In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The California Missions

  • Introduction
  • Colonial California: General Overviews
  • Discovery and Exploration
  • Archaeology and Ethnohistory of the Missions
  • Demography and Disease
  • Secularization and Collapse
  • Legacies
  • Research Guides and Online Resources

Latin American Studies The California Missions
Steven W. Hackel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 September 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 September 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0236


Initiated in San Diego in 1769 by the Mallorcan missionary Junípero Serra, the California missions eventually numbered twenty-one and spanned coastal California from San Diego to the San Francisco Bay Area. Spanish officials viewed the missions as necessary anachronisms, founded as they were long after the Crown had closed down most missions in New Spain. But missions were useful to the Crown in California because missionaries were inexpensive and zealous in their devotion to turning indigenous frontier peoples into loyal Catholics and taxpaying citizens. Furthermore, they often came to settle regions that Spanish settlers had no interest in colonizing. Missionaries came to California with tried and true techniques of recruitment as well as military and biological allies in the form of germs, plants, and animals. Thus into the California missions, in small groups over decades, came tens of thousands of Native Americans, many driven into the Franciscans’ arms by European-introduced diseases that undermined village life and by environmental changes that accompanied Spanish colonization and undercut Native subsistence practices. In the missions, Indigenous labor and productivity became the backbone of the colonial region and a source of enduring controversy. Some baptized Natives would learn European trades and the rudiments of Catholicism and the Spanish language, but disease shortened the lives of most. From their early days the missions prompted Indigenous resistance and invited criticism from European visitors and Spanish bureaucrats who saw them as relics of a bygone era during which Native labor was controlled by padres. By the time the Mexican government secularized the missions in the 1830s and parceled out the missions’ lands and resources among well-connected colonists and a small number of Natives, the missions had proven themselves to be potent and deadly agents of change. Despite the heavy toll that they exacted on Native life and culture, the literature on the California missions—with a few notable exceptions—remained laudatory through the middle of the 20th century, written as it was by boosters and hagiographers. Since the 1980s, however, a growing body of work has documented the degree to which the missions upended Native lives and communities. Increasingly, and largely in response to the Catholic Church’s decades-long campaign to canonize Serra that culminated in 2015, this new work has examined in depth the ways in which Natives maintained their culture and survived the challenges of mission life and Spanish colonialism. The most recent studies of the missions combine insights from archaeology, anthropology, and history; a deep reading of documents in the archives of Mexico and across California; and a mining of the mission registers created by the Franciscans. The result is a vivid, harrowing, data-driven, polyvocal rendering of the California missions. This new work transcends both earlier triumphalist accounts depicting Franciscan missionaries as gentle and homogenous padres who brought the glories of European civilization to backwards peoples and censorious indictments of those padres as all-powerful colonists who destroyed all that was good in Native culture.

Colonial California: General Overviews

The California missions need to be understood as part of Spain’s larger attempt to colonize and control northern New Spain. While there are many studies that survey the whole of the Spanish Borderlands from Florida to California, there are few book-length studies that focus exclusively on colonial California. For a synthetic overview of the breadth of the Spanish frontier in the Americas during the 18th century and the context within which colonization in California occurred, Weber 2005 is peerless. Of particular use are the chapters on California and frontier missions in Weber 1992, an overview of the Spanish colonial frontier in North America. For a similarly rich overview of the Mexican frontier in what is now the American Southwest, the sections on California in Weber 1982 remain remarkably informative as does the extended bibliography at the end of the volume. Kessell 2002 provides a useful discussion of California within the context of other regions of the Borderlands and Starr 2007 provides a breezy overview of early California for the time-pressed reader. Easily overlooked, because of their neglect of or racist treatment of Native peoples, are older works such as Bancroft 1884–1890, Chapman 1916, and Chapman 1921. But these volumes nevertheless provide useful insights on the chronology of colonization in California as well as antiquarian details about settlement in the region. Gutiérrez and Orsi 1998 provides useful essays on nearly all aspects of colonial California, and Hackel 2005 also offers a discussion of many aspects of California before 1850. See also separate Oxford Bibliographies article in Latin American Studies “Conquest of Borderlands in Latin America”.

  • Bancroft, Hubert Howe. History of California. 7 vols. San Francisco: The History Company, 1884–1890.

    The first five volumes of Bancroft’s great history, covering the period 1542 to 1850, provide a comprehensive account of Spanish, Mexican, and Anglo-American settlement in California from a Eurocentric and at times anti-Catholic perspective. But the sheer volume of information found in Bancroft makes his works indispensable.

  • Chapman, Charles Edward. The Founding of Spanish California: The Northwestward Expansion of New Spain, 1687–1783. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1916.

    A detailed early history of the Spanish settlement in California through the mid-1780s. Chapman was a master researcher and extensively used the collections in the British Museum and the Archive of the Indies. Contains an excellent bibliography of manuscript sources.

  • Chapman, Charles Edward. A History of California: The Spanish Period. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1921.

    A more expansive study than Chapman 1916 that covers California from the 16th century through the mid-19th century. While Chapman’s portrayals of California Natives and Spanish and Mexican colonists was decidedly Eurocentric, the volume provides a detailed account of early California.

  • Gutiérrez, Ramón A., and Richard J. Orsi, eds. Contested Eden: California Before the Gold Rush. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

    Published on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of California’s admission into the Union, in association with the California Historical Society, this collection of essays provides a useful introduction to most aspects of the history of colonial California.

  • Hackel, Steven W. Children of Coyote, Missionaries of Saint Francis: Indian-Spanish Relations in Colonial California, 1769–1850. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.

    Comprehensive account of colonial California that is rooted in Spanish archival sources and grounded in demographic, cultural, and economic analysis.

  • Kessell, John. Spain in the Southwest: A Narrative History of Colonial New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and California. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.

    Narrative history of Spanish colonization in the Northern Borderlands suitable for undergraduates.

  • Starr, Kevin. California: A History. New York: Modern Library, 2007.

    A breezy fast-moving account of California history by the most popular of California historians. Chapter 2 provides a fast-paced narrative account of the missions seen from on high.

  • Weber, David J. The Mexican Frontier, 1821–1846: The American Southwest Under Mexico. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982.

    An excellent synthetic overview of California during the Mexican period that provides thorough discussions of mission secularization and the creation of a rancho-based economy.

  • Weber, David J. The Spanish Frontier in North America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992.

    Published to coincide with the Columbian Quincentenary, this field-shaping synthesis places California in a large context of Latin American history.

  • Weber, David J. Bárbaros: Spaniards and Their Savages in the Age of Enlightenment. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005.

    Masterful synthetic overview of Spanish colonization during the Bourbon Era by the greatest historian of the Spanish Borderlands since Herbert E. Bolton and John Francis Bannon.

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