The True Origins of Spanish Colonial Officials and Missionaries


Images from the Article

It is a commonly held misconception that Castilians, who led the initial Spanish conquest of the New World in the sixteenth century, also directed the exploration and colonization of Alta California two hundred years later. It is a myth that dies slowly. In an effort to put the misunderstanding to rest, let us examine the important underlying influences which guided the Spanish Crown in the selection of officials to take part in the Alta California colonizing enterprise. Changes in the Spanish empire of the eighteenth century gave different elements of society new roles in colonial affairs. Regions of Spain previously little involved in overseas endeavors were now being tapped to provide personnel for colonial service.

The men most directly responsible for the Spanish role in San Diego serve as good examples of these changes. The period to be studied extends from the initial expeditionary force gathered in Baja California in 1768 to the Mexican War of Independence beginning in 1810, which effectively cut off Alta California from both Spain and Mexico.

The heartland of the Iberian Peninsula, concentrated in Castile and the central plateau of Spain, had lost population in the late seventeenth century, as its working population had been pressured to leave the region by heavy taxes and the incursions of large herds of sheep. By 1760 provinces located on the perimeter of Spain had surpassed in population, resources and standard of living the central provinces dominated by Spanish-speaking Castile.1 These outer regions, therefore, had a strong basis for their relative prosperity—especially in Catalonia. 2

Areas of Spain with the greatest population density at that time—Cantabria, Navarre, the Asturias, the mountains of Burgos and Galicia, all in the north and northwest, plus Catalonia and Valencia in the east, provided most of the latter-day emigrants to colonial Spanish America. The most notable characteristic of this emigration was not the volume—an estimate for the entire century is 52,000. Rather it was the preponderance of emigrants from the perimeter regions of Spain, where varying differences in language, customs, economic development and social makeup distinguished them from the Kingdom of Castile.3

Shifts of population and centers of activity had far-reaching repercussions within the Spanish government itself. The accelerated development of the Spanish ministerial system to supersede the council system in the metropolitan governmental structure during the course of the eighteenth century forced a marked decrease in Castilian influence in policy-making and administration and contributed to a more nationalistic outlook. The Bourbon kings who replaced the Hapsburgs after 1700 utilized the talents of non-Castilians—French and Italian advisors and Spaniards from the peripheral areas—as ministers and in other key posts. Charles III (1759-1788), for example, with his experience in ruling Sicily and his exposure to European "enlightened" ideas, looked beyond Spanish traditions for his precepts in governing, and did not depend upon Castilian nobility in choosing his advisors and governmental officials.4

The new type of advisors instituted changes which benefited all of Spain, for they were less inclined to view Castile and the other "kingdoms" of the country as distinct and sometimes rival entities. The mercantilist policy of the Crown helped the Catalan, Valencian, and Basque producers and shippers and undermined the landed oligarchy of Castile. This caused the peripheral areas to respond with a new loyalty to the Crown and the nation. The most concrete demonstration of the end to Castilian favoritism in American enterprise was the opening-between 1765 and 1778—of ports other than Cadiz for direct trade with the Indies.5

The Bourbon dynasty also sought to rebuild Spain's military forces, which were prostrate in 1715 after the War of Spanish Succession. The character of the army changed from a force formerly composed essentially of mercenaries to one manned by Spaniards from all classes and sections of the country.

The rapid increase in the population of the peripheral provinces gave people from this area an important military representation. The officer class, in which the periphery was strongly represented, began to exert an influence beyond strictly military circles. The role of military officers in the affairs of the nation soon rivaled, then overshadowed, that of lawyers who had held many of the important posts during the previous century. Army officials eventually held key positions, including many in the colonial structure. 6

The increasing importance of non-Castilians throughout the Spanish empire was matched by another influence on the selection of Alta California officials. The Spanish Visitor General, Jose de Gálvez, worked to decrease the role of the criollos—Spaniards born in the New World—in the administration in the colonies. Studies of New Spain and Peru show that the criollos had been able to consolidate a predominant position in the audiencias of Mexico City and Lima earlier in the eighteenth century. The Crown's effort was thus to put peninsulars—Spaniards born in the Iberian Peninsula, who would be more responsive to policies dictated from Europe—back into leadership positions.7

Personnel involved in the Alta California project, including the San Diego region, reflected both of these trends.8 The accompanying table shows the proportions in actual numbers by indicating administrative position and geographic origin of each official and missionary who had responsibility for San Diego or a larger area including San Diego. Some 65 percent of the officials and missionaries in positions of responsibility for Alta California were from Spain's perimeter, and over 80 percent were born outside colonial Spanish America. Only five have been identified as coming from New Spain: two governors and three presidial commanders. However, three of the four whose regional origins are unknown were probably also from New Spain.

