- Open Access
Exchange of medicinal plant information in California missions
Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine volume 16, Article number: 35 (2020)
Missions were established in California in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to convert Native Americans to Christianity and enculturate them into a class of laborers for Californios (Spanish/Mexican settler). The concentration of large numbers of Native Americans at the Missions, along with the introduction of European diseases, led to serious disease problems. Medicinal supplies brought to California by the missionaries were limited in quantity. This situation resulted in an opportunity for the sharing of knowledge of medicinal plants between the Native Americans and the Mission priests. The purpose of this study is to examine the degree to which such sharing of knowledge took place and to understand factors that may have influenced the sharing of medicinal knowledge. The study also examines the sharing of medicinal knowledge between the Native Americans and the Californios following the demise of the California Missions.
Two methods were employed in the study: (1) a comparison of lists of medicinal plants used by various groups (e.g., Native American, Mission priests, Californios) prior to, during, and after the Mission period and (2) a close reading of diaries, reports, and books written by first-hand observers and modern authorities to find accounts of and identify factors influencing the exchange of medicinal information.
A comparison of the lists of medicinal plants use by various groups indicated that only a small percentage of medicinal plants were shared by two or more groups. For example, none of the 265 taxa of species used by the Native Americans in pre-Mission times were imported into Spain for medicinal use and only 16 taxa were reported to have been used at the Missions. A larger sharing of information of medicinal plants took place in the post-Mission period when Native Americans were dispersed from the Missions and worked as laborers on the ranches of the Californios.
Sharing of information concerning medicinal plants did occur during the Mission period, but the number of documented species was limited. A number of possible factors discouraged this exchange. These include (1) imbalance of power between the priests and the Native Americans, (2) suppression of indigenous knowledge and medical practices by the Mission priests, (3) language barriers, (4) reduction of availability of medicinal herbs around the Mission due to introduced agricultural practices, (5) desire to protect knowledge of medicinal herbs by Native American shaman, (6) administrative structure at the Missions which left little time for direct interaction between the priests and individual Native Americans, (7) loss of knowledge of herbal medicine by the Native Americans over time at the Missions, and (8) limited transportation opportunities for reciprocal the shipment of medicinal plants between California and Spain. Three possible factors were identified that contributed to a greater sharing of information between the Native Americans and the Californios in the post-Mission period. These were (1) more one-to-one interactions between the Californios and the Native Americans, (2) many of the Californios were mestizos whose mothers or grandmothers were Native Americans, and (3) lack of pressure on the part of the Californios to suppress Native American beliefs and medicinal practices.
The migration of people to North America began about 21,000-40,000 years BP over a great land bridge between Siberia and Alaska . Evidence of human settlement dates from about 13,000 years BP on the Channel Islands off the coast of California and from about 10,330 years BP on the mainland near San Luis Obispo (). These early immigrants moved along a coastal route from Alaska either on foot or by boat. Later, Native Americans immigrated to coastal California from inland California and from more eastern areas of North America. They brought with them about 100 languages belonging to seven major language groups . The immigrants also brought with them knowledge of plants used for medicinal purposes gained from the territories they had previously occupied. For example, roots of the species in genus Rubus (blackberries) were used to control diarrhea by people in Asia as well as by Native Americans living in different parts of North America . When people immigrated to California, they adopted local species of Rubus to combat diarrhea . Once in California, the immigrants adapted new species for medicinal use. The Pomo, for example, used the bark of the California buckeye (Aesculus californica), a California endemic, to treat snakebites . Various researchers have examined medicinal use of plants by Native Americans in California since the nineteenth century [7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16,17,18,19]. These studies served as important references in the study reported here.
The culture and economy of Native Americans was changed significantly beginning in 1769 with the European colonization of California. An integral part of the Spanish colonization process was the establishment of a system of Missions (Fig. 1). The first Mission was located in what was to become the city of San Diego. Subsequently, Franciscan priests supported by the military moved northward along the California coast to establish a total of 21 Missions . These Missions were established to christianize the Native Americans and to prepare them to serve as a peasant class in the new Spanish territory .
In the early Mission period, the priests staffing the Missions were mostly from Spain. The Franciscan priests who established and staffed Missions came primarily from Spain [22, 23]. Thirty-six (72%) of the priests came from northern Spain (Basque territory and the adjacent provinces, Navarra mainly), one from central Spain (2%), and none from the south of Spain. The remaining priests were from Mallorca (8 individuals, 16%) and Mexico (5 individuals, 10%). The Basque territory, Navarra, and Mallorca were the homelands of one-half of the priest at the early California Missions. These priests brought with them knowledge of medicinal herbs used in their homelands. They also brought seeds and cuttings of plants  used for medicinal purposes in Mexico and Spain .
