"In the Midst of a Loneliness":
The Architectural History of the Salinas Missions
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A historical study usually has a guiding or unifying principle that serves to determine what information is included and how it is organized. The central principle or first premise for the present architectural history is simple: a building that was constructed and altered by the people who lived in it was like an oyster shell--it grew and changed according to the needs of the life within it, but had to accommodate the stresses of the environment outside. The Spanish colonial missions of the American southwest are an excellent demonstration of this principle. They were designed and built by those who would live in them and rebuilt by other occupants as their needs changed. The missions had to respond to the shifting stresses placed on them by the Spanish government and the Catholic church, as well as those of the local community. [1]

A mission, however, was not a "biofact," produced by the mindless operation of a biological system, as an oyster shell is, but an artifact, created by the mind and hand of a few people at a given point in time. It did not just grow, but was put together so that it recreated in stone and clay the image in the mind of its designer. At some specific time, before the first stake was driven or the first rock set in place, the designer created a mental image or idea of how this church and convento would look. Like that for any other artifact, the idea for a mission was the product of its time, place, and culture. Its designer and the supervisor of its construction (usually the same person) had certain assumptions about what a church and convento ought to be, but those assumptions changed with time and as the requirements of the Franciscan missionary effort changed. Eventually, the individuals using the convento realized that its structure no longer effectively met their needs, now somewhat different from those for which the building was designed, or they received orders from outside the mission requiring or allowing them to redesign the buildings. The alterations to the structures would reflect the new needs or requirements. The interaction between a culture and its social and natural environment has been called "cultural ecology." The mission was therefore molded by the cultural ecology within which it existed.

For the missions of seventeenth century New Mexico, the cultural ecology was the product of an interaction between the Franciscan culture of the northern frontier and the constraints of the natural and political environments of the frontier. Throughout the colonial period, Franciscan culture differed from the general Hispanic culture of the frontier in a number of ways. Franciscans were directly controlled by a higher authority in the form of Franciscan officials in Mexico City. They were supported by a stipend paid by the king of Spain and aided by a supply train at fixed intervals. Franciscans received training that prepared them for the conditions of the frontier, and followed a daily regimen distinctly different from that of the average Hispanic settler. They were granted a privileged relationship with a local labor pool and production resources, and protected from many of the legal constraints of the civil government. As a result, their material wealth, their capabilities, and their expectations differed from those of the general populace. In archeological research, for example, Franciscan establishments can usually be distinguished from a civil establishment by its plan, use patterns, material culture, and artifact distribution. Franciscan New Mexico was a small, close-knit community. The community had a distinct culture: a shared body of knowledge defining the usual or accepted way of doing things. A missionary would usually be transferred from one mission to another every few years, and all frequently travelled among the missions of the province.

Most of the missionaries had the same general expectations about how their churches and conventos should be designed, built, decorated, furnished, and used. Documents and archeology have demonstrated that they used specific methods, structures and items at one or another New Mexico mission. As a beginning premise, this architectural history assumes that, because the community of Franciscans in New Mexico was so close, any knowledge, skills, or items available to one mission were available to all missions in the province. The individual Franciscan chose what was used at his mission from among the available methods, structures and items. Variations in the level of sophistication of different missions seems to be the result of variations, not in their construction or furnishing, but in the sophistication of the archeological investigation of the mission in this century. Wherever the acheologist looked carefully, evidence for careful door framing, window framing, wall decoration, stairs, altars and platforms, and woodwork were found. Because of such evidence, the present architectural history assumes that the missions usually were built with a moderate degree of sophistication, rather than with the lowest level.

Therefore, if, for example, several seventeenth century missions had wall plaster painted in multi-colored, decorative patterns inside the church, the architectural history assumes that all of them did unless evidence to the contrary exists for a specific mission. If stone or wooden stairs were the usual method for climbing to the choir loft, then Quarai, for example, probably used stairs rather than a ladder for this purpose. Once the typical attributes of a mission have been determined, thereafter a historian must show that a given item of those attributes was probably not present, rather than have to prove all over again that it probably was. At Quarai, for example, the space that would have held the stairs to the choir loft would accommodate a ladder equally well, but the stairs should be chosen as the most likely structure in the space unless there is specific evidence that the missionary used a ladder. At San Isidro in Las Humanas, on the other hand, the missionary may have used a ladder to reach the choir loft since he did not construct a room that could have served as a stairwell, and the limited evidence implies that provisions for a ladder or ladder-like stairway were made.

