The Spanish missionaries, arriving in what they called "Alta California" in the late eighteenth century, brought a different conception of time and of the relationship between humans and nature. Their goal, in setting up a string of twenty one missions along the coast from San Diego to Santa Rosa, was to establish a military and religious basis for empire. For the Franciscan missionaries, the Native Americans, like nature itself, were there to serve the goals of God and Empire. The Spanish originally envisioned the process taking ten years, during which they would enroll the Indians in the church, teach them in the missions how to work in various occupations, and then release them into the new economy outside the missions as laborers.
Above all, the missionaries saw in the converted Native American population a workforce for the Church and the Spanish economy. By working the "neophytes", as they were called in the missions, 30 to 40 hours per week, they would create the basis for the missions' survival. The surplus (everything beyond what was needed for subsistence) could be traded and sold to build the wealth of the missions and Spain. It was assumed that the Native Americans--viewed as simple and childlike creatures--would eagerly embrace their place in the Spanish empire.
Understandably, the Indians were not quite so eager to participate in the Spanish plan as its principal architects, such as Padre Junipero Serra, imagined. While some were recruited through theatrical church ceremonies conducted in the villages by the Franciscans, most converts in the early years of the missions were forcibly captured by Spanish soldiers. Once inside the mission, the Native Americans were not allowed to leave. Typically, the Spanish did not consider this to be the same as imprisonment, since the mission system supposedly would be over with in a decade, by which time all the Indians would be converted and released. As a fur trapper observed, "The greater part of the Indians were brought from their native mountains against their own inclinations, and by compulsion, and then baptized; which act was as little voluntary on their part, as the former had been. After these preliminaries, they had been put to work, as converted Indians."
All the work in the missions, according to both European observers and reports by the Native Americans themselves, was performed by the Indians. Getting them to adjust to working required strict regimentation and often harsh discipline. In contrast to their lives outside the mission, the missionized "neophyte" Native Americans lived in an atmosphere of repression and rigid intolerance, and the work they performed was forced labor.
Unlike slaves in the southern United States at the same time, Native Americans did not work twelve or fourteen hour days in the missions: they were not literally worked to death. But the strict regulation of the day by the padres, reinforced by punishments for breaking the rules, ran completely counter to the cultural traditions of the Native Americans, as did the separation of men and women into different living quarters. The Spanish structured their days into a rigid schedule announced by Church bells. The Native Americans had no conception of linear time; it made no sense to them to live or work that way. Consequently punishments for ignoring routine were frequent, and often severe. According to Julio Cesar, who years later recalled his life as a neophyte, "When I was a boy the treatment given to the Indians at the mission was not good at all. They did not pay us anything, but merely gave us food and a breechclout and blanket, the last renewed every year, besides flogging for any fault, however slight. We were at the mercy of the administrator, who ordered us to be flogged whenever and however he took notion."
By using Native American labor, the padres created surplus food supplies, which the missions traded with the presidios (military stockades) and with foreign ships for finished goods. But while the mission storerooms held grains, vegetables, dairy products, and fruit and wine, the neophytes were fed an absurdly inadequate mush made of oatmeal or cornmeal. Hunger and even starvation--was often cited by runaways from the missions as their reason for escaping.
Malnutrition, coupled with punishments for infractions of rules they only barely understood, weakened the Native Americans' resistance to disease. In their traditional villages, the nomadic Indians would simply burn down their always-temporary homes and move nearby to establish new ones to deal with flea infestations or disease. In the missions, men and women, forced to live in permanent buildings, suffered from dirt, crowding and unsanitary conditions without recourse, which in turn facilitated the spread of European diseases, against which the Native Americans had no natural immunities.
These factors--forced labor, diet, disease, living conditions--all contributed to a very high death rate and equally low birth rate. In other words, mission life was the equivalent of a slow death sentence for the California Native American population, which by 1834 when the missions closed their doors had been reduced to about one third of its original size.