The California Missions were under the control of Spain from 1769 to 1821. During this time the Native Americans who were converted to christianity at the Missions were known to as neophytes. The medical care of the neophytes was one of the responsibilities of the priests. The neophytes, not being immune to European diseases, succumbed in large numbers to epidemics of measles and smallpox . Contagious native ailments (e.g., colds, dysentery) also spread among the neophytes due to their congregation in large numbers at the Missions. The priests responded to the increasing numbers of sick neophytes by establishing hospitals at many of the Missions. Although there was a significant power imbalance between the priests and the neophytes, the situation called for a sharing of information about medicinal herbs and the employment of neophytes in the treatment of the sick. Enfermeros (neophytes selected by the priests to serve as nurses) were assigned to care for the sick in these hospitals. The enfermeros used medicinal herbs and Spanish medicine to treat the neophytes. Medicinal herbs used by the Native Americans were collected from around the Missions , while Spanish medicinal supplies were shipped periodically to California from Mexico . The quantity of medicinal supplies imported from Mexico often became inadequate to treat the increasing number of neophytes succumbing to both native and exotic diseases. At times of shortages of medical supplies, the priests and enfermeros exchanged knowledge of medicinal plants to broaden the supply of medicines to treat the sick . Neophytes were sometimes dispatched by the priests to collect medicinal plants from the wild (Engelhardt 1922).
During the Mission period, seeds of plants for the mission gardens periodically arrived via ships from Europe, South America, and Mexico. Walled gardens, known as huertas, were an essential part of the Mission landscapes. They provided growing space for food plants, as well as trees, flowers, and medicinal herbs. Plants grown in the huertas were used by both the priests and the Native Americans. The importation of seeds and other goods was curtailed after 1810 when shipping from Spain and the Spanish colonies in the New World was interrupted by the rebellion in Mexico . Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821. Following the Mexican rebellion, the independent Mexican government exerted its authority over the Missions. The Mexican authorities attempted to expel the Franciscan priests from the Missions, sell or transfer Mission lands to Mexican citizens, and convert the Mission churches to local parish churches. This process was known as “secularization.” Some missions were abandoned while others assumed the role of parish churches. Mission in more remote locations in California still housed limited number of Native American neophytes, but most neophytes were transferred to nearby ranches during the Mexican period (1821-1848) were they worked as laborers. Some Native Americans were paid modest salaries for their labor, while most worked for food and a place to live. Individual Native American families and extended families lived on the ranches. A striking contrast to the hundreds who had resided at the missions. The relocation of Native Americans to local ranches provided an opportunity for the sharing of information concerning medicinal plants between the Native Americans and the Californios.
The secularization period ended in 1848 with the annexation of California by the USA following the war with Mexico. Following the annexation, most of the Missions were abandoned and began to fall into disrepair. Without active parishes to maintain the Missions, the old buildings fell prey to the weather. Their roofs gave way first, exposing the soluble adobe walls to the rain. Many of the old buildings were abandoned as unsafe or unsalvageable, many were torn down. For many decades the decay of buildings at the Missions, the missions continued until citizens began to take an interest in them and to propose their restoration. Old records, drawing, and photographs were studied to perform reconstruction of historic buildings, patios, and gardens. At several Missions, medicinal plants were incorporated into the restored gardens.
The purpose of this study is to examine the exchange of medicinal plant information at the California Missions during the Mission and post-Mission periods. Specifically, the exchange between the Native Americans and the priests during the Mission period and the exchange between the Native Americans and the Californios during and following the secularization of the Missions. We hypothesize that an exchange of information on medicinal plants can be identified by comparing the numbers of taxa from Spain that were introduced into California and adopted for use by the Native Americans and the number of taxa from California that were introduced into Spain and adopted by Spanish citizens for medicinal purposes. Furthermore, the exchange of information concerning medicinal plants between the Native Americans and the Californios can be identified by the number of medicinal taxa from Spain and Mexico that were introduced into California and used by the Native Americans and the number of California taxa adopted for medicinal use by the Californios.
Two methods were employed in this study: (1) comparison of lists of medicinal plants used by Native American in California before the Mission period, medicinal plants used in Spain, medicinal plants used in Mexico before it gained its independence from Spain, and medicinal plants used by Californios and Native Americans in the post-Mission period and (2) a close reading of diaries, journals, reports, and books written by (i) first-hand observers during the Mission and post-Mission periods and, (ii) modern anthropologists, ethnobotanists, and historians to find accounts of the sharing of information about medicinal plants and to identify reasons why an exchange of information may or may not have taken place.
