Time of the Bells, 1769-1835

CHAPTER TWO: The Fight To Live

The rejoicing that rang over Mexico City had little echo at San Diego. Presidio Hill, the birthplace of Christian civilization on the Pacific Coast, remained a place of sickness and disappointment. Fr. Palou was to comment that, from the beginning, the fathers stationed at San Diego had to “sustain themselves with the bread of affliction and the waters of distress.” Those who had been left behind, when Serra and Portola went to Monterey, kept close to the tight stockade of poles they had erected on the sloping hillside. The bright promise of the first days of their arrival, when the land had seemed so fertile and productive, with the river running and grapes growing in profusion, had quickly dimmed. Remaining with Frs. Parron and Gomez were Sgt. Jose Francisco Ortega, a man who later was to be reckoned with in the history of California, eight soldiers, a few muleteers and a number of Baja California Indians. Still in the harbor at that time was the expedition’s other ship, the San Carlos, which, with the San Antonio, had been the first vessels to enter San Diego harbor in more than a century and a half, but her crew wasn’t much help to the little band on Presidio Hill. Besides Capt. Vila, only five sailors had survived the scurvy. Impatient with the failure of replacements for the crew to arrive, Vila borrowed two soldiers and two muleteers and sailed for San Blas.

The situation at San Diego was relieved temporarily in June when Capt. Fernando Javier de Rivera y Moncada, who had commanded the Leatherjackets from Loreto on the original march to San Diego, returned from Baja California with 20 additional soldiers, and cattle and supplies. Of Rivera, much yet was to be heard. Of the next year little is known about happenings at San Diego. The records of this period were burned sometime later in an Indian uprising. But by March 12, 1771, apparently the padres had at last been able to convert a few of the antagonistic, stubborn Diegueno Indians who lived in the village of Cosoy, or Kosoi, among the trees at the foot of Presidio Hill. The first new converts, or neophytes, were pitifully few compared to the almost overwhelming number of heathens, or gentiles. The threat of abandoning San Diego arose once more.

It was on this date that the San Antonio arrived again from Mexico, with 10 additional fathers for the new missions of Alta California, and Fr. Gomez, now in poor health from the rigors of the past year, decided to give up and go home. He was followed soon after by Fr. Parron. The San Antonio proceeded to Monterey, and on the way south brought to San Diego, Don Pedro Fages, the commander of the Catalan Volunteers from Spain, who had been appointed military commander of Alta California.

Writing to the Viceroy, Fages gives us our first real glimpse of life in San Diego:

“I find this mission has made a good beginning as regards temporary buildings and cultivation. Also, the cattle, which Capt. Fernando Rivera left here when he departed, are in good condition. There are 82 cows, 7 bulls, 8 heifers to two years, and 13 calves. I find also 13 mules. There are only 13 soldiers with the corporal, who it seems to me, are necessary for the protection of the mission. The drove of cattle from Lower California, besides 60 mules, guarded by 20 soldiers and 6 muleteers, have arrived. This will enable me to facilitate the founding of the Missions of San Gabriel and San Buenaventura. This I shall do at once, and distribute to each mission the requisite cattle and mules. Thus I shall leave them in good state of defense.”

The good beginning was a modest one, certainly. Some but not much progress had been made on a presidio and mission. A chapel of poles with a tule roof, and a dwelling for the fathers, were built inside the walls, and adobe bricks were made by Indian workmen for a new and larger church. For some reason or other, this particular church evidently was never built.

Fages was a man with a purpose, and he was to clash continually with the zealous Serra and the other padres over the handling of the Indians, the assignment of soldiers, the distribution of mules and administration of the missions themselves. Industrious and loyal, he nevertheless was short-tempered and quarrelsome. His haughty manner led only to trouble which was to bring a crisis in the raw affairs of California.

As commander of the Catalan soldiers, Fages had little regard for the local Leatherjackets from Loreto, who, nevertheless, generally were more accustomed to frontier living. His treatment of the soldiers evidently was responsible, at least in part, for the desertion of nine soldiers and a muleteer from San Diego. Fages sent Fr. Antonio Paterna, there waiting assignment, out after the deserters, with a humiliating pardon signed in blank, to induce them to return. It worked. But Fages, in a later letter to the Viceroy complained about continuing desertions. The excitement and adventure of discovery and exploration had ended, and ahead was dull guard duty at lonely outposts of civilization. Even Loreto must have seen like a cosmopolitan center to soldiers camped on the side of Presidio Hill and looking down on dirt-covered huts of sullen Indians.

