Indian Labor at the California Missions Slavery or Salvation?

Director of the Western Heritage Center
Billings, Montana

MISSIONS as developed in Spain's colonial empire have not only been characterized as frontier institutions, but from their inception they have been a controversial feature of the Spanish frontier. From Paraguay to New Mexico and finally north to California, missions implanted Spanish culture and religion upon native peoples subjected to them. As an alternative to subjugation and control by force of arms, these institutions attempted to implant concepts of social order and culture held by the dominant Hispanic society.1 The position of the Indian within this system was at best ambiguous when measured against the later issue of freedom versus slavery.

Mission San Diego de Alcalá
At Mission San Diego de Alcalá flogging of Indians helped to instigate an open attack in which Fray Luis Jayme and a blacksmith were killed. Soldiers were later sent into the hills to try and capture those responsible for the insurrection

The roots of the mission system as it developed rest in part in the unique relationship between state secular and sacerdotal laboriously developed in Spain. Through peculiarities of Spanish history, religious and secular became so intertwined as to create an inseparable bond between the two. The "Reconquista" of the Spanish homeland from Moorish invaders encompassed an 800 year period which terminated only on the eve of Spanish discovery, conquest and colonization of the New World. The reconquest of the Spanish homeland from Moorish colonizers was indeed an epic war to recover territory, but because of obvious religious differences it had the added aspect of a grand religious crusade. Simultaneously, the Reformation confirmed Spanish Catholicism and made of the coalescing nation a repository of the "true faith." Spain's orthodoxy won from the papacy unique privileges and unparalleled control over the Catholic Church within her borders.2 Thus the splendid burst of energy which propelled Spain across two oceans and a continent in the century after 1492 was sustained by both territorial and religious motives.

Missions were cultural and religious vanguards of conquest. Foundation of missions was controlled by the Crown, their existence was supported by the royal treasury, and inhabitants were secured by the military. The primary motive for missionization was not, as in the case of the Encomienda, exploitation of natives but rather conversion and gradual assimilation into Hispanic society.3 For this reason, missions had a theoretical lifespan of ten years within which to accomplish stated goals. In fact no missions were secularized on the northern frontier during the Spanish period. This was due to underestimation of the task at hand and frequently a vested interest in economic exploitation of natives possible within the system. Too often economic exploitation of native peoples was the strongest foundation of the surrounding civilian and military society.4

Spanish California sustained a series of missions which represented in a compressed time frame a close approximation of the ideal operation of frontier missions. The fifty-two years from 1769 to 1821 witnessed the beginning, development and golden age of the California missions. Within this short period the status of native groups within the system can be readily examined.

The communal character directed by a Franciscan priest, typical of California's missions, was determined primarily by the native peoples with whom the system operated. The natives of Spain's northwest salient lived in small, scattered tribal groups with much diversity as to language and social custom. Communities were critical to the inseparable dual functions of missions, Christianization and Hispanicization. Spain sent with her New World immigrants an ancient concept of social order dependent upon communal living. Thus it was essential that California's Indians be "reduced" into settled and stable communities where they would become good subjects of the King and children of God.5 Missionization required a brutally sudden change in cultural patterns and lifestyle akin in several respects to the forced movement of black people from Africa to the American South.

Congregation of California natives into missions was theoretically not forcible. However it was early apparent that alien Christian doctrines held little attractive power for suspicious natives. Consequently, neophytes were lured to missions with beads, trinkets, food, clothing and promises of a better life. Little pressure was applied and likely converts were encouraged to watch, and eventually to help in building the mission edifice itself. With more gifts and kindness, skeptical natives were induced to build their own jacales, or huts, within the mission compound.6

Natives were not irrevocably bound to missions until baptism, which commonly took place two or three months after instruction in Catholic doctrine began. Before baptism, neophytes were warned that once they had become Christians their lives would be restricted to the mission compound.7 The rationale for this stricture on mobility is clear in light of the mission's twofold obligation to Christianize and Hispanicize. Hispanicization implied much more than simple religious instruction. As an essentially Western faith, Christianity requires an understanding and acceptance of basic Western values. This includes a chronological concept of history and a belief in the subservience of nature. Associated moral codes define a system of social organization and Christianity insists on monogamy and stresses sedentary living. To California's Franciscan frontiersmen residence in a mission was an essential ingredient in a recipe whose final product was to be good Christians and loyal subjects.

