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American Beginnings: 1492-1690
Topic: ContactTopic: ExplorationTopic: SettlementTopic: PermanenceTopic: Power
Topic: Settlement
Toolbox Overview: American Beginnings: 1492-1690
Resource Menu: Settlement
Text 1. First Arrivals
Text 2. Hardships
Text 3. Q&AS for Potential Settlers
Text 4. Instructions for Leaders
Text 5. Missions to the Indians
Text 6. Enslaved Peoples
Text 7. Go Ahead?

Reading Guide
San Geronimo de los Taos Mission, New Mexico
San Geronimo de los Taos Mission,
New Mexico
Missions to the Indians
- Spanish: Franciscan report on the New Mexico missions, 1630 (PDF)
- French: Jesuit reports on the New France missions, 1637-1653 (PDF)

For the early European presence in North America, the term "settlement" includes coastal forts, trading posts, mining centers, shipping stations, farming villages, occasional towns, and a few big colonial cities. And for the Spanish, French, and Russians, "settlement" also includes Indian missions. In some areas, missions were the first significant European settlements, including the Spanish missions in New Mexico, the Gulf coast of Florida, and the Pacific coast of California, and the French missions along the St. Lawrence River, the Great Lakes, and the upper Mississippi River. For many Indians, certainly, the first European they encountered was a Roman Catholic missionary.

The mission reports should not be considered "religious history" alone, for the European-Indian relationships that grew from them set the political stage on which later imperial rivalries were fought. To illustrate this early influence, we read from the reports of two missionary groups—the Spanish Catholic Franciscans in New Mexico and the French Catholic Jesuits in New France.
  • NEW MEXICO. After the failure of Juan de Oñate's colony in New Mexico in the early 1600s, the Franciscan priests remained to establish missions among the Indians. By 1630 they had built numerous churches in Indian villages and baptized thousands of Indians, most of whom combined Christianity with their traditional beliefs and practices. In 1630 the director of the missions, Fray (Father) Alonso de Benavides, prepared a report on the missions for the king of Spain, remembering to laud the area's mineral riches in addition to the friars' harvest of souls.

    Benavides devotes a chapter to each Indian group among the Pueblo, Navajo, and Apache nations, earnestly describing the missionaries' church-building, conversions, and teaching of the Gospel, while relating the challenges from the native "sorcerers" who scorned their religious claims. Like the French missionaries in Canada, he stresses the need for more missionaries and more economic support from the home coffers. But what comes through most powerfully is the priests' devotion to their cause. As historian Alan Taylor writes, "In their theatricality, celibacy, endurance of pain, and readiness to face martyrdom the priests manifested an utter conviction of the truth and power of their God."*
    [Fray Alonso de Benavides, Memorial to King Philip IV of Spain, 1630]

  • NEW FRANCE. After a brief presence in Nova Scotia in the early 1600s (ending with an English attack on the small colony of Acadia), the French missionaries of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) returned to New France in the 1620s. They soon realized that successful proselytization of the Indians meant learning their languages first and then traveling into the interior to build small missions near their seasonal villages. Later they established larger mission settlements, around which converted Indians lived year-round.

    For the Jesuits as well as the fur traders, Indian rivalries shaped the French experience in Canada. Aligned with the Huron during the ferocious Huron-Iroquois wars of the 1600s, the Jesuits endured the hardships of war and torture as well as the usual deprivations of missionary life. Each year they wrote reports for the Jesuit office in France, often relating the missions' progress in chapters titled "On the State of Christianity" in New France. Here we read selections from these reports covering seventeen years, from 1637 through 1653, in which disease, war, and famine test the fortitude of the Jesuits and nearly exterminate their allies, the Huron Indians.
    [Jesuit Relations (annual reports of the Jesuit missionaries in New France to the home office of the Society of Jesus in France), 1637-1653, selections]
These reports illuminate critical aspects of the Spanish and French presence in North America, secular as well as religious, with immediate as well as longterm consequences. They also reveal the power of individual will and dedication—of the missionaries and Indians alike. (23 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. Compare the Catholic missions and the Indians' response in New Mexico and New France.
  2. How do the missionaries define success, progress, hardship, and failure?
  3. What do the writers consider important to relate? What issues do they leave unaddressed?
  4. Compare the writers' tone, emphasis, and implied messages. To whom are the reports addressed?
  5. What do we learn of the Indians and their spiritual practices from these reports? How would you judge their accuracy?
  6. Describe the Indians' conversion or resistance to conversion. How do the missionaries respond?
  7. What aspects of Indian life do the missionaries respect, ignore, or condemn?
  8. How do the Indians and missionaries explain the epidemics that kill Indians but not Europeans?
  9. Compare the overlap of religious and secular interests in the reports. What differences do they reveal in the French and Spanish goals in North America?
  10. What power relationships do the missionaries and the Indians establish with each other? Consider the implications for future European rivalries in North America.
  11. What do the Catholic missions share with other European settlements in this period? How are they unique?

Topic Framing Questions
  •  What motivated the Europeans in their initial settlements?
  •  How did the European nations differ in their vision of a successful settlement?
  •  How did they differ in the institutions they created to maintain their settlements?
  •  What factors led to the survival or abandonment of a settlement?
  •  What relationships evolved among European settlers, Native Americans, and enslaved Africans?
  •  What did "America" signify to Europe in 1630? What did "Europe" signify to Native Americans and enslaved Africans?

New Mexico missions: 12
New France missions: 11
23 pages
Supplemental Sites
Spanish missions in New Mexico, from Wikipedia

Fr. Alonso de Benavides, from The Handbook of Texas Online (UT-Austin)

The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, 1610-1791, from Creighton University

The "Black Robes" in Canada, from Library and Archives Canada

Catholic Indian Missions of Canada, from the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia (1914)

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

Texts:     National Humanities Center

Image: San Geronimo de los Taos Mission, New Mexico; photograph, 1941. Courtesy of the National Archives, #519985.

*Alan S. Taylor, American Colonies: The Settling of North America (New York: Viking/Penguin, 2001), 84.

Toolbox: American Beginnings: 1492-1690
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