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Glimpses of Life at Mission Dolores

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Panorama on display at the Mission Dolores Visitors Center and Museum. Although the depiction does not reflect current thinking on the architectural style or period clothing, it does give a good sense of daily life at the mission.


Father Margil had placed Mission Dolores in the middle of eight Ais settlements said to have been llocated within a three mile radius of the mission and inhabited by a total of 80 families. The Ais came to be proficient in the Spanish language and also in the use of French firearms, and for a short time in the 1750s, some families actually lived at Mission Dolores. For the most part, though, the Ais lived in their own settlements and would visit the mission to help with the crops. Occasional "hour of death" baptisms were performed on dying Ais by the priests of Mission Dolores. Apparently, the priests were reluctant to baptize Ais children because they were afraid that the children would not grow up leading a Christian life. It also appears that some of the Ais were afraid of the baptismal water, thinking that it was the cause of death since it was often administered just before death.

Two priests and one lay brother were assigned to Mission Dolores, along with two soldiers and their families. The buildings included a church and residences. Archaeological evidence suggests that one building may have been an adobe block structure, and others represent jacal type structures. The people of Mission Dolores grew corn, figs, garlic, onions and green vegetables of many kinds. A nearby ranch provided cattle, and cow bone fragments are abundant at Mission Dolores. Roughly 60% of the animal bone fragments are from European domesticates—59% are from cattle and 1% from sheep. Another 25% of the bone fragments are from deer and the last 15% are from fish, reptile and small mammals.

The French influence at Mission Dolores is undeniable in the archaeological record. The ratio of French to Spanish tin enameled earthenware is four to one. Fragments of French firearms have also been recovered. The French had a free trade policy with both the Spanish and the Indians, but the Spanish Crown forbade the trade of merchandise with the French (except food) and forbade the trade of guns and alcohol to the Indians. In 1766, one of the priests assigned to Mission Dolores testified that another priest who had been arrested for the possession of French trade goods was handling such goods to entice the Indians to come settle at his mission.

Indian pottery fragments dominate the manufactured goods recovered from Mission Dolores. It is likely than many of these fragments represent containers for Indian food stuffs, such as corn or bear fat, but table ware is also represented. Given the likelihood that few Ais actually lived at Mission Dolores, most of the aboriginal pottery must have been used by the missionís Spanish inhabitants.

The European artifacts recovered from Mission Dolores give us glimpses into mission life including food preparation and service, military armament, clothing, religious items, and even music, as the following entries illustrate.


Preparing the Meals

Maize was a staple at the East Texas missions, and the mano and metate were standard food processing tools in Spanish Colonial households. The Nauha Indians of central Mexico ground their corn on rectangular shaped grinding stones called metlatl, which the Spanish interpreted as metate. The Spanish used their own term—mano—for the stone you held in your hand to grind against the metate. Mano means “hand” in Spanish. Several mano fragments made of volcanic tuff were recovered from Mission Dolores and were likely brought from Mexico. Similar grinding tools are still cherished by some of the old Spanish families living along the Texas-Louisiana border in the former eastern province of Spanish Tejas.

A chocolate pot handle represents a popular drink among the residents of the Spanish Colonial period habitations in East Texas. Chocolate is native to southern Mexico and Central America, and become consumed widely in Europe in colonial times after being introduced from the Americas. Chocolate appears in the account ledgers of the soldiers of Los Adaes, along with pilonsillo or brown sugar, suggesting that the Spanish were sweetening their chocolate.

Fragments of both iron and copper alloy containers have been recovered from Mission Dolores. These were probably used in cooking, although it is likely that Indian pottery vessels were also used in cooking, given the large quantity of aboriginal ceramics, and the great distance from Spanish markets.

 

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Archaeological investigations at Mission Dolores have identified one adobe and at least five probable jacal type structures (A-E). Photograph

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Although we have no period drawings of Mission Dolores, it would have shared many similarities with the mission compound at Los Adaes shown above, as drawn by Joseph de Urrutia in 1767. The church is building 5 and the priest’s residence is building 6. A perimeter fence incorporates the walls of the structures to enclose the compound, which includes a garden courtyard. The two structures to the south might be the residence of a married soldier assigned to protect the mission. Photograph
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Fragments of manos, handheld grinding stones used to grind corn. These are made from volcanic tuff and were likely brought from Mexico. Photo by George Avery. Photograph
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A chocolate pot handle made of copper alloy represents a popular drink among the residents of the Spanish Colonial period habitations in East Texas. Photograph by George Avery. Photograph
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Mexican tin-enameled tableware ─ San Augustín Blue on White majolica. Photograph
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French lead-glazed tableware ─ Saintonge tableware. Photographs by George Avery. Photograph
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Mexican tin-enameled tableware ─ polychrome majolica. Photograph


You might expect the table of a Spanish mission priest or soldier to be set with tableware made in either Spain or Mexico, but in fact, there are four times as many fragments of French tableware as those made in Mexico at Mission Dolores, and no tableware from Spain has been recovered. A small number of sherds are from tableware made in either Britain or Holland. The only Spanish-made pottery recovered from Mission Dolores are the sherds of olive jars, which contained either wine or olive oil. Most of the European tableware is relatively expensive tin-enameled ware made in Europe and Mexico. Some less expensive lead-glazed ware from France and Mexico as well as British creamware have also been found at Mission Dolores.


