Teaching Guide: Exploring Spanish Missions in California

This teaching guide helps instructors use a specific primary source set, Spanish Missions in California, in the classroom. It offers discussion questions, classroom activities, and primary source analysis tools. It is intended to spark pedagogical creativity by giving a sample approach to the material. Please feel free to share, reuse, and adapt the resources in this guide for your teaching purposes.

Discussion questions

  1. Read the excerpt from Gaspar de Portolá’s diary kept during his 1769 exploration of California. What were his daily concerns and experiences during the expedition? What assumptions and strategies did he employ in his initial interactions with Native American peoples? What were the goals of these interactions?
  2. Compare the map of Gaspar de Portolá’s route and the map of California missions prior to secularization. To what extent did Gaspar de Portolá and company’s original expedition influence the geography of the California missions?
  3. Compare the illustrations of Mission Carmel in the 1791 drawing and the 1834 painting. What do they tell us about how the mission changed from 1791 to 1834?
  4. How are Native Americans depicted by the non-Native American artists who created sources the illustration of the reception of Jean-François de Laperouse, the illustration of Spanish missionaries baptizing Native Americans, the illustration of Native Americans dancing, and the “Danse des Californiens” painting? What ideas about Native Americans do their outsider perspectives emphasize?
  5. Do a close reading of the “Danse des Californiens” painting. What is the relationship of the Native Americans to the mission architecture in the painting? What ideas does this depiction reinforce about the purpose of the missions themselves? Using the evidence in this painting, explain the artist’s perspective on the missions and the Native Americans who interacted with them.
  6. Using the photograph of Native Americans and teachers and the photograph of wooden crosses, describe the legacy of the Spanish missions. What happened at those sites after secularization in 1834? What ideas and artifacts lingered?

Classroom activities

Ask students to imagine the daily life of the missions by creating a weekly schedule of activities at Mission Carmel in 1810. This schedule should consider the kinds of activities that helped the missions run and meet their objectives. Ask students to annotate each entry with a description of the activity’s purpose and people involved. The schedule should make use of sources in this set as well as additional research about mission life. In creating the schedule, students should include attention to:

  • religious worship and education
  • labor required to build the mission as a self-sufficient site
  • communication with the outside world, including other missions and administrators in Spain
  • challenges to mission life posed by climate, resources, and outsiders (both friendly and hostile)
  • different roles for Franciscans, Native American men, and Native American women

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