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From Black Legend to Black Robes

Enslavement and warfare were not the sole legacies of the Spanish in the American Southwest. The prieststhe Indians called them black robeswho accompanied the conquistadors not only brought their religion to the Americas, but also created a Euro-Indian culture centered around the many missions they established. The first of these, in New Mexico, were founded during the administration of Onate in 1598. In the course of the next century, Franciscan friars founded more than 40 more, mainly along the Rio Grande. By 1680, missions had been built among most of the Indians in New Mexico as well. As the presence in California of the Englishman Sir Francis Drake had stirred Spanish concerns in 1579, a French landing led by Robert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle, on the Texas coast in 1684 prompted the Spanish to build missions in that area.

Between 1687 and 1711, Father Eusebio Kino established many missions in northern Mexico and Baia California as well as some in southern Arizona, the most famous of which was Mission San Xavier del Bac. But it is for the chain of 21 Franciscan missions, linked together by El Camino Real (The Royal Road), extending along the California coast from San Diego in the south to Sonoma in the north, that the Spanish missionaries are best known. The first, Mission San Diego de Alcala (at San Diego) was founded by Father Junipero Serra in 1769. Serra would go on personally to found nine more.

The missions were communities, and, like any other communities, they varied widely in their success. Some faltered and collapsed, while others spawned fertile fields, vineyards, and vast herds of cattle. By bringing large numbers of Indians into a small space, the missions also tended to spread epidemic disease, and they disrupted native culture and traditions.

The way of the conquistador and the way of the Black Robe represent two distinctive aspects of the Hispanic Southwest. But whereas the conquistadors treated the Indians as bestial enemies, to be subdued and enslaved, the Catholic padres regarded them as miscreant children to be supervised and regulated. Neither extreme admitted a full appreciation of their humanity, but both traditions shaped the character of the Southwest in an enduring fashion. Both, too, created enmities between white and red, leaving scars on the history of the region so deep that they would not begin to fade until the end of the 19th century. As to the missions themselves, the last one, San Francisco Solano, in the Sonoma Valley of Northern California, was built in 1823, and the mission system endured until 1833-34, when the revolutionary Mexican Republic-which then encompassed the American Southwest-secularized Church properties.


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