Absence, equated with apostasy, was punished swiftly and certainly. Either soldiers from the escolta, or mission guard, or soldiers from a presidial company were assigned the task of tracking and capturing runaways. The result was a whipping administered by a soldier or mission Indian, sometimes to the point of death.

There were special circumstances in which the restriction against leaving the mission was relaxed. When supplies ran short, as they frequently did in the early days, natives were encouraged to leave the missions in order to forage for themselves and thus relieve the pressure on limited mission supplies. As natives were Hispanicized they were gradually granted limited freedom of movement between missions, pueblos and presidios. Permission was required but it was easily obtained.8

A plethora of rules and regulations guided the daily round of native activity at the California missions. Indians were assigned living quarters on the basis of age and marital status. Married couples were housed in a special compound along with small children. Girls who had passed their eighth year were housed in the monjerio in which they were confined under lock and key at night to protect their virtue. The monjerio also served as a training school in which girls and widows were confined much of the time. This separation of children from families was justified since at a tender age they had not fully developed fixed habits and beliefs and thus were more easily influenced by missionaries. Married couples were considered most difficult to teach because of ingrained beliefs and lifestyles. Boys and young men slept in separate quarters but were not locked in at night nor confined to barracks in the day. They were, of course, restricted to the mission complex at all times.9

It is a simple task to define the theoretical operation of missions. The rules and regulations designed to produce Christian subjects for the King were developed over centuries and are a readily available portion of the historical record. More difficult to ascertain is the day to day treatment of mission Indians. The Franciscans in California were only dimly aware of the ideals of human freedom popularized by the Enlightenment, and certainly had little sympathy for them. They did perceive the challenge to old ways posed by the enlightened monarchy of Charles III. Physical punishment of neophytes was therefore a topic infrequently mentioned by missionaries. When the issue was broached, reactions were defensive.

Infrequent visitors to the California coast are the only available source of comment by outsiders. These commentaries demand equally cautious interpretation. All foreign interlopers were intruders upon the Spanish domain and were rivals for empire. One visitor in particular I judge to have been relatively objective. In September of 1786 Jean de la Pérouse sailed into Monterey Bay, the capital of Spanish California. La Pérouse commented favorably upon the Spanish inhabitants and the climate. Of the missionaries, he observed, "it is with the most pleasing satisfaction that I speak of the pious and prudent conduct of these religious men, which so perfectly accords with the object of their institution."10 The Frenchman was impressed by the sincerity and hospitality of the missionaries but he found mission theocracy incompatible with natural rights of man. La Pérouse condemned the mission system which made men "whose state at present scarcely differs from that of the negro inhabitants of our colonies, at least in those plantations which are governed with most mildness and humanity."

This urbane Frenchman shared the goals of the missionaries but exhorted that they could be achieved by example rather than force. At the same time he doubted the feasibility of his method. Force was the natural concomitant of violent cultural change.

La Pérouse left a picture of a highly regularized communal system in which transgressions of rules made by the Franciscans were swiftly punished. Indians lived in crude huts and life was carefully regulated by the ringing of a bell. Discipline ultimately depended upon physical abuse and this was pointed out by the foreigner.

Corporal punishment is inflicted on the Indians of both sexes who neglect the exercises of piety, and many sins, which are left in Europe to the divine justice, are here punished by iron and stocks. And lastly, to complete the similtude between this and other religious communities, it must be observed, that the moment an Indian is baptised, the effect is the same as if he had pronounced a vow for life. If he escape, to reside with his relations in the independent villages, he is summoned three times to return, and if he refuse, the missionaries apply to the governor, who sends soldiers to seize him in the midst of his family, and conduct him to the mission, where he is condemned to receive a certain number of lashes, with the whip.11

The observant Frenchman went on to describe in more detail the offenses for which the whip was applied. Form and severity of punishment were determined by a cacique who was chosen by the Indians from among those whom the missionaries had not excluded. These elected leaders, La Pérouse claimed, were simple tools of the Franciscans. Men were publicly whipped to serve as an example while women were lashed in an enclosed and distant area so their cries would not be heard by their men. Violations of the stern code of sexual conduct were punished by putting men in stocks and women in irons.