The soldiers of California, he wrote, were “perverse and obstinate,” and the corporals and sergeants “complied little with their obligation of punishing soldiers in proportion to their misdeeds.” Three soldiers raped two young pagan Indian girls near San Diego and Fages sent one of them as a prisoner to Velicata and sent the others to Monterey in chains. In answer to demands to return home , he would read the royal ordinances, remind them of their duties, and tell them “you are on a campaign and you cannot make such a request.”

Rivera had gone to Velicata once more, to obtain additional cattle and supplies, and he led 19 or 20 soldiers and a train of 80 mules and 10 horses, and carried with him reports of what had transpired at San Diego and Monterey. On the way they fought a skirmish with Indians, killing two of them. Evidently he was to deliver cattle and supplies to Monterey, but perhaps in resentment over the selection of Fages as military commander, took them only as far as San Diego. Serra was shifting fathers around, to bring together as working companions those from the same regions of Spain, and thus it was that Fr. Luis Jayme, of the island of Majorca, where Serra was born, was assigned to San Diego with Fr. Tomas de la Pena y Saravia. Jayme was fated to become the first martyr of the mission period of California history.

The mission at Monterey had been moved to Carmel and new missions started, San Gabriel Arcangel, east of Los Angeles, and San Antonio de Padua in the valley of Los Robles in Central California, in 1771, and San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, in 1772, but troubles between Serra and Fages continued. They got into a dispute at San Diego over the founding of another mission, San Buenaventura, long planned at what is now Ventura, and the padres lamented that Fages “considers himself as absolute and that the missionaries count for less than the least of his soldiers, so that the missionaries cannot speak to him on the slightest matter concerning missions. He stated that he is in charge of all; that the missionaries have nothing more to do than obey, say Mass, administer the sacraments; that all the rest devolves him upon him as commander.” At last, in late 1772, Serra determined to go to Mexico City, aboard the San Carlos to see the new Viceroy, Antonio Maria Bucareli y Ursua, and bring about a solution to their troubles. He left on Oct. 20 on the long journey by sea and by land.

Starvation again threatened San Diego and Fr. Dumetz was sent south for more supplies and Fages sent a pack train down from the north with emergency flour. Writing under date of May 21, 1772, Fr. Crespi, says:

“I passed by way of San Gabriel Mission and found that the Fathers had tightened the cord around their waist . . . At San Diego, I found very few victuals. There were only seven fanegas of corn and about 200 pounds of flour. The guards for a long time maintained themselves with half a pint of corn and only 20 ounces of flour a day; the Fathers likewise, with a little milk. They say that thus they have passed most of the year, without lard, without tallow, without even a candle of this kind, and even without wine for the Holy Masses, so that Holy Mass is celebrated only on Sundays and on days of obligation. God grant that Fr. Dumetz arrive promptly with help for these missions and that the ships bring up supplies, otherwise, we are lost.”

The end of this period of starvation came with the re-arrival of the two most welcome ships in the South Sea: The San Carlos and San Antonio, in August, 1772. Dumetz also returned, accompanied by Fr. Pena, and the first flock of sheep for California.

A change in the administration of the missions in Lower California also brought Fr. Francisco Palou, Serra’s old companion, to San Diego. The missions in Lower California had been founded by the Jesuits, but when the Jesuits were expelled under secret orders, they had been handed over to the Franciscans under the leadership of Serra. Now they were turned over to the Dominican Order and Palou rode the Pacific Trail to join the leader he so admired and so loved. He was to remain near Serra’s side to write about his life and his death. Among those with him was Fr. Vicente Fuster, of the Province of Aragon, Spain, who was to remain at San Diego. Little by little, the mission and settlement were growing, and in Palou’s official report is found a situation that has plagued San Diego all the years since – water.

