Lesson Plan: Overview of California Missions

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The following is a lesson plan for a school presentation on the overview of California missions, an introductory lesson. I hope you will find it helpful.

“I taught this yesterday to three classes (Grades K and 1, 2 and 3, and 4-6). It went over very well in all the classes. I also had a simple craft—we made a toy Indian children used before and after they came to the mission . . . a ring tied to a stick . . . you catch the ring on the stick. In one class we also played a game many Indians played. At my daughter’s request, I had helped my grandson make a cake that looked like Mission San Luis Obispo, and we all ate the cake at the end of the school day.”




Lesson Plan: Introduction



Materials: Globe or world map

Activity/Presentation: The story of the California missions begins a long time ago, in the time when there were castles and kings and almost no one even knew there was an America. In the 1500s people in Europe were exploring the world. When they found new lands they set up colonies to ensure that the lands they found would belong to them. People in France came to the area that is now Canada; they called it “New France.” People in England came to what is now the east coast of the United States; they called it “New England.” People in Spain came to Florida, some islands, and Mexico; they called that land “New Spain.”

A Spanish explorer named Balboa crossed the isthmus of Panama and discovered the Pacific Ocean. He claimed all the land that touched the ocean for Spain.



Materials: Stuffed otter

Activity/Presentation: The Spanish explored Baja California and Alta California. They didn’t find anything of value to them in Alta California (like gold, silver, pearls), so they ignored it for nearly 200 years. But someone else had discovered the land that touched the Pacific. Russian explorers sailed to Alaska and (in 1742) found something very valuable to them—otters. The otter fur was made into warm hats and coats. Spain decided to plant colonies in Alta California to keep the Russians out.



Materials: White board or chalk board and markers or chalk

Activity/Presentation: The Spanish plan for a colony was to have

  • a presidio—a fort with about 20 or 30 soldiers who could scare away Russian ships (draw a stick fort with a flag on top and a cannon; the flag tells Russian ships “This land belongs to Spain” and the cannon tells them to keep out).
  • a pueblo—a town. They would bring settlers in to build and live in the pueblo (draw houses; the houses say “This land is already taken”).
  • a mission. There were people living in Alta California—Indians. Spain would send missionaries—priests, or padres—to tell them about God, teach them the Spanish language and Spanish ways (draw a church with a cross on top). The mission would grow and become a village, or pueblo (draw houses near the church). In about 10 years the Indians would be able to function as Spanish citizens and the padres could leave.
The plan was to start with presidios and missions in San Diego and Monterey—because they had good harbors where boats could land—and fill in with other missions in between. The missions would be about as far apart as a day’s ride on horseback, which was a three-day walk. The Spanish would build the pueblos when they could find people willing to come to settle.


Establishing a Mission



Materials: One empty tray and one tray with as many of the following as you can get:

*Acorns
Apple
*Berries
Citrus (orange, lemon)
Corn
Fig
Garbanzo beans
Grapes
Olives
Peach
Pear
Peas
*Pine nuts
Pomegranate
*Prickly pear cactus
*Seeds

Activity/Presentation: Let’s see what the Spanish found when they came to California Here are some of the wonderful things that grow in California today. Some were in California when the padres came and some were brought by the padres. Move to the empty tray all the fruits and vegetables you think were already in California when the Spanish arrived. (The ones with the asterisks were native to California). The natives used all these plants for food.



Materials: Empty tray and one tray with items to represent as many of the following as possible:

*Bear
Cat
*Caterpillar
Chickens
*Chipmunk
Cow
*Deer
Donkey/burro/mule
*Duck
*Fish (salmon, trout, eel)
Goat
*Goose
*Grasshopper
*Lizard
Horse
Pig
*Quail
*Rabbit
*Rat/mouse
*Shellfish (clam, mussel, abalone)
*Squirrel

Activity/Presentation: What animals do you think were in California when the padres got there? Move to the empty tray all the animals you think were already in California when the expedition arrived. (The ones with the asterisks were native to California.)

Which ones do you think the natives ate? (All of them!) The natives were hunters and gatherers; they ate what they could find. They did not grow crops or have gardens. They were never hungry because they knew where and when to find the plants and animals they needed.

There are some good things and some not-so-good things about the missions. One of the good things is that the Spanish brought all these wonderful plants and animals to California.



Materials: Strip of blue paper or material, tree, rounded hut-like structures (can be made from paper)

Activity/Presentation: Let’s see how the Spanish started a mission. The group that established the first mission came from Baja to San Diego in Alta California with 219 men. About half came by boat and the other half walked. Why do you think some had to walk? That was the best way to get the animals there! They brought 200 head of cattle as well as other animals. The ones who walked got there first; it took them more than a month. About half the people died on the trip.

