Time of the Bells, 1769-1835


The missionary story on the Pacific Coast was over. The era that began with the Jesuits in Lower California and closed with the Franciscans in Upper California, had lasted 150 years. The missions themselves were not yet dead, but their day was over. Some of the Indians who had fled, slowly returned to the security they had learned to need.

Five years after secularization of the missions, M. Duflot de Mofras, an attaché of the French Legation to Mexico, visited both Californias, at the order of his government. He followed the route of the padres, from Tepic to San Blas, and wrote that “the ancient Spanish route, known as El Camino Real — the King’s Highway — which traverses the lowlands, has almost entirely disappeared.” At San Blas, the port city that had been built to supply San Diego and Monterey, and to help secure California for the Spaniards, he found that, “the supply shop, the hospital, the docks, and the arsenal are in ruins. Only the debris of the fine buildings erected during the Spanish regime remain. Not a battery, not a soldier, not a piece of wood, not a work at the port where the Spanish employed 3000 men, and where her frigates were constructed, is visible.”

Across the Gulf of California, or the Sea of Cortés, he visited Loreto and its mission, from where Fr. Junípero Serra had started on the long march to San Diego more than 70 years before. He found 200 inhabitants.

“At one time this mission was the capital of Lower California but it has fallen into decay, and its prestige transferred to the Real de San Antonio.” (This was a settlement below La Paz.) “The presidio, mission and the church are now slowly crumbling away, although the buildings were … designed by the Jesuit Fathers to afford shelter, in face of attack to the colonists. The presidio has a small esplanade defended by two bronze swivel guns; guns whose breeches are now wide open and whose gun carriages are missing.”

The church, he wrote, still had its paintings and silver cases, and the doors were never closed.

“During the Spanish regime a messenger left Guaymas once a month, crossed the gulf in a small boat and landed at Loreto. From there the letters were carried overland to Monterey. This service has been discontinued for some­time and frequently an entire year passes without news from California.”

At La Paz, where once 800 divers were employed in the pearl fishing industry, he said it was now difficult to find Indians for the task “since each season several of the poor creatures are devoured by sharks and manta rays, a kind of a giant skate.”

De Mofras spent a week or 10 days in San Diego in January of 1842, and surveyed conditions on Presidio Hill and in the village below it.

“At San Diego the fort and the presidio are uninhabited: on one side of the fort under the crumbling walls a few pieces of bronze cannon lie partially buried; at the pueblo, a few soldiers in charge of an officer reside. Only ships of 400 tons drawing less than 20 feet of water are allowed to enter the port of San Diego. Certain areas are shallow, and some parts are so covered with sand banks that ships can easily run aground on the silt that the tiny San Diego River brings down from the mountains in the rainy season.

“Within the last few years the river, through the negligence of the inhabi­tants, has returned to its former channel and now empties into the waters of San Diego Harbor. The fort (Fort Guijarros) and neighboring buildings are deserted and in ruins; fragments of six or eight bronze cannon may be seen embedded in the sand.”

The temperamental San Diego River had changed its course a number of times. In the Autumn of 1821 a flood caused some damage to homes and gardens of Old Town and banked up sand along the old channel into San Diego Bay and the waters were turned into False or Mission Bay. Juan Bandini records that the forces of nature swung the river back into San Diego Bay in 1825. Pio Pico wrote that this occurred in 1828. Duhaut-Cilly found the river flowing into False Bay in 1827. Over the centuries the river wandered back and forth over the bed of silt it had built between San Diego and Point Loma, and no attempts to control it were made until after the American occupation.

A dozen English and American sailors from hide ships trading along the coast comprised the population at La Playa while the village of San Diego itself, de Mofras wrote, had only about 20 houses. In the hands of another power, he concluded, “the port of San Diego would have acquired an importance very quickly; it would have joined the two Californias and Sonora, and could have become the center of a numerous population and of an extensive commerce.”

The mission, which like all of them, was supposed to have be­come a thriving Indian pueblo, and former mission properties pre­sented the grim picture that had been foreseen by those who were opposed to a premature secularization. In turn, these people per­haps could not envision the new California that soon was to arise from the disorder and neglect.

“Today the buildings and church are in ruins … in front of the buildings stands a superb grove of olives; nearby stretch flourishing vineyards that are capable of furnishing the best wine in California. Because of its favorable climate, at San Diego all European fruit trees even palms and oranges, attain extraordinary size. In its prime this mission supported 2500 Indians, 14,000 cattle, 1500 horses and 3200 sheep.

