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Missions minutiae

Pictured here in an 1865 drawing by Edward Vischa, Mission San Luis Rey de Francia was one of 21 Spanish missions in California. (Photo/Courtesy of the USC Libraries’ Title Insurance and Trust, and C.C. Pierce Photography Collection)

Founded between 1769 and 1823 as colonial outposts of the Spanish empire, California’s missions are among the state’s most celebrated historical landmarks. Constructing a mission model is a rite of passage for some California schoolchildren, and the actual historic structures — most of them easily accessible from Highway 101 — attract millions of visitors each year.

Before they were tourist destinations, the missions served as the linchpin of Spain’s colonization program that blocked Russia and Britain’s territorial ambitions in Alta California. Locating their outposts near heavy concentrations of native settlements, Franciscan missionaries would recruit the province’s indigenous people to Christianity. The new converts then provided the manual labor — often under forced conditions — that turned most missions into enormously profitable enterprises.

Though the missions themselves are important testaments to the past, one’s understanding of how they shaped California history would be incomplete without records of the minutiae of everyday life.

Consisting of 21 separate documents, the USC Libraries’ Collection of California Missions Inventories, Reports and Other Materials provides a window into the economic and social realities at five different missions: San Gabriel Arcángel, San Buenaventura, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and Santa Inés.

The collection records the history of the Santa Cruz Mission in particularly rich detail. One document provides gross salary information for the mission, while an 1804 letter outlines the rules for marriage. Annual reports by the mission fathers provide inventories of crops and saddle animals, and counts of native inhabitants, as well as births, deaths and marriages.

Such archival documents have helped contemporary scholars challenge the romanticized visions of mission life most famously promoted by John Steven McGroarty’s The Mission Play. At San Gabriel, for example, records indicate that mean life expectancy at birth was a mere 6.4 years. Missionaries practiced corporal punishment, and converts who left the mission were considered fugitives.

All of the documents but one — a 1791 annual report out of the Santa Cruz Mission, apparently translated in the 20th century — are written in Spanish. Many bear the signatures of prominent Spanish and Mexican-era Californians, including rancher and military commander Andrés Pico.

The collection also includes the conversion statement of Henrique Gilte, who gave up the Protestant faith of his parents for Roman Catholicism at Santa Clara Mission in 1839.

For more information about the collection, contact Dace Taube of the USC Libraries’ Special Collections at or (213) 821-2366.

Missions minutiae

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