Junipero Serra was best known for his work in establishing numerous missions from Baja California to San Diego and San Francisco. At the time there was little doubt of the positive contribution these missions were having in integrating native populations into the new Spanish way of life. In other areas the transition was nowhere near as smooth and this is why Serra is celebrated for his benevolence. These days his legacy is often questioned because of many documented cases of abuse that natives were exposed to at these missions. This may be true, but it’s a very real possibility that the situation would have been much worse if Serra hadn’t established these missions. All over North America religious leaders and clerics were creating similar missions that would prove to be just as controversial years later.
Columbus Signals the Beginning
Most of us are very familiar with Columbus’s discovery of the Americas in 1492, but that may not have been the most significant visit by Columbus for North America and its inhabitants. He didn’t take long to return to the New World and in 1493 he returned along with Catholic priests ready to spread the good word of god. There’s no doubt that some native inhabitants of the New World were more than willing to convert to Christianity, but there were many that weren’t. This was the beginning of what would become a continent wide effort to convert the native populations of North America to Christianity and there have been a lot of controversial moments along the way.
An Organized Plan
By the beginning of the 16th century Spain had established strong roots in South America and the southern portions of North America. At that time Pope Alexander the VI decided it was time to grant Spain exclusive rights to train and instruct the native population on the benefits of converting to Catholicism. It was now Spain’s job to establish missions in all of their colonies and begin the process of converting all natives – it wasn’t really important whether they wanted to be converted or not.
Taking Root in the North
The turn of the 17th century ushered in an era of French missionary influence. They had already established several missions in the area known as New France by this time, but in 1600 they took their message into the heart of what we now know as Michigan. The Spanish were now no longer the only European nation spreading the Catholic religion in North America.