The Spaniard who set the tone for the new colony through a leading role in the planning and selection of personnel was Jose de Gálvez. He served as Visitor General from 1765 to 1771 and Minister of Indies from 1775 to 1787. Gálvez was born in Andalucia near Malaga, of a noble but poor family.12 He studied law, married a French woman, and early in his legal career was associated with the French ambassador in Madrid. He thus moved in circles where the ideas of the French Enlightenment were prominent.13

Regional Origins of Spanish Colonial Officials and Missionaries

Gálvez, while he was in high governmental positions, influenced all the important appointments in the Indies. Some criollos commented pointedly on Gálvez' favoritism toward Europeans. One observer from Rio de la Plata alleged that not only were the European Spaniards favored but "every Spaniard, especially if he were Andaluz or Malagueño, simply for being so, was accredited with merit and capacity."14 Gálvez probably did handpick at least five of the ten Spanish California governors. He had a major role in the choice of viceroys and of commanding generals for the Provincias Internas—the region of northern Mexico extending into the present U.S. border area. A Gálvez decision put twenty-five Catalonian soldiers under Lieutenant Pedro Fages in the Alta California expeditionary force.15 Fages became military commander of Alta California a year after the expedition had reached its destination. He was then replaced in 1774 by a criollo—Captain Fernando Rivera y Moncada—who had commanded one part of the dual land contigent to Alta California. The appointment of Rivera y Moncada was made only after Gálvez had left New Spain and before he became Minister of Indies in Madrid.16

The man actually responsible for the appointment was Viceroy Antonio Maria Bucareli (1771-1779), who seemed to have had better relations with the criollos than other Spanish viceroys. Lieutenant Fages had been specifically designated by Gálvez as second-in-command to Captain Gaspar de Portolá. When Fages was named military commander of Alta California in 1770, Rivera must have resented being passed over by a junior officer who was a peninsular. After Rivera succeeded Fages in 1774 and returned to Monterey from Mexico, a months-long bickering exchange of correspondence ensued between the two officers until Fages left Alta California for Mexico.17

One of the key figures in organizing Spanish colonization of Alta California, Governor Felipe de Neve (1775-1782), was from a noble Andalusian family of Seville. He followed closely—in spirit as well as form—the plan of fellow Sevillan Jose de Gálvez.

When Neve was first appointed governor of the Californias in 1775, the Governor's headquarters were at Loreto in Baja California, and the commander in Alta California was nominally subordinate to him. Neve had administered the appropriated Jesuit properties in Zacatecas at a profit for seven years following their confiscation by the government. This brought official approval and presumably occasioned the recommendation for his appointment as governor of the Californias.18 Nearly two years elapsed before Neve transferred the governor's residence to Monterey. He therefore had ample opportunity to study the Baja California colonization plans of Gálvez. Neve provided basic regulations to reduce the expense of Alta California to the Spanish Crown and to promote the internal development of the territory. He contributed a detailed plan for establishing towns colonized by settlers from Mexico.19 The Governor's plans projected expansion in the number and extent of the missions, while reducing the role of the friars and minimizing increased expenses to the royal treasury, all of which were measures in line with Gálvez' policy.20

There is no evidence that Neve and Gálvez were personally acquainted, but it is clear from the record that Gálvez thought highly of this officer. Hubert Bancroft commented that, while it seemed "strange" to turn the preparation of the colonization plan for Alta California over completely to Governor Neve, it was a "mark of great confidence" in him—especially when his plan was accepted without modification. It is, however, unlikely that Gálvez, as Minister of Indies, would have raised any objections to Neve's plan when it was so closely patterned on the one for Baja California Gálvez himself had drafted. Viceroy Bucareli told Neve that, in the archives in Loreto, he would find "various instructions, decrees, and provisions" left by Gálvez in 1769.21

The Franciscan missionaries who came to Alta California were almost entirely from peripheral regions of Spain. They provided the leadership for the Christianizing effort. Further, the average length of their stay in Alta California was much longer than that of the priests from the interior provinces—giving added emphasis to their dominant influence.22 Fifteen of the forty missionaries who served at least part of their time in one or more of the three missions in the San Diego region——San Diego, San Luis Rey and San Juan Capistrano—were Catalonians—eight from the mainland and seven from Mallorca. The strong regional ties of the Catalonians are evident throughout diaries and correspondence of their missionaries and officials. A telling example: the sorrowful complaint of a Catalonian missionary assigned to San Carlos, who wrote to his superior in Mexico City in 1772 of Captain Pedro Fages, "I am ashamed to be his countryman, not so much because of [the difficulties ... ] between him and us, but more because of the bad things that other people say about our Nation, [and] the Catalans, and most of all because of the ill treatment they experience from our notorious countryman."23