“This mission … is situated on a high elevation about two gunshots from the beach, looking toward Point Guijarros and the mouth of the port named San Diego, which is in 32 degrees and 42 minutes north latitude. The beach, as also the vicinity of the mission, is well peopled by savages, since within a district of 10 leagues there are more than 20 large rancherias, and one other adjoining the mission … by degrees they came to join the mission, so that already 85 adults and children are baptized, seven of whom died recently, while 12 couples were married and are now living in the village composed of dwellings that are made of poles and tules … The pagans of other rancherias also frequent the mission and are present at the doctrina or catechism, attracted by their fondness for hearing the neophytes sing.

“Within the stockade is the church or chapel, constructed of poles and roofed with tules, as also the habitation of the two missionaries, having the requisite rooms partly of adobe and partly of wood and roofed with tules.

“Likewise, within the stockade, is a similar structure that serves as the barracks for the soldier guards and as a storehouse for the supplies. For defensive purposes, within the stockade, are two cannons of bronze. One looks toward the port, and the other toward the Indian rancheria. On one side of the stockade, in the wall, is an opening for the foundations of a church 30 yards (varas) long. For this some stones and 4,000 adobes have already been prepared. The foremen of the work are the Fathers, and the workmen are the neophytes, who labor with pleasure. The work has now stopped for want of provisions; the neophytes saw themselves obliged to retire in search of wild fruits, until the ship arrives.

“As this mission lacks water for irrigating the extensive and fertile land which it possesses, the inmates must suffer want, unless the crops turn out well. The first two years have proved this. In the first year, the river rose so high (though it has running water near the mission only in the rainy season), that it carried away all that had been sown. In the second year, planting was done farther back of the stream. During the greater part of that season, however, the water was scarce so that the plants perished. Only five fanegas of wheat were secured, and these were used for sowing in the locality about two leagues from the mission, because from experience it was learned that in said place rain was more frequent. The country has been surveyed for a distance of 10 leagues in every direction; but no running water for irrigation has been discovered. Only for the livestock is there in various places sufficient water and abundant pasture.

“The savages subsist on the seeds of the zacate (wild grass) which they harvest in the season. From these they make sheaves as is the custom to do with wheat. They also live by fishing and by hunting hares and rabbits which are plentiful. The Missionary Fathers have sent to San Blas for a canoe and a net so that the new Christians might subsist on fish. If this succeeds, it will, no doubt, be a great relief.

“Of the cattle which came for these new missions from Lower California by order of Inspector-General Jose de Galvez, this mission was allowed 18 head, large and small. In the beginning of last October it had 40 head. It then owned also 74 head of sheep, 55 goats, 19 pigs, 15 mares, 4 fillies, 1 colt, 8 tame horses, I jackass, 6 donkeys, 4 riding mules, and 18 pack mules with the necessary outfit.

“The mission possesses 12 plowshares and other iron implements. There is also a sufficient supply of tools for carpenter and for masons, and a forge for the blacksmith, although there are no mechanics to teach these crafts.”

Serra sailed for San Blas and riding on the way to Mexico City, fell so ill at Guadalajara that the “fathers ordered me to receive the sacraments and I was in danger of death for many days.” He recovered, but was stricken again, at Queretaro, but rose once more to push his way to the capital and to fight for the authority of the missionaries. He arrived Feb. 6, 1773, but it was many days before he could see the Viceroy. Serra won nearly every point he sought in his 32-point Representacion, and also out of the meeting came the Reglamento which formed the basis for governing Alta California for many years.

Serra asked for the removal of Fages as military commander, and suggested he be replaced with Sgt. Ortega, whom he described as honorable and honest, and a good penman, and because he had a “God-fearing conscience, his accounts would be correctly kept.” Fages was removed but the Viceroy did not believe Ortega had sufficient rank for such a post. Instead, Rivera, a captain, was appointed military commander and Ortega was promoted to lieutenant and put in command at San Diego. Soon after, on Jan. 1, 1774, San Diego was raised to the status of a Royal Presidio.

Among other points won by Serra was the removal of soldiers at request of the missionaries, in moral cases involving Indians; the recruitment of married soldiers; that Capt. Juan Bautista de Anza, at the presidio of Tubac, in Arizona, be permitted to open a land route from Sonora to California; and most important to the fathers, reaffirmation of the “immemorial custom” that the management, command, and punishment of the Indians except in crimes of blood, and the education of baptized Indians, be left entirely in the hands of the missionaries. It was declared that the missionaries had the right to control the mission Indians as a father controls his family. This point was the key to the whole Indian problem, and its application was to bring both praise and criticism to the padres down through the years.