Vasali Turkanoff, a Russian captive, was a more rabid detractor of the mission system and bitterly criticized the treatment accorded Indians at the missions. He was particularly incensed by the harsh punishments inflicted upon mission runaways when captured. Typically the Fathers and a squad of soldiers went in pursuit. Turkanoff claimed that when the deserters returned:

They were all bound with rawhide ropes, and some were bleeding from wounds, and some children were tied to their mothers. The next day we saw some terrible things. Some of the runaway men were tied to sticks and beaten with straps. One chief was taken out to the open field and a young calf which had just died was skinned and the chief was sewed into the skin while it was yet warm. He was kept tied to a stake all day, but he died soon and they kept his corpse tied up.12

Turkanoff's lurid description may be inaccurate in detail but numerous sources confirm vicious maltreatment toward apostates.

While criticisms leveled at mission management by outsiders were apt to be less than sympathetic, defenses of the missions by the Franciscans were written with an eye to justification. In 1797 Padre Antonio de la Concepción Hora, who had come to California the same year, was sent back to Mexico by President Fermín Francisco de Lasuén on charges of insanity. Back at the College of San Fernando, Hora addressed a memorial to the viceroy in which he made serious charges against the California missionaries of cruelty and mismanagement. The final result was a lucid defense of the mission system of Alta California penned by Father-President Lasuén in 1800 and 1801. This report is the most eloquent and complete defense in existence.13

If indeed by slavery we mean an almost total restriction of personal freedom, Lasuén's defense is the system's condemnation. Corporal punishment was indeed an important feature of mission routine. At Santa Barbara Mission stocks had been used to discipline women since the date of its foundation. Women, Lasuén granted, were flogged as well when they deserved it. Indians were imprisoned for desertion although the missions had no jails as such. Females were locked in compartments reserved for unmarried girls while men were confined in kitchens or other workrooms. Twenty-one lashes with the whip was the arbitrary limit placed upon punishment.14

Commandants of the presidios were also asked to report on punishments used at the missions and their descriptions were at variance with Lasuén's. Uniformly they maintained that from 15 to 50 lashes were the norm although a novenary of twenty-five lashes per day for nine days was sometimes applied. Stocks, shackles and hobbles were also applied to neophytes accused of neglect of work or religious duties, overstaying leave of absence, sexual offenses, thefts and quarreling.15

Lasuén's ultimate defense of the system which he served rested upon the defective character of the natives. The Father President's refutation included a scathing indictment of the very people whom he served.

Here are aborigines whom we are teaching to be men, people of vicious and ferocious habits who know no law but force. . .

They are a people without education, without government, religion or respect for authority, and they shamelessly pursue without restraint whatever their brutal appetites suggest to them.

Their inclination to lewdness and theft is on a par with their love for the mountains. Such is the character of the men we are required to correct, and whose crimes we must punish.16

Barbarous and fierce people need punishments and penalties which differ from those applied to cultured and the civilized people, the argument ran. Despite punishments the recalcitrant Indians continued their transgressions. This in turn, Lasuén continued, "presupposes a mind that is more perverted and more obstinate in evil."17 At this point punishment by necessity was more severe.

The California Mission Indians were illiterate and therefore unable to express in written form their own feelings toward the system to which they were subjected. It is, consequently, only indirectly that we, two hundred years removed, can decipher their thoughts. A record of Indian behavior under the mission regimen does provide historians with some clue. Active and passive resistance to the regimen was commonplace and clearly suggests many Indians resided at Missions under duress rather than by choice.

