1513 - 1821

Spanish Institutions in the United States

Spanish Legacy in the United States of America

The Mission

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.

The Mission was not a mere church but rather an authentic instrument of territorial development. It occupied large tracts of land, with its patio, the houses of Indians, workshops, cropland, pasturelands and forests. In time, missions became towns and cities.

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.

Indians were taught not only religion but also a broad spectrum of agricultural, technical and humanistic knowledge.

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.

In contrast to the extensive missions of the west, those in Florida were smaller. The Indians did not live in them, but went to them daily to receive education.

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.

Mission of San Antonio de Padua, in California - an oasis of peace.

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.

The Mission had houses to accommodate Indians from the vicinity. Over time, the Mission patio became the main town plaza.
The San José Mission in Texas, one of the beautiful missions installed by the Spanish missionaries on the banks of the river San Antonio
The famous Mission El Alamo, birthplace of the independence of Texas, in the heart of the city of San Antonio
El Alamo was the Mission of San Antonio de Valero, where significant events for the history of Texas happened.
Mission of San Buenaventura, the last of the chain of missions founded by Junípero Serra in California, to evangelize the Indians and pass on the learning of Spanish techniques and crafts

The “Presidio”

“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.

"Presidios" were composed of a garrison of fifty solders, the officers and the captain.

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”.

"Presidio" of San Luis de las Amarillas, Texas, founded to defend the San Sabá Mission.

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.

"Presidio" of Goliad, Texas. It protected the large numerous Texan missions.

The “presidio” served as a model for the British fort and subsequently for the pioneers as they advanced westward.

"Presidio" of San Francisco, California, with the Spanish Cross of Burgundy flag.


Forts were military garrisons of less significance than “presidios”, and were mostly built in the area of Florida.

San Joaquín battery, one of the defensive outposts along San Francisco Bay.

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.

Thanks to the formidable Castillo de San Marcos, Spain was able to keep Florida for 250 years.
Patio of Castillo de San Marcos, Saint Augustine. The colonists of Saint Augustine took refuge here when they were attacked and cannonaded twice by British troops.

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.

Fort Matanzas, Florida, built to protect the entrance to the city of Saint Augustine.

The Ranch

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.

Spanish ranches were built more like forts, as defensive structures against Indian harassment

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.

Ranch windows were small railed embrasures to offer attackers a minimum of weak points.
Apart from growing crops and herding livestock, work at the ranch included performing trades to manufacture all items necessary for everyday life.

Towns and Cities

Towns and cities had different origins: those founded as towns from the outset, and those that evolved from the missions.

St. Augustine in the 17th century, with Spanish architectural elements such as railings. The palm leaf roofing was borrowed from indigenous building techniques.

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.

Main plaza of Los Angeles, where something as Spanish as the music kiosk still survives.
Grid design of all cities in Latin America, with the streets at right angles and the main plaza as the heart of civic life.
In the late seventeenth century in St. Agustine, stone houses and first-floor balconies already started appearing.

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.

Only 44 people of Hispanic origin founded in 1781 the population of "Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles", which later became the great city of Los Angeles.
We owe the initial founding of San Francisco to Juan Bautista de Anza, who chose the site for future "Presidios" and Missions, origins of what became a great city
Like all main squares of Hispanic America, the main square in Santa Fe, New Mexico, is the heart of city life. 
Credits: Story

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

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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