Life in the Mission System

This drawing of the Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo shows the setting on Spanish efforts to convert and Europeanize Native populations in Alta California.

Content Warning: This resource addresses sexual exploitation.

Drawing of the thatch roof buildings of the mission showcasing a church left of the cross erected in the center with bells at its side and the foothills and huts of the Esselen and Ohlone people in the background.
Mission Carmel of Monterey, California

Jose Cardero, Mission Carmel of Monterey, California, 1791-1792. UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library.


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.

About the Image

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.


  • Esselen: One of the tribes that inhabited the region known today as Big Sur, California, at the time of Spanish colonization. Today, members of the Esselen are working to become a federally recognized tribe so they can create a cultural center and museum in the Monterey area.
  • Franciscan: A person who belonged to the Order of St. Francis, a Catholic religious order famous for its preaching and missionary work.
  • friar: A man who was a member of a Catholic religious order.
  • mission system: A group of missions founded in by Franciscan monks in the Spanish colonies that forces Native people to convert to Catholicism and adopt Spanish agriculture and culture.
  • Ohlone: The collective name given to over fifty distinct Native communities who lived in what is today known as Northern California at the time of Spanish colonization. A number of these groups still live in the region today.


  • Esselen: ESS-eh-lon
  • Ohlone: oh-LONE-ee

Discussion Questions

  • What does the layout of this mission reveal about the status of the Native people who lived there?
  • How did missions advance the cause of Spanish colonization?
  • Why were Native women particularly vulnerable in the mission system?

Suggested Activities

  • Use this image in any lesson about the process of Spanish colonization.
  • Teach this image together with the life story of Toypurina and the Zuni pots produced during the Pueblo Revolt for a larger lesson about the mission system and Native resistance.
  • Combine this image with Bartolomé de las Casas’s drawing of life on the encomienda for a lesson about the treatment of Native populations under Spanish colonial rule.
  • Read Queen Isabella I’s 1501 instructions for the government of Hispaniola, and then compare them with the treatment of Native people under the mission system.
  • Combine this image with the document about the Middle Passage for a lesson on suffering people of color endured for the profit of the Spanish colonies.
  • The mission system was just one form of labor exploitation practiced in the colonial Americas. Combine this image with any of the following resources to consider differing labor exploitation practices, the lives of those exploited, and why lab