Open revolt is, of course, the most obvious reaction to real or imagined oppression. In October of 1775 gentile and Christian Indians acted in concert to destroy Mission San Diego. Flogging of Indians at San Diego apparently precipitated the attack although abuses over a period of time had built up resentment. Fray Luis Jayme and a blacksmith were killed, the carpenter and a number of soldiers of the mission guard were wounded. Squads of soldiers were sent into the hills to surprise and capture renegades with some success. At least nine Christian rebels were captured and imprisoned at San Diego. The insurgents were held in shackles and chains for a year while a fit punishment was discussed. Several Indians received near mortal lashings but all were eventually released at the request of their Franciscan mentors.18

The revolt at San Diego was the only organized outbreak of its kind. However, throughout the mission period rumors of revolt never ceased and a number of destructive fires were thought to be the work of malcontents. Meanwhile more discreet means of striking at the regime were practiced. In late 1800 three fathers became mysteriously ill and a rumor circulated suggesting an Indian from Mission San Miguel had poisoned them. The priests gradually recovered and Father President Lasuén assumed the affair was at an end. Father Francisco Pujol was sent to San Miguel as a replacement and immediately became stricken with the same illness as the others. The priest's condition soon became critical and he suffered excruciating pain, convulsions and spasms. After an autopsy Lasuén reluctantly reported, "It is now public knowledge, and there is no room for doubt, that the missionary died of poisoning."19

Another means of resistance to missionization was escape. Desertion was not an occasional occurrence but rather a persistent problem. Records enumerating apostates were not kept. Consequently only an approximation can be arrived at by comparing population increase with the difference between baptisms and deaths for a stated period.20 The result is a figure varying somewhere between 5 and 10 percent. This number includes only those fugitives who were able to successfully elude constant pursuit. A much greater percentage made aborted attempts at escape. Absent Indians were hunted down by other mission Indians, soldiers, or a combination of both. Escapees in concert with non-mission natives frequently made violent and sometimes successful resistance to recapture. Truancy became so common that it was customary to send presidial soldiers after the fugitives at stated intervals and round up as many as possible at one time to be sent back to their respective missions. Disaster was sometimes the result of these expeditions.

In March of 1795 Father Antonio Dante directed fourteen Christian Indians to cross the bay from Mission San Francisco in search of runaways. The expedition was attacked by a band and only seven escaped. A similar incident occurred in June of 1797 around San Francisco which sheds light on motives for desertion. After one abortive attempt to capture renegades, Governor Diego de Borica organized an expedition to attack the rancheria located across the bay and to capture head men and deserters. In the ensuing fight two soldiers were wounded and seven natives killed. Eighty-three Christians and seven gentiles were captured and taken to Mission San José. In August nine captives were tried and found guilty. They were subsequently sentenced by Borica to receive from twenty-five to seventy-five lashes and to work in shackles at the presidio from two months to a year.21

In this and subsequent testimony efforts were made to determine causes for desertion. Despite denial by the Fathers, nearly all witnesses cited excessive flogging, hunger and the death of relatives. One native named Tiburcio claimed he had been flogged for crying at the death of his wife and child. Another, Magin was put in the stocks when he was ill. Claudio was beaten by the Alcalde with a stick and forced to work when ill, while José Manuel was struck with a bludgeon. Liberato fled to escape dying of hunger as his mother, two brothers and three nephews had done. Oloton was flogged for ignoring his wife after she had sinned with a vaquero. The witnesses went on to catalog other abuses although hunger was cited as the most prevalent reason.22

The European civilization of which the Franciscans were the purveyors contributed in other ways to the destruction of the first Californians. European diseases wrought the same devastating effect upon California natives as they did upon natives throughout the Americas. Communal contact at the missions served as a catalyst for disease.

