Spanish Missions

By: Robert E. Wright, O.M.I.

Type: Overview Entry

Published: February 1, 1996

The Spanish mission was a frontier institution that sought to incorporate indigenous people into the Spanish colonial empire, its Catholic religion, and certain aspects of its Hispanic culture through the formal establishment or recognition of sedentary Indian communities entrusted to the tutelage of missionaries under the protection and control of the Spanish state. This joint institution of indigenous communities and the Spanish church and state was developed in response to the often very detrimental results of leaving the Hispanic control of relations with Indians on the expanding frontier to overly enterprising civilians and soldiers. This had resulted too often in the abuse and even enslavement of the Indians and a heightening of antagonism. To the degree that the mission effort succeeded, it furthered the Spanish goals of political, economic, and religious expansion in America in competition with other European-origin nations. Spanish colonial authorities enjoyed the patronato real (royal patronage) over ecclesiastical affairs, granted to the Spanish crown by the pope. As patrons the state authorities made the final determination as to where and when missions would be founded or closed, what administrative policies would be observed, who could be missionaries, how many missionaries could be assigned to each mission, and how many soldiers if any would be stationed at a mission. In turn, the state paid for the missionaries' overseas travel, the founding costs of a mission, and the missionaries' annual salary. The state also usually provided military protection and enforcement.

Franciscans from several of their provinces and missionary colleges in New Spain established all the missions in Texas. The ideal of the missionaries themselves, supported by royal decrees, was to establish autonomous Christian towns with communal property, labor, worship, political life, and social relations all supervised by the missionaries and insulated from the possible negative influences of other Indian groups and Spaniards themselves. Daily life was to follow a highly organized routine of prayer, work, training, meals, and relaxation, punctuated by frequent religious holidays and celebrations. In this closely supervised setting the Indians were expected to mature in Christianity and Spanish political and economic practices until they would no longer require special mission status. Then their communities could be incorporated as such into ordinary colonial society, albeit with all its racial and class distinctions. This transition from official mission status to ordinary Spanish society, when it occurred in an official manner, was called "secularization." In this official transaction, the mission's communal properties were privatized, the direction of civil life became a purely secular affair, and the direction of church life was transferred from the missionary religious orders to the Catholic diocesan church. Although colonial law specified no precise time for this transition to take effect, increasing pressure for the secularization of most missions developed in the last decades of the eighteenth century.

Colonial authorities and Franciscan missionaries attempted to introduce the mission system into widely scattered areas of Texas between 1682 and 1793, with greatly varying results. In all, twenty-six missions were maintained for different lengths of time within the future boundaries of the state. To this number should be added San Miguel de los Adaes (the easternmost colonial Texas outpost, which was later incorporated into Louisiana) and those missionary centers established in Mexico whose influence extended into Texas. Although most of these missions fell short of their goal, several had relative success, and all played a key role in establishing the European and mixed-race foundations of Texas. In general the missionaries sought to eradicate among missionized natives all appearances of indigenous religion and culture judged to be incompatible with or inferior to Christian beliefs and practices. However, some of the more experienced friars learned to tolerate if not encourage certain group practices originally associated with native religion, such as the matachines dances or even mitotes (native celebrations with dancing and possibly peyote), when they judged them to be relatively free of elements inadmissible in Christianity. Although the missionary strategy was to maintain as strict a vigilance as possible over the life of the missionized natives, most Indian groups in Texas were seminomadic and did not intend to adopt a year-round fixed sedentary existence, even if they voluntarily entered a mission for a time. This was especially evident when the customary seasons for food—gathering, hunting, fishing, trading, or skirmishing arrived. Furthermore, few Indians could have welcomed the strong regimentation of mission life, almost along monastic lines, favored by the missionaries. The effort to develop permanent indigenous mission communities was also severely hampered by the impact of periodic European-transmitted epidemics on Indian groups, which usually had slow rates of natural increase. Many mission communities were only maintained by constant new recruitment, with missionaries ranging farther and farther afield as local populations declined (see HEALTH AND MEDICINE).

