In 1769, just six years before angry British colonists fired the first shots of the American Revolution, the Spanish Franciscan friar Father Junipero Serra established San Diego de Alcala, the first of California's 21 missions. The missions served as bases for saving souls and maintaining Spain's hold on the vast territory they called Alta California.

The Purpose of the Missions

The Spanish king saw the missions as the easiest, fastest and cheapest way to settle the frontier. Instead of paying lots of money for soldiers and settlers from Spain and Mexico, the government wanted the missions to transform the Indians into loyal Spanish subjects who could hold onto California for Spain. However, the Catholic Church and the missionaries considered converting the Indians to Christianity as their main purpose.

Mission Indians

The Spanish forced the Indians they encountered to move into the missions where the priests converted them to Christianity, taught them Spanish and trained them in European-style agriculture and handicrafts. Life at the mission was tough. The priests set strict routines for working, attending church and eating meals. They also employed harsh discipline for breaking the rules. According to the California Missions Resource Center, 10 to 15 percent of the Indians ran away. The priests saw the Indians as children in need of guidance in the ways of civilized behavior. It was usually the soldiers garrisoned at the missions who treated the Indians cruelly, trying to steal their wives and beating them.

Daily Life

A missionary's life combined religious activities such as praying, conducting Mass and baptizing Indians with worldly concerns such as building, supervising the mission's farms and ranches, and maintaining the mission's food and supplies. Mission Indian men worked as blacksmiths, carpenters, shoemakers, farmers and ranch hands. Mission Indian women performed domestic tasks such as cleaning, weaving, making clothes and cooking.

The Mission Economy

The missionaries believed that the continued support of the Spanish government depended on making their missions as self-sufficient as possible. Each mission had a similar economy based on agriculture. They owned farms where they grew crops such as wheat, barley corn, beans and grapes. They also operated ranchos where they raised sheep and cattle. These products helped maintain life at the missions but they were also used for trade with other missions and ships from the East Coast. Among the more lucrative items were dried cattle hides called "Yankee Dollars" which American traders bought for shoe-making.

The End of the Missions

In 1821, California became part of the newly independent Mexico. The number of settlers had grown to about 30,000 and the missions controlled about one-third of the land. Many of the the settlers desired mission land for themselves. The Mexican government agreed with the settlers and between 1834 and 1836 they took the missions from the Catholic Church and redistributed mission land to the Indians. However, most of the Indians lost their land to opportunistic settlers and former soldiers.