Master craftsmen from Mexico visited the California missions at the request of the padres. The padres were not skilled in all of the trades necessary for the operation of the mission community. They wanted the Native Californians to be trained in such crafts as blacksmithing and carpentry.
Blacksmiths were among the most prized craftsmen. The padres felt that no mission community could survive without a blacksmith. The master craftsmen came to teach the mission workers how to work with iron.
There was a Spanish blacksmith with Padre Junípero Serra when he first entered California in 1769. His name is recorded as one of those wounded in an Indian attack on the mission. In most cases we do not know the names or backgrounds of the craftsmen who came from Mexico to teach the Indians.
Before 1769, when Serra and his expedition came to California, iron was unknown to the California Indians. Their tools were made of stone or wood.
Iron is a mineral found in the earth, as an ore. The iron must be extracted from the ore in order to be used. This process was taking place in many parts of the world by 1000 B.C., but had not developed in the Americas. The colonists brought knowledge of iron to the New World in the 1600s. By 1775, blast furnaces on the east coast of America were producing many tons of cast iron. None of this metal had found its way to California.
Since raw metals were not readily available in California, iron and copper had to be brought from Mexico. There were never great quantities of the metals at the missions, but most missions had a blacksmith shop that did some work with iron.
The blacksmith shop had a forge (a big fireplace or hearth where metals are heated). This was usually a pit lined with adobe tiles where a fire was kept burning all day. The fuel used for the fire was charcoal that had been made by burning hardwoods in a slow, smoldering fire. This made the wood char (blacken, or burn partly) rather than burning it completely into ashes. When the resulting charcoal was burned in the forge, it did not make any smoke.
A bellows was used to pump air onto the fire, to make it burn hotter. Operating the bellows was often the task of a younger man who was learning to be a blacksmith.
The blacksmith shop always had a big barrel of water handy, to use for cooling off the red-hot iron. The other important object in the shop was the anvil, a large heavy block of metal on which the blacksmith hammered his work into shape.
The blacksmith heated bars of iron until they became soft enough to bend a little. Then he hammered the iron into the shape that was needed. Being a blacksmith not only took a great deal of strength to lift the heavy iron, but also much skill. The iron had to be heated to just the right temperature in order to be shaped without cracking or breaking.
The blacksmith commonly made tools for the kitchen and garden. He made nails, hammers, axes, saws, hinges, locks and keys. He also made horseshoes, stirrups, bits for the horse bridles, and branding irons. Plowshares (the part of the plow that cuts into the earth) were made of iron, as were hoes and pitchforks.
Some mission blacksmiths became skilled enough to make scissors and even bells.
Since metal was scarce, nothing made of iron was ever thrown away. The blacksmith could mend old tools and kettles. He could use pieces of worn-out tools to make new tools. Sometimes parts of the old cannons used at the presidios were melted down to use for new iron products. A hole in a metal pot or a shovel could be mended by heating a little iron until it became liquid, and then pouring it over the hold. As it cooled, the blacksmith would hammer it until it was smooth.
The Indian blacksmiths at Mission San Fernando Rey were known for especially fine metalwork. They made fancy wrought-iron grillwork called rejas to cover the window openings, and ornate crosses to go on the roof peaks of the churches. Some of the delicate grillwork can still be seen on the Long Building (convento) at this mission. The San Fernando Rey blacksmiths also made an eight-candle chandelier that hangs from the beams in the Long Building.
Several missions today have remains of the blacksmith shops. At Mission San Juan Capistrano, the smelter pit lined with adobe tiles can be seen. The Mission calls this the “oldest metalworks in California.”
At Mission La Purísima the blacksmith shop has been restored. A blacksmith works at the forge during special Living History Days. He makes iron implements using the same tools and methods as the mission blacksmith used. At La Purísima, the living quarters for the blacksmith and his family were located behind the forge room, in the same building.