In such circumstances, the Franciscans needed a few soldiers to maintain the mission system of continued residence and strict discipline, especially among newer recruits. Soldiers were either stationed at the mission or sent out to help bring back individuals or entire groups that left. The Spanish colonization of Texas did not involve outright military conquest as a general rule, nor were people forced into entering missions. But once they entered, coercion was used when judged appropriate. Sometimes officials refused to provide such military help. In later decades Spanish civilians were at times hired as work supervisors, especially when military guards were no longer made available. On the other hand, at more solidly established mission communities such as San José y San Miguel de Aguayo, Indians themselves served as mission guards. At San José and elsewhere were Indians who preferred the benefits of permanent settlement in a mission community. A related factor in the occasional abandonment of missions by their Indian residents was the inability of the Spaniards at times to guarantee protection from raids by Apaches and subsequently Comanches in the later 1700s. The military protection represented by the soldiers was one of the principal attractions of the missions to many Indians. This protection was essential to any foundation in such a vast territory as Texas, which was inhabited by several powerful and often belligerent tribes. And yet throughout most of the century the colonial government sought to economize by reducing its military presence in Texas. It was argued, and not without reason, that greatly increased Hispanic settlement would be a more effective and economical way of asserting control over the territory. But increased settlement was never effectively promoted except along the lower Rio Grande and in the El Paso area. Nowhere in Texas were the small and scattered settlements and missions free from attack. In the stronger mission towns Indian groups served very effectively as Spanish allies in the defense of their mutual home territory.

The Franciscan mission ideal of an insulated and highly controlled indigenous town was also challenged by the necessary interchange that occurred with Hispanics at adjacent military posts or civil settlements and ranches. In the frontier society and economy, limited resources—of land, labor, produce, artisans, armed defenders—were either shared or disputed among these various parties, and the indigenous people were very much a part of the total social reality. In times of common adversity or external threat, all worked together for the common good. At other times disputes over resources or rights would flare up. However, the challenges of constructing a viable community on a dangerous frontier would usually encourage gradual accommodation. The Franciscans themselves were often responsible, especially in the earlier decades, not only for the supervision of the mission community but also for the spiritual care of the local Spanish. Furthermore, the Spanish would often attend religious services at a nearby mission even if they had a separate church and perhaps even a separate pastor for themselves. In the initial founding decades the missions often held the economic advantage on the local scene, where they sometimes held extensive grants of choice land and a controlled labor supply, plus good administrators. If the mission prospered materially, its surplus helped supply the military establishments. In later decades, while the civilian population increased through birth, immigration, and the retirement of local soldier-settlers into civilian life, the Indian mission population was often decreasing. In some places the civilians found their community expansion hemmed in by the mission lands, at the same time that they were being recruited to help keep the mission economies productive. These latter circumstances increased local Hispanic pressure for secularization of the mission properties.

The Franciscans came closest to establishing their ideal system among the hundreds of Indian groups generally known as Coahuiltecans, who lived in the semiarid southern plains of what is now Texas. These small nonallied groups of seminomads, some of which were not in fact Coahuiltecan, had a subsistence economy of hunting and gathering and were weaker militarily than both the Spanish and the encroaching warlike Indians. The missions promised them military protection and a regular, more ample food supply. In some cases the mission also provided protection from exploitation by Spanish soldiers and civilians. On the other hand, because of their seminomadic inclinations, their slow rate of natural increase, epidemics, inadequate military protection, and alternatives offered by neighboring Spaniards, mission towns were maintained only by continual recruitment to counteract steady population decline.

