In the expansion of Spain’s borders the mission played a key role in consolidating territories, pacifying them, and converting a part of the indigenous peoples in these regions to Christianity and western customs. Missionaries were always accompanied by soldiers (called the “soldado de cuera” or leather-jacket soldiers in California) who protected them and were in charge of maintaining the internal discipline of the missions, thus facilitating the task of the Franciscans.
It was the key institution of Spanish colonization in the United States. The settlements in the southwest were consolidated thanks to the missions.
At the mission, the Indians received a full panoply of teachings in addition to Christian doctrine: agricultural practices, livestock management, diverse trades, language, reading and writing, accounting, music, the arts and more. All subject to a strict, clock-ruled discipline, under the authority of the missionaries, who allocated the time to be dedicated to work, learning, leisure and rest.
Thus, the missions, which included a church, patio, houses, livestock pens, workshops, cultivated fields, pasturelands, forests, and which occupied hundreds of hectares, were not merely religious institutions. They were also a factor of regional development and an authentic instrument of civil society, where Native Americans were introduced to the European principles of culture and way of life. Under the aegis of this integrating concept, the missions fulfilled a number of objectives simultaneously: evangelizing the Indians, training them in the arts and trades, and the advancement of Spanish sovereignty in unexplored territories, while also serving as an example of order in comparison with the occupational practices of other European powers.
The plan was for the missionaries to remain for ten years, after which a mission was consolidated as an independent town. According to the laws of the Indies, missionaries had to abandon the settlements and move on to found new missions in areas that had not been evangelized but the Franciscans stayed at the missions until the end of the Spanish government. The Viceroyalty administration sent settlers to populate colonization villages - such as Our Lady of Los Angeles, Branciforte, and San Jose – and to consolidate the presidios that, in time, became villages, such as San Diego, San Francisco, and San Antonio. Many settlers in the indigenous communities in California and, in general, to the west of San Luis, resulted in mixed race descendants due to the approach derived from the Spanish missions.
Priests organized life in the mission, which could shelter several thousand Indians. Everything was highly regimented, with periods assigned for work, learning, rest, leisure and prayer.
“Presidios” were not prisons but forts that watched over and defended Spanish missions and ranches throughout the frontier areas against Indian attacks in the extensive territory of the southwest. Their defensive approach included protective networks associated with civil establishments.
In time the “presidio” system evolved from the small force composed of six soldiers to solid garrisons of fifty men headed by a captain. It was reformed several times, until it took the final form of a string of “presidios” all along the frontier, 100 miles apart, with surveillance of the intervening areas by “Compañías Volantes”, literally “flying divisions”.
The “presidios” fulfilled several functions: they protected the missions against Indian harassment; they halted the advance of other powers from the north and east; they were a center of exchange for traders, livestock producers and farmers, who sold their surplus there; and they provided safety for the Native Americans themselves, who set up their ranches and farms in their vicinity, thus avoiding the actions of belligerent tribes. Hence, “presidios” often became the embryo for new towns and cities.
The “presidio” served as a model for the British fort and subsequently for the pioneers as they advanced westward.
Forts were military garrisons of less significance than “presidios”, and were mostly built in the area of Florida.
While “presidios” were above all intended to protect the population, the forts were raised when other European nations challenged Spain’s exclusive right to settle in American territory north of the Rio Grande. The most significant of these forts is Castillo de San Marcos, in St. Augustine, the first town of European design in the United States. The troops at San Marcos twice resisted attacks by the British forces - in 1702 and in 1740.
The fort of Matanzas, the Castillo de San Joaquín and the “Presidio” of San Francisco are examples of these kinds of defensive structures still in existence today.
The Ranch was another form of Spanish settlement along the frontier. Due to the set of constructions it comprised (houses, storehouses, stables… on occasions chapels) it looked like a small village where one or more families lived around their orchards, farms and pasturelands. The ranch produced food, clothing, leather, candles and soap for the consumption of its inhabitants, thus making them self-sufficient.
The Crown required colonists to agree to certain conditions in exchange for permission to found a ranch: they had to grow crops and live on the ranch for at least ten years, while respecting the integrity of Indian lands, over which they could exercise no jurisdiction. They also had to guarantee that their livestock would not damage the crops of the indigenous people.
The fact that Spanish ranches were spread out far and wide entailed great risks and conflicts with some Indian groups were commonplace. For this reason, they created their own system of self-defense and built watchtowers, embrasures for windows, very robust doors and livestock pens adjacent to houses, forming a house-pen complex that was more like a miniature fort than a dwelling.
Towns and Cities
Towns and cities had different origins: those founded as towns from the outset, and those that evolved from the missions.
The towns founded as such from the start were planned according to the grid model applied throughout Latin America, with blocks and streets at right angles and a main square or rectangular plaza acting as the heart of civic life. These settlements gave rise to cities as remarkable as Los Angeles, St. Augustine, Pensacola, Santa Fe or Albuquerque, among many others.
The second model, which started as a Mission, was more commonplace. Missionaries gathered the Native Americans of the vicinity and after a number of years, when the population of the Indians had settled in a stable and permanent fashion and had learned Western techniques and trades, the Mission became an independent and self-governing village. This was the origin of cities like San Francisco, San Diego and many others throughout the country. Finally, the “Presidio” was in other cases the first seed of rural settlements that subsequently gave rise to urban ones. Native American families settled in the vicinity seeking the protection provided by the “Presidio”. Over time these settlements grew in size and importance.
Autor — Borja Cardelús ©. Para el Ministerio de Asuntos Exteriores y de Cooperación del Gobierno de España. www.borjacardelus.com
Créditos de las ilustraciones y de las fotografías © — Borja Cardelús, Eshter Merchán, Bernardo Lara, Juan Carlos Arbex