Catholic Missions Along the Anza Trail

Juan Batista de Anza was the first Spanish explorer, or any European for that matter, to traverse an overland route from Mexico, through the Sonoran Desert, to the Pacific coast of California which we now know as San Francisco. He performed an exploratory trip in 1774, and the next year he marched the trail once more in a colonizing trip. On his colonizing trip he took with him 245 people (155 women and children), 340 horses, 165 pack mules, 302 cattle, and Father Pedro Font ( Much like our own particular voyage, many of the nights were spent camping. Other nights were spent at the missions set up along the trail. The nature of these missions, pertaining to their purposes, past functions, and lasting effects will be the focus of this paper. I will limit my observations and analyses to the missions Father Font himself stayed at, as I will be drawing inferences from his personal journal. I will also make analogies from our own personal voyage in an attempt to understand and explain certain aspects of the Indian/mission relationship.
The goal of sending Spanish priests to set up missions was to turn Indians into Catholic people, loyal citizens and taxpayers. The idea of missions was not to push the Indians off the land entirely, but make an attempt to alter their culture in such a way that complied with that of Spain’s. In order to do this, some incentive was necessary. A mission needed something to draw Indians to it. Such enticements will be discussed when the missions’ particular functions are unfolded.
Missions had specific purposes in the minds of the Native Americans, as well. Indians lived entirely off the land. This limited Indians to a lifestyle consisting of periods of plenty and periods of starvation, as seasonal changes hit them hard. The lifestyle on the mission offered Indians a system where food was available year round. Observations have shown that such a system was much more appealing to the Indians. Besides the obviousness of the delights in avoiding periods of starvation, there have been several Indians who, upon coming to the missions, have literally killed themselves by rupturing their stomachs from eating too much at the mission at Tumacacori set up by Father Kino (learned from a guided tour at Tumacacori).. While this story sounds gruesome and unpleasant, it shows with little doubt the desperation from Indians for the service provided by the mission.
An anecdote from our personal journey on this trail helped me to better relate to a personal problem I had been having with the Indian’s seemingly eager attitude to altar an already well-formed culture, rich in traditions. Could the desire for food, as expressed by the story of the ruptured stomachs at Tumacacori, really be enough to risk crippling one’s own culture? From a psychological standpoint, I was able to sympathize with the Indians near betrayal of some of their customs. Early in our trip, there was a day we had packed very lightly for a long day. We came to our host’s house that night starving and exhausted. Our host was a unique individual, with several theories on diet and hygiene with would without doubt be deemed strange by most people (more importantly for the point of this story, something we all would and later on did consider ridiculous). But for whatever reason, the thought of washing one’s hair with eggs, gaining weight simply to lose it yet produce more skin oil, and eating a diet of nothing but raw food did not cause one person in our group to raise en eyebrow that evening. Later on in the trip we had a good laugh, but that night we just accepted the customs. Despite following in Anza’a footsteps, that night I believe we most related to the Indians. I felt the feeling of starvation and would believe anything from the person who would ease this pain. I sympathized with the Indians in the time of starvation, which for them was not one long day, but seasons at a time, and began to understand how one can indeed altar one’s beliefs when their human needs are in danger.
Indians have shown on their behalf an open-minded attitude to a blend of culture. They eagerly learned Catholic ways and incorporated them into their own culture. Often they would line up to great Font and Anza as they approached, inquiring as to whether or not they would be baptized. A particular quote on a plaque at San Xavier from a traveling Padre who ended up at the mission there expressed the Indian enthusiasm at the Europeans’ arrival.
“I went one league south-southwest and reached the dwelling of the Captain of these Rancherias. He gave me a string of white seashells that was about two yards long. His wife sprinkled me with acorns and threw the basket, which is a sign of marked attention. Then she brought out some seashells and sprinkled me with them as if she were tossing flowers. I responded in the best way I could, astonished that among such rustic people there should be so expressive a show of feeling as their pouring out the shells that are their greatest treasure” (Father Francisco Garces, 1775, read on a plaque at San Xavier).
We have evidence suggesting that the red carpet that appears to have been laid out so nicely for the Europeans was not necessarily the case. While staying with a host at the Cary Ranch, a region rich in history pertaining to both the Anza journey and the Chumashe Indians, we heard stories of recent bitterness towards practically anything European. Land which was rightfully signed over to Cary had been in danger of having property which had belonged to Indians generations upon generations ago stolen. Also, at an Indian conference which dealt with such issues, our host (a white male) was literally the only person to receive no food. Such bitterness seems awfully hypocritical for a people whose ancestors welcomed the Spanish so eagerly. This directly contrasts with evidence in Pedro Font’s diary which explains how they dove into the water to save a potential raft catastrophe (Font, 125). However, since Indian history is almost complete oral, we can only make hypotheses and nothing more as to the extent of the welcoming relationship that existed between the Indians and the Spanish.
This eagerness was not at all matched by Font and other Padres. While they allowed the cultural blend to an extent, an acceptance of Indian ideas was considered nothing less than preposterous. Font concluded that the Indian stories and legends were nothing but fictional fables except for those which made mention of the Catholic faith. He made this point particular clear regarding La Casa Grande de Moctezuma.
“We were accompanied by several Indians and by the governor of Uturitue, who told us on the way a tale and traditions regarding the house, handed down from their forefathers, all of which is nothing but fables mixed confusedly with truths of the catholic faith” (Font, 19).