From 1718 through 1731 five missions which drew their members from mostly weaker groups were established near the head of the San Antonio River. The first was San Antonio de Valero, which dated from the origins of the settlement. It was followed by San José y San Miguel de Aguayo, Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción, San Juan Capistrano, and San Francisco de la Espada. In varying degrees, these foundations developed as true missionary-directed indigenous towns, whose material success was evident in their churches, dwellings, granaries, workshops, irrigated fields, ranches and livestock, and a regulated social and religious life. The San Antonio settlement comprised the missions, San Antonio de Béxar Presidio, and the town of San Fernando de Béxar. The area was developed enough that the missions had protection and resources to develop their own stability within a gradually coalescing community. However, the immediate proximity of the town and presidio obliged the Franciscans to engage in a losing battle to maintain strict control over the missionized Indians' relations with their neighbors. By the later 1700s the permanent Indian residents of the San Antonio missions were speaking Spanish, living as devoted Catholics, and even intermarrying with the local Hispanics. Other Indians, both local and from elsewhere, had become part of the town itself.

Two smaller Hispanic settlement complexes in the areas of present-day South and Southwest Texas also recruited among generally weaker Indian groups. The first of these began along what is now the Mexican side of the middle Rio Grande in 1700–02, when the missions of San Juan Bautista and San Bernardo were founded, together with a military post. The second, which became colloquially known as La Bahía, had a frustrating beginning near the Gulf Coast in 1722, when the mission of Nuestra Señora del Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga and an accompanying fort were founded. The La Bahía effort continued to struggle economically during its first decade (1726–36) at a new location on the lower Guadalupe River. Until adequate agriculture was finally established, the shortage of food obliged the missionaries to allow the Indians to absent themselves for their customary foraging for the greater part of the year. The La Bahía complex was finally located permanently on the lower San Antonio River in 1749. A few years later Nuestra Señora del Rosario Mission was founded across the river, primarily for Karankawas. Although the Indian towns at San Juan Bautista and La Bahía had mission structures, economies, and regimes similar to those at San Antonio, they achieved less stability and assimilation. With the exception of Rosario Mission, they had several decades of material prosperity and actually endured, although in a greatly weakened condition, past the Mexican War of Independence, which ended in 1821. But they were always confronted with episodes of temporary or permanent abandonment by some or all of the Indians for whom they were established. These two mission efforts were described in the 1790s as never having succeeded in attracting the Indians to true Christian conversion and loyalty to the Spanish state. As in other similar cases, the Indians were often described as unwilling to work and given to drunkenness and stealing. These Spanish assessments clearly indicated resistance to assimilation on the part of these groups.

Two other mid-century attempts to expand Spanish presence into Central and Southeast Texas through similar mission-fort establishments were also directed mostly to the less powerful Indian groups. But the effort at the San Xavier MissionsSan Francisco Xavier de Horcasitas, San Ildefonso, and Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria—lasted only from 1746 to 1755. This mission attempt fell victim to a multitude of obstacles: hostile Indians, the opposition of the governor, inadequate military protection and even serious misconduct on the part of the military, the seminomadic inclinations of the groups gathered there, and finally adverse weather. The few remaining missionized Indians and the friars moved temporarily to the San Marcos River for a year, and then to the Guadalupe River in 1756–58 (see SAN FRANCISCO XAVIER MISSION ON THE GUADALUPE RIVER), after which this effort was finally abandoned.

The Nuestra Señora de la Luz Mission, founded near the mouth of the Trinity River in 1756, was beset by unhealthful coastal conditions, official indecision, inadequate support in the early years, and, most decisively, shifting colonial frontier strategies that led to the mission's demise after only fifteen years. Though never apparently resulting in a missionary-controlled village, Our Lady of Light seemed to have friendly relations with the local Orcoquiza Indians and perhaps even brought about several conversions among them. When military strategy dictated that the Spanish abandon the area, the Franciscans did so very reluctantly, while the natives pleaded for them to stay.

