Past and Present Perspectives on the Texas Missions
Gilberto M. Hinojosa
Ever since Franciscan friars planted the first missions on Texas soil in the late 1600s observers of these institutions have projected their personal and professional biases on their historical reflections. Each recorder has laid claims to objectivity, proporting to relate events "as they really happened." But despite his or her assertions, unavoidably each has adopted a perspective that determined the criteria used to select some facts over others, to emphasize particular motives, and to convey one or another impression of the overall picture. Inevitably all scholars inject their biases into their historical accounts, and the best they can do is to admit and state them candidly to their readers. While some historians of the missions have assumed this responsibility, others have not, although their work reveals their perspective nonetheless.
The very first historians of the Texas missions were friars themselves, and generally they tended to discount the complaints of all the participants except those made by their fellow religious. The padres produced in-house histories that pictured government officials as interested only in reducing the state's expenditures while increasing their personal fortunes. According to the friars, settlers wanted mission lands and Indian servants and the Indians were too backward to appreciate the labors of the padres. From their perspective, they (the missionaries) were dedicated to spiritual ideals, even when these were unobtainable.
But the padres were not the only ones to unsheath the pen; officials and settlers also recorded their observations. The authorities and the non-religious civilians competed with the friars for the land and labor resources and consequently had few words of praise for the missionaries. In their reports military captains and the governors often chastized the padres for meddling in governmental affairs. Settlers too, filed many complaints virulently accusing the friars of shameful exploitation of the Indians. These highly critical accounts reached not only Mexico City but also the peninsular governmental agencies.
Yet these reports could not outdo the records produced by the missionaries, not in content, nor in volume. Monumental works by Friars J. Manuel Espinosa, Juan Domingo Aricivita, and Diego Bringas circulated widely and eventually saw publication. These testimonials exemplify the missionaries zeal to immortalize the great and the martyred among their brothers in religion and their need to pay homage to even the lesser brethren. Many shorter historical sketches by other friars can be found in the archives. All of these accounts by historian-padres portray the labors of their fellow missionaries as divinely inspired and judge everything that interfered with the great task of saving souls of pagans as the work of satan.
Government officials saw other forces at play in Texas. In the last quarter of the eighteenth century, under the influence of the Bourbon Reforms, the military governors argued that New Spain's frontier needed more settlers and soldiers, not more neophytes in quasi-monasteries. In proposing a new Indian policy that deemphasized the role of the missions, Assistant Inspector Antonio Bonilla, author of A Brief Compendium of the history of Texas, reviewed past economic strategies in the province and actually blamed the Franciscans for retarding the development of Texas.
As expected, a number of Franciscans rose to defend their brothers. The most famous of these defenders was Fray Agustin Morfi, whose "History of Texas" has influenced subsequent works on the missions immensely. Because few records have survived the ravages of time and because many historians have examined the extant documentary evidence very uncritically, Morfi's "History" and other chronicles by the friars have been taken as completely accurate descriptions of the missions long after the controversies that inspired those histories were forgotten.
In the American period, United States scholars did not contribute much to the historical understanding of the missions until this century. Influenced by the Black Legend, American historians at first tended to down play any Spanish contribution, particularly if made by clergymen. It was not until the late 1800s when Hubert Howe Bancroft began collecting, reproducing, and studying documents from the Spanish period that attention was given to mission history. Bancroft and his group of researchers in the History Company employed the then relatively new "scientific" techniques in the field as they unearthed and "objectively" analyzed the vast source materials available for studying the American Southwest and Mexico.
An heir to that tradition, Herbert Eugene Bolton made invaluable contributions to the history of the missions. He began his career at the turn of the century at the University of Texas at Austin where he discovered the rich archival resources that shed much light on many forgotten episodes. Bolton penned several important works, including his 1915 Texas in the Eighteenth Century and his later Athenase de Mezieres, both of which remain fundamental studies on the colonial period. Perhaps reacting against his American colleagues, Bolton developed deep sympathies for the Spanish viewpoint, although he veered away from this slightly as he studied Indian relations. In any event, Bolton's pro-Spanish perspective remained strong, a welcome balance in a sea of overt anti-Spanish historical treatment.
Bolton's essay on the mission as a frontier institution immediately became a landmark theoretical piece. The significance of this essay and of all his works for the history of the missions lies more on the impact of these institutions than on how they worked. Bolton and his followers, including William E. Dunn, who researched the Apache missions in Texas, were interested in the role of the frontier within the larger picture of imperial objectives. In this context they saw the mission as an instrument of the settlement of a buffer zone threatened by foreign powers.
