Creating Business Communities in the Spanish California Missions

Lynne P. Doti

Starting in 1769, the Spanish established missions in Alta California to create Spanish communities and convert the Natives Californians to Catholicism. A small band of soldiers, Franciscan priests and volunteers walked from Baja California to San Francisco Bay through semi-arid, scarcely populated land, stopping occasionally to establish a location for a mission. As at each location, missionary priests, soldiers and Indians from Baja California stayed behind. Since the total number of people left to establish the mission was less than ten, they needed the local Indians to help establish the community. They attracted the local Indians with gifts, then recruited some of these Native Californians to join the religious community and perform the work necessary to create a mission community. By 1790, some of these missions had a population of more than a thousand people, each still with only a handful of priests and soldiers. While a regimented work schedule, whipping, increased contact with foreign disease, and repression of their customs were negative aspects of mission life, almost all the local tribal members joined and stayed willingly. It is hypothesized that they stayed because they desired more reliable supplies of food and clothing, housing, and protection that the mission offered. While missions were promised support from Spain, they quickly became self-supporting, with surplus goods available for trade. The missions traded with passing ships, and developed the skills of the Indians to create thriving economies. These communities offered an attractive lifestyle which contributed to the Native Californians’ willingness to stay and work.