Most of the Indians along the lower Rio Grande were also weak, and some were already accustomed to doing seasonal migrant labor for the Spanish in nearby Nuevo León and Coahuila. But in this case colonial advisors in Mexico City successfully argued that new territory could be more effectively and economically occupied by promoting Spanish settlements with attached missions, rather than the former strategy of missions protected by forts. Accordingly, a major colonizing project that began there in 1749 put primary emphasis on towns, with only secondary attention to the mission efforts. Franciscans were recruited as missionaries and officially installed as such, and they were simultaneously appointed pastors to the settlements. It quickly became apparent to them that the Spanish civilians and officials as well as the Indians generally favored a loose attachment (agregación) of the natives to the Hispanic towns, which allowed for more flexible economic and social relations on both sides. This arrangement ran directly counter to the Franciscan ideal of the missionary-controlled, sedentary, and insulated indigenous community (congregación). Nevertheless, in some places, and most notably in Camargo (with jurisdiction extending into Texas), the Franciscans learned to adapt their mission approach to this situation. As a result several local Indian groups such as the Carrizos and Garzas became Christian and assimilated in varying degrees to Hispanic society.

The native groups of the southern Gulf Coast of Texas, known collectively as Karankawas, were somewhat stronger in their economy and defense than their immediate neighbors, and from the beginning they accepted only temporary or seasonal mission life. The original La Bahía Mission in 1722 in the Karankawas' own territory had foundered on this reality. And Rosario Mission, established for the Karankawas in 1754 at the final site of La Bahía, although materially sound, faced the same challenge. This and a strong nativist indigenous leader led to Rosario's temporary abandonment in 1781. When the mission was reactivated in late 1789, the Franciscan missionary effort was encountering weakened state support. Acknowledging this fact and by now quite familiar with the Karankawas' independent ways, the experienced friars accepted from the beginning a much looser social organization adapted to the Karankawas' seminomadic customs. These provided the two important things the mission could no longer guarantee: adequate food and defense through mobility in the face of hostile raids. In 1793 Nuestra Señora del Refugio, the last mission founded in Texas, was established for the Karankawas. Refugio Mission employed the same flexible approach. In 1805 Rosario was closed, although not officially secularized, when the few remaining Karankawas associated with it were transferred to Refugio Mission as their base. This alternative missionary approach was credited with converting certain of the Karankawas to at least some Christian ways.

In other areas of what is now Texas the Franciscans were forced to accept even greater adaptations to their preferred mission system. Such was the case in the first mission villages to be established within the boundaries of future Texas, those far to the west in the El Paso district. In 1682 the Indian mission towns of Corpus Christi de la Isleta, Nuestra Señora de la Limpia Concepción de Socorro, and San Antonio de Senecú (this last site is now within Mexico, not Texas) were founded by Tigua, Piro, Tompiro, and Tanoan people who had accompanied the Spanish in flight from the Pueblo Revolt in northern New Mexico. These Indians brought with them a highly developed cultural organization. Just as in their former towns to the north, the local Indian authorities, with the approval of Spanish officials, retained control over the economic and political life of their communities. In spite of the missionaries' protests, the friars were only granted spiritual jurisdiction. For a few decades there was also a mission effort among the Suma people gathered at Santa María de las Caldas in the El Paso district. Although this community was officially entrusted to secular pastors from 1730 to 1749, the Franciscans claimed that they actually had to do all the work since the pastors stayed in the distant town of El Paso itself. Living side by side with their Spanish neighbors in these new settlements, the Indian mission communities were open villages (like several other missions in what is now Texas), not the walled fortresses often portrayed as the sole mission model. By the nineteenth century the social interchange in these increasingly mixed Indian and Spanish towns resulted in complete Christianization and a great deal of cultural assimilation. Only the Tiguas of Ysleta retained a distinct ethnic identity, but even they were primarily Spanish-speaking and acculturated in many ways.

