblos of New Mexico in 1680, and the Tarahumara in 1691, a string of rebellions spread throughout northern New Spain.

Mission Santa Barbara, California by Carol Highsmith

Mission Santa Barbara, California by Carol Highsmith

The missions were not solely responsible. From 1598 in New Mexico, colonial policies commonly in effect throughout the Spanish empire troubled the economically strapped Pueblo people. Although the friars protested them, the Spaniards imposed two dreaded feudalistic institutions on the Pueblos, which would eventually become focal points for rebellion. The first was the encomienda, which called for a tribute to be collected from the Pueblos. The second institution was the repartimiento which required the head of household who could not pay tribute to the value of the tribute in labor. In most cases following revolts, the missions were reestablished with a renewed respect for native values and without the encomienda and repartimiento.

With more enlightened policies in the 18th century, rebellions subsided. Although religious conformity was their goal, the friars often settled for imperfectly converted Christian Indians who practiced the old ways in their pueblos and attended mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation. Life in the Spanish missions reshaped indigenous cultures throughout the Americas well into the present. As an arm of the State, the mission institution ended with Latin America’s struggle for independence against Spain. Supported by histories, scholarly studies, and romanticized legends, the legacy of the missions survives today in historic places that illustrate an important part of our national story.

By Joseph P. Sánchez, PhD, National Park Service. Compiled and edited by Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated March 2023.