The buildings at a California mission were arranged in a quadrangle (four-sided enclosure), creating an open courtyard in the middle of the quadrangle. The quadrangle of buildings made the courtyard completely enclosed. There was usually only one opening to the courtyard from outside the quadrangle. The courtyard was a safe, protected place.
On one side of the quadrangle was the convento wing, adjacent to the church, where the padres’ quarters were located. On another side of the quadrangle was the monjería, with rooms for unmarried women. The men’s dormitory was usually on the opposite side. Taking up the remaining areas around the courtyard were the kitchen, workshops, and storerooms. The soldiers’ quarters were usually outside the quadrangle, as were the tannery, mill, adobe brick making, and barns.
The doors to all of the buildings opened onto the courtyard. The church was the only building in the quadrangle that had a door opening onto the outside, as well as a door into the courtyard.
The size of the courtyard varied from mission to mission. The courtyard at Mission San Juan Capistrano was about 100 yards square. At Mission Santa Ines, the courtyard was a rectangle about 145 feet by 368 feet. The only one of the 21 California missions that was not built in this style was Mission La Purísima, where the buildings were laid out in a line.
Around the inside of the quadrangle, facing the courtyard, was a covered walkway or corredor. This walkway was formed by the overhanging roofs of the buildings. The roofs protected the adobe walls of the buildings from rain, which would soften the adobe bricks and make them sag. It also provided shade in the summer for the Indians and padres.
The courtyard was actually a large outdoor room where much of the life of the mission took place. Because the adobe buildings had few windows and little light, it was often more pleasant for the people to do their work in the open-air courtyard. Due to the mild climate in California, the courtyard was a pleasant place to work throughout much of the year.
Each mission had an outdoor kitchen area with a beehive oven in the courtyard. During the day, women and girls would be making tortillas, baking bread, and preparing meals there. Large kettles would be simmering over the fires all day, cooking the food for the many people who lived at the mission.
The women would also be pressing the oil out of olives, or grinding wheat or corn into flour with a mortar (a hollowed-out stone) and pestle (a hammer-shaped stone).
Other women would be washing wool in large tubs, or dying it in smaller pots. They would be combing the wool to get out the burrs and stickers, and preparing it for spinning. The women might pull their spinning wheels out into the sunlight of the courtyard, and do the spinning of yarn there.
Some courtyards had water piped into them from nearby springs. The water would flow through adobe tile channels and into a large stone cistern (tank). This made it easier for the women to wash clothes and prepare food.
As their mothers worked, the young children played in the courtyard. For older people, it was a place to rest and watch the many activities going on. Lunchtime at the mission was from 11 AM until 2 PM. The Indian workers gathered in the courtyard for the noon meal, and then had time to rest and visit awhile before going back to their tasks.
Again in the evening, the courtyard was the meeting place. Here the Indians played some of their traditional games, which often included dice games and gambling. A favorite activity was a game in which a black and white bone was tied to a cord and passed around a circle of players. The trick was to discover who had the bone.
Although the mission padres wanted the Native Californians to become model Spanish citizens, they did permit them to perform their traditional dances. These rhythmic dances were often accompanied by chanting and the music of drums and rattles.
On special feast days, the courtyard was the scene of festivities. People took part in contests to show their skill or speed or strength. There were foot races. Boys and men competed in a game of “hoop and pole” to see who could throw a pole or shoot an arrow through a rolling hoop.
Women and girls participated in games also. One game was played with a wooden ball and a stick. The players were divided into two teams. Each team tried to hit the ball over the opposing team’s goal line.
Cock (rooster) racing was a common activity in the courtyard at fiesta time. The rooster was buried in the ground up to its neck. Riders on horseback would pass by the rooster and try to grab it by its head. This was not a pleasant game for the rooster, but was a show of skill and agility for the young men.
The courtyard was sometimes the scene of a bull fight during fiesta time. Unlike bull fights in some countries, in California the bull was usually not killed during the fight. Instead it was teased and jostled around by vaqueros (cowboys) on horseback. The aim was to show the skill of the rider. The Indians who had learned to ride horses and herd cattle at the missions were very good riders and loved to show their abilities on horseback.
Sometimes men on foot would tackle a bull. For these bull fights, the horns of the bull were blunted and cloth was tied around them to make them less dangerous. The men would twist the bull’s tail, jump on his back, or try to vault over the bull by using poles to push themselves into the air.
Whenever there was a bull fight in the courtyard, temporary barricades were set up to protect the people who were watching. This was especially important when a bear or a mountain lion was brought in to do battle with a bull. An American trader, Alfred Robinson, visited California in 1829 and described these bull fights at the mission.