Behind the Adobe Curtain

My recent post, Missions: Impossible! garnered more responses than any of my previous blogs. Most were strongly positive, but a few readers were upset by my comparison of the California Mission system to Nazi labor camps and asked for more information. Proof of my claim is evident in a number of books as well as journals, diaries and Mission records kept by the Franciscans themselves. In addition to Life in a California Mission, Monterey in 1786, the journals of Jean François de la Péruse (mentioned in my first post), I highly recommend Indians,  Franciscans, and Spanish Colonization: The Impact of the Mission System on California Indians by Robert H. Jackson. Published in 1996, this book is  packed with facts and figures about everything from birth and death rates among the neophytes to crop production and building construction and details about the Indians’ courageous resistance to the system.

This book contains a wealth of data about the Mission system, little of it in praise of the padres.

Also noteworthy is Southern California, An Island on the Land, by Carey McWilliams. The section entitled “The Indian in the Closet” caused a sensation when it appeared in 1946, but like other straightforward accounts it was soon buried and forgotten as civic leaders, the tourist industry and Catholic Church romanticized the truth in order to turn the Missions into cash cows. This was achieved with books, films, pageants, fiestas, music such as the huge hit “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano” and even fruits and vegetables. It was all colorful, calculated, myth-based hoopla and was wildly successful. Today the Missions are among California’s most popular tourist destinations, but you’ll never hear about the poor, beleaguered Indians once you venture behind those picturesque, bougainvillea-draped adobe walls.

California’s old Spanish Missions have been used to sell everything from tee shirts and travel to souvenir mugs and oranges.

McWilliams presents his case against the “myth of the missions” with some disturbing facts. Consider the following:

  • So far as the Indian was concerned, contact with the Missions meant death…The chain of Missions along the coast might best be described as a series of picturesque charnel houses.
  • From the moment of conversion, the neophyte became a slave; he belonged thereafter to the particular Mission.
  • As the number of neophyte deaths began to increase, Indians developed a mortal fear of the Missions.
  • Although the Franciscans provided a bounteous table for themselves and their visitors, the neophytes were kept in a state of chronic undernourishment in order to retard their tendency to fugitivism.
  • In not a single Mission did the number of Indian births equal the number of Indian deaths.
  • Once baptized, the neophytes immediately lost caste with their people and were denied contact with the vital sources of their native culture.
  • On occasion the Franciscans permitted neophytes to “escape” to their villages so that an expedition might be organized to follow them; in the process of capturing the fugitives, a dozen or more new “Christians” could be rounded up. As many as two or three hundred Indians would be captured in a single raid.
  • The thoroughly Missionized Indians, such as the Chumash, the Gabrileño, and the Luiseno are today wholly extinct; while the groups having least contact with the Missions, such as the Cahuilla and Diegueño, are the only groups to have survived.
  • By 1834, the Missions had become exceedingly rich, their lands and holdings being valued at $78 million. Mission San Gabriel alone operated 17 extensive ranchos and owned 3000 Indians, 105,000 head of cattle, 20,000 horses and 40,000 sheep.
Mission San Gabriel was one of the most profitable, no doubt due to 3000 Indian slaves.

Mission San Gabriel was one of the most profitable, no doubt due to 3000 Indian slaves.

Such incredible wealth would have never been possible without enslavement of the Indians whose unpaid labor guaranteed Spain’s early settlement of California. The liaison between parasitic padre and neophyte host successfully introduced ranching to the region which in turn brought livestock and the cultivation of non-native fruits and vegetables, notably citrus, olives and grapes which today constitute multi-million dollar industries. California’s celebrated wines, for example, have their origins at San Juan Capistrano Mission where the so-called “mission  grapes” were planted in 1779 and produced the region’s first wine four years later. Because the Missions were built one day’s foot march apart, roads were needed and eventually linked San Diego to Sonoma. By opening more land for settlers, Spain acquired an unquestioned foothold in the territory and effectively ended Russian incursion from the north.

A classic painting designed to romanticize the Missions.

A classic painting designed to romanticize the Missions.

Historians tells us that the treatment of the California Indians by Spain and her Franciscan brotherhood was typical of 19th century colonial imperialists and that the collision of two such disparate cultures was fated to eradicate the weaker. Regardless of whether you accept or reject such means toward an end, the harsh truth about the Missions remains largely untold. To continue sanitizing it with handsomely landscaped courtyards, squeaky clean churches and pretty bell towers is unacceptable. Especially offensive are Mission gift shops hawking books and made-in-China souvenirs perpetuating the myth of the pious padres and happy Indians. It’s a clear-cut case of adding insult to injury, and California’s Native Americans deserve better. Many antebellum Southern plantations now include commentary on slavery. Why not the Missions?



  1. Bebe Bahnsen
    Nov 11, 2013

    Michael, this blog post should be an article people read widely. What you detail is horrible and destructive. That Catholic retreats are decorated as though they were good for Indians is criminal. Thank you for writing this.

  2. Ciji Ware
    Nov 11, 2013

    Myth busting requires fact-checking, and this blog has done a great service to the Truth. Thanks for marshaling the data required to reveal what actually happened within the mission walls. Bravo!

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *