Student Spotlight: Mapping Missionaries with Christian Geoppo

Christian Geoppo is a junior, majoring in Economics with a minor in Mathematics and Information Systems Management. Here, he shares his reflections and conclusions from the “Mapping Missionaries” project. To learn more about the Mapping Missionaries project and see the map, see our post “Going Digital, Part 2: Mapping Missionaries.” 

I found the Google Fusion Tables very easy and enjoyable to work with. However, I was rather annoyed to find that the program made distinctions between “Food and Labor” and “food, labor.” To historians using the program who want to be very specific and precise with filters, this feature induces undue work as they would have to scroll through all the filters to ensure that no separate versions of the same filter are represented.

After entering the data, I played with the filters in order to tease out patterns. First I separated the missions by empire. Not knowing much about the Spanish missions, as they had not yet been covered in class, I decided to focus on them. I was surprised to find that there exists a high concentration of missions in the Santa Fe and Albuquerque areas as these are dry, inland areas. Upon further investigation, however, I realized that this made sense, as they were clustered around the Rio Grande. I was also surprised to find that they were among the earliest missions established. The first four were established within a two year period beginning in 1598 all near the modern day city of Santa Fe. One of the values I find from Google Fusion tables is that historians can track the Spanish expansion and contraction by looking at the map through filters. Since establishing Christian missions was in the vanguard of European colonization efforts, we can determine that the Spanish were beginning to branch out of Mexico and into the American Southwest by the 1590s.

I was also surprised to learn that the first two Spanish missions were established in South Carolina by Jesuits. Since of the 269 Spanish missions, 256 of them were staffed by Franciscans, I had initially thought that Franciscans had established the first missions. Additionally, I had thought that the Spain’s missions would have originated in Florida not the Carolinas. However, based off the map, it appears that the Jesuits first established missions in South Carolina, and then moved south into Florida. The Jesuits appear to have met with little success as these missions only lasted around two years, with the longest one lasting around six. Each of the Jesuit missions in South Carolina and Georgia targeted a different tribe (Escamacu, Chayopin, Borrado, or Camama), and I wonder if the Jesuits had inadvertently stumbled into a regional conflict that drove them out. It is also entirely possible however, that these tribes were less susceptible to Christianity since at that time and location these tribes were not as exposed to European traders as the Huron and Iroquois were in French Canada. As a result, these populations would not have experienced the significant disruptions in social norms that the Huron and Iroquois experienced because of the fur trade. Moreover, since they were in less contact with European traders, the southern tribes would not have experienced the mass epidemics brought on by the fur trade. As seen in the Anderson and Blackburn readings among others, European diseases eroded native peoples’ faith in traditional beliefs, making it easier for them to convert to Catholicism. With traditional beliefs still intact, Spanish Jesuits to South Carolina did not find the fertile ground with which to plant their new faith.

I also noticed that although many Spanish missions to Florida were located along the Atlantic coast, hardly any were located along its Gulf coast. To historians of migration this would indicate that Spanish colonization began on the Atlantic coast and moved west. It would also indicate that the Spanish did not sail around the Florida peninsula to explore and proselytize the coastal regions of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Additionally, by redefining the parameters of the Date Established filter, I noticed that the period from 1725 to 1750 represented the wind down of mission activities in Florida with no new missions being established there after this period. This may suggest that prior and existing missions were successful in converting the natives in that region. It appears that the loss of Spanish Florida to Britain following the 1763 Treaty of Paris caused minimal disruption to existing missions in the area as few were closed in that region following the treaty. Indeed, it appears that most of the missions in Spanish Florida closed between 1695 and 1705. These included long term missions such as San Matheo de Tolapatafi (founded 1625, closed 1704) and San Martin de Tomole (founded 1655, closed 1704). Curiously, fifteen missions in the Tallahassee region closed in 1704. Whether this is from plague, tribal violence from the Apalache and Chine, or violence related to Queen Anne’s War, I do not know. But the collapse of these missions signals that a very significant event had occurred.

Additionally it was interesting to view commodity patterns. Labor appears to have been supplied by nearly every Spanish mission. There is no information as to what form this supply of labor took, but as seen from recent criticism of Junipero Serra’s California missions, it is likely that slavery was involved. Corn was supplied from Florida and Georgia; agricultural products and livestock were harvested from California; and horses and cattle were raised in Texas.

Turning to the French missions, the map indicates that 151 missions were established between 1565 and 1752. While 118 missions were founded by Jesuits, the Capuchin, Recollect, and Sulpician orders each established about nine missions apiece. Nine seminaries were also established, with a high concentration along the southern Mississippi River valley. The first seminary was established in New Brunswick in 1686, signaling that French colonization had matured to a point that enough French colonists desired to become priests that establishing a North American seminary was more efficacious than sending prospective priests to France.

As expected with the French missions, many missions’ main commodity was furs. Sixty-eight missions produced furs throughout the years of French colonization. I did notice however, that a large cluster of missions to the Huron near Toronto closed between 1648 and 1649. This corresponds to what we learned in class about the Iroquois Wars, which ended with the annihilation of the Huron in 1649. I did not realize the scope of destruction that the wars had wrought until I saw it reflected on the map. Fusion tables add a dimension to history that is often missed when simply reading a text. Twenty years separate the destruction of the Huron missions near Toronto and the establishment of the Iroquois missions near Montreal. A new generation had to come of age following the destruction of the Huron before French Catholics were accepted by the Iroquois tribe and permitted to establish lasting missions. This attests to the antipathy the Iroquois felt towards the French, who early on had chosen to fight and trade with the Huron rather than the Iroquois. The establishment of the missions occurred only two to three years following the treaty of 1667, which established a final and lasting peace with the French. The Jesuit missionaries were not ones to wait.

Unlike the Spanish Franciscans, French Jesuits established missions along the Mississippi and Alabama coast and interior. However, these occurred late in the French colonial movement, with establishment of the coastal missions in 1700 and 1704 and establishment of the interior missions in 1722 and 1728. These missions did not produce any major commodities and closed fairly quickly. In fact most of the missions established south of St. Louis, with the exception of Immaculate Conception IV closed a few years after they opened. Perhaps the first nations in these regions were not as susceptible to disruption as the tribes in Canada and New England because they were not as exposed to the fur trade, which as we learned in class caused major spiritual and social upheaval. Without the tribes’ association with French traders and exposure to European diseases to the extent that the northern tribes faced, it is likely that old beliefs and traditions remained intact and Christianity was mostly rejected.

Overall, I felt that this project aided my understanding as to the extent of and challenges faced by Catholic missions in North America. The ability to use time lapse also helped me to visualize French and Spanish territorial expansion and encroachment on native peoples’ lands as well. I believe that fusion tables are an asset for historians, especially if they are tracking migrations.


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