Serra wielded this kind of political power because his missions served economic and political purposes as well as religious ends. The number of civilian colonists in Alta California never exceeded 3,200, and the missions with their Indian populations were critical to keeping the region within Spain’s political orbit. Economically, the missions produced all of the colony’s cattle and grain, and by the 1780’s were even producing surpluses sufficient to trade with Mexico for luxury goods.
Despite the frequent conflicts between military and religious authority, for Alta California’s Indians the missions and their Franciscan administrators were part and parcel of an enormously destructive colonization process. The Spanish, largely through disease, were responsible for a population decline from about 300,000 Indians in 1769 to about 200,000 by 1821. The strenuous work regime and high population density within the missions themselves also caused high death rates among the mission Indians. By law, all baptized Indians subjected themselves completely to the authority of the Franciscans; they could be whipped, shackled or imprisoned for disobedience, and hunted down if they fled the mission grounds. Indian recruits, who were often forced to convert nearly at gunpoint, could be expected to survive mission life for only about ten years. As one Friar noted, the Indians “live well free but as soon as we reduce them to a Christian and community life… they fatten, sicken, and die.”
Junipero Serra is still a well-known figure in California, a virtual icon of the colonial era whose statue stands in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park and in the U.S. Capitol. In 1987 Pope John Paul II beatified Serra, the second of three steps necessary for the Church’s bestowal of formal sainthood. Many Indians and academics condemned this decision, pointing to the harsh conditions of mission life and Serra’s own justification of beatings. (In 1780, Serra wrote: “that spiritual fathers should punish their sons, the Indians, with blows appears to be as old as the conquest of [the Americas]; so general in fact that the saints do not seem to be any exception to the rule.”)