This report has two other assumptions that directed the research. The first of these is that Franciscan culture on the New Mexico frontier in the seventeenth century was not primitive. The author has found that there is an unstated assumption that has been one of the foundation stones for the structure of colonial New Mexican history and culture, so painfully and painstakingly assembled over the last century. This assumption is simple: the Franciscan missions and the civil settlements of New Mexico were poor: they had nothing but the most primitive living conditions and goods. This assumption has colored virtually every narrative of life in colonial New Mexico. It is based to some extent on the claims of the people themselves in their letters back to the heartland of Mexico, but it is very likely untrue. When the claims of extreme poverty made by the citizens of New Mexico in official letters are ignored and other documents considered, documents that were prepared for other reasons than to make a case or secure patronage, a different picture seems to emerge. Look, for example, at the list of items to be found in one of the Salinas missions in 1662 in Chapter 7. These are not the possessions of poverty-stricken missions. The variations in the quality of excavations discussed as part of the first premise seem to be a product of the "primitive" assumption. Unless they are very careful, archeologists see what they expect to see, and most archeologists thought of missions as poverty-stricken places; their quick, rough excavations confirmed these expectations.

The second assumption was that the Franciscan missionaries of New Mexico were reasoning, capable human beings like their counterparts on other frontiers at other times. This assumption produced, not a minimalist viewpoint in the narrative, but an optimalist viewpoint. That is, the synthesis assumed that under any given circumstances the people involved would do the best they could. The research then reduced itself to finding out what their best might have been, based on what they did at other missions or at other times, and to seek confirmation of the presence of this optimum usage at the Salinas missions, either in the historical records, in the results of archeology, or on the surviving structures.

The Franciscan community did not live in isolation on the New Mexico frontier. It constantly received an influx of new ideas and attitudes with the arrival of new friars from Mexico. New regulations concerning the management of mission operations came from the executive levels of the Catholic church. New projects or renewed effort in already-existing programs would be funded by the secular government. Each of these external influences affected the missions and frequently left an imprint on them in the form of structural changes, improvements, or even abandonment. When several missions show evidence of similar modifications or additions at the same general time, this architectural history infers a frontier-wide change in the attitudes or policies governing the missions. For example, the available archeological evidence argues that missions built before 1640 in New Mexico had the baptistry under the choir loft in the nave of the church, rather than housed in a separate room to one side of the nave. After 1640, when a separate baptistry became the accepted method, the friars built baptistry rooms onto the already-completed pre-1640 churches. Because of the serious shortage of information about seventeenth-century missions, these inferences are tenuous at best. They can only be stated as hypotheses in hopes that future historical and archeological work might evaluate them. The author feels that it best helps advance the state of knowledge if these hypotheses are mentioned in print.

Published documentation on seventeenth century New Mexico has tended to give the general reader a comfortable sense of security, a feeling that the historian and the archeologist knew the important events and the culture of that time. Such an impression is false. The wide-ranging "over-view" approach followed by most published research cannot produce the evidence needed to reconstruct the culture of the seventeenth century Spanish frontier by itself. Such a reconstruction can occur only when the broad synthesis is combined with "particularistic" studies, looking at the life and times of one or a small group of places and people. Each needs the other, and each supplies the other with ideas and information that might never be found any other way. For example, the present architectural history calls into question several assumptions forming the basis of the general studies of the New Mexican colonial past. The "poverty-stricken frontier" assumption has been discussed under premise two. Another assumption questioned here is the "communal" nature of Pueblo Indian society. There are hints that the model of a "homogenous" society presently in use does not allow for enough variation. It appears that sometimes Pueblo society could be divisive, factionalized to the point that one kin or social group could watch another starve to death during a famine without offering aid; see Chapter 8.

Franciscans were not necessarily as they have been portrayed in general studies, either. Rather than pious priests sleeping on the floors of their cells and applying the Franciscan rules of poverty to all aspects of their lives, instead they were managers concerned with the price that goods would bring at the market; they ran huge farming and ranching establishments for profit; and they may have been tolerant enough of local religion in the early decades of the seventeenth century to build transitional churches that looked like kivas; see Chapter 2, Chapter 7, and Appendix 5.

This report discusses mission life and construction with an air of certainty that may be misleading, especially since the report questions such an air on the part of previous research. But because records of the seventeenth century are few and details sparse, the narrative has used reasonable deductions, inferences and assumptions as though they were fact. In each case, however, the notes review the reasoning behind the assumption or deduction so that the reader may hopefully see where the edge of the known lies, and where speculation begins.

The author hopes that this architectural history, in addition to meeting the needs of National Park Service managers, maintenance personnel, and interpreters, will also stimulate the curiosity or confirm some guesses of historians and archeologist in the Southwest. If this Historic Structure Report generates any further research at all, even in an attempt to disprove some offending statement, the author will be satisfied.

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Last Updated: 28-Aug-2006