The first thing they had to do for every mission was pick out a good spot. It had to have three things:

  1. Water (put down the blue strip). Needed for drinking and bathing.
  2. Trees (stand tree up). Needed for building and for firewood.
  3. Close to an Indian rancheria (village) (set up huts).



Materials: Wooden cross, bell, figures for or stand-up pictures of 2 padres and 1 or more soldier

Activity/Presentation: Once they found a good spot, the very first thing the padres did was set up a cross (stand the cross up). The padres really wanted the natives to know God (stand padres up). There were two padres at each mission. The soldiers (stand soldiers up) did not care about the Indians, but the padres did. Every mission had 5 to 8 soldiers. The next thing to go up was a bell (set up, hang on a tree, or show bell). The padres would ring the bell and hope the natives would hear it and come to the mission. The padres and the soldiers cut down some of the trees (remove tree) and made very simple wooden buildings, called palisades, to live in until they could build nicer, sturdier buildings.



Materials: Figures or stand-up pictures of Indians

Activity/Presentation: The padres went to the Indian villages and tried to get the natives to come to the mission (stand up Indians). They came to the mission for different reasons: they were curious, the padres had gifts of beads and cloth, the padres had powerful medicine, they liked the music and some of what went on at the mission. When enough Indians had come to a mission, the padres showed them how to make adobe tiles and how to build with them.



Materials: Blocks

Activity/Presentation: The first thing they built was a church (place blocks to represent each building described; arrange them in a quadrangle). Then they built rooms for the padres to live in and guest quarters for visitors (convento wing). They built workshops (for weaving, leatherwork, carpentry, metal work, candle making), a kitchen, and storerooms for grain and other items. They built housing for single Indian girls (manjerio). The blacksmith workshop was usually a little distance away because it had a fire pit. They had to build soldiers’ quarters and an infirmary for the sick. Some missions built houses for the natives, but in most, the natives simply built their huts near the mission buildings (move the huts close to the mission complex).


Life in a Mission



Materials: Bell

Activity/Presentation: Life at the mission was very different for the natives from life at the rancheria.

Life at the mission was regulated by the bells. The bells were rung in ways that made different sounds for different messages. Different sounds told the natives when it was time for breakfast, for church, for work, for lunch, for dinner, and for bed. They had to do whatever the bells told them exactly when the bells sounded. At the rancheria, when did they get up? Whenever they wanted. When did they eat? Whenever they got hungry. When did they work? Whenever they wanted.



Materials: Trays of foods from previous section

Activity/Presentation: At the mission the natives had the same foods every day—atole (a soup made from roasted corn) for breakfast and pozole (the same soup with some meat and vegetables added) for lunch. At the rancheria, what did they eat? They had all these foods to choose from whenever they wanted.

At the mission the Indians worked in the fields or the workshops for many hours every day. The children went to classrooms where the padres taught them. At the rancheria, men had to work only 10 or 15 hours all week to hunt or gather their food; they spent most of their time doing whatever they wanted.

The padres treated all the natives, even the grownups, like children. So if they did something the padres thought was wrong they punished them like parents punished their children. Many parents at that time punished their children by hitting them with a whip. When the Indians did something the padres thought was wrong, the padres would have the soldiers whip them. Some of the Indians ran away from the mission and went back to their rancherias. The padres worried that they would do bad things there, so they sent soldiers to bring them back. The soldiers were not always kind to the natives. This was one of the not-so-good things about the mission.


The End of the Missions



Materials: Plate of native foods

Activity/Presentation: The missions were supposed to last for about 10 years; by that time they should have become villages and towns and cities. But that didn’t happen. The padres never thought the natives were ready to take over for themselves.

Mexico went to war with Spain and the war lasted 11 years. Mexico won, so now Mexico was the ruler of Alta California instead of Spain. Mexico wanted to get rid of everything from Spain. Mexican leaders made the padres go back to Spain (remove the padres). They let Mexican priests come and work in the churches, but they took the rest of the mission buildings and lands and gave it to some of the soldiers who had fought in the war and to other friends of theirs.

What about the Indians? The missions had been around for more than 50 years and most of the mission Indians had been born at one of the missions. Where could they go and what could they do?

Some tried to go to the rancherias, but many rancherias were gone. What could they eat in the rancherias?
Acorns? The padres had cut down many of the oak trees.
Seeds and berries? The sheep had eaten the native grasses and plants.
Besides, they had lived so long at the missions they did not know what plants were good to eat and how to cook them.

Some went to the new landowners and got jobs taking care of their fields and their animals. This is the sad part of the story of the missions. The missions were supposed to help the natives but they actually took away their land and their way of life.

No one took care of the mission buildings except the churches, so when storms and rain damaged them, no one fixed them and they eventually crumbled and nearly disappeared. Today people are rebuilding them so we can see what they were like and what life was like more than 200 years ago.


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