Student Spotlight: Mapping Missionaries with Brittany Stieferman

Brittany Stieferman is a senior, majoring in psychology and pre-medicine, with a minor in history, she plans to become an otolaryngologist. Here, she shares her experience with 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.” 

The data collected by John Corrigan, Tracy Leavelle, and Arthur Remillard concerning the French and Spanish missions in the United States provides a lot of useful information, and raises just as many questions concerning the European colonization of North America and missionary interaction with Native American tribes. Google Fusion tables is a neat, interactive learning tool useful for engaging the viewer by showing the establishment of missions as a function of time, empire, missionary order, or even as a function of commodity produced.

Mission positioning and establishment

I found it most logical to split the map into the two empires and to track the establishment of missions that way. France built their first Jesuit mission in Maine in 1565 which remained active for almost two centuries. Spain built Jesuit missions along the coast of the southeastern United States, the first two in South Carolina in 1566 which were closed within six years. The starting positions for the French and Spanish empires make sense considering their relative positions in Europe–if they just went straight across the Atlantic Ocean that’s about where they’d end up in the North America.

Given the entryways of the French and Spanish empires, it’s reasonable that French missionaries mainly stayed in Canada, though they would eventually expand south into the Midwestern United States traveling along the Mississippi river. There were a few French missions in Florida, and southern Arizona bordering Mexico—this in what would be Spanish “territory”, so overlap did occur but it was rare. The Spanish empire mainly had missions established in the southern United States, starting in Florida and moving westward to the coast of California. They had a few missions set up in Canada and in the northeastern United States in French “territory”.

French Jesuit Missions

The positioning of the missions, regardless if French or Spanish, suggests that they were placed in populous Native American locations—this because the missionaries want to reach as many people as possible, and because they have limited resources and funds to build missions. This also gives us a general radius of where Christianity was spread first hand, and where it was spread more heavily. Multiple missions being built in close proximity would suggest the acceptance of Christianity by certain tribes, for example there were clumps of missions built near Toronto, Canada (mostly Huron, 39 total across North America), and also clumps of missions built in northern Florida (mostly Timucuan, 24 total across North America).

The Spanish missionaries went further west than the French missionaries ever did. The furthest west that the French missionaries established a mission was in southern Canada on the border of Minnesota. Meanwhile, the Spanish built missions throughout many of the southern United States reaching California—although this took place over a century and a half, Spanish Franciscan missionaries established missions spanning over 2300 miles. The Spanish missions reached around 1700 miles further west than the most western French mission.

Spanish Franciscan Missions

It’s interesting that Spanish missionaries expanded more than the French; this could be in part because the Spanish were patrons of the Franciscans and therefore their missionary efforts weren’t hindered with the suppression of the Jesuit order around 1750, but with that being said 82% of the Spanish missions were built before the 1750s. There were likely also more Franciscans than Jesuits in general since Franciscans travelled in groups, and therefore Spain had a greater workforce dedicated to establishing missions. France left most of Canada unexplored. It’s understandable why the French missionaries may not want to search north (it’s cold), but why not move further west? Why did they instead move south along the Mississippi river? My best guess would be they followed leads that Native tribes would give them advising them where to go to meet other Native tribes, or they were following in the footsteps of French explorers.

Missionary Orders

The French heavily favored Jesuit missionaries, with French Franciscan missionaries few and far in between. This is in stark contrast with that of the Spanish empire sending primarily Franciscan missionaries—kind of odd considering the Jesuits are of Spanish origin. There were only twelve Spanish Jesuit missions built in the United States, and they were all closed by 1733. More puzzling, the Spanish missions built between 1566 and 1587 were purely Jesuit. In 1587, there was a clear divergence and from then on basically only Franciscan missions were built. Why did Spain stop endorsing Jesuit missionaries after the first 21 years?

Commodities and Trade

The French missions primarily traded furs, which coincides with location. The Spanish missions didn’t deal with furs at all, instead trading agricultural goods, labor, and sometimes farm animals which makes sense based on their location and environment in the southern United States. The fur trade of the French missions gives us general information on fur trading routes with the range of fur-trading missions extending as far as 2000 miles from Quebec to Arkansas. The furs were produced at the missions and traded for other things, but I wonder how active in the fur trade the missions were and if their contribution was incremental to the fur trade as a whole.

Native American Tribes

The missions dealt with a large array of Native American tribes. What stuck out to me was that the first Spanish missions were meant to proselytize the Huron tribe in Saint Augustine, Florida, and also in southern Georgia. This is interesting because the Huron were primarily located in Ontario, Canada. The distance between Saint Augustine and Southern Ontario is over 1200 miles and would take over 16 days of continuous walking from one destination to the next, and that’s with modern roads! It’s interesting that the Huron traversed so far. There were also two Iroquois missions in Georgia. I wonder if the Huron and Iroquois tribes that lived so far south of their main hub had somewhat regular contact through messengers, or if they travelled back and forth frequently.


It would be interesting to map the spread of disease across North America based on the death records provided by missionaries, however the data is severely limited as only the Spanish missions in San Antonio recorded a death toll. With just this data given, the sample size is too small to produce a credible generalized extreme value distribution or estimation of proportion. With additional data from outside sources, it might be possible to produce a statistical analysis of the decline in Native populations from disease with a low confidence interval, proving mostly ineffective. This would also be ineffective overall in deducing initial Native populations as decline from warfare should be factored in. Instead, it might be interesting to look at how certain diseases effected the Europeans on its initial spread, therefore spread to virgin recipients of the disease, and to compare this to what is known about the mortality rate of the Native Americans and like diseases.


The data, and its incorporation into Google Fusion tables is extremely useful in understanding the expanse of the French and Spanish missions across North America. There were 420 missions combined, however most of North America was left mission-less by the early 1800s. Half of the United States and 70% of Canadian provinces were never touched by established Catholic missions, anyway. There is no doubt that people lived in these areas and I wonder what the spread of Christianity was like for the inhabitants who were miles away from the initial European colonization.


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