Spanish Indian Missions of Arizona and New Mexico

Contributor: Suzanne Riordan. Lesson ID: 13157

The Spanish brought the natives new livestock and crops, trained them in new skills, taught Christianity, and built beautiful churches. But all did not go as planned in the missions of the Southwest!


United States

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Lion, Otter
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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Do you know where the oldest church in America is?

The Spanish built Indian missions in Arizona and New Mexico, hoping to teach the natives Christianity and the Spanish way of life. Their efforts brought success with some tribes but brought great tragedy with others.


The story of the missions of Arizona is mainly the story of one man: Fr. Eusebio Kino.

statue of Eusebio Kino

Image by Architect of the Capital employee of bronze statue by Suzanne Silvercruys, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

Fr. Kino established 24 missions in the Southwest, shown on this Map of Baja California, Sonora, New Mexico and Arizona from The Library of Congress.

Born in Italy, Kino became a priest of the Jesuit order in 1677. Fr. Kino was a very intelligent and talented man. He excelled at many subjects, including geography and math. He had hoped to serve as a missionary in China but was sent to Mexico instead.

From Mexico, Fr. Kino led an expedition into southern California, and then he went into the area that is now southern Arizona to work with the O'odham tribe (pronounced "Aw-tom"). The Spanish called this tribe the Pima.

Fr. Kino was one of the first European explorers to enter Pimería Alta (meaning "land of the upper Pima"). He not only entered it, but he eventually covered over 50,000 square miles of it on his horse! That's why he's often called the Padre on Horseback.

Fr. Kino mapped much of the area and was the first to prove that California was not an island (as people believed at that time).

He stayed and worked in Arizona until his death in 1711.

Watch clips of the video below about a group of O'odham, the Sobaipuri ("so-bye-pah-ri"), who invited Fr. Kino to come to their village in 1691. As you watch, answer the following questions:

  • What is the meaning of the name Tumacocori?
  • Why did Fr. Kino go there?
  • What did Fr. Kino think of the area and the people?

Padre Kino's Footsteps: Tumacacori from Deni Seymour:

Image - Video

Fr. Kino introduced the O'odham to horses and taught them how to raise cattle, sheep, and goats. The herd of 20 cattle he brought to the area grew to over 20,000 during his lifetime, and so Fr. Kino is called Arizona's first rancher!

At the missions, the Native tribes learned new methods for farming, irrigation, and building with adobe.

Another mission founded by Fr. Kino was San Javier del Bac. It's often called The White Dove of the Desert.

  • Can you see why?

San Javier del Bac

San Javier del Bac is one of the missions that is still used as a Catholic church. Get a closer look at it in this video.

Tumacácori Mission preserves Spanish architecture in southern Arizona from azfamily powered by 3TV & CBS5AZ:

Image - Video

Some of Fr. Kino's missions are in ruins by now, such as Mission Los Santos Angeles de Guevavi:

Los Santos Angeles de Guevavi

Image by the National Park Service, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

Some of the missions are preserved as historical sites. Take a look at the preserved mission at Mission Tumacacori National Park and learn what happened to it over time with the following video clip.

Visiting Tumacácori National Historical Park and attempting to walk to Tubac from Adventurous Way:

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It is estimated that Fr. Kino and his co-workers converted 30,000 Indians to Christianity. Because of his planning skills and business sense, Fr. Kino's missions helped the natives live better lives by teaching them to raise livestock and grow new crops like wheat.

He also tried to be tolerant of native culture and customs, which helped a great deal in his relations with the Indians!

Unfortunately, the same attitude wasn't followed in New Mexico, and it led to disaster.

New Mexico

Franciscan missionaries first arrived in New Mexico in 1598 and built some beautiful mission churches that are still in use today.

The one pictured at the beginning of the lesson, San Miguel Mission in Santa Fe, New Mexico, is the oldest church in the United States! It was built between 1610 and 1625.

Explore These 10 Breathtaking Missions In New Mexico Are Loaded With History, by Juliet White for Only In Your State, to see some other well-known missions in New Mexico.

Sadly, though the missionaries tried to help the natives, they were often not tolerant of native customs. And the Spanish authorities were, at times, very cruel and demanding. Many natives resented being forced to accept Christianity.

The Apaches led raids on the missions, killing many people. Then the Pueblo Indians revolted in 1680 under the leadership of an Indian named Po'pay.

statue of Po'pay at NSHC

Image by The Architect of the Capital, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

The Pueblos drove the Spanish out of New Mexico, and they did not return until 12 years later.

  • Did you enjoy visiting the missions of the Southwest?

Now, travel over to the Got It? page where you'll learn more about the Pueblo Revolt and sort out the reasons for success or failure of the Spanish missions!

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