When the Spanish moved up the California coast, they established control of the area through the building of missions. Missions were intended as a combination of religious, economic, and political control. As Spain lacked a sufficient number of colonists to populate California, the primary purpose of the mission system was to make loyal subjects of Native Americans by converting them to Catholicism. Once converted, the neophytes would be taught European agricultural practices and social customs. By concentrating the Native Americans at the missions, the Spanish hoped to force them to abandon their traditional ways of life and become agricultural laborers for the Spanish crown.
Initially, the natives of California were awestruck by the appearance of the Spanish. After their shock faded, many were eager to trade with the foreigners. As the missions were established, some Native Americans were drawn out of curiosity, accepting baptism without understanding the cultural and social ramifications. Some came to the missions because of dissatisfaction with life in their home community. Many others were forcibly rounded up. Whatever the reasons, once the Native Americans arrived at the mission, they entered an entirely new life.
The steps taken by the Spanish to force the Native Americans to comply with their plans of conversion could be brutal. As the Fathers felt responsible for the souls of the Native Americans, those who tried to leave the mission after being baptized found that they were not free to do so. Likewise, those who refused to work were beaten or imprisoned. A French traveler, Jean Francois de La Perouse, who visited California in 1786, likened conditions at a mission to a slave plantation.
"Everything reminded us of a habitation in Saint Domingo, or any other West Indian slave colony…We mention it with pain, the resemblance to a slave colony is so perfect, that we saw men and women loaded with irons, others in the stocks; and at length the noise of the strokes of a whip struck our ears."
Besides physical punishment, the process of concentration helped to maintain control over the Native population. The mixing of the various tribes of California in the same location meant a loss of communal rituals, dances, and languages. The communication that would have been vital to effective resistance by the Native Americans was made nearly impossible.
The Spanish view of Native Americans helped to justify their harsh treatment. Many of the Franciscans who traveled through the state saw California Indians as
"…the most unhappy people in all the world…in fine, they are so savage, wild and dirty, disheveled, ugly, small and timid that only because they have the human form is it possible to believe that they belong to mankind."
The process of missionization would have devastating effects on the Native American population of California. After 65 years of the missions, over 60,000 Indian deaths were recorded. The California Indian population, which had numbered some 300,000 prior to 1769, had fallen to 150,000 by 1845, with the tribes living along the coast the hardest hit. This decline was primarily the result of disease. However, the end of the mission period did not signify a renewal for the Native Americans. The process of depopulation begun with the Spanish would accelerate under Mexican rule and reach a climax with the coming of the Americans.
- Students describe the social, political, cultural, and economical life and interactions among people of California from the pre-Columbian societies to the Spanish mission and Mexican rancho periods.
- Students explain the economic, social, and political life in California from the establishment of the Bear Flag Republic through the Mexican-American War, the Gold Rush, and the granting of statehood.