Spanish missions (in U.S. history)

  • Grades: 6–8, 9–12

The history of Spain's missions in the American South and Southwest reveals much about Spain's strategy, contributions, and failures in these regions. The expeditions of Francisco Vázquez de Coronado (1540 42) and Juan de Oñate (1598) convinced Spanish authorities that no wealthy Indian empires like that of the Aztecs were to be found north of Mexico. Consequently the Spanish came to view the northern frontier of their empire as a defensive barrier and as a place where pagan souls might be saved. In what are now the states of Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, missions were founded to propagate the doctrines of the Roman Catholic church. To protect these missions as well as the mines and ranches of Mexico from attack from the north, the Spanish established presidios fortified garrisons of troops.

Franciscan priests founded a series of missions in Florida after 1573, mainly along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. The first missions in New Mexico were established by friars accompanying Oñate's expedition of 1598; during the next 100 years Franciscan priests founded more than 40 additional missions, most of them along the Rio Grande. Especially influential was Father Alonso de Benavides, who directed the founding of 10 missions between 1625 and 1629 and thereafter promoted them ably in Spain. By 1680 missions had been established among most of the New Mexican Indians.

A French landing led by Robert Cavelier de La Salle, on the Texas coast in 1684 spurred the Spanish to build missions in that area. The first of these, founded (1690) near what is now Weches, Tex., failed because of the Indians'hostility, but others were founded in east Texas after 1716, and some of them prospered. San Antonio became the home of several missions, including San Antonio de Valero (the Alamo). The Franciscan mission of Nuestra Señora del Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga, built at Matagorda Bay in 1722 to help protect the coast from the French, was later moved inland.

Between 1687 and 1711 the missionary and explorer Father Eusebio Francisco Kino established many missions in northern Mexico and Baja California as well as some in southern Arizona, the most notable of which was Mission San Xavier del Bac. When the Spanish began to settle in California, Father Junípero Serra accompanied the expedition of José de Gálvez in 1769 and founded the Mission San Diego de Alcalá at San Diego, the first of 21 Franciscan missions in California. The last was San Francisco Solano (1823), located in the Sonoma Valley.

Missions varied enormously in their economic and religious success. Some could not support themselves; others developed fertile fields and vineyards and huge herds of cattle. Virtually all successful religious conversion was among sedentary Indians who were easier to control and more adaptable to agriculture and herding. The few attempts to convert such warlike nomads as the Apaches and Comanches failed dismally.

In seeking to introduce both Catholicism and European methods of agriculture, the missions encouraged the Indians to establish their settlements close by, where the priests could give them religious instruction and supervise their labor. Unfortunately this arrangement exposed the Indians to the Europeans' diseases, against which they had little immunity. An epidemic in New Mexico, for instance, killed 3,000 Indians in 1640. Critics charged also that the mission system destroyed much of the Indians'native culture and turned them into an exploited and degraded labor force. Indeed, there were sporadic rebellions; the most spectacular was led by an Indian named Popé in 1680; almost 400 Spaniards were killed, and the rest were temporarily driven from Santa Fe and northern New Mexico. After 1834 the Mexican government secularized most surviving missions, converting them for nonreligious use.

In design the missions reflected Gothic, Moorish, and Romanesque architectural styles the various cultural influences brought by the Spanish. Paintings on interior walls sometimes depicted the southwestern landscape and the artistic traditions of the Indians. Among the best surviving examples are Missions San José y San Miguel de Aguayo in San Antonio, Tex.; San Juan Capistrano, in the California town of the same name; and San Xavier del Bac near Tucson, Ariz.

For information about the Spanish missions in South America, see Jesuit reductions.

by Elliott West

Bibliography: Bannon, John Francis, The Spanish Borderlands Frontier, 1513 1821 (1971; repr. 1984); Burke, James Wakefield, Missions of Old Texas (1971); Dominguez, Francisco A., The Missions of New Mexico, 1776, ed. by E. B. Adams and Angelico Chavez (1956; repr. 1975); Gannon, Michael V., Cross in the Sand: The Early Catholic Church in Florida (1983); Kennedy, Roger G., and Larkin, David, Mission: The History and Architecture of the Missions of North America (1993); Kocher, Paul H., California's Old Missions: The Story of the Founding of the 21 Franciscan Missions in Spanish Alta California, 1769 1823 (1976); Levick, Melba, et al., The Missions of California (1998); Parsons, Francis, Early 17th Century Missions of the Old Southwest (1975); Wakely, David, et al., A Sense of Mission: Historic Churches of the Southwest (1994); Weber, David J., The Spanish Frontier in North America (1992; repr. 1994); Weisman, Brent R., Excavations on the Franciscan Frontier (1992).


Coronado's explorations of North America from 1540-42. (Grolier Interactive Inc.)

  • Subjects:
    Native American History, Christianity
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