In the beginning Franciscan missionary activity in the New World did not demand any special organization. The missions were simply small units, depending on the respective provinces of Spain.
Following the ancient tradition of the Order, the friars working in the Americas conformed to the Order's customary organization, establishing either custodies or provinces which were independent. As a result, in the New World there was no central organization for the Order. The later complex Franciscan organization in the New World was the result not only of local needs but also of the wider problems of the status of the Order throughout the world.
At the precise moment of the discovery of the New World the Order was experiencing a historic movement to return to the simple organization of the fraternity. In his Rule St. Francis bequeathed a very simple, a family-like association. But that simplicity had been greatly complicated by the interaction of the different semi-independent groups in their efforts to recover the original spirit of the Order. Thus, by the end of the fifteenth century, in spite of the fact that there was one single Minister General for all the Order, there were two Vicars General: one for the provinces based on the northeastern side of the Pyrenees (Cismontane Provinces) and the other for the rest of the provinces (Ultramontane Provinces). These Vicars General had under their jurisdiction the various Franciscan communities which aspired to maintain the strict observance of the Rule, principally in regard to the vow of poverty. In Spain alone at this period there were Martinianos, Coletanos, Amadeitas, Clarenos, Lopianos, the brethren de nueve reforma and those del capucho (also called del Evangelia).
Pope Leo X, with the papal bull lte vos in vineam meam (May 29, 1517), united all the Observant groups in one single body and granted them the use of the original seal and title of the Order: Ordo Fratrum Minorum. From then on all distinctions were abolished and all former members of the diverse units, with the exception of the Conventuals, would be under the obedience of the one general superior, who would be known as the Minister General of the Whole Order of Friars Minor.10
That pontifical decree, however, did not put an end to the complicated organization of the Order. Firstly, the old division of Cismontane and Ultramontane provinces remained in effect. As a consequence the Observants, besides retaining the traditional office of Minister General for all the Order, kept also that of the Vicar General with a new name: Commissary General of the Family. In practice he had all the powers of the Minister General. From the beginning of this arrangement it was agreed that when the Minister General was a member of a Cismontane province, the Ultramontane provinces elected one of their members as Commissary General, and vice versa. What this really meant was that from 1517 on there were, for all practical purposes, two general superiors: the Minister General with his General Curia, and the Commissary General of the Family with his Curia. While the Minister General ordinarily resided in Rome, the Commissary General determined his residence according to the province from which he had been elected.