Famous Missions of California - W. H. Hudson

Of the Old Missions, and Life in Them

The California missions, though greatly varying of course in regard to size and economy, were constructed upon the same general plan, in the striking and beautiful style of architecture, roughly known as Moorish, which the fathers transplanted from Spain, but which rather seems by reason of its singular appropriateness, a native growth of the new soil. The edifices which now, whether in ruins or in restoration, still testify to the skill and energy of their pious designers, were in all cases later, in most cases much later, than the settlements themselves. At the outset, a few rude buildings of wood or adobe were deemed sufficient for the temporary accommodation of priests and converts, and the celebration of religious services. Then, little by little, substantial structures in brick or stone took the place of these, and what we now think of as the mission came into being.

The best account left us of the mission establishment in its palmy days is that given by De Mofras in his careful record of travel and exploration along the Pacific Coast; and often quoted as this has been, we still cannot do better here than to translate some portions of it anew. The observant Frenchman wrote with his eye mainly upon what was perhaps the most completely typical of all the missions—that of San Luis Rey. But his description, though containing a number of merely local particulars, was intended to be general and for this reason may the more properly be reproduced in this place.

Mission of Santa Clara


"The edifice," he wrote, "is quadrilateral, and about one hundred and fifty metres long in front The church occupies one of the wings. The facade is ornamented with a gallery [or arcade]. The building, a single storey in height, is generally raised some feet above the ground. The interior forms a court, adorned with flowers and planted with trees. Opening on the gallery which runs round it are the rooms of the monks, major-domos, and travelers, as well as the workshops, schoolrooms, and storehouses. Hospitals for men and women are situated in the quietest parts of the mission, where also are placed the schoolrooms. The young Indian girls occupy apartments called the monastery (el moujerio), and they themselves are styled nuns (las moujas). . . Placed under the care of trustworthy Indian women, they are there taught to spin wool, flax, and cotton, and do no leave their seclusion till they are old enough to be married. The Indian children attend the same school as the children of the white colonists. A certain number of them, chosen from those who exhibit most intelligence, are taught music—plain-chant, violin, flute, horn, violincello, and other instruments. Those who distinguish themselves in the carpenter's shop, at the forge, or in the field, are termed alcaldes, or chiefs, and given charge of a band of workmen. The management of each mission is composed of two monks; the elder looks after internal administration and religious instruction; the younger has direction of agricultural work. . . For the sake of order and morals, whites are employed only where strictly necessary, for the fathers know their influence to be altogether harmful, and that they lead the Indians to gambling and drunkenness, to which vices they are already too prone. To encourage the natives in their tasks, the fathers themselves often lend a hand, and everywhere furnish an example of industry. Necessity has made them industrious. One is struck with astonishment on observing that, with such meagre resources, often without European workmen or any skilled help, but with the assistance only of savages, always unintelligent and often hostile, they have yet succeeded in executing such works of architecture and engineering as mills, machinery, bridges, roads, and canals for irrigation. For the erection of nearly all the mission buildings it was necessary to bring to the sites chosen, beams cut on mountains eight or ten leagues away, and to teach the Indians to burn lime, cut stone, and make bricks.

"Around the mission," De Mofras continues, "are the huts of the neophytes, and the dwellings of some white colonists. Besides the central establishment, there exists, for a space of thirty or forty leagues, accessory farms to the number of fifteen or twenty, and branch chapels (chapelles succursales). Opposite the mission is a guard-house for an escort, composed of four cavalry soldiers and a sergeant. These act as messengers, carrying orders from one mission to another, and in the earlier days of conquest repelled the savages who would sometimes attack the settlement."

Of the daily life and routine of a mission, accounts of travellers enable us to form a pretty vivid picture; and though doubtless changes of detail might be marked in passing from place to place, the larger and more essential features would be found common to all the establishments.

At sunrise the little community was already astir, and then the Angelus summoned all to the church, where mass .was said, and a short time given to the religious instruction of the neophytes. Breakfast followed, composed mainly of the staple dish atole, or pottage of roasted barley. This finished, the Indians repaired in squads, each under the supervision of its alcalde, to their various tasks in workshop and field. Between eleven and twelve o'clock, a wholesome and sufficiently generous midday meal was served out. At two, work was resumed. An hour or so before sunset, the bell again tolled for the Angelus; evening mass was performed; and after supper had been eaten, the day closed with dance, or music, or some simple games of chance. Thus week by week, and month by month, with monotonous regularity, life ran its unbroken course; and what with the labours directly connected with the management of the mission itself, the tending of sheep and cattle in the neighboring ranches, and the care of the gardens and orchards upon which the population was largely dependent for subsistence, there was plenty to occupy the attention of the padres, and quite enough work to be done by the Indians under their charge. But all this does not exhaust the list of mission activities. For in course of time, as existence became more settled, and the children of the early converts shot up into boys and girls, various industries were added to such first necessary occupations, and the natives were taught to work at the forge and the bench, to make saddles and shoes, to weave, and cut, and sew. In these and similar acts, many of them acquired considerable proficiency.

Mission of San Ferando


It is pleasant enough to look back upon such a busy yet placid life. But while we may justly acknowledge its antique, pastoral charm, we must guard ourselves against the temptation to idealization. Beautiful in many respects it must have been; but its shadows were long and deep. According to the first principles adopted by the missionaries, the domesticated Indians were held down rigorously in a condition of servile dependence and subjection. They were indeed, as one of the early travellers in California put it, slaves under another name—slaves to the cast-iron power of a system which, like all systems, was capable of unlimited abuse, and which, at the very best, was narrow and arbitrary. Every vestige of freedom was taken from them when they entered, or were brought into, the settlement. Henceforth they belonged, body and soul, to the mission and its authority. Their tasks were assigned to them, their movements controlled, the details of their daily doings dictated, by those who were to all intents and purposes their absolute masters; and corporal punishment was visited freely not only upon those who were guilty of actual misdemeanor, but also upon such as failed in attendance at church, or, when there, did not conduct themselves properly. From time to time some unusually turbulent spirit would rise against such paternal despotism, and break away to his old savage life. But these cases, we are told, were of rare occurrence. The California Indians were for the most part indolent, apathetic, and of low intelligence; and as, under domestication, they were clothed, housed and fed, while the labour demanded from them was rarely excessive, they were wont as a rule to accept the change from the hardships of their former rough existence to the comparative comfort of the mission, if not exactly in a spirit of gratitude, at any rate with a certain brutal contentment.