The Spanish government claimed the Pacific coast of North America as a colony in the sixteenth century, but made very little effort to inhabit the territory. In the 1760s, Spanish colonial officials became worried that Russian settlers might move south into the area known today as California. This concern launched a new effort to get the Pacific coast securely under Spanish control.
The mission system was crucial to this effort. Run by Franciscan friars, missions were small agricultural communities built to house local Native populations while they were educated in the Spanish way of life. Most Native people brought to live in missions had very little choice in the matter. While they learned about the Catholic religion and Spanish agriculture and cultural practices, they were forced to live and work in inhumane conditions, producing goods that would enrich the Spanish. Some Spanish officials viewed the Native people in the missions as slaves.
Because the goal of settlement required the disruption of Native communities, women in particular suffered. Native women were forced to give up traditions and agricultural practices that had elevated them to positions of power in their communities. They were the frequent targets of sexual exploitation and forced marriages. Poor living conditions and lack of proper nutrition meant Native women died frequently in childbirth, and the infant mortality rate was high.
The mission system was catastrophic for the Native communities of present-day California. Historians estimate that between 1769 and 1821 nearly a third of the total Native population of the area was lost.
The Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo was founded in Monterey on June 3, 1770. In 1771, the mission moved to the mouth of the Carmel River to protect the Native women inhabitants from abuse by the Spanish soldiers who lived in Monterey. The mission was the second mission founded in the area, and served as the headquarters for the entire mission system of Alta California.
The Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo targeted the nearby Esselen and Ohlone tribes. Franciscan friars would first convert members of these tribes to Christianity, and then force them to move to the mission to live and work.
This drawing, by a British naval officer who explored the Pacific Coast in the early 1790s, was made when the mission was near its peak population of around 900 inhabitants. It depicts the harsh living conditions endured by the Native people forced to live and work there. The buildings in the foreground, simple as they are, represent the centers of power in the mission. In the background are the rough huts the Esselen and Ohlone lived in. The close quarters that inhabitants lived and worked in promoted the spread of deadly diseases.