Time of the Bells, 1769-1835


Fr. Luis Jayme walked through fire to become the first Franciscan martyr in the pagan land of New California. He couldn’t believe that the Indians, whom he loved, would burn and attack a mission, or that they would kill him without thought or mercy. But they did, with uninhibited cruelty.

Fr. Jayme joined in the appeal to move the mission. “As long as the mission is here, it will never have a firm basis due to the lack of water from which it suffers,” he wrote to Serra. But, he added confidently, “The Indians here, as more come, become humbler, and the gentiles show greater desire to be baptized.” The removal was ordered by the Viceroy in 1774, and effected in August of that year, and Serra commented that “we gladly take notice of the many new Christians who have followed the Fathers to the new place, doubtless recognizing its advantages.” But the little military force now had to be divided.

The new mission structures, six miles up the valley, on a slight promontory, at the site of a rancheria known to the Indians as Nipaguay, or Nipawai, were not much improvement over the ones on Presidio Hill. The site was at a bend of the river, where it swings northward, and from it, the fathers could command a broad view of the valley in both directions. In the distance they could see the sharp outline of Presidio Hill.

Serra’s report said that by December the mission comprised a church of poles, with a tule roof, 53 by 17 feet; an adobe house with rooms for the fathers, 56 by 12 feet; an adobe granary, a house of poles and tile for shepherds and muleteers; an adobe smithy, a servants’ house of poles, and 13 native dwellings. A corral for mares and horses was located a league away, at a place they called Rancho de San Luis. This was further up the river. The end of the year indicated that at last progress was being made in converting the Indians to Christianity and bringing to them the benefits of civilization. There had been 106 baptisms and there were 19 Indian families living around the mission.

But underneath, an undercurrent of trouble rippled through the sierra. Resentment had burned deep over the soldiers’ frequent molestations of Indian women. Events began to pile up. The more immediate reasons for the attack that was to come were the flogging of some Christian Indians for attending a pagan dance; an Indian claim that Fr. Fuster had threatened to burn their rancheria if it were not moved away from the immediate vicinity of the mission, and, lastly, the seizing of two Indian leaders on a charge of robbing one of their own women of some fish. Those accused were called Carlos, chief of a group of Christian Indians at the rancheria, and Francisco, his brother. But they escaped and took five others with them. Pursuing soldiers captured two of the five and returned them to the mission. Those captured warned that they had learned the Indians in the interior were being aroused and planned to kill the missionaries as well as the soldiers.

Fr. Pedro Font, who visited the tragic scene later, wrote in his diary that the Indians had given Jayme …

“Warning several times … but he always refused to believe them, thinking that it would be impossible that his Indians would do such a thing to him because he loved them greatly and favored them in every way he could. Indeed, he even became angry with the Indian who last told him of it, threatening that if he ever came again with such a tale he would order him punished.”

But Indian runners were spreading out to villages all over the southland and as far as the Colorado River, even among the warlike Yumas, urging a concentrated uprising to get rid of the Spaniards once and for all before all Indians were converted by force and while Spanish forces were divided. Neophytes at the mission were enlisted as a virtual “fifth column.” An attack was planned simultaneously on both the mission and the presidio. There were 11 Spaniards at each place; four at the presidio were ill and two were in the stocks for punishment. Lt. Ortega and some of the soldiers had gone to San Juan Capistrano to locate a site for another mission. The guard at the mission consisted of four soldiers.

The time of the attack was set for soon after midnight, in the early hours of Nov. 5, 1775. It was a bright moonlit night.

The Indians gathered in small bands at selected villages, then slipped down the river bed close to its banks, unseen and unheard, and, climbing the hillsides and circling the mission, they infiltrated silently into the grounds. Font tells us that:

“Since it was night and the soldiers of the guard of the mission were in the quarters sleeping (for thus they performed their duty there, those evil vagabonds!), the Indians first stole what they wished from the church, breaking in pieces with a stone the chest of the vestments, which they carried off, and likewise two images of the Purisima Concepcion and Senor San Josef, dispatching their women to the mountains with the plunder. Then taking some firebrands from the guardhouse, they began to set fire to the same guardhouse, to the church, and to the houses of the fathers, which, being built of tule and logs, easily caught fire.”

Fr. Fuster has left us a moving and detailed story of what happened that night, which he wrote as a report for Serra on Nov. 28:

“On the 5th day of this present month of November, about one o’clock at night, there was such a throng of Indians, both gentiles and Christians, who came to the Mission, that as far as the soldiers could judge they must have numbered more than 600. The first they did was to circle the rancheria, then the mission, from the four sides; then they pillaged the church of its precious articles, and after that they set fire to it. Next came the guardhouse and building where Fray Luis had his quarters. I slept in the storehouse or granary, which was the last place they set fire. Amid the yelling and discharges of the guns, half-asleep, I made my way out of the building, hardly knowing what it was all about. Since I had to cross over to the other side God kindly kept watch over me. I made a dash for it and got there safely. Then I asked the soldiers: ‘What is this all about?’ Hardly were the words out of my mouth then I saw on all sides around me so many arrows that you could not possibly count them. The only thing I did was to drop my cloak and stand flat against the wall of the guardhouse, and use the mantle as a cover so that no arrows might hit me. And this, thanks be to God, is what I succeeded in doing. There we were surrounded on all sides by flames.”

