The Indians of the Missions

The Mission Indians, that constituted the flocks belonging to the various Missions, are and ever will be a problem to the antiquarians. Of their history before the time of the colonization we have no definite knowledge; but this much seems unquestionable: a great difference in character, disposition, and habits existed between the natives of the valleys and plains of the coast and those of the deserts and mountains of the interior. The former were by nature peaceable, gentle, and amenable to progressive influences; the latter were untamable, warlike, cruel, and unresponsive to any civilizing or moral forces. Locality, climate, food, and the struggle for existence may reasonably account for these opposite traits of character and habits of life in the coast and interior Indians.

If this be true, then the lines of the Missions were so laid as best to promote the conversion of souls, and to effect a great practical improvement in their lives. The general trend and localizing of the Missions, from north to south, brought within their vicinities and easy reach the vast majority of the valley and plain tribes of the coast, and excluded by distance and the rugged barriers erected by nature the inland tribes. Be these reflections true or false, the early history of the native races of the Pacific coast is an enigma that never will be satisfactorily solved.

The coast Indians had advanced in some things beyond the Stone Age; they were adepts in the construction of wooden vessels for domestic use, idols of gold and silver, and weapons, offensive and defensive, and for hunting. For fishing their canoes and implements were very ingenious. The tanning of skins of sea wolves for garments was more perfect than in Castile. Doubtless the Indians varied in character and life in California as they did everywhere along the coast and contiguous territory, subject to like natural laws and conditions. The pastoral Indians of California closely resembled in their peaceful habits and tastes the Pueblos of the lands east of them, but the latter were more advanced in their ability to command the wealth of the soil by their rude arts of cultivation. The mountain Indians east of San Diego were warlike and cruel, and never came within the influence of the padres; in fact, they destroyed the first Mission built there, and were controlled only by the soldiers.

Out of such crude material to form communities of Christians enjoying civilized life with all its comforts, luxuries, and refinements, would seem an impossible undertaking; but holy and indomitable purpose prevailed. In ten years from the founding of the first Mission at San Diego in 1769, the padres had thirty-five hundred converted Indians under their instruction and control, and solving the problems of a new and progressive life. In the year 1800 their flock of converts had increased to fifteen thousand, all under the ameliorating influences of eighteen Missions, conducted in all their affairs by about forty padres. The significance of their immense labors appears more prominently in results; they had by most assiduous training converted tribes of savages into skilful silversmiths, millers, saddlers, bakers, vintagers, shoemakers, tailors, hatters, guitar-makers, masons, winemakers, fishermen, wood-cutters, stone-cutters, weavers, sacristans, musicians, hunters, farmers, herders, tilemakers, physicians, mariners, and workers in more than thirty other occupations, arts, and industries known to the Spaniards. When taught, the Indian became the principal factor in all the labors, improvements, and progress of Mission life. This introduction of the arts of civilized life prepared the way for the coming of the white race, and the birth of the Golden State.

Return to: The Missions of California and the Old Southwest

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