Each of the California missions had a group of soldiers assigned to it by the Spanish governor. Soldiers were sent with the padres each time permission was granted by the government to establish a new mission. The job of the soldiers was to protect the mission and the padres.
The group of four to six soldiers assigned to a mission under the command of a corporal was known as an escolta. The soldiers’ barracks were called the cuartel. These buildings were usually separate from the mission compound.
Each soldier had a small bed or cot, made of a wooden frame with rawhide stretched over it for a mattress. The cots were lined up in one room, so the soldiers had no privacy. Each soldier’s uniform and equipment hung on pegs on the wall beside his bed.
The mission soldiers were called soldados de cuera, meaning leather-jackets. The leather jackets which gave them this name were sleeveless vest-type jackets made of six or eight layers of tanned deerskin or sheepskin. The jacket was protection against arrows, which could not go through all the layers of leather.
The soldiers also wore thick leather chaps (leggings) to keep their legs from getting scratched when they rode through brush. As additional protection, each soldier had a shield called an adarga. The shield, which the soldier carried on his left arm, was made of two layers of raw oxhide.
Most of the mission soldiers were given several horses and a mule. Horses had not been known in California before the Spanish arrived. When riding horseback, the soldier wore a leather apron that was fastened to the saddle and hung down on both sides, covering his legs.
Across his shoulders, the soldier wore a belt that held bullets and gunpowder. His weapon was a lance (a long wooden shaft with a sharp metal tip), a broadsword (a sword with a wide blade), and a short flintlock musket. A flintlock musket was a gun with a smooth bore inside the barrel. The spark to set off the charge was made by a flint striking a piece of steel. Though not very accurate when fired, this musket was easy to load.
Although the soldiers were supposed to assist the padres, the padres had no control or authority over the soldiers. The soldiers were responsible only to the Spanish governor. In fact, the padres and soldiers often were not happy with each other. In one of the padre’s diaries is recorded the prayer, “From soldiers, deliver us, O Lord.”
By 1791, four military garrisons or forts, called presidios, had been built near four of the missions. The presidios had many more soldiers (25 to 50 each) than the smaller groups assigned to other missions. When the first presidio was built near Mission San Diego, Father Serra soon saw that having the soldiers so close caused trouble. He gave directions for the mission to be moved several miles away from the presidio. This distance between the mission and the presidio was kept when the other presidios were built near Mission San Carlos Borromeo (the Monterey Presidio), near Mission Santa Bárbara, and near Mission San Francisco de Asís.
Many of the soldiers sent to California were young men who were forced to serve a tour of duty in the military. They did not like being so far from home, and they did not like living in quarters that were sometimes cold, damp, and uncomfortable. Meals were simple, mainly due to shortages of supplies. Uniforms and shoes wore out and there were no replacements. Ammunition was in short supply. The soldiers were often lonely and homesick for the sunnier, warmer climate of New Spain (Mexico).
In addition, the soldiers received harsh punishment from their officers when they committed even a small offense. Some of the soldiers had committed crimes in New Spain, and were being punished by being sent to California for duty. Most of the soldiers could not read or write. Fages, a military commander in California, called the soldiers “perverse and obstinate.” He reported that many soldiers deserted and left their place of duty.
The officers in command of the cuartel or presidio were usually from Spain rather than Mexico. The Spanish king felt that Spanish-born officers would be more loyal than Mexican-born soldiers. This caused resentment among the soldiers. After Mexico became independent from Spain in 1822, the Mexican government ordered all the Spaniards under age 60 to leave California.
The soldiers felt that it was beneath them to do any labor in the fields or other work at the missions. They said it would damage their position with the Native Californians, whom they expected to respect and obey them. Sometimes soldiers served as supervisors over crews of mission workers. The padres’ reports indicate, however, that the soldiers did not have enough duties to keep them busy, which led to them causing trouble.
The Native Californians could choose whether or not they wanted to convert to Christianity and live at the mission. However, once they made that decision, they were no longer free to come and go as they pleased. They were not free to change their mind and return to live in their villages. Any one who left the mission was hunted down by the soldiers and brought back. The person was then punished by being beaten, or by being put in the stocks (a heavy wooden frame with holes for the ankles and wrists) for several days.
In addition to this role of enforcing the loss of freedom of the Indians, the soldiers also committed crimes against the people by abusing the Indian women. Armed conflict sometimes resulted when the men tried to protect the women in their families from the assault of the soldiers. For these reasons, it seems that the Native Californians did not trust nor respect the soldiers assigned to the missions.
When Mexico began its bid for independence from Spain, support for the upkeep of the soldiers decreased. The soldiers began demanding more supplies from the missions. As the soldiers got more and more unhappy with their situation, they were involved in more incidences of violence with the Indians.
There were a few times when the soldiers and the Indians cooperated with each other. In 1818 the padres at Mission Santa Bárbara learned that the French pirate Bouchard was going to attack the mission and presidio. The padres quickly drilled and armed 150 Indians living at the mission. The Indians and soldiers together confronted the pirates. When Bouchard saw such a large force waiting for him, he sailed away without attacking.