The Christian mission as a frontier institution that emerges in this chapter is not a romantic pastoral scene peopled by happy converts led by congenial pastors. Rather, it is the grim story of rapid population decline.
Henry Dobyns, 1976104
The borderland Indian population suffered the same catastrophic numerical decline that Indians had in central Mexico. Mission Indians, the population for which the best records exist, had a high level of mortality due to a combination of malnutrition, disease, crowding, and poor sanitation. Bones recovered from mission Indians are significantly smaller than those of their predecessors from pre-Spanish times, indicating malnutrition and disease.105
A few examples indicate the magnitude of Indian population decline. By 1690, European-introduced diseases had reduced the population of east Texas to only about 10 or 20 percent of what it had been in 1542. In 1581, the Pueblo population totaled 130,000. By 1706, it had declined to 6,440. Burial books indicate that the eastern pueblos, such as Pecos, suffered major epidemics during every decade from 1695 to 1828. Between 1540 and 1590, there were roughly seventy-five to ninety pueblos in the Rio Grande drainage. By 1643, only forty-three were still occupied.106
California has often been cited as the shining example of the Spanish mission system. The mission population there grew three-fold between 1790 and 1820, with the establishment of ten new missions and the addition of neophytes at all missions. The missions’ numerical “success” resulted from forced recruitment from the large pool of non-mission Indians. Alta California’s Indian population numbered 300,000 in 1769. By the end of the colonial period, it had fallen to 200,000.107
As a result of disease and unsanitary conditions, life expectancy at birth in California missions was only 4.5 years. High mortality rates resulted from congregating Indians in one location, which facilitated the spread of diseases such as influenza, diphtheria, measles, pneumonia, whooping cough, small pox, malaria, typhoid, cholera, tuberculosis, dysentery, syphilis, and gonorrhea. Forced relocation to the cool, damp, foggy seashore exacerbated health problems. Neither the missionaries nor the Indians understood the causes of the high mortality rate among mission Indians. This led mission historian Robert Archibald to comment, “This destruction was inexcusable but it was not intentional.” Archibald also observed, “The missionaries would have preferred to have dead Christians rather than live pagans.”108