The relatively large number of friars from Mallorca, especially among the leaders, was an innovation in the missionary field. Despite the activities of a Mallorcan Franciscan in the late seventeenth century in initiating—in both Spain and New Spain—apostolic colleges for special missionary training and activity, the order had no missionary college in Mallorca. This was because, even though Rome approved, the Provincial superiors "alleged that their subjects were too inconstant and fickle in character to become model missionaries." 24

This lack of confidence was presumably based upon the relatively large number of conversos, or converted Jews, in Mallorca. During the fourteenth century the Jews played an important part in Mallorca's active commercial and cultural life, but by the end of that century mob violence against them and lack of firm royal support caused a decline in their numbers and prosperity 25 By 1435 they faced a choice between death or conversion. No professed Jews were allowed to stay; the conversos who remained were increasingly isolated, discriminated against and came under strong Church suspicion. The full force of the Inquisition was directed against these ostracized Catholics of Jewish descent one hundred and fifty years after their forced conversion, and the greatest number of deaths as heretics resulted from the autos de fé in 1691.26

At the end of the seventeenth century, under the influence of a pervading atmosphere of distrust, the Franciscan provincial superiors in Mallorca wanted to avoid having members of their order receive missionary training. Finally, in the mideighteenth century, Fathers Junipero Serra and Francisco Palóu became the first Mallorcan missionaries to the Indies. They went as substitutes, in places vacated at the last moment, and thus bypassed the step of joining a missionary college on the Spanish mainland.27 After the departure of Serra and Palóu in 1749, a number of Mallorcans followed in order to enter the missionary field in New Spain.

The missionaries, with the assistance of Indian labor, were the first Spanish farmers in Alta California. The seven Catalanspeaking Mallorcans, despite their heritage of living on an island, did not have a strong tradition as fishermen, but rather were small land-owning farmers and town dwellers.

Each of the seven friars spent some time in the San Diego region during their duty in Alta California. The Mallorcans were accustomed to a similar climate and, with irrigation, were able to cultivate the crops and plants with which they were familiar. At least six of the missionaries were Basques, also accustomed to small landholdings but with adequate rainfall to assure regular harvesting of crops.

The severest criticism of San Diego mission's site likely came from Father Fermin Lasuén, a Basque, who spent ten years in San Diego during the mission's early development. He thought the place was "unsuitable and useless as a mission establishment," and in an even earlier evaluation called the land hopelessly inadequate to produce crops. The success of the missionary objectives of the Church depended, of course, on production of food. With the majority of priests coming from farming areas, there was strong emphasis on agriculture and cultivation of large gardens. Disinterest in the sea as a source of food was understandable since the missionaries were not from fishing communities. 28

The dominant role held by Europeanborn Spaniards from areas outside of Castile in San Diego's affairs appeared to reflect important changes in Spain. As men from the Age of Enlightenment, they represented new influences, new areas of origin. The strong role of military figures gave increasing secular character and control to colonization throughout the Spanish empire. The vigor and enterprise of the missionaries were all the more notable under the circumstances. They, too, represented a relatively new element in Spain's outer frontier reaches, especially the remarkable—and previously untapped—Mallorcan leadership.



1. Jaime Vicens Vives, Approaches to the History of Spain, trans. Joan Ullmann (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), p. 115.

2. Richard Herr, The Eighteenth Century Revolution in Spain (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958), pp. 86-87.

3. Jaime Vicens Vives, Economic History of Spain, trans. Frances M. Lopez-Morillas (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), p. 486.

4. Antonio Dominguez Ortiz, La Sociedad espanola en el siglo XVIII (Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas, 1955), pp. 40-41.

5. Richard Herr, The Eighteenth Century Revolution in Spain (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958), p. 436; Dominguez Ortiz, La Sociedad espanola, pp. 40-41.

6. Dominguez Ortiz, La Sociedad espanola, p. 370; Mario Hernández Sánchez-Barba, La Sociedad colonial americana en el siglo XVIII, Vol. IV of Historia de España y America, ed. by Jaime Vicens Vives, 6 vols. (Barcelona: Editorial Vicens-Vives, 1961), p. 270.

