Dr. Robert Hoover

HOME  Site Map/Index  PREVIOUS

The following article by Dr. Robert Hoover was written in response to an article by Elias Castillo published in the San Francisco Chronicle.  The article repeated the charges that the Missions were slave labor camps, the Spanish policy was to exterminate the Indians, the army of soldiers raped and brutalized, etc., etc.
As Professor Hoover has spent many years studying the Mission period of California history, including excavation of Mission San Antonio and study of the Spanish documents of that period.  He must be considered as knowledgeable and  representing the other side of the issue from that given by Mr. Castillo.

   Another View of the California Missions

by Robert L. Hoover

    I was overwhelmed by the half-truths and downright inaccurate information in the recent letter of Elias Castillo regarding the California Missions.  It would require a small book with references to tackle all the issues, but here is an attempt to deal with the major ones:

    No one suggests that the California missions were completely harmonious or that there were no tensions. However, they were not slave institutions (the neophytes were not property) or concentration camps designed to kill the inhabitants.  Spanish policy did NOT attempt to wipe out mission Indians; the goal was to incorporate them into Hispanic society as citizens who would pay taxes and defend the Spanish empire.  Compare this to the Anglo-Americans of the East, who DID often practice genocide or pushed tribes further westward while never considering incorporation.

    Let's look at the population statistics of the missions.  Each had an escort of about five soldiers for the friars, who also carried the mail, served as craft instructors to the neophytes, became godparents to neophyte children, and married into local Indian families. Other than the officers, virtually all of these soldiers were Indians themselves. Their descendants are with us today in great numbers.  Many missions had over 1,000 neophytes.  The majority of them would not have remained in place unless they wanted to do so.  Coercive control was impossible under such conditions, since soldiers had inefficient flintlock muskets.  One of Serra's first conflicts with the military was in demanding the choice of soldiers to be stationed at the missions.  He  walked to Mexico City to see the Viceroy and won his argument.

    Punishment at the missions was much lighter than in the Spanish population in general.
Some whipping occurred for serious crimes, but far below the level given to Spanish children of the times.  This was because the friars admittedly had a paternalistic attitudes toward the neophytes, who they viewed as spiritual children.  For this reason, the Inquisition had no authority over the neophytes, as they were still "citizens in training".

    Yes, California Indians did indeed have a wide variety of different cultures, but these did not disappear with the arrival of the Spaniards.  Contact involved a BLENDING of traits.  Many traditional practices and tools continued to be used, while items like metal, glass, exotic foods, and sometimes pottery were added to their inventory.  Claiming that California Indians lost their culture as a result of missionization does an injustice to them and turns them into helpless pawns.  Native peoples showed a great deal of initiative in accepting what they found useful (many technological things) and rejecting other traits selectively.  Spanish-Indian contact was always a matter of negotiation. The Aztecs, Incas, and Maya mentioned by Mr. Elias would be surprised to learn that they were wiped out by Spain, as thousands still live today in their homelands and speak their native languages.  Spanish culture was also changed by contact with native groups.

    The California Indian population did indeed decline in the missions, not due to the policy of the Franciscans, but simply because they were now part of a larger world that contained diseases for which they had no resistance.  The friars were quite frustrated with all of this and did what they could with the limited medical knowledge of the times.  While the friars tried to modify some of the native cultural traits connected with religion (that was their purpose), they never practiced genocide (physical extermination of a people).  They were even opposed to the use of Indian labor by the military and settlers.

    Mission neophytes ate  nutritionally varied meals consisting of crops from the Old World (grains, fruits, nuts, many vegetables), Mesoamerica (corn, beans, squash), and foods of their traditional diet.  Meat was served on every saint's day, most days of the year in the 18th century.  Excavations at mission sites among the food debris show hundreds of charred and butchered animal bones of cattle, sheep, and pigs.  Native game was still hunted, perhaps because that was what the people were used to and they liked the taste.

    At the peak of mission population, records state that the neophytes worked about 4-5 hours per day at agricultural or industrial tasks.  The rest of the time was spent in instruction, worship, music/choir practice, etc.  The more converts, the less work needed from each person.  This is how a growing mission could engage in such ambitious building projects without taxing the neophyte population.  Of course, as mission population declined, each person needed to work more at maintenance, but the capital improvements had already been made.

    Fugitivism at the missions gets a lot of publicity, but let us look at some facts.  Indians could come and go at will from the mission before conversion.  The mission was not responsible for them.  It was against both Spanish civil and cannon law to coerce conversion.  After voluntary conversion (for whatever reason), neophytes were considered part of the mission community and expected to help support it with their daily work.  They could not come and go at will.  This does not mean that they never left the mission.  Except at busy seasons of the year, such as planting or harvesting, not all the work force was needed.  Neophytes were permitted to return to their traditional communities to visit relatives and perhaps recruit more converts or to hunt in the traditional way.  In any large community, not everyone will be a "happy camper".

    Remember that NO human society had ever been completely non-violent.  California Indian groups had their traditional rivalries and hostilities that lasted for hundreds of years.  In fact, these hostilities are probably the major source of conflict within a mission that contained several mutually antagonistic groups (as in the Bay Area).  The Indians of the San Diego area and especially those of the Colorado River region had especially warlike reputations.  Even the peaceful Salinan-Chumash area was once rocked by the Chumash Revolt of 1824, a response to the brutality of a single Mexican soldier and not a reaction against the missionaries, who were invited to join the refugees.

    Part of the purpose of the California Mission Foundation is to fund projects that will provide more information on our mission past.  Such information will shed light rather than heat on the subject.  It is an effort of all Californians, many of us not Catholic, in respect for our common heritage.  The U.S. Constitution actually provides that there "shall be no established religion" and that no one shall be "denied the practice of their religion". Senator Boxer's Mission Bill does neither. With both Governor and Senator behind this great effort, we will all benefit.

HOME  Site Map/Index  PREVIOUS