The lists of medicinal plants and their uses were assembled from a number of sources (Table 1) for the pre- and Mission period (before and during colonization) and the post Mission Period (during and after secularization).
The data provided were grouped into 14 categories depending on the pathology they treated [37, 38, 44]: (1) cardiovascular diseases; (2) depurative; (3) dermatology; (4) digestive or gastrointestinal problems; (5) metabolic syndromes; (6) infections; (7) skeleto-muscular system; (8) nervous system; (9) sens (eye and ear problems); (10) gynecology; (11) respiratory complaints; (12) urology; (13) ritual procedures; (14) various other ailments (Table 2). Botanical family classification and nomenclature for species names were authenticated according to Hickman , Stevens  and  (www.ipni.org).
To determine if any California species were introduced in Spanish and/or European botanical gardens a literature review was carried conducted [48,49,50,51,52,53,54]. Several databases were also consulted: www.floraiberica.es; www.fitoterapia.net [55,56,57];.
A comparison of the assembled lists identified medicinal plant taxa that were used in two different areas (e.g., California and Spain). If taxa native to California were reported to be used in present-day Spanish medicinal gardens, then we assumed information of the medicinal use of these plants had been shared between the Native Americans and the Spanish priest. Likewise, if taxa native to Spain were present in herb gardens at the Missions or reported to have been used by Native Americans during the post-Mission period, we assumed that sharing of knowledge had taken place.
A total of 822 taxa belonging to 136 botanical families were identified (Table 3). Seven hundred twelve of them had been used during pre- and Mission Period; 265 of them were plants used by Native Americans in California before colonization, 448 taxa were used for medicinal purposes in Spain or in Mexico (Table 3). The most commonly used plants were employed to treat sores, wounds, and skin problems, for respiratory diseases, gastrointestinal tract problems, reproductive affections, and cardiovascular diseases (Fig. 2). The preparation and application of plant materials for medicinal purposes by the Native Americans in California included the direct application of leaves to the affected area (e.g., Rhamnus californica Eschsch.—treat rheumatism); drinking water in which the plant material had been boiled (e.g., Rubus ursinus Cham. & Schldl—treat diarrhea); application of a poultice prepared from the plant material (e.g., Malva parviflora L.—treat wounds), eating the plant or plant part (e.g., Rorippa nasturtium (L.) Hayek—treat liver ailments), bathing the skin with water in which to plant had been boiled (e.g., Wyethia helenioides (DC.) Nutt.—treat sores); rubbing dry ashes of a plant on the skin (e.g., Scripus californicus (C. Mewyer) Steudel—treat poison oak); chewing plant parts (e.g., Lomatium californicum (Torrey and Gray) J. Coulter & Rose—treat pain).
We assumed if information concerning California medicinal plants was shared by the Native Americans with the Spanish priests some of these species would have been subsequently introduced to Spain as had medicinal plants from Mexico and South America.
Twelve of 265 taxa used by Native Americans were also used in Mexico: Adiantum aleuticum (Rupr.) C.A. Paris, Anemopsis californica (Nutt.) Hook. & Arn, Artemisia ludoviciana Nutt, Baccharis glutinosa Pers., Cucurbita foetidissima Kunth, Equisetum arvense L., Larrea tridentata (DC.) Cov., Opuntia sp., Quercus sp., Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum (L.) Hayek, Salvia sp. and Sambucus mexicana C. Presl. (Table 3). It is important to point out that these medicinal plants were not necessarily used to treat the same ailments. It is evident that many of the Mission priests and early Spanish explorers were open to the use of Native American medicinal plants and adopted them when medicinal supplies from Spain and Mexico were not available [26, 58,59,60,61].
The close reading of diaries, journals, reports, and books indicate there are reasons to believe that sharing of information about medicinal plants did take place at the Missions, but conditions at the Missions and other factors also interfered with the exchange. Table 4 summarizes references that report on the sharing of information. The primary support comes from diaries and reports of priests and others present during the Mission period who observed the use of plants native to California and the introduction of European species period (see Table 4). Direct evidence of the sharing of information comes from reports that neophytes were sent out to collect both food and medicinal plant in times of shortages . A survey conducted in 1812 asked the priests at each Mission to report on the customs and conditions of indigenous people living at or near the Missions . Question no. 15 of the survey asked specifically about the medicinal practices of the people and their use of plants in the treatment of illness. In response to this question, the priest at 13 of the 18 missions reported that the local Native Americans used plants for medicinal purposes. Reports from the other five missions stated that no plants were used by the Native Americans for medicinal purposes. Plant species were identified, ranging in number from one to 14, at eight of the 13 missions reporting the use of medicinal herbs. A total of 16 different plants were reported from all the California Missions.