Fuster retreated to his own quarters and the soldiers to an adjoining room, where they began to fight back. Shutting himself in, along with Lt. Ortega’s older son and a nephew, Fuster wrote that he started to implore the Divine Mercy through the intercession of Mary Most Holy, St. Diego, and many other saints “to free us from the hosts of the enemies besetting us on all sides – namely, the Indians and flames.” Gradually regaining his composure, he remembered Fr. Jayme and ran through the flames to enter his burning quarters, feeling all over the bed in the dark but failing to find him. With the fire leaping up on all sides, the little band retreated to the middle of the courtyard.

“Scarcely had I got there when I heard a gunshot in the smithy, and saw the blacksmith Felipe Romero running towards us. He told us that we should commend the soul of the other blacksmith, Jose Arroyo, in our prayers to God, because they had already shot and killed him. They said Felipe managed to escape because he shot his gun at a gentile and killed him; whereat the others scattered, and he had a chance to join the rest of us … Seeing that we were all lost and could not escape in any direction, I said to the soldiers: ‘Let us go to the cookhouse and barricade ourselves with these bales of clothes that I have here.’ . . . They got together their bags of bullets and other implements of war, and in a body we ran for it. When we reached the cookhouse two soldiers set about dragging the bales so as to close off the front part. While busy with that work they were badly wounded by the Indians, but God granted that the entrance way could be blocked to mid-height…. As soon as we reached the cookhouse our enemies saw us, and with united forces they hurled such a storm of arrows, rocks, adobe and firebrands that it seemed they were determined to bury us under them. The two soldiers who alone were fit to fight kept up a constant fire, and just eight paces away we could see a gentile stretched out dead from their bullets. The walls of the fathers’ buildings already afire served the Indians as a protection. The buildings were quite close at hand; hence the enemy could fire on us with more precision. I could not possibly give Your Reverence any adequate account of the arrows which came singing straight for my head and stuck in the adobes. Thank God not one of them hit me. But this much I can say: one arrow hit square into the pillow I was holding up as a protection for my face. I immediately removed the arrow from the pillow – the one I was using to protect myself. As some relief to their jangled nerves the soldiers handed over to me the sack of gunpowder. Your Reverence can well understand the strain under which we all were when we could see fire all over and around us from the firebrands they were hurling at us and the danger of an explosion from the gunpowder.. ..”

Fuster promised that if they ever got out they would fast nine Saturdays and offer up Mass to the Heavenly Queen nine times.

“We were all longing for daylight – there was plenty of the other kind and that night seemed to us as long as the pains of purgatory. The arrows stopped coming for awhile, but not the rocks and firebrands. Yet this very cessation caused me anguish, because I reckoned they were merely resting up to make a more furious attack at dawn. And sure enough my suspicions were well grounded. Scarcely had dawn appeared then they let loose such a storm of arrows as to overwhelm us. I could hear numbers of the enemy, who had until recently been my trusted children, giving orders that now they should once and for all make an end of us, and encouraging their own ranks for the final charge. But God so decreed that a discharge of our guns just in the nick of time disheartened them and caused them to scatter. . . .”

At the sign of flight, loyal Christian Indians, who had been gathered near the mission for Mass that same day, set off after the attackers with their own weapons, without evidently being so reckless as to use them, explaining later they had watched the long battle but had been reluctant to come to the fathers’ assistance because of a fear of the dark.

In all this time, Fuster had not seen or heard anything of his friend and companion, Jayme, and he asked the Indians:

“My sons, where is Father Luis? They each replied: ‘Father, I do not know.’ And their response was like a sharp sword going right through my heart. Then came all the Christian women, sad-faced and dejected. At the sight of them I was both sad and glad. I can assure Your Reverence that my mind was tottering and weak, with all sorts of pictures disturbing it. Then one after the other the Indians who live regularly at the mission came along, and those from the two rancherias… And I noticed those from the mission came without their arms while the others had them. I began to suspect a trap, but this was quickly dispelled when they began to speak and tell me they had chased away the enemy and that I should have no fear or misgivings. I came out from that ill-fated cookhouse, and stood in front of them. They all came up and embraced me and acknowledged me as their father. Just what my feelings were I cannot properly describe, hardly knowing whether anguish or joy was uppermost in my mind. As soon as my thoughts cleared somewhat my first anxiety was for Father Luis. And so I told the Indians to go and see where the father was; others I told to look for the horses, and others to go to warn the presidio, others again to fetch water for the wheat granary which was still on fire. All this they did with the utmost dispatch, dividing themselves off into groups to do my bidding.”

One of the Indians sent to search for water found Jayme’s body in the bed of the river.

“I questioned: ‘Alive or dead? ‘Dead,’ he replied. Just think, Your Reverence, what must have been my grief and sorrow at hearing that he was already dead. But since God so wished it I told them to go bring him up. Very soon they had done so. If the news that he was already dead was a blow to me, how much harder was it to bear when I saw he was quite unrecognizable. He was disfigured from head to foot, and I could see that his death had been cruel beyond description and to the fullest satisfaction of the barbarians. He was stripped completely of all his clothing, even to his undergarments around his middle. His chest and body were riddled through with countless jabs they had given him, and his face one great bruise from the clubbing and stoning it had suffered. The only way my eyes could recognize him as Father Luis was from the whiteness of his skin and the tonsure on his head. It was indeed a stroke of fortune that they did not take his scalp off with them as is customary with these barbarians when they have killed their enemies.”

The shock was too much for Fuster and he fainted, falling across the body of his friend. The Christian Indians bathed his temples with water and brought him back to consciousness. “What anguish and sorrow were mine my pen cannot describe. Before my eyