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.
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
Punishment at the missions was much lighter than in the Spanish population in
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
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.