In 1804 and 1805 José María Benites, a physician, was sent to California to report on diseases responsible for the alarming death rate. Benites pointed to the most serious causes including dysentery, fevers, pleurisy, the humid and cold climate, pneumonia, viruses but most importantly, syphilis23 In 1806, a Russian visitor, the Baron Von Langsdorf commented upon the sad state of medical knowledge in Alta California. Mission Indians were without medical assistance and were often attacked with fevers. Further, he observed:

It is very possible, that in their former mode of life they were rarely ill, but the great change in their habits, the different kind of nourishment they now take, their being constrained to labor much more constantly than before, with other circumstances, may have operated powerfully upon their constitutions.24

Despite concern and good intentions disease ran rampant. Epidemics periodically decimated the population. In 1806-1807 a deadly epidemic of Another measles and dysentery ravaged the Indians and in the words of Father Mariano Payeras it "has cleaned out the missions and filled the cemeteries."25

A letter written by Father Mariano Payeras to Father Baldomero Lopéz, Guardian of the College of San Fernando, in which he echoed a plea for medication for syphilitic neophytes suggests that venereal disease was a prime cause for debilitation of neophytes. Syphilis, introduced by single soldiers, was the major cause of mortality and declining birth rates since it caused sterility and was passed on congenitally. Lead extract, used as a curative contributed to illness and death in the long run.26

The tendency is to blame the missionaries for the near extinction of mission Indians. The missionaries were, however, not blind to the effects which their well-intentioned efforts had upon the Indians. One of the letters most sensitive to the problem was written by a missionary, Father Mariano Payeras, in 1820.

The Indian population is declining. They live well free but as soon as we reduce them to a Christian and community life they decline in health, they fatten, sicken and die. Women are particularly affected. It is the sorrowful experience of 51 years that Indians live poorly in the missions. Even when healthy the women lose fertility and their sterility is not apparent in annual reports because in most areas of the province gentiles are still being baptized, one is confused with the other and the total always increases.

In all missions hospitals have been built, potions have been purchased and medicines acquired from surgeons of the province and from books. The best curanderos and curanderas have been procured. In all, it forms a somber calculation of diminution. The population decline is made more notable since in twenty-four years I have known only two epidemics, that of 1801 and the measles of 1806.27

Despite good intentions the mission system decimated and destroyed native peoples subject to it.

Slavery, in the usual sense of the word, implies economic exploitation of the enslaved for the benefit of the slaveowner. The California missions fall far short of this classical definition. Economic motives cannot be assigned to the Franciscan frontiersmen who pioneered Alta California. Clearly, the Franciscan missionaries stood to gain little in a material sense from their arduous labor. None of the missionaries could lay claim even to the cassock which he wore. Missions were far from luxurious, and although food became plentiful all imported items were in short supply. No man entered the California mission field to live a life of ease or to acquire a fortune.28

Despite the absence of motivation for personal gain the missions nevertheless destroyed those people they had been sent to save. This destruction was inexcusable but it was not intentional. The missionaries would have philosophically preferred dead Christians to live pagans. It is not fair to remove these men from their place in time and subject them to standards of the late twentieth century. The Franciscans saw themselves as agents for salvation in the next world, not this. As occurred throughout the Americas, debilitating European diseases and a typical lack of sensitivity destroyed the first Americans. The regimentation, organized labor and extreme paternalism of the missions resulted in despondency and weakening of desire to live.

The missions were not agents of intentional enslavement, but rather rapid and therefore violent social and cultural change. The results were people wrenched from home, tradition and family, subjugated to an alien culture and contradictory values. Predictably these people did not submit to such treatment voluntarily and force became a necessary concomitant. The result in many cases was slavery in fact although not in intent. The principle emerges that decent people whose motives as judged by their own standards are excellent, have frequently violated other people who live by different standards.



1. The most succinct analysis of the role of the frontier mission is contained in Herbert E. Bolton, "The Mission as a Frontier Institution in the Spanish American Colonies," American Historical Review, 23 (1917), pp. 42-61.

2. See Harold Livermore, A History of Spain (New York, 1958).

3. For a contemporary expression of the dual role of the California missions see Patentes e Ynstrucciones dados a los Empleados de la Expedicción maritima de Monterrey, José de Gálvez, Puerto de la Paz, December 6, 1768, Archivo General de Indias, Guadalajara 416.

4. See Fray Vicente Sarría to the missionaries, Soledad, June 6, 1814, Archives of the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

5. The reduction process was not necessary where missions were located among sedentary people. In New Mexico, for example, the Franciscans simply superimposed missions upon pre-existing native communities. The reduction procedure was more successful from a missionary standpoint, since it required not only religious conversion but also complete cultural change.