There were also several Indian groups at La Junta de los Ríos, the junction of the Rio Grande and the Río Conchos near the site of present Presidio in far West Texas. In the later 1600s members of these groups began engaging on their own terms in a continuing system of migrant labor and military alliance with Spaniards residing in the Conchos River district of Mexico to the south. Through these contacts many La Juntans gained a great deal of familiarity with Christianity. In 1683 some of them invited Franciscans to live among them. Among the chapels they built were those on the future Texas side of the Rio Grande in the villages of San Cristóbal and of the Tapalcolmes. Unaccompanied by military or Hispanic settlers, the missionaries had to flee several times in the next few years due to regional revolts. When missions were reestablished in 1715, again without military guards or settlers, the friars found the people well-behaved but independent. Periodic attacks of Apaches and other tribes again forced the Franciscans and some natives to flee at times. The missionaries finally began to ask for a garrison and Spanish settlers, but to no avail. As a practical response some friars apparently adopted the practice of staying at La Junta only part of the year and spending the rest in the new town of Chihuahua. Through this unique missionary approach, adapted to a proud semimigrant population and lasting three-quarters of a century, many La Juntans apparently accepted an Indian-controlled process of Christianization. Several nearby tribes pressured by Apache hostilities eventually joined the La Junta settlements and also entered into this process. The La Juntans were insistent that they did not want a Spanish fort or settlement established in their midst. The friars wanted a garrison, but at a respectable distance from the settlements. In late 1759, however, Presidio del Norte was built in the very heart of the settlements. The Spanish post that developed there with its own assigned chaplain quickly replaced the separate mission effort as many Indians abandoned the district. The garrison was briefly moved elsewhere but then reestablished again. Any indigenous La Juntans who remained in the district soon disappeared as distinct ethnic groups, absorbed into the Hispanic society.

Still other Indian groups in Texas were large and powerful, with well-developed trade systems or wide-ranging activities that gave them alternative access through French Louisiana and later the United States to those European goods, including firearms, that they most desired. As the number of permanent Spanish military forces in the area was reduced during most of the crucial eighteenth century, the Spanish adopted the French Indian policy, which called for developing alliances with the stronger Indian groups through trade or pacts against common enemies. Mission efforts in such circumstances, most notably among the agriculturally self-sufficient Caddos in East Texas, never succeeded in establishing permanent resident Indian congregations under missionary control or in garnering many converts. An initial attempt along the Neches River in 1690–93 at the missions of San Francisco de los Tejas and Santísimo Nombre de María failed miserably. In 1716–17 a mission again named San Francisco was reestablished in the same area, and five new missions were founded stretching eastward: Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de los Hainais (later Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Acuña), San José de los Nazonis, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe in Nacogdoches, Nuestra Señora de los Dolores de los Ais, and San Miguel de Linares de los Adaes (in what is now Louisiana). But these centers never consisted of much more than a modest chapel, a missionary residence, and a few dwellings built hopefully for Indians. Relations based upon trade and military alliance offered these Indian groups all they wanted with much more freedom than the mission approach. The missionaries had to resign themselves to visiting villages and welcoming the Indians who visited the mission. Even then, the obligatory use of water in baptism carried negative connotations in Caddo understanding and further blocked conversion efforts.

In 1730–31, in reaction to the withdrawal of the local protective garrison, the supplies and official status of the three "interior" East Texas missions (those farther from the Louisiana border) were transferred to the more promising San Antonio area to help found additional missions there. After Louisiana passed from French to Spanish rule in 1763, thus eliminating the need for border defense in East Texas, the three remaining missions there were closed in 1773, along with all other Spanish foundations, in order to reduce crown expenses. When Nacogdoches was reoccupied as a Spanish civil settlement in 1779, an official mission was not reestablished there. The Franciscans assigned as pastors were primarily occupied with the settlers, although they engaged in some work with interested Indians. Although most East Texas Indians did not embrace Catholicism, a few were clearly assimilated into Spanish Catholic society, both before and after 1773. The entire East Texas missionary effort was thus carried out quite differently from the "self-contained town" model preferred by the missionaries and so often erroneously described as the sole Spanish missionary approach.

By the 1750s the Lipan Apaches, which consisted of several strong, mounted bands, were beginning to lose ground in Central Texas to their enemies, the Comanches and their allies, who were ranging down from the north. Under this pressure the Apaches began to be friendly to the Spanish in Central Texas; they sought military cooperation and even encouraged Spanish outposts in their territory. The short-lived missions consequently attempted by eager Franciscans deep in contested Indian territory—Santa Cruz de San Sabá, in the vicinity of present-day Menard, and Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria del Cañón and San Lorenzo de la Santa Cruz in the upper Nueces River basin—became the target of attacks, including the disastrous annihilation of San Sabá Mission. The Apache responses to these missions demonstrated to Spanish eyes not only the Apaches' purely military motivations and lack of real interest in conversion, but also their unreliability as allies. Colonial policy therefore shifted toward systematic war against the Apaches, who in turn continued to harass Spanish settlements sporadically. Later, during the tumultuous revolutionary decade of 1811–21, Lipans and Comanches engaged in a virtual war of attrition against Spanish settlements.