7. David A. Brading, Miners and Merchants in Bourbon Mexico, 1763-1810 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1971), pp. 37-42; Leon G. Campbell, "A Colonial Establishment: Creole Domination of the Audiencia of Lima During the Late Eighteenth Century," Hispanic American Historical Review, LII (February 1972),6; Mark A. Burkholder, "From Creole to Peninsular: The Transformation of the Audiencia of Lima," Hispanic American Historical Review (August 1972), 395-415.

8. Donald A. Nuttall, "The Gobernantes of Spanish Upper California: A Profile," California Historical Society Quarterly, LI (Fall 1972), 253-80.

9. [no number 9 in text] Based on information from Maynard Geiger, Franciscan Missionaries in Hispanic California. 1769-1848: A Biographical Dictionary (San Marino: Huntington Library, 1969), pp. 282-293.

10. [no number 10 in text] One interim viceroy for three months.

11. [no number 11 in text] One interim viceroy for three months.

12. Mario Hernández Sánchez-Barba, La ultimo expansion española en America (Madrid: Instituto de Estudios Politicos, 1957), pp. 188-90.

13. Herbert I. Priestley, Jose de Gálvez, Visitor General to New Spain (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1929), pp. 3-4.

14. Quoted in Brading, Miners and Merchants, p. 38.

15. Hernández Sánchez-Barba, La última expansión, p. 205. In Els Catalans en la discoberta i colonizacio de California (Mexico: Editions de la Biblioteca Catalana, 1947), pp. 35-36, J. Garner-Ribalta gave as his "conjecture" that the Catalan Governor of Baja California, Captain Gaspar de Portolá, imposed the condition, when Gálvez appointed him to head the expedition to Alta California, that he be allowed to choose his collaborators and the men to accompany him. Why else, wondered Garner-Ribalta, would the expedition be composed "mainly of Catalans, Indians, and Mexicans, and almost no Spaniards [Castilian-speaking peninsulars]?"

16. Garner-Ribalta designated "Ferran Ribera i Montacada" a Catalan, without explanation. Ernest J. Burrus gave his birthplace as Compostela, Mexico, in his introduction to Diario del capitán comandante Fernando de Rivera y Moncada (Madrid: José Porrda Turanzas, 1967), Vol. I, p. xi, without indicating whether or not his ancestors were from Catalonia.

17. Bernard E. Bobb, The Viceregency of Antonio Maria Bucareli in New Spain, 1771-1779 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1962), pp. 16, 269; Provincial State Papers, Vol. I, 31-43, given in Hubert H. Bancroft, History of California, 7 vols. (1886; reprint, Santa Barbara: Wallace Hebberd, 1966.), I, 131, note 172, note; Rivera y Moncada, Diario, 1, 8-43.

18. Edwin A. Beilharz, Felipe de Neve: First Governor of California (San Francisco: California Historical Society, 1971), p. 13.

19. Ibid., p. 15.

20. Felipe de Neve, Reglamento para el Gobierno de la Peninsula de Californias (Mexico; D. Felipe de Zuniga y Antiveros, 1784), titulo 15.

21. Bancroft, History, I, 318. The complete Bucareli instructions to Neve dated September 30, 1774, are given in translation in Beilharz, Felipe de Neve, pp. 142-52.

22. Geiger, Franciscan Missionaries in California, pp. 282-93.

23. Letter of August, 1772, from Father Domingo Juncosa to the Father Guardian, Colegio San Fernando, "Missiones de California," Vol. 272, p. 253, Biblioteca del Museo National, MS, Bancroft Library.

24. Maynard Geiger, The Life and Times of Junípero Serra, O.F.M. 2 vols. (Washington: Academy of American Franciscan History, 1959), I, 39-40.

25. Yitzhak Baer, A History of the Jews in Christian Spain (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1961), I, 202-203.

26. A. Lionel Issacs, The Jews of Majorca (London: Methuen & Co., Ltd., 1936), pp. 190-91.

27. Geiger, Life and Times, II, 40-42.

28. Hernández Sánchez-Barba, La sociedad colonial, p. 21; Geiger, "The Mallorcan Contribution to Franciscan California," The Americas, IV (1947), 141-50; Herr, Eighteenth Century Revolution, p. 99; Writings of Fermin Francisco de Lasuén, ed. and trans. Finbar Kenneally (Washington, D.C.: Academy of American Franciscan History, 1955), 1, 81.


Lucy Killea served as Executive Director of Fronteras 1976, a San Diego observance of the United States Bicentennial. Mrs. Killea received a B.A. in history from Incarnate Word College in San Antonio, an M.A. in history from the University of San Diego and a Ph.D. in history from the University of California at San Diego. From 1958 to 1968 she lived in Mexico where her husband served as United States Consul General at Monterrey and in Baja California.