Reservations Versus California Missions: Did Either Protect Indian Land?

Padres of California missions believed they were protecting Indian lands better than the United States reservation system, but were either of them?

The padres of the California Indian missions believed that the U.S. governments plan to establish reservations was similar to the California missions. Some scholars believe that American Indian policy was gained from the example of California Indian missions. The Spanish and later Mexican policy toward Indians involved the Catholic Church, while in the United States churches of many Christian denominations played significant roles in managing Indian education and reservation administration.

In Spain and Mexico the main policy toward the Indians was called secularization. Missionaries established contact with Indian nations, gathered them at mission sites, taught them Christianity and agricultural labor, which greatly reduced the land used by the Indians. The Indians were then encouraged to organize into town governments, often called a municipality, or an Indian pueblo. The padres would no longer manage mission estates, but serve as parish priests. The Indian pueblo elected leaders, and often managed land, which was protected in trust by the Spanish or later Mexican government. This method reduced Indian land enough to take care of their agricultural needs, and left the rest of the land in the hands of the Spanish or Mexican government. The land was then granted to non-Indian citizens.


The missionaries in California, from 1769 to 1848, established large estates, which became the most productive economic enterprises in colonial California. The California government did not tax landholders, and relied almost solely on support from the mission estates. The army and California government each year demanded goods from the Indian missions. In return the government gave IOUs that were never paid. The labor of the Indian neophytes, the name given to Indian converts, supported the army and California government through the entire colonial period.

The California missionaries opposed the usual colonial plan of reduction and formation of municipal governments, in part because they played a significant supporting role to the colonial California government. The California padres argued they held the land of their Indian converts in trust. They argued that the land of the mission estates was land that belonged to the Indians, and was under management by the padres. The combination of economic estate of the Catholic padres, and the Indian leaders under the padres’ direction, created the most influential and economically productive entity in California colonial society. The mission estates raised cattle, lambs, farmed grains, produced orchards, made wine, and other products. The Indian neophytes were trained to work as cowboys, coopers, administrators, farmers, and other occupations needed to run the large mission estates.

During the Mexican period, from 1822 to 1848, the California missionaries resisted the policies of secularization, and insisted on remaining in control of large missionary estates, with a form of joint ownership by the padres and Indians. The California padres compared their plan to U.S. reservations as a form of administration that protected the land rights of the neophytes, and encouraged the Indians to organize their collective assets in economic production. The mission estates protected the Indians from the California government, the open market, and expanding land demands by colonial settlers. The missionary estates were comparable to U.S. Indian reservations where land was held in trust and the Indian political and cultural community was segregated. The California missionaries believed the missionary estates were economically, spiritually, and political more successful than California reservations in the 1850s and 60s or later. Many Indians were put off by the emphasis on individual farming rather than the collective administration and economy of the mission estates.

“Neophytes were children in their father’s house. In the reservation the Indians were like orphans placed in the keeping of strangers,” states The Missions and Missionaries of California. The padres argued that they should be allowed to continue protecting Indian lands while engaged in collective economic productivity that was more beneficial to Indians than the U.S. reservation plan.

This story was originally published January 2, 2017.