“These ranchos now belong to private individuals who have appropriated them, and even all cattle owned by the mission have disappeared. The mission buildings are occupied by a few Indians, a white family, and Rev. Fr. Vicente Oliva, a Spaniard from Aragón who is already well-advanced in years. This father was able to save from pillage only the rancho called Santa Isabel that lies … toward the mountains and here 500 Indians have congregated under the direction of their alcaldes and a majordomo. These poor wretches own a few pair of work oxen, and harvest barely enough grain for their own support.”

At San Luis Rey, de Mofras found conditions a little better, though he accepted as fact some of the extravagant figures as to livestock the mission possessed at its height, as stories about the “King of the Missions” and its wealth were growing with the years. He wrote that there were still about 600 Indians, about 2000 cattle, 400 horses and 4000 sheep.

“Many of the fine vineyards have recently been abandoned. The parish of San Luis Rey is in charge of the Rev. A. Francisco González de Ibarra, a Span­iard no longer in his prime, who was able to save something from the wreckage of the mission and assemble 400 Indians at Rancho Las Flores, where they live with a white family. The fathers at Mission San Luis Rey are daily sub­jected to the most humiliating situations. Fr. Gonzilez, for example, is obliged to sit at the administrator’s table and to listen to insults of the same cowboys and majordomos who, a few years ago, would have deemed it an honor to serve the fathers in the capacity of servants.”

The leading ranchos of the mission, Las Flores, San Antonio de Pala, San Jacinto, Santa Margarita, Agua Caliente, San Onofre, San Jose; and Temecula, had nearly all been plundered.

“At San Luis Rey a tablet was seen that represented Fr. Peyri surrounded by several Indian children. When the Indians stop before this portrait they offer up the same prayers that are said before the images of saints that adorn the church. They have not abandoned the hope of having the good father return to this mission.”

After a decade or more of mismanagement by majordomos and administrators, the official end of Mission San Diego de Alcali came on June 8, 1846. Unable even to support a parish priest, the mission and more than 58,000 acres of land embracing much of San Diego, lying just east of the old Pueblo lands, and downtown area, and extending from National City to Clairemont, and inland to the edge of the El Cajon Valley, were granted to Don Santiago Argüello by Gov. Pio Pico. The deed of sale reads as follows:

“Being previously authorized by the Departmental Assembly to alleviate the missions, in order to pay their debts and to avoid their total ruin: and knowing that Don Santiago Argüello has rendered the government important services at all times, and has also given aid when asked, for the preservation of the legitimate government and the security of the Department, without having received any indemnification: and whereas, this gentleman, has, for his own personal benefit and that of his numerous family, asked to purchase the Mission of San Diego, with all the lands and property belonging to it, both in town and country, he paying fully and religiously the debts of said mission, which may be established by the reports of the Committee of Missions, binding himself to provide for the support of the priests located at said mission, and of Divine Worship. In view of all which I have made real sale and perpetual alienation of it forever, to Don Santiago Argüello, according to, and in con­formance with, what has been agreed upon, with all the appurtenances found and known at the time as belonging to it, whether consisting of lands, build­ings, improved real estate, or cattle.”

It didn’t cost him anything.

Another three years passed and we have a report this time from an American, John Russell Bartlett, a governmental representa­tive, who wrote a “Personal Narrative of Explorations and Inci­dents,” and visited San Luis Rey Mission in 1852:

“An old man presented himself in the dress of a Mexican officer — a blue coat with red facings trimmed with gold lace, and a high military cap with a feather.

“On enquiring as to the state of things when the padres were here, the old man heaved a deep sigh. He said his tribe was large and his people all happy, when the good fathers were here to protect them. That they cultivated the soil, assisted in rearing large herds of cattle; were taught to be blacksmiths and carpenters, as well as other trades, that they had plenty to eat and were happy. He remembered when 3000 of his tribe were settled in the valley, de­pendent on or connected with the mission. Now he said they were scattered about, he knew not where, without a home or protectors, and were in a mis­erable, starving condition. A few hundred alone remained in some villages up the valley, a few miles from the mission.”

Events had overwhelmed the mission Indians, but the story was not peculiar to California. It had been written many times when continents had been conquered and settled by more advanced peoples. In San Diego County the majority of Indians, for whom Christianity had been a tenuous attachment, or who had held themselves aloof in the mountains and deserts, quickly reverted to a savage state, joining in pagan bands and for a time engaging in sporadic raiding and killing. Many whites were to lose their lives in final Indian uprisings.

Twenty-four years after Richard Henry Dana, Jr. had cured hides at La Playa, he returned to San Diego as a passenger on the ship Golden Gate. When she had dropped anchor, Dana avoided the other passengers and was quietly pulled ashore in a boat and left to himself.

