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SPANISH MISSIONS (Extract from the Handbook of Texas Online article Spanish Missions.)

The Spanish mission was a frontier institution that sought to incorporate indigenous people into the Spanish colonial empire, its Catholic religion, and certain aspects of its Hispanic culture through the formal establishment or recognition of sedentary Indian communities entrusted to the tutelage of missionaries under the protection and control of the Spanish state. This joint institution of indigenous communities and the Spanish church and state was developed in response to the often very detrimental results of leaving the Hispanic control of relations with Indians on the expanding frontier to overly enterprising civilians and soldiers. This had resulted too often in the abuse and even enslavement of the Indians and a heightening of antagonism. To the degree that the mission effort succeeded, it furthered the Spanish goals of political, economic, and religious expansion in America in competition with other European-origin nations.

Franciscansqv from several of their provinces and missionary colleges in New Spain established all the missions in Texas. The ideal of the missionaries themselves, supported by royal decrees, was to establish autonomous Christian towns with communal property, labor, worship, political life, and social relations all supervised by the missionaries and insulated from the possible negative influences of other Indian groups and Spaniards themselves. Daily life was to follow a highly organized routine of prayer, work, training, meals, and relaxation, punctuated by frequent religious holidays and celebrations. In this closely supervised setting the Indians were expected to mature in Christianity and Spanish political and economic practices until they would no longer require special mission status.

Colonial authorities and Franciscan missionaries attempted to introduce the mission system into widely scattered areas of Texas between 1682 and 1793, with greatly varying results. In all, twenty-six missions were maintained for different lengths of time within the future boundaries of the state.

The Franciscans came closest to establishing their ideal system among the hundreds of Indian groups generally known as Coahuiltecans, who lived in the semiarid southern plains of what is now Texas. These small nonallied groups of seminomads, some of which were not in fact Coahuiltecan, had a subsistence economy of hunting and gathering and were weaker militarily than both the Spanish and the encroaching warlike Indians. The missions promised them military protection and a regular, more ample food supply. In some cases the mission also provided protection from exploitation by Spanish soldiers and civilians. On the other hand, because of their seminomadic inclinations, their slow rate of natural increase, epidemics, inadequate military protection, and alternatives offered by neighboring Spaniards, mission towns were maintained only by continual recruitment to counteract steady population decline.

From 1718 through 1731 five missions which drew their members from mostly weaker groups were established near the head of the San Antonio River. The first was San Antonio de Valero,qv which dated from the origins of the settlement. It was followed by San José y San Miguel de Aguayo, Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción,qv San Juan Capistrano,qv and San Francisco de la Espada.qv In varying degrees, these foundations developed as true missionary-directed indigenous towns, whose material success was evident in their churches, dwellings, granaries, workshops, irrigated fields, ranches and livestock, and a regulated social and religious life. The San Antonio settlement comprised the missions, San Antonio de Béxar Presidio,qv and the town of San Fernando de Béxar.qv The area was developed enough that the missions had protection and resources to develop their own stability within a gradually coalescing community. However, the immediate proximity of the town and presidio obliged the Franciscans to engage in a losing battle to maintain strict control over the missionized Indians' relations with their neighbors. By the later 1700s the permanent Indian residents of the San Antonio missions were speaking Spanish, living as devoted Catholics, and even intermarrying with the local Hispanics. Other Indians, both local and from elsewhere, had become part of the town itself.

By the late 1770s several factors caused the mission system to fall out of favor as an important element of Spanish frontier strategy. The weaker Indian groups who had been more ready mission recruits declined steadily in numbers due to high infant-mortality rates, European-introduced epidemics, continued hostile pressure from other Indians, demoralization, and assimilation into either other Indian groups or Spanish society. The relative success of the San Antonio missions themselves was only maintained in the later 1700s by distant recruitment among embattled groups near the Gulf Coast or in the lower Rio Grande country. Furthermore, governmental frontier policy shifted more emphatically away from maintaining missions, which were now seen not only as economic liabilities but also as against the rising spirit of liberalism. This spirit championed individual human rights and a capitalist economy advocating private rather than communal property. The growth of civilian ranching and agricultural enterprises and the governmental search for more revenue through taxes on range cattle also adversely affected the mission economies along the San Antonio River (see RANCHING IN SPANISH TEXAS). There was also increasing pressure from the growing civilian population to take over mission lands, particularly those with obviously declining Indian presence. Greater numbers of civilians were already working or even living within mission properties at the invitation of the missionaries, and they entailed increased labor costs. Conversely, in several cases there was already significant assimilation of mission dwellers into the local Spanish society. In the 1790s those missions that had clearly achieved their purpose of assimilating Indians into Spanish society and religion were either partially secularized (the San Antonio missions) or consolidated administratively (the San Antonio and El Paso missions). In the first few years of the new Republic of Mexico-between 1824 and 1830-all the missions still operating in Texas were officially secularized, with the sole exception of those in the El Paso district, which were turned over to diocesan pastors only in 1852.

In retrospect, although the Franciscans almost always sought initially to implement their ideal mission system, in actual practice they were forced by various Indian groups as well as by Spanish government authorities to adapt that system to local realities in most of Texas. The resultant alternative mission systems allowed much more interplay and flexibility in relations between the Indians and the Spanish. In several cases these approaches led to significant Christianization and assimilation of the Indians. In regard to the primary missionary objective of the Franciscans themselves, it is clear that the vast majority of the native population of Texas and even of those Indians who at one time or another resided at missions never became fundamentally Christian. On the other hand, in several places true Indian or mestizo Christian communities did develop. This was the case in the El Paso and San Antonio areas, as well as at Camargo on the lower Rio Grande. A good number of other Indians who became Christians, either through missionization or through association with Spanish communities, were assimilated individually or as families into Hispanic society. Other mission efforts such as those in East Texas, at San Juan Bautista, and at La Bahía, while apparently failing to gain a significant number of true conversions, did achieve the state's political goal of building a stable, economically successful Spanish presence in the contested borderlands. In these places Indians learned Spanish and came to tolerate if not welcome the Spaniards' presence. See also CATHOLIC CHURCH, INDIANS, MEXICAN TEXAS, SPANISH TEXAS.

Robert E. Wright, O.M.I.

 Citation: "Spanish Missions," extract from The Handbook of Texas Online, Texas State Historical Association, 2001, <http://www.tshaonline.org/tools/article_extracts/its2_extract.html> [Access Date].

For bibliography and complete article go to Spanish Missions.
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