Mention of Franciscan Friars may bring to mind an image of a quiet, contemplative life. But life in a Texas mission was anything but contemplative – it required courage and hard physical work!
Life on the frontier was dangerous. There was a risk of malnutrition and even starvation, as well as disease. There were natural threats such as flood and fire, and the constant fear of attacks from hostile Indians.
However, life was not lived in constant fear. The friars, soldiers and Indians that made up the mission community spent most of their attention on day-to-day tasks.
New missions were supplied by more established missions, and even from Mexico, but they were expected to become self-sufficient.
The missionaries and the Indian neophytes they trained were responsible for building their own structures. Initially these may have been made or sod or logs, but more permanent structures were built of adobe or even stone. This sometimes required experts such as architects or stonemasons to be brought from Mexico.
The missionaries also planted and raised crops, including the “three sisters” – squash, corn, and beans. Some of the missions had extensive herds of goats, sheep, and cattle, which had to be managed and herded. In fact, the missions were the start of the Texas cattle industry.
Some of the missions were built very close to rivers, which provided a source of fresh water. Others built extensive systems of ditches and aqueducts to carry water over long distances.
The missions required much more than just food. Missionaries wove cloth and made clothes, tanned hides, fired pottery in kilns, built furniture and carts, and forged metal tools and utensils.
The missionaries taught all of these skills to the Indians who were converted and chose to join the mission community. The Indians were then required to provide most of the labor to sustain the mission.
The mission routine was very strict, and punishments for breaking the rules was often harsh. Indians who attempted to leave the mission were pursued, captured, and punished. The harsh treatment sometimes led to uprisings, and even the destruction of some of the missions.
Beyond practical skills necessary for survival, the missions often taught reading and writing, music, and even art. Some of the missions featured beautiful frescos, and others were renowned for their musicians and choirs.
The missions were hard-working, vibrant communities that gave rise to Texas culture.