There were four things the padres looked for when choosing the site for a mission: water, fertile soil, building materials, and large numbers of Native Californians. The people who did most of the work at the California missions were the Native Californians. It was the labor and skill of these men and women that made the missions prosperous.
Native Californians, commonly called Indians, had been living in California for centuries before the Spanish padres and soldiers arrived. The Indians lived in villages, in houses of wood, brush, or bark. They were hunters and gatherers, which means that their food grew naturally on the land; they hunted for game and gathered fruits, grains, and nuts. They were a peaceful people.
The Native Californians were of vital importance to the missions. The Spanish government, which wanted to control the southwestern part of North America, needed to have political control over the inhabitants. They used the mission padres in their attempt to accomplish this. The padres themselves were more interested in converting the people to Christianity.
Beads, trinkets, and food were used as lures to attract the local people to the missions. They were curious about these newcomers and their religion. Many Indians accepted the food and trinkets, and many accepted the padres’ religion. Those who agreed to become Christians were called neophytes, which means new grown, or beginners.
Neophytes were expected to live at the mission and to perform a certain amount of work every day. Various types of living quarters were provided for them.
The unmarried women and girls over the age of eight lived in a dormitory-like building called a monjerío. The monjerío faced onto the mission courtyard, and could be entered only from the courtyard. A matron, an older woman, was in charge of the monjerío. The doors to the monjerío were locked at night, either to protect the young women from harm or to prevent them from leaving the mission.
There was a similar dormitory building for the young men, usually on the opposite side of the courtyard from the women’s quarters. The dormitory buildings were sometimes divided into several rooms. The beds were mats on the floor, or wooden benches.
Mission workers who were married lived with their families in separate houses. Usually these houses were just outside the mission quadrangle, in a cluster. Often the houses were built in the style that was customary to that group of Indians. Other times the married workers’ housing was made of adobe bricks.
Each person capable of working had a task to do at the mission. Men worked in the orchards and vegetable gardens, and cared for the livestock. They made adobe bricks and tiles, did blacksmithing and carpentry, made wine, and tanned the cowhides. Both men and women did spinning and weaving, and made soap and candles. The women prepared the food. There were quotas for the amount of work that each person must finish. Many Native Californians were proud of the skills they learned at the missions, but they had to work hard there.
When the bells announced a meal time, a member of each family group would come with a bowl to receive his or her family’s ration of food for that meal. The food was different from what the Indians were used to eating.
The padres required that the mission workers dress in a certain way, quite different from the way the Indians were used to dressing. The workers at the mission made all of their own clothing. They were allowed to have one new shirt or one new skirt and blouse every seven months.
The Indian men at the missions wore loose trousers made of a coarse cloth, and long shirts with V-necks. The shirt was worn on the outside of the trousers, with a sash of cloth or cord. The men’s clothing was usually white. They sometimes wore multi-colored serapes (small blankets) over their shoulders.
The women’s dress was more brightly colored, with a full skirt gathered at the waist and a plain blouse with short sleeves and a round neck. The women wore shawls for warmth. They were fond of ribbons and lace on their dresses, and sometimes wore flowers in their hair. Many women and men wore kerchiefs around their necks.
Life at the mission was very different for the Indians than when they lived in their villages. They were no longer free to make choices about what they ate or wore, or what they did with their time. They were required to go to church at certain times, to eat at certain times, and to stay at the mission unless the padre gave them permission to leave.
Once having made the decision to accept the padres’ religion, the Indians were not allowed to change their minds. They could not go back to live in their old villages. If they tried to leave, they were punished. They were often given new Spanish names. For a people who had previously had complete freedom, life at the mission could seem like slavery.
Under Governor Neve, the Indians were asked to elect several members of their group to share in the supervision of mission work. These men were called alcades, and were not to be punished by the soldiers or padres. Sometimes the alcades gave lashings to other Indian workers.
The records of life at the missions were mostly written by the padres, and preserved by the Catholic Church. Little exists as a record directly from the mission workers, to show what mission life seemed like to them. No doubt some were as happy as the padres reported. Just as surely, many were not happy. Visitors to California during this time reported cruel treatment of the Indians.
Whether happy or not, the mission period was a step in the destruction of the Native Californian culture. By the time the missions closed, the number of Indians had been drastically reduced. Those who had survived the mission period were not well equipped for life in the changing society of 19th-century California.