Padre Kino would refer to the Indian lifestyle as “Heathen Vagabondage,” as quoted inside the walls of the San Xavier mission. Indian history consisted of oral traditions passed on from generations. As there was no written history, much of their culture remains wrapped in mystery. One of the greatest of such mysteries was the “Great House,” a giant structure of stone created by the Hohokum Indians.

Casa Grande ruins

History such as this would be clearer if such traditions were not cast aside as ridiculous by Europeans such as Father Font. Clearly, the motive to embrace new cultures was not that which compelled the construction of missions for the Spanish.
As previously mentioned, the Anza journey in 1775 was one of colonization. Land that was already decreed to be Spain’s was attracting Russian and English interests. The Spanish government was troubled by this competition and looked to the missions to strengthen their foothold in Arizona and California. It was deemed necessary to establish colonies on this land to ensure its security to Spain. Thus, missions were set up to create a relationship with the Native Americans such that enforcement of the land for the Spanish empire could be provided. However, land-hungry Spaniards did not make up the entire motive for setting up missions. Padres who devoted their lives to God and spent them on the missions had a deeper religious motive. They did indeed desire to spread Catholicism to the “heathenness” Indians so that they might save their souls. Often in Font’s diary he would refer to the Indians in terms of their soul, implying a genuine interest in their well-being.
“Imagine Natives surprise to hear land they lived on for centuries didn’t ‘belong’ to them anymore” (quoted on a plaque at San Xavier Mission). This sentiment is one which does not sit well with many people, particularly the Native Americans today. So one is forced to wonder how the Europeans validated moving in on land which was clearly occupied. On our journey, we were lucky enough to spend a night to spend a night with Don Garate, an Anza specialist, interpreter, and occasionally impersonator. He dressed as Anza and offered us the opportunity to ask questions. When I asked how he felt himself and other Europeans felt they had the right to claim land which obviously had a culture of people who dwelled upon it, he merely looked at me dumbfounded and replied, “Because the Pope decreed it so” (Don Garate, interview). It is difficult to look back on such a decree happening simultaneously with the tension of the land’s ownership with any degree of skepticism. In any event, to conclude as many people do that Anza and his colonizers stole the land rightfully belonging to the Indians without a noble cause is without grounds. The Pope received his decrees from God himself, and there was no more noble a cause then spreading the word of God.
Missions can be described as a mix of religious desires and political aims. With the causes and purposes of how Missions came to be, I will now proceed to analyze them in structure and function. One of the great incentives which drew Indians to the missions initially was the great, beautiful gardens outside. Many exotic plants grew within these gardens, most of which cleverly had significant meaning to the Indians. Within the garden of Tumacacori grew the yana gua plant, pears, Vienna waitz, and others. At the San Luis Obispo de Tolesa mission garden you could find many varieties of plants with significance to Indians ranging from medicinal purposes, spiritual, useful for tools, and those which were known to be most appreciated in beauty by the Indians, as they had an unusually deep respect for nature.
The design of the mission was intended to express beauty in order to attract Indians. Within its walls, and even outside of them, contains evidence concerning how life worked upon the mission and the relations between the settlers and Indians. The structure often depended on the resources available and certain other factors. For instance, the Tumacacori mission was built from Ponderosa beams which were only available in the mountains. It was a grueling task to bring the beams down; on account of the strenuous physical task it proved to be, as well as the Indian tribe known as the Apache, who survived on raiding. Many attacks were endured upon the mission, which is why the necessity for such sturdy walls was essential. The mortar for many of the desert missions was made from a blend of cactus juice, water, and sand. Missions could only be constructed with whatever resources were available in the particular location they were setup.
There were several essential rooms found within all of the missions in our travels. The first responsibility of any mission is building a church. The sanctuary within each mission was the most splendorous, elegant room of the mission. Indians were awe-struck when they entered by the beautiful paintings on the ceilings and walls. The religious art strove for realism and naturalism. Statues were created with real hair, teeth, glass eyes, and they were clothes to create a real effect. Mysticism was incorporated in these paintings to appeal to the Indians own sense of beliefs. The reason for such intricate attention to beauty was for religious purposes and drawing the Indians to the Catholic way. This was done in a way to emulate the great Spain cathedrals.