“The past was real. The present, all about me, was unreal, unnatural, re­pellent. I saw the big ships lying in the stream, the Alert, California, Rosa, with her Italians; then the handsome Ayacucho, my favorite; the poor dear old Pilgrim, the home of hardship and helplessness; the boats passing to and fro; the cries of the sailors at the capstan or falls; the peopled beach; the large hide-houses, with their gangs of men; and the Kanakas interspersed every­where, All, all were gone! not a vestige to mark where one hide-house stood. The oven, too, was gone, I searched for its site, and found, where I thought it should be, a few broken bricks and bits of mortar. I alone was left of all, and how strangely was I here! What changes to me! Where were they all? Why should I care for them-poor Kanakas and sailors, the refuse of civilization, the outlaws and beachcombers of the Pacific? Time and death seemed to trans­figure them. Doubtless nearly all were dead; but how had they died, and where! In hospitals, in fever climes, in dens of vice, or falling from the mast, or dropping exhausted from the wreck. . . ”

He went up to Old Town, where he so long before had first tested his competence in the hazards of a seaman’s life ashore in a strange land.

“The little town of San Diego has undergone no change whatever that I can see. It certainly has not grown. It is still, like Santa Barbara, a Mexican town. The four principal houses of the gente de razón — of the Bandinis, Estu­dillos, Argüellos, and Picos — are the chief houses now; but all the gentlemen -and their families, too, I believe are gone. The big vulgar shop-keeper and trader, Fitch, is long since dead; Tom Wrightington, who kept the rival pul­peria, fell from his horse when drunk, and was found nearly eaten up by coyotes; and I can scarce find a person whom I remember. I went into a familiar one-story adobe house, with its piazza and earthen floor, inhabited by a re­spectable lower-class family by the name of Machado, and inquired if any of the family remained, when a bright-eyed middle-aged woman recognized me, for she had heard I was on board the steamer, and told me she had married a shipmate of mine, Jack Stuart, who went out as second mate the next voy­age, but left the ship and married and settled here. She said he wished very much to see me. In a few minutes he came in, and his sincere pleasure in meeting me was extremely grateful. We talked over old times as long as I could afford to. I was glad to hear that he was sober and doing well. Doña Tomasa Pico I found and talked with. She was the only person of the old upper class that remained on the spot, if I rightly recollect.

“I must complete my acts of pious remembrance, so I take a horse and make a run out to the old mission, where Ben Stimson and I went the first liberty­-day we had after we left Boston. All has gone to decay. The buildings are unused and ruinous, and the large gardens show now only wild cactuses, willows, and a few olive trees. A fast run brings me back in time to take leave of the few I knew and who knew me, and to reach the steamer before she sails. A last look — yes, last for life — to the beach ‘ the hills, the low point, the distant town, as we round Point Loma, and the first beams of the lighthouse strike out towards the setting sun.”

At San Luis Rey, San Juan Capistrano and San Gabriel Mis­sions, where restoration work has been extensive, much of the original buildings remain. The churches, the living quarters, the work shops, wine rooms and kitchens — all are quiet and cool and suggestive of an era when the only pressure of life were those of the bell and the sundial. In the yards can be seen the old kilns, the vats and the paved areas used in curing and tanning hides and making tallow for soap and candles.

At Pala, Mission San Antonio de Pala, almost completely re­stored, serves the Indians as it has done continuously since its founding in 1816. The Las Flores asistencia of Mission San Luis Rey, deep in what is now Camp Pendleton, and Mission San Miguel, below the border, are washing back into the ground. A chapel at Santa Ysabel on the site of the old asistencia of Mis­sion San Diego, still brings the word to the Indians who come from nearby reservations.

Gone, too, is any trace of a new presidio that had been started on Point Loma and which Alfred Robinson had noted while riding from La Playa to Old Town. The site has never been found but it probably was in the Loma Portal area, on the lee of the point for protection from wind and rain and above an old channel of the San Diego River. The river never came back that way, and the presidio, with no nearby source of water, was abandoned while still in an unfinished state.

Very little is left at the San Diego Mission. The church has been rebuilt and serves as a parish church. Only one original building still stands, just east of the church. Its floor sits a few feet below the surface of the ground. It is narrow and has a fire­place. It may have been the fathers’ dining room. To the north across a small gully and near the top of the hillside overlooking the San Diego River, are evidences of four kilns, now almost completely filled with dirt and rubbish. The past lives mostly in the bell tower. There are five bells. In the middle row is one enscribed “Santa Maria Amadalena año de 1738 X.” This is believed to be one of the original bells brought to California by Fr. Junípero Serra. It weighs 63 pounds. Another bell is the “Mater Dolorosa,” or Mother of Sorrows. It was cast in New Spain in 1796. The bells again call the faithful to worship in Mission Valley.

In the historic gardens of the mission at San Gabriel there is an old sundial made of heavy bronze set on a pillar of tile. Its Latin motto reads: “Every Hour Wounds — the Last One Kills.”