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By Michelle Ong

Life in a Spanish mission depended on the success of the mission. A few were successful and able to sustain the population of the mission. Padres would first establish the mission and construct huts or adobe buildings. Natives were then brought to live in the missions in separate houses, eventually converting to Christianity and working on allotted tasks to further the prosperity of the mission. Most of the missions, however, failed due to diseases, native hostility, inner turmoil and flooding.

During the establishment of a mission, work consisted of building houses and digging irrigation ditches. When Mission San Antonio de Valero was first built religious services were held in a hut. The first buildings of San Francisco de Espada were huts made of mud, brush and straw. Buildings were later improved and composed of adobe and then stone. A weaving room would produce clothes and blankets from locally grown cotton and wool. Native homes were furnished with beds, chests, stones to ground grains, and an assortment of cookware. Fields of corn, chili, beans, cotton and a ranch would sustain Mission San Antonio de Valero. Other missions cultivated sugar cane, sheep, chickens, melons and pumpkins. The important staple of corn filled granaries and prevented famine.

Unfortunately, mission life was marred by epidemics and nuisances like flies, mosquitoes and disease-ridden water. Malaria became a problem for people at presidio La Bahía at Goliad. Shortages of food, supplies and clothing were also prevalent. Sending supplies to some missions, such as those in East Texas, would take long periods of time that worsened life if crops failed or were submerged by floods.

Missions became the most effective method to control Texas. Since padres toiled to convert and civilize natives, they held no personal ambitions and were the most trustworthy representatives of the Spanish government. They also helped sustain the mission by plowing, planting and harvesting. They cooked, washed, mended clothes and were doctors and nurses for the Natives. In addition, they built houses, churches and tended livestock.

A mission strongly needed an Native population. With a stable Native population, many crops could be grown and well-tended, and the mission could be self-sustaining. But even befriending a native tribe could create animosity with other tribes. Comanches attacked a Spanish mission after seeing evidence of Apaches holding friendly relations with the Spaniards. Such tribal rivalries would cause the abandonment of Spanish missions, or the murder of padres and soldiers. In one mission, Mission San Francisco de los Tejas, native hostility became so alarming that Spaniards buried the church bell and cannon, burned the mission, and fled.

A mission thus strongly depended on a presidio to protect the padres. Presidios would house soldiers and their families. They were commanded by men who were previous merchants or ranchers that had joined the military to benefit their careers and country. The soldiers were only citizen soldiers authorized to protect missions, colonists and establish settlements. They would also aid the padres in performing daily duties in the mission and accompany the padres to recapture runaway Natives. Some captains were storekeepers for the presidio and took advantage of the position by charging exorbitant prices for goods. In the missions of East Texas and the presidio at Los Adaes, most of the soldiers wore rags because they could not afford the expensive goods sold by the commandant. In these instances, the captain was a dictator, also forcing soldiers to toil on his land.

In spite of all these problems, successful missions emerged. One such mission was Mission San José in San Antonio. A day would begin with morning worship, breakfast and work before siesta, additional work and evening worship. An irrigation system, abundant fields and a granary were signs of success. There were also many shops such as a tailor, carpenter shop and a smithy to produce extra goods and lower the mission's dependence on supply lines. Such a mission was rare and was the example all other missions strived to attain. Natives would learn skills such as carpentry and cloth making and produce enough food to help feed other neighboring missions.

Inspector José de Solís who visited the mission in 1768, noted the productivity and cohesion of the native population where old men produced arrows for the soldiers, young women spun yarn and made cloth, old women caught fish, and boys and girls attended school. Natives would also manage the ranch as mule drivers, shepherds and masons, without any external help. Padres would work with the Natives in the fields, giving them orders of what to grow and where to build irrigation ditches.

Apart from work, religious holidays and fiestas were held. Games such as horse racing, a bull fight and even a rodeo were staged for the enjoyment of the mission and a break from productivity.

In some missions, Natives chose their own government in periodic elections. In Mission San Josť, Natives would elect their governor, governing council, overseers, judges, captains and other minor officers who dealt with military concerns. Those who failed to attend a prayer or work were tried and sentenced by Native officials. In other missions, those who failed to attend an assembly or misbehaved were whipped by an Native assistant under the command of the Padres.

The frequency of religious teachings also varied among the missions. In Mission San Francisco de Espada, Natives recited the Christian Doctrine before and after work. They also received basic religious teachings twice a day and more complex religious teachings three to four times a week.

By the 1770s, the failures of many missions and a lack of funds caused the Franciscan padres to begin secularizing missions. New Spain took over the missions and managed their affairs, while a secular clergy consisting of priests who were not part of an order, directed religious services. Christianized Natives received land, tools and cattle belonging to the mission and became taxpaying citizens. In Mission Concepción, Natives were allowed to continue living in their houses. They could trade and work as laborers but were often exploited and given low wages. Unable to attain an equal status in society, many Natives wandered away.

Padres and New Spain's authorities persisted in their effort to establish missions and presidios throughout Texas in the 17th to 18th centuries. The adversities facing these missions were repeatedly overcome, with many of the East Texas missions abandoned and rebuilt. Many of these missions still stand today, their ruins recalling a time when padres and Native peoples worked together for the prosperity of a self-sustaining mission that was their livelihood and home.

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