Inside Tumacacori church


Outside Tumacacori church
The second greatest rooms were also used completely for monastic purposes. Reading and discussing the Catholic faith and morals took place in these large rooms. Books were some of the very few possessions among the settlers on the mission. Similar rooms were set aside for receiving and entertaining fellow friars, military men, and other various travelers. Within these religion based rooms, Father Kino would allow some Indian traditions to be practiced alongside those of Catholicism, creating an agreeable blend of culture amongst all parties. Most missions had their own metal shop. Metal was shaped to create symbols which expressed the Catholic faith. Sewing rooms were also common. Sewing was the only solely female job, and they created vestments to be worn and embroidered cloth for religious functions. The colors the priesthood would symbolize the religious occasion or season. Each mission had a sacristy, or a robbing room for the priests and their assistants.
Life on the missions was difficult with absolutely no luxuries. The mission was a self-sustaining life-form. Everything eaten on the mission was also grown on that very mission. Animals killed for meat had every part used. Bones and antlers were carved into flutes, knives, and spoons. Skins were used for clothing for the Indians. With the surplus of food needed to survive came the need for a great deal of labor. A grainery was located somewhere in close proximity to the kitchen and the dining room to store the surplus of food need to feed all of the people through the whole year. Indians had acquired an amazing ability to use nature for tools and art. Grains, acorns, spices and corn were grinded on grinding stones, or “pestles,” into slabs of rock with holes carved out, or “morteros.” This fashion of preparing food was a tradition taken directly from the Indians and incorporated into mission life.

Me grinding corn on a mortero

Their excellent basket making skills were also utilized in such fashions. These baskets were so well done that they served purposes such as sifting seeds, cooking foods, collecting plants, and even carrying water. Food was stored in large clay pots, often made by the Indians themselves, being such excellent artisans. The “kitchen,” or room where the food was prepared, was often referred to as the pozoleria, named after the beef stew which was predominately the dinner prepared. This room contained some storage areas and a stove. Approximately 50 cattle were slaughtered per week. While the mixing of cultures functioned appropriately on the mission, those soldiers who stayed at the mission would often swindle Indians out of there skillfully created tools. They were manipulated into handing many of their baskets, pots, wooden plates, and others in exchange for mere beads.
Each mission also had a cemetery. Each cemetery had unmarked graves. Travelers who died along the trail were buried there, as well as Indians who lived on the mission and the priesthood. It was the single most indiscriminate, unified part of the mission, or any of the unsettled land. The refusal to mark these graves added to that effect, creating an aura of equality that lay over the dead.

San Xavier cemetery

These missions along the Juan Batista de Anza trail are no longer functional in the same sense that they were in the 1700’s and 1800’s. However, many continue to function in some sense. The mission at Tumacacori is a national monument. It is funded by the government to be restored. This is a rare occurrence for a mission, however, due to difficulty in drawing the line between government and religion. Restoration for many of these missions began in small steps. The idea reached surface during the Great Depression, when jobs were of a great scarcity. Restoring these missions became a government funded project at that time, which worked well for a while until the division between church and state proved to be such a necessity. Many missions are still functional churches today. The mission at San Luis Obispo is a functional church today. The mission at San Xavier has been an active church from 1692 until this very day. Neither of these churches is funded in any way by the government, in order to keep the separation with religion clear. Keeping the churches active is an important part of the local culture. As the mission’s job was to convert people to the Catholic way of life, it has naturally filled these areas with an unusually large amount of Catholic citizens. The task of keeping the missions restored and thus history alive then falls on the shoulders of the citizens.
A detailed account of the modern restoration process was provided at the mission at San Xavier. First a coalition of citizens needed to ban together and petition to conserve the mission. Conserving a mission proves to be a very intricate and daunting task. There are two basic rules for conservation. The first of which is the rule of minimal intervention. Work is done in only so much effort as to restore the mission. Tampering and changing too much can defeat the purpose of the entire process. The other crucial rule is respecting the integrity of the art. The plaster mentioned earlier used to create the mortar for desert missions is incredibly similar to that used to restore missions. Restoring the artwork on the mission walls was the task which called for the most precision. An artist had to step out of character for this job, as it must be remembered that this is not an original work of theirs being restored. The job consists of taking a needle and injecting adhesive into individualized flakes of paint. This relaxes the flakes and allows them to mold back into their original form, even after hundreds of years. The particular conservation project, for which I got most of my information from, Project San Xavier, began in 1989. The mission at San Juan Batista was improved upon by students at California State University, Monterey Bay. These missions and others depend on donations to continue their process of restoring.
Missions molded and shaped a great deal of the way life is lived in Arizona and California. It has become so important to the people in California that all public schools now have their fourth grade students prepare a research report on a mission. Controversial as their effects may be, missions offered shelter to pioneers, a new faith and way of life to Indians, blended cultures. Much of modern life on the west coast can be attributed in some sense to the missions that were set up as far back as the 1600’s. Their restoration keeps a part of history alive and offers us a view into the world as it was hundreds of years ago and helps us make sense of the world today.