The new regulations contained the steps by which San Diego was to grow into a pueblo and then a city. Historian Hubert Howe Bancroft said that while the first object was to be the conversion of the natives, the next most important was their gathering in mission towns for purposes of civilization; as the little towns may someday become great cities, great care should be taken in the selection of sites; the commander was authorized to assign lands to communities, and also to such individuals as were disposed to work, but all must dwell in the pueblo or mission; missions may be converted into pueblos when sufficiently advanced, retaining the name of the patron saint; no vessels were to be admitted to California ports except the San Blas transports and the Manila galleons on their lonely circle route from the Philippines to Acapulco; no trade with either foreign or Spanish vessels was to be permitted; the mission of San Diego could be moved if deemed best, and importantly, all records and archives must be carefully cared for, and finally these instructions were to be kept profoundly secret.

Kissing the feet of every friar at the College of San Fernando, begging their pardon for any bad example he may have set, and bidding them farewell forever, Serra started back on the return journey to California and the overwhelming task to which he had pledged the rest of his life.

Fages and his Catalan Volunteers were withdrawn. But he was far from out of the history of San Diego. Rivera was back in his native Compostela, on the mainland, when he received the news of his appointment. There is no indication he was very happy about it. He had longed to retire, because of illness, and had gone into debt buying an hacienda. Borrowing money, he went to Mexico City, saw Bucareli, then returned to bid his family goodbye once again. After still more years of hard service he was to die violently but gallantly along the Colorado River.

New life came to San Diego. The age of settlement opened. Rivera went to Sinaloa to begin recruiting married soldiers, who were to take their families with them to the frontier. He gathered together a party of 55 persons and they crossed over from San Blas to Loreto aboard a new ship, the Concepcion. There, he ordered Ortega to come south to Velicata and escort the families to San Diego and to Monterey, while he went ahead to assume his new command. These were the first real colonists of California, arriving 18 months before those to be taken north to San Francisco over the desert route by Anza, and they trod the now established Pacific trail that Serra and Portoiahad first broken on their way to San Diego five years before. More settlers – carpenters, blacksmiths, mechanics – were to follow soon by sea as well as by land.

The first colonists arrived at San Diego on Sept. 26, 1774.

Ortega’s march up Baja California with hopeful but distressed families was anything but easy or pleasant. In his report to Rivera he said some of the guard, in particular one Francisco Lugo, had shown themselves “predisposed toward sedition,” and “I warned the leaders that I would turn them over to the commandant in irons. With this, they calmed down and lowered their heads and I was able to maintain peace.” He said that upon arriving at the Presidio of San Diego, the soldiers had found “it repulsive to take care of the ‘caballada’ (the animals), and the families are in great need.” Some of the women had already been left in Santa Maria. “Having rehabilitated the unmarried personnel, I gave assistance to those families with what I could, and they were somewhat relieved.” This letter to Rivera was dated Oct. 3, San Diego. Four months later the wife of Ortega gave birth to a son, and as far as it is known this was the first white child born in San Diego. Though pregnant, she had made this long trek with him. The exact date is uncertain, as mission records of that period were destroyed, but the event was recalled later and recorded from memory in the mission registry. The child was given the name of Jose Francisco Maria. Most of the colonists moved on to Monterey.

Thoughts of moving the mission from Presidio Hill became more insistent. All cultivation now was further up the valley, according to Palou, “on the banks of the river, though out of danger from the floods, about two leagues from the mission, for it had been noted that in said locality the rains begin earlier and last longer than at the mission. Furthermore, in case of lack of rains, water could be drawn with little labor from the river. The place was named Nuestra Senora del Pilar.” This location, of course, is at the site of the present mission. The missionaries also had another reason for wanting to move the mission: to separate the lightlyclad Indian women from the restless and at times rebellious soldiers. Fages himself had been considerably disturbed by this situation and wanted the Indians moved away from the Presidio, but Serra was opposed to separating them from the influence of the mission. Palou had gone to San Gabriel, accompanied by Fr. Pena, who had been unhappy in San Diego, and Fuster was made assistant to Fr. Jayme. Nothing was done for a time about moving the mission, but Jayme was not to let the matter drop, thus setting the stage for the tragedy that the missionaries were to remember all their stay in California.