Examining the Role of the Mission in Spanish Texas

Although the best-known feature of any mission is its church, missions were much more than religious centers. Herbert E. Bolton, the father of Spanish borderlands studies, first explored the role of the mission in a 1917 article titled “The Mission as a Frontier Institution in the Spanish American Colonies.”* Bolton explained that the mission served two purposes, one for the Catholic Church and the other for the Spanish king or State. The system worked well because it furthered the needs of both entities. It also worked well because, in the eyes of Spaniards of the era, there was no separation of Church and State as we know it today. It was natural for Church and State to work together for the glory of God and Spain because to be Spanish was to be Catholic. Spaniards wanted both to prosper.

An artist rendition of Mission San Antonio de Valero

The frontier presented a challenge and an opportunity to the Spanish. For the State, there was a pressing need to establish a physical presence in a region like Texas to serve as diplomatic and military outposts against encroachment by other nations. It needed strong Spanish communities to mark out and defend the land it claimed to possess. For the Church, the opportunity was to fulfill its goal of saving souls. The plan was for missionaries to enter Texas, recruit indigenous people, and initiate the process of religious and cultural conversion. Backed by the State, the missionaries and their converts would build a pueblo or town. It is the town, not just the church, that was the mission.

Mission life was highly regulated, much like living at a seminary. The daily routine centered on the missionaries’ efforts to instruct their converts in the skills they would need to become productive and self-sufficient. In addition to regular church services, religious instruction occurred throughout the day and into the evening. A typical day would start at dawn with converts going to mass before breakfast. After their morning meal, converts would be assigned tasks, often according to sex or age. Women and the aged spun and wove cloth, cooked, or performed other similar work while able-bodied men tilled the fields or performed other manual labor such as digging or maintain the acequias. Children assisted as needed and, in the process, learned how to perform important tasks for the future. After several hours, workers would reassemble for religious instruction before eating the midday meal. More work followed in the afternoon. Once again religious instruction provided a break. Dinner, more instruction, and evening prayers ended the day as the converts retired for the night soon after the sun had set. Work was suspended for holy days, so the missionaries and converts could attend mass and celebrate. Music, both choral and instrumental, played a large role in mission life.

Not all converts adapted to the regimentation of the mission. Some left, returning to their previous way of life. When possible, missionaries attempted to persuade their former charges to come back and finish their instruction. Prior to beginning the process of religious conversion, an indigenous person was believed to be spiritually innocent since he or she did not know of God’s existence. However, once having been introduced to the church’s teaching, missionaries believed that a convert who abandoned the mission placed his or her soul in jeopardy by turning their backs on God. For this reason, the missionaries often called on soldiers from the nearby presidios to help locate and round up truants because converts left in the wild were in danger spiritually unless they returned to the mission to complete their instruction. Thus, the local contingent of presidial soldiers not only provided protection but also served as a detour and returned runaways.

As previously related, founding a mission was the first step in creating a village composed of Indian converts who would be transformed into loyal Spanish subjects. Spanish officials believed that concentrating natives into a central location made their conversion efforts easier since the missionaries did not have to search for Indians to convert. Moreover, concentration increased the level of the social control that could be exerted. Church records indicate that individual missions of the San Antonio mission cluster at the height of their existence contained from between 300 to 400 residents each. Such high levels of concentration, however, had a down side. Although gathering Indians into mission pueblos served the purpose of allowing fewer missionaries to interact with more natives, housing prospective converts in a confined space wreaked havoc when infectious diseases broke out among the village residents. Periodic epidemics caused mission populations to plummet as converts died or fled, which often resulted in a mission losing more than half of its residents in a short period of time.

The missions suffered from attacks from Apache Indians for much of their existences. Converts were expected to help defend their own village as well as contribute to the overall security of the region. Mission Indians served as interpreters on punitive raids conducted by Spanish soldiers. In 1745, one hundred armed residents of Mission San Antonio de Valero helped break up an Apache attack on Presidio de Béxar. Although a treaty with the Apache was enacted in 1749, raids commenced again by 1760, making it impossible to hold annual roundups where mission herdsmen branded calves. Apache raiders routinely stole livestock and killed or carried off any individual they found outside the mission’s protective walls.

The mission’s population changed over time both in number and character. Not only did some residents leave or die, new residents entered. By the end of the mission period, the major source of increase in population came from children born to converts rather than the arrival of new Indian recruits. While inter-convert marriages occurred, female converts also married presidial soldiers from local presidios. As secularization approached, many younger converts were increasingly mestizos and mestizas, Catholic men and women of mixed indigenous and Spanish blood. This demographic and culture change demonstrated to Spanish officials that the missions had fulfilled their purpose, a fact that led to their closure.

* Bolton, Herbert E. “The Mission as a Frontier Institution in the Spanish American Colonies,” American Historical Review Vol. 23, №1 (October 1917), 42–61.

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