The elevation to sainthood in 2015 of Father Junipero Serra, the Catholic priest who played a central role in the colonization of California, evangelization of local inhabitants and establishment of the mission system, brought with it controversy and opened some old wounds. It also reignited consideration of the mission era and its role in the economic development of the state.
It is around those missions and communities that modern-day Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego were built.
Dr. Lynne Doti, a professor of economics emeritus at Chapman University, added a new wrinkle to the conversation with her 2019 paper, “Spanish California Missions: An Economic Success.”
As an economic expert with a historical bent, Doti approached the era from 1769, when Serra and his party arrived in California, until the mid 1800s from the perspective of what she called “a cost-benefit analysis.”
She posits that the only way the missions could succeed was for the local population to see enough possibility of gain from involvement with the missionaries to remain and engage. An alternate subtitle to Doti’s paper is “Why Did They Stay?”
Doti has presented her findings at several conferences and conventions and it is available in its entirety on the Chapman University’s Digital Commons.
Much of the prevailing historical narrative of the mission era centers on the subjugation, deaths from European diseases, and harsh treatment endured by Native Californians.
Yet, the missions were also responsible for the early development of a Western economy, technological advancement and prosperity and sustainability. They also ushered in modern agriculture and the introduction of fruit trees, including the first citrus orchard in 1804.
For all that was harsh about the missions, they provided reliable sources of food, clothing and permanent housing.
“While there were many negative aspects of mission life, virtually all the Coastal Native Californians willingly joined the missions and stayed,” Doti wrote. “Their continually increasing skills and trade with military outposts and passing ships provided the economic success of the missions.”
While recognizing the exploitation, Doti writes, “This paper examines what factors contributed to the growth of these communities. Of particular interest is what attracted, and more importantly, kept Native Californians as the labor force.”
The missions arose in 1769 and continued through the early 19th century before they were dismantled in the wake of Mexican independence, leaving only the parishes.
Missions, which would eventually stretch from San Diego to the San Francisco area, typically began with just a couple of priests and a handful of soldiers and indigenous workers from Baja. To survive they required local participation.
When Fr. Serra and his contingent journeyed north to California, which Juan Cabrillo had claimed for the crown in the 16th century, it was to ward off other European nations, evangelize the population and build sustainable communities.
To this end they offered regular meals in communal settings. The missionaries also had cloth and clothing that were prized by the indigenous people, as were beads and ribbon. Missionaries also offered education in Spanish language and Catholicism, and taught and used new technologies such as farming, weaving and leather making.
In her paper, Doti writes, “Serra saw nothing wrong with using gifts to lure Indians into what he called the ‘apostolic and evangelical net.’ Missionaries called this spiritual fishing and thought of themselves as ‘fishers of men.’”
However, there was little to work with.
“Their only resources for starting an economy were themselves, a few animals and a nearby source of water,” Doti wrote.
Because Alta California at the time was on the extreme frontier and distant from Spanish support systems, Doti said the new missions “were different than anything in Central and South America. They started with nothing.”
The tribes the missionaries encountered, particularly in Southern California, operated mostly on subsistence economies, according to Doti.
“They were fairly comfortable,” she said. “In Southern California you don’t need much.”
While Catholics sought to bring the light and salvation of Christianity to indigenous populations, their practices were harsh and, they believed, necessary.
Questions remain about the extent to which mission success was achieved by coercion or by offering a better way of life and a sense of community and God’s love.
At the height of the mission era, about 21,000 Mission Indians produced hide, tallow, wool and textiles. A trading system between communities, forts and passing ships sustained the colonial economy.
As for the suffering of indigenous peoples throughout the Americas, Pope Francis, who was born in Argentina, said, “I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offense of the Church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.”
Today, the surviving mission buildings are among the state’s most popular historic and cultural attractions and where the last physical vestiges of the mission era remain.