The actual internal operation of the missions was left for others to research. Scholars such as Mattie Austin Hatcher, J. Villasana Haggard, Nettie Lee Benson and Carlos Eduardo Castañeda who dug through the University of Texas at Austin archives filled in the mosaic of the Spanish past in that far northeastern province. Castañeda produced what is perhaps the most outstanding history of the province's colonial past, Our Catholic Heritage in Texas. In this work, Castañeda built on and advanced Bolton's earlier work, researching many forgotten aspects of the area's history, including the therefore neglected San Antonio mission story.
Castañeda and all of these authors published very scholarly and generally fair works. They valued a strict fidelity to their sources, and to that extent they often showed a bias for the viewpoint of those who had written the documents they researched. Castañeda, for example, worked from the friars' reports and thus presented their version, a fact sometimes lost, given the author's vast and impressive coverage. He was not alone in taking this point of view. Local chroniclers Frederich Chabot and Edward Huesinger who added to the mission portrait, adopted the same bais. Nevertheless, the contributions made by Castañeda and his contemporaries were significant and inspired other scholars, archivists, and translators to continue enriching Texas' historical studies.
Twentieth century Franciscan scholars have also reexamined mission history and have followed the perspective taken by Castañeda and set by the friars in the eighteenth century. Operating since 1931 in their former San Antonio missions, these modern religious historians have been more sophisticated than their brothers in the 1700s, but not any less candid or argumentative. Yet they have produced solid, standard works, which have survived time. Father Marion Habig's Alamo Chain of Missions and Father Benedict Leuteneggar's Guidelines for a Texas Missionary, one of many of his translations, are indispensable for studying the work of the friars and for the area's overall history. These scholars' underlying assumption that the missions were beneficial for the Indians is basically identical to the perspective that colored the original reports of the friars who sought to "civilize" the natives.
The Indians did not record their acceptance or rejection of the missions, but scholars researching areas of the Southwest other than Texas have concluded that these institutions were detrimental to the natives' welfare. In The Conflict Between the California Indians and White Civilization Sherburne Cook studied the decimation of the Indians, documenting the results of the changes in their dietary, cultural, and work traditions and in their general living habits. Anthropologist Edward H. Spicer, in Cycles of Conquest, described the disruption of native societies in north-central Mexico caused by the imposition of Spanish culture on Indian religion, social organization, law, dress, behavior, and family life. While the pro-Indian sympathies of these researchers led them to sketch a harsher portrait of the area's Spanish past than the one drawn by other twentieth century historians, but the bleak picture resulted from a new and legitimate scholarly interest: the cultural change produced by the meeting of peoples with very different lifestyles and economic goals.
Ethno-historians in Texas have also paid attention to these issues. Thomas N. Campbell has been focusing on native cultures, with particular interest in the pre-Spanish cultures. His work on the Coahuiltecans and the Rio Grande missions constitutes an invaluable contribution to Texas history. Another ethno-historian, Mardith Schuetz has provided perhaps the best description of life in the San Antonio missions. Her findings are rather similar to Cook's, although she is not as critical of the padres. Her study outlines the process of Hispanization of the mission population, and to that extent confirms the ultimate success of the original objectives of the mission system.
Incorporating the ethno-historian perspective to some extent, Elizabeth A. H. John has focused on Spanish-Indian relations beyond the mission walls where most of the native population resided. John's scope in Storms Brewed in Other Men's Worlds includes East Texas French and New Mexican trade enterprises as well as Texas topics. Her attention to Indian interests sheds considerable light on Spanish policy-making, which heretofore had been considered as unaffected by native concerns. John's pro-Indian viewpoint, along with Campbell's and Schuetz', did not necessarily result in anti-Spanish and anti-clerical histories.
Indeed, treatment of the Texas missions has generally been only mildly critical of work of the friars. Works by writer-historians such as William Coroner, Adina De Zavala, Chabot, and Heusinger have actually been romantically admiring. This perspective has inspired great effort for the preservation of the missions, although it has not always contributed greatly to our understanding of them.
Despite the great effort of the pro-Indian historians, the view of the Indian is still missing from the Texas mission picture. Perhaps understandably, this perspective is largely absent from the Spanish record and can only be inferred at the great risk of violating traditional historical methodological standards. To portray those left out of prominent governmental records historians need to employ demographic techniques such as those used by Scheutz and Cook and trace the bits and pieces of information utilized by social historians.
Undoubtedly the historians that provide those much-needed insights on the Texas missions will have their own biases, much like the missionaries, government officials, archivists, historians, anthropologists, and ethno-historians have had theirs. There is no possible way to be completely and anesthetically objective. What is imperative is that all who reflect on the past recognize and admit their own perspectives so that these biases do not get in the way of our understanding the past. Only in that manner can the historical mosaic of the missions be clearly presented.
Last Updated: 24-Apr-2011