6. Zephyrin Engelhardt, The Missions and Missionaries of California (Santa Barbara, 1930) vol. II, p. 269.

7. Ibid., p. 285.

8. Maynard Geiger, Palóu's Life of junípero Serra (Washington, D.C., 1955), pp. 75-76.

9. Father President Fermín Francisco de Lasuén, Refutation of Charges, San Carlos, June 19, 1801. Trans. in Finbar Kenneally, The Writings of Fermín Francisco de Lasuén (Washington, 1965) vol. 2, pp. 194-234.

10. Jean F. G. De la Pérouse, A Voyage Round the World Performed in the Years 1785, 1786, 1787 and 1788 by the Bousole and Astrolabe (New York, 1968) vol. 1, p. 442.

11.Ibid., p. 448.

12. Vasali Turkanoff, Statement of My Captivity Among the Californians, trans. by Ivan Petroff (Los Angeles, 1953), p. 14.

13. Father President Fermín Francisco de Lasuén, Refutation of Charges, San Carlos, June 19, 1801. Trans. in Kenneally, The Writings of Fermín Francisco de Lasuén, vol. 2, pp. 194-234.

14. Ibid.

15. The four commandants were José Argüello, Felipe Goycoechea, Antonio Grajera and Hermenegildo Sal. Summations of their reports are contained in Hubert H. Bancroft, History of California (San Francisco, 1886) vol. I, pp. 588-596.

16. Father President Fermín Francisco de Lasuén, Refutation of Charges, San Carlos, June 19, 1801. Trans. in Kenneally, The Writings of Fermín Francisco de Lasuén, vol. 2, pp. 194-234.

17. Ibid.

18. Many sources discuss the San Diego Revolt. See Fray Vicente Fuster to Fray Junípero Serra, San Diego, November 28, 1775. Trans. in Antonine Tibesar, The Writings of Junípero Serra, (Washington, 1956) vol. 2, pp. 449-458. Fuster was a missionary at San Diego and left us an eyewitness account. Fray Francisco Palóu provides a lucid description in Maynard Geiger, Palóu's Life of Junípero Serra, pp. 160-171.

19. See Fermín Francisco de Lasuén to Fray José Gasol, San Carlos, December 29, 1800. Trans. in Kenneally, The Writings of Fermín Francisco de Lasuén, vol. 2, pp. 177-179. Also Lasuén to Fray José Gasol, San Carlos, March 30, 1801, Ibid., pp. 186-189. Although three Indians were whipped and imprisoned, the question of their guilt was never satisfactorily determined.

20. Each year the Father President of the missions submitted a report titled "General State of the Missions of New California." These reports are available for each year with the exception of 1789 in the Santa Barbara Mission Archives. These reports provide a concise summary of baptisms, marriages, deaths and total population resident at each mission.

21. Hubert H. Bancroft, History of California, vol. 1, p. 709.

22. 1bid., p.711 fn.

23. Expediente on diseases of the Indians by José María Benites, Monterey, January 1, 1805, Santa Barbara Mission Archives (SBMA).

24. G. V. Von Langsdorff, Voyages and Travels in Various Parts of the World During the Years 1803, 1804, 1805, 1806 and 1807 (London, 1814), pp. 208-209.

25. Fray Mariano Payeras to Fray Josef Viñals, La Purísima, July 2, 1806, Archivo General de la Nación. Historia de Mexico, Primera Serie, tomo 2.

26. Fray Mariano Payeras to Fray Baldomero Lopéz, La Purísima, July 26,1820, SBMA.

27. Fray Mariano Payeras to the College of San Fernando, La Purísima, February 2, 1820, Engelhardt Transcript, SBMA.

28. For a vivid illustration of Franciscan poverty in California see Fray Francisco Palóu to Fray Rafael Verger, San Carlos, November 2, 1773, Archivo del Museo Nacional, Documentos Relativos a los Misiones de Californias, II.