By the late 1770s several factors caused the mission system to fall out of favor as an important element of Spanish frontier strategy. The weaker Indian groups who had been more ready mission recruits declined steadily in numbers due to high infant-mortality rates, European-introduced epidemics, continued hostile pressure from other Indians, demoralization, and assimilation into either other Indian groups or Spanish society. The relative success of the San Antonio missions themselves was only maintained in the later 1700s by distant recruitment among embattled groups near the Gulf Coast or in the lower Rio Grande country. Furthermore, governmental frontier policy shifted more emphatically away from maintaining missions, which were now seen not only as economic liabilities but also as against the rising spirit of liberalism. This spirit championed individual human rights and a capitalist economy advocating private rather than communal property. The growth of civilian ranching and agricultural enterprises and the governmental search for more revenue through taxes on range cattle also adversely affected the mission economies along the San Antonio River (see RANCHING IN SPANISH TEXAS). There was also increasing pressure from the growing civilian population to take over mission lands, particularly those with obviously declining Indian presence. Greater numbers of civilians were already working or even living within mission properties at the invitation of the missionaries, and they entailed increased labor costs. Conversely, in several cases there was already significant assimilation of mission dwellers into the local Spanish society. In the 1790s those missions that had clearly achieved their purpose of assimilating Indians into Spanish society and religion were either partially secularized (the San Antonio missions) or consolidated administratively (the San Antonio and El Paso missions). In the first few years of the new Republic of Mexico—between 1824 and 1830—all the missions still operating in Texas were officially secularized, with the sole exception of those in the El Paso district, which were turned over to diocesan pastors only in 1852.

In retrospect, although the Franciscans almost always sought initially to implement their ideal mission system, in actual practice they were forced by various Indian groups as well as by Spanish government authorities to adapt that system to local realities in most of Texas. The resultant alternative mission systems allowed much more interplay and flexibility in relations between the Indians and the Spanish. In several cases these approaches led to significant Christianization and assimilation of the Indians. In regard to the primary missionary objective of the Franciscans themselves, it is clear that the vast majority of the native population of Texas and even of those Indians who at one time or another resided at missions never became fundamentally Christian. On the other hand, in several places true Indian or mestizo Christian communities did develop. This was the case in the El Paso and San Antonio areas, as well as at Camargo on the lower Rio Grande. A good number of other Indians who became Christians, either through missionization or through association with Spanish communities, were assimilated individually or as families into Hispanic society. Other mission efforts such as those in East Texas, at San Juan Bautista, and at La Bahía, while apparently failing to gain a significant number of true conversions, did achieve the state's political goal of building a stable, economically successful Spanish presence in the contested borderlands. In these places Indians learned Spanish and came to tolerate if not welcome the Spaniards' presence. See also CATHOLIC CHURCH, INDIANS, MEXICAN TEXAS, SPANISH TEXAS.

Herbert Eugene Bolton, Texas in the Middle Eighteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1915; rpt., Austin: University of Texas Press, 1970). Carlos E. Castañeda, Our Catholic Heritage in Texas (7 vols., Austin: Von Boeckmann–Jones, 1936–58; rpt., New York: Arno, 1976). Gilberto M. Hinojosa, "The Enduring Hispanic Faith Communities: Spanish and Texas Church Historiography," Journal of Texas Catholic History and Culture 1 (1990).

  • Exploration
  • Religion
  • Catholic
  • Architecture
  • Missions
  • Presidios
  • Pueblos
Time Periods:
  • Spanish Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Robert E. Wright, O.M.I., “Spanish Missions,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 18, 2022,

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February 1, 1996

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