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English creamware, a hard paste lead-glazed refined tableware. Photo by George Avery. Photograph

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French tin-enameled tableware ─ Faience Blanche. Photo by John Teichgraeber. Photograph
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Dutch tin-enameled tableware- Delft. Photograph by George Avery. Photograph



The forks used at the dinner table at Mission Dolores would have looked much like the dinner forks of today. Two dinner forks made of iron recovered during excavation have four tines that are blunted, in contrast to the sharp pointed two and three tine forks used by the British in the early 18th century. While the French used four-tined forks in the early 18th century, it wasn’t until the mid 18th century that four-tined forks become popular among the British.




Candles were necessary to see what one was eating and candles made prior to 1800 required a wick trimmer. A fragment of the handle of a wick trimmer has been recovered at Mission Dolores. Candle wicks prior to 1800 were not braided and would therefore not burn to ash, but rather leave a long glowing ember which had to be trimmed periodically to prevent a falling ember from starting a fire. (Braided wicks—which we still use today—burn completely and do not present a fire hazard.) 

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Blunted four-tine iron forks from Mission Dolores. Photograph by George Avery. Photograph
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Wick trimmer used to trim candles. Photograph by George Avery. Photograph

Defending the Realm


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The largest of the lead balls (on left) found at Mission Dolores is .50 caliber. Photograph
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French firearm side plate (top) and trigger guard fragments.
Photographs by George Avery. Photograph
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Decorative handle overlay from a Spanish belt knife or short sword. Photograph

The soldiers at Mission Dolores were horse soldiers whose weapons typically included escopetas, short swords, and lances. The escopeta was a short, smooth-bore shoulder arm that had a flint lock mechanism and fired lead balls of generally .50 caliber or less. It is interesting that the only gun part fragments recovered from Mission Dolores are from a French weapon.  Probable French gunflints have also been recovered from Mission Dolores, but this is not too surprising as most of the gunflints recovered at Los Adaes are French.


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This iron object (shown in three views) designed to hang from the saddle and jingle as the rider progressed, is a charm known as an higa thought to protect against the evil eye. Photograph
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Spur rowel box and rowel fragment.

Photographs by George Avery. Photograph
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Iron horse bit fragment and a copper tongue roller. Photograph

Spanish Colonial horse gear was different in many ways from either French or British horse gear. The size of the rowel of the Spanish spurs was quite large—the example from Mission Dolores would have been 15 cm or almost 6 inches in diameter. Small iron rods hung from both the saddle apron and spurs, creating a jingling sound as the rider proceeded. Certain of these were actually charms referred to as higas which would protect against the evil eye.  The Spanish ring bit was also quite different from other European style bits in that the horse’s lower jaw slipped through a ring attached to the bit. Cuprous rollers were part of the bit where the horse’s tongue touched the ring. The rollers were thought to have a taste which lessened the impact of the intrusion of the ring in the horse’s mouth.


What to wear


Documents tell us that the priests at Mission Dolores would have worn long robes of rough cloth the color of faded blue jeans. A staff, sandals, and possibly a hat would complete their outfit. The soldiers probably wore a dark blue jacket and pants, with some sort of lower leg protectors and shoes. The priests clothing consisted almost exclusively of material that does not preserve in the archaeological record, but the buttons and buckles from military clothing will preserve. The only military button recovered from Mission Dolores is French, and shoe buckle fragments have also been recovered.

Even though clothing does not generally preserve in the acidic soils of East Texas, we can get an idea of the kind of cloth being used at the mission through a lead cloth seal originally riveted to a bolt of cloth in Europe and shipped to the Americas. Impressions of the fabric are visible on the seal, showing that the bolt of cloth was of a rather coarse weave.

Necklace beads and seed beads of various colors have been recovered from Mission Dolores. The seed beads would have been sewn into clothing. Fragments of cuprous containers were sometimes cut and rolled into tinklers that would hang from the fringes of clothing and make a jingling sound when the person walked about. The presence of seed beads and tinklers is sometimes associated with historic period American Indian occupations, but it is possible that these accessories were being adopted by the people of the missions of East Texas as well.

 

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Shoe buckle fragments from Mission Dolores. Photograph by George Avery. Photograph
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French military button from Mission Dolores. Photograph by George Avery. Photograph

Music Anyone?




Only one artifact related to music has been recovered from Mission Dolores—a broken mouth harp. These instruments have a wide international distribution—in 18th century England they were referred to as Jew’s harps although it appears that they had nothing to do with either Judaism or the Jews in England. The Spanish referred to these instruments as birimbao or guimbarda. Mouth harps are fairly common at Spanish and French colonial military sites—six have been recovered from Los Adaes and 122 have been recovered at the French Fort Michilimackinac, located in Michigan.

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Mouth harp fragment. Photograph by George Avery. Photograph

Religion and Belief

 


There are relatively few military artifacts represented in the Mission Dolores archaeological collections, but, somewhat surprisingly, there are no religious artifacts. There are no crucifixes or religious medallions—of course the altar accoutrements would have been removed when the mission was abandoned.   The only artifacts related to belief in something beyond the physical are the higas, mentioned earlier as horse gear. Two higas made of jet represent items of personal adornment.

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Two higas made of jet—one large and one very small—would have protected their wearers against the evil eye. The large higa may have been suspended above a sleeping infant or worn by a child, and the very small jet higa probably was part of an earring. Photograph by George Avery. Photograph