Common Terms of the California Missions

Many words and phrases used during the California mission era are still in use . These include architectural and military terms, religious words and phrases, Native American terms and place names, and of course, the Spanish words for many aspects of everyday life. This glossary provides a handy single reference of these California Mission terms.


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Sun-dried bricks made of clay mixed with straw and sometimes horse manure, then baked in the sun. Also refers to structures made of this material.


A term derived from the Latin aqua ardens, which means fiery water. In the mission era aguardiete meant distilled spirits made from the wine of the Mission Grape.


In Spain, a local magistrate. In Alta California, the neophytes appointed to assist the padres in keeping order, reinforcing the rules of the mission and settling minor disputes. They functioned more as policemen than judges.


Lowest rank of a commissioned officer in the Spanish Army, equivalent in rank to an ensign or second lieutenant.


A unit of dry measure representing about 4.2 quarts. It was 1/12 of a fanega.


The mixture of oil and water after pressing olives for oil.


Spanish for upper. Used in Alta California, the Spanish territory that included present day California.

Alta California

The Spanish territory including present day California


Citizen or resident of the United States. The first Americans to visit Alta California were seamen, followed later by the pathfinders and mountain men who opened up the West.


A Chumash religious cult, keepers of sacred knowledge.

Apostolic College

Franciscan institutions established to receive and train priests for service in the missions. The missions of Alta California were sponsored by the College of San Fernando founded in 1734 in Mexico City.


A domed or vaulted semicircular recess, found most frequently at the east end of a church.


A brook rivulet or small stream.


A sub-mission having residents, converted Indians, but no resident missionary.


Naturally occurring gluey tar used by the Chumash for waterproofing canoes and baskets.


A maize (cornmeal) gruel or porridge.