Table 5 summarizes references that suggest eight reasons for the impediments to the transfer of information. These are the following:
(1) A significant power imbalance existed between the priests and the Native Americans.
(2) Priests thought the Native Americans were savage heathens or children who knew nothing.
(3) Language barriers to communication.
(4) Reduction in the availability of medicinal herbs due to the elimination of Native American burning and the introduction of Spanish livestock.
(5) Knowledge of medicinal plants was a source of power and income for the Native American shamans who did not want to share it.
(6) Structural organization of the administration of Missions left little time for direct communication between priests and neophytes.
(7) Knowledge of herbal medicine was lost at the Missions by the neophyte’s children and grandchildren.
(8) Transportation limitations during the Mission period may have limited reciprocal shipments of medicinal plants between Spain and California.
The list of medicinal plants used both by Natives Americans and Californios indicates a much greater sharing of medicinal knowledge following the secularization of the Missions [19, 43]. The lists indicate 148 taxa were used to treat 288 ailments in 14 therapeutic groups (Fig. 2). Forty-four (30%) of these 148 taxa occur on the list of medicinal plants used by the Native American prior to the Mission period, forty-two taxa (28.4%) were in use during the Mission period.
The results of this study suggest limited sharing of information about medicinal plants occurred during the Mission Period. There are direct reports of the sharing of information such as the dispatching of neophytes to collect food plants and herbs during times of shortages . Additionally, the priest at eight of the Missions responded to the 1812 survey that the local Native Americans used plants for medicinal purposes. One might assume that some of these plants would have been exported to Spain because of their medicinal value. However, none of the 15 species most commonly used by Native Americans occurs on the registry of plants introduced to Mediterranean area during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (; Flora [49, 52, 53, 81]). Furthermore, none of these California species were reported to have been grown in present-day herb gardens in northern Spain [37, 38]. The exchange of information on medicinal plants is further supported by the presence of both European and Californian species in present-day Mission gardens and apothecary shops further supports the exchange of information.
Much more evidence was discovered in this study to suggest many possible factors contributed to constraining the sharing of information about medicinal plants. These factors and the sources of information about these factors are presented in Table 5. We elaborate on these factors as follows:
A significant power imbalance existed between the priests and the Native Americans
The priests maintained significant power over the Native Americans at the missions. Their power was enforced by corporal punishment and confinement of the neophytes who did not work or who behaved badly in the eyes of the priests [61, 82]. This power imbalance resulted in the neophytes hiding some information concerning medicinal plants and shaman treating neophytes out of sight of the priests [21, 79]. Any acknowledgment of the value of Native American herbs by the priests would have been a way of giving power to the Native Americans.
Priests thought the Native Americans were savage heathens or children who knew nothing
Many of the priests regarded the Native Americans as pagan savages whose customs needed to be suppressed. Interest in or communication about native medicinal plants would have been considered a way of endorsing native beliefs that the priests were dedicated to eliminating.
Language barriers to communication
Language was also a barrier to communication between the priests and the Native Americans. Several quite distinct languages and dialects were spoken by Native Americans living along the California coast. Although the Mission priests were expected to learn the native languages and instruct the Native Americans in their native languages this was seldom the case . The language barrier was limited not only to the difficulty and reluctance of the Mission priests to learn the native languages, but also to the first generation of Native Americans neophytes who learned only a minimum of Spanish. Spanish was acquired by Native Americans born at the Missions , but this and subsequent generations of Mission born Native Americans had less knowledge of native medicinal plants to share with the priests.
Reduction in the availability of medicinal herbs due to the elimination of Native American burning and the introduction of Spanish livestock
The use of land for farming and livestock grazing along with the elimination of Native American burning of the landscape resulted in fewer medicinal plants in the vicinity of the Missions [30, 62, 74]. The resulting lack of access to native medicinal plants further interfered with the transfer on information.
Knowledge of medicinal plants was a source of power and income for the Native American shamans who did not want to share it
The power and income Native American shamans received from their use of medicinal herbs were values that they would not have wanted to give up. The shamans continued their treatment of sick Native Americans at the Missions, but not in situations where they would be observed by the priests ([21, 74]; Timbrook 2000). Since the shaman’s knowledge of healing was acquired over many years and was not shared with the general population of Native Americans , one would not have expected they would be eager to share it with the priests.
Structural organization of the administration of Missions left little time for direct communication between priests and neophytes
The Missions were initially organized to be administered by only two priests. They were assisted by a limited number of soldiers, cowboys, farmers, and craftsmen brought from Mexico . Wives of some of these individuals were put in charge of the girl’s and unmarried women’s dormitories. Others worked as cooks. The priests selected neophytes to serve as acaldes and enfermeros in intermediate positions between the assistants brought from Mexico and the common neophytes . The priests organized the work force of neophytes into four classes: first—skilled artisans; masons, carpenters, etc.; second—fishermen, stockmen, herdsmen, cowboys, tallow makers, hide cleaners, butchers; third—horticulturalists who tended mission gardens; fourth—laborers and field hands . This administrative structure was necessary to manage the large numbers of neophytes at the Mission and to raise food . The administrative structure limited one on one communication between the neophytes and the priests except in the catechism classes initially conducted by the priests. The priests had limited contact with the Native American women, some of whom were lower-level shamans possessing considerable knowledge of medicinal plants .
Knowledge of herbal medicine was lost at the Missions by the neophyte’s children and grandchildren
An important impediment to the transfer of knowledge of herbal medicine was the loss of such knowledge by the initial generation of neophyte’s children and grandchildren [32, 59, 74]. The individuals who were born at the Missions had fewer contacts with native medicinal plants than Native Americans living away from the Missions. Sandos  suggests that previous customs changed the longer the neophytes were at the Missions.
Transportation limitations during the Mission period may have limited reciprocal shipments of medicinal plants between Spain and California
Transportation from Spain to California and vice versa during the Mission period was limited. Most materials brought from Spain were shipped to ports on the east coast of Mexico, transported over land to Puerto Vallarta, and then shipped to ports in San Diego, Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San Francisco. Occasionally, ships from Europe would travel around the tip of South America to reach ports in California. Prior to the Mexican revolution, at least one ship would arrive annually with supplies for the Missions. During the Mexican War of Independence (1810-1821) shipments to California were for the most part halted [21, 69]. The Spanish priests did import European plants, including medicinal plants for gardens at the Missions ; however, observers at the time reported that the Native Americans received inadequate medical care mostly because of limited supplies of medicines [23, 73, 82]. As transportation was limited, especially during the conflict between Spain and Mexico there may have been little opportunity to ship medicinal plants back to Spain or to import them.
A greater exchange of information occurred during the post-Mission Period. The high number of plants used for medicinal purposes might be explained by the closer working relationships that occurred on the local ranches between the Native Americans and the Californios. Furthermore, the Californios had less incentives to “deculturalize” the Native Americans. Preparation of 46 of the herbal remedies reported by Garriga included ingredients (e.g., milk, whisky, castor oil) that were not available to the Native Americans in pre-Spanish times . This suggests a sharing of information between the Californios and the Native Americans. We believe the greater sharing of information about the medicinal use of plants during the secularization and post-secularization period was due to (1) more one-to-one interactions between the Californios and the Native Americans, (2) many of the Californios were mestizos whose mothers or grandmothers were Native Americans, and (3) the lack of pressure on the part of the Californios to suppress Native American beliefs.
We conclude from this study that there was a limited transfer of information on the medicinal use of plants between the Native American and Spanish priests during the Mission period. Many factors related to the obligations of the priests, their attitudes toward the Native Americans, language barriers, and cultural differences interfered with a more complete sharing of information. A primary factor in the lack of transfer of medicinal information between the Native American and the priest was the imbalance of power. This imbalance of power kept the Native Americans from sharing information. The fact that none of the 15 most commonly used California species were not transported to Spain for medicinal uses presents an interesting question: were these plants not considered of superior value to the plants in Spain for the treatment of illnesses or did the Native American not share their knowledge of these plants with the priests? The magnitude sharing of information about medicinal plants between the Native Americans and the Californios increased in the post-Mission Period. This increase was due to a greater contact between the Native Americans and the Californios and a different relationship that existed between the two groups. Important aspects of this relationship were increased one-on-one communication, mestizo background of the Californios, and the lack of responsibility on the part of the Californios to convert the Native Americans to christianity.
Availability of data and materials
All data generated or analyzed during this study are included in this published article.
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This research was funding out of the salaries paid to the authors from their institutions. No direct research funding supported the research and manuscript preparation.
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McBride, J.R., Cavero, R.Y., Cheshire, A.L. et al. Exchange of medicinal plant information in California missions. J Ethnobiology Ethnomedicine 16, 35 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13002-020-00388-y
- Medicinal plants
- Native Americans
- California Missions
- Spanish priests
- Information transfer