Spanish and French Exploration

Mission System

As the Spanish empire spread over the southern portion of the present-day United States, the mission system was developed to facilitate colonial expansion and to pacify the Indians. Catholic priests and friars ventured into remote areas to build missions where they worked side-by-side with the Indians planting crops, hunting game, and preaching Christianity. The missionaries also taught the Indians about Spanish culture, including language, arts and crafts, and politics.

Each mission typically included a chapel for religious services; housing for the Indians, missionaries, and guests; merchant shops; and storage buildings. Protective walls were constructed around the premises to guard against attacks. Outside the walls, the mission owned thousands of acres of land for farming or pasturing herds of cattle and sheep.

The mission system also included a presidio, or fort, to protect those associated with the mission from hostile Indians or European rivals. Soldiers stationed at the presidios recovered runaways, served as a policing force within the community, and taught the resident Indians a variety of military skills.

After five or ten years, the mission land typically was given to the converted Indians and the mission chapel became the parish church. The Indians were given full Spanish citizenship, including the right to pay taxes. The sizeable mission system also helped the Spanish protect their empire. Once the Indians were Christianized and accepted into Spanish culture, they were trained in European warfare. The network of missions allowed the Spanish to quickly extend their presence in the New World.

As the mission system grew, the Spanish priests sought more control over the Indians and their culture. The missionaries destroyed objects deemed sacred by the Indians and suppressed their ancient spiritual rituals and ceremonial dances. After several decades in the mission system, many Indians resented the treatment they received by the Spanish missionaries and soldiers and revolted.

In 1680, a native leader named Popé organized a massive rebellion that included more than 17,000 Indians from many villages across hundreds of miles. The Indians drove the Spanish out of New Mexico, killing missionaries, burning churches, and destroying relics of Christianity. It took the Spanish military fourteen years to reestablish control over the region. Except for a few sporadic Indian raids, the mission system continued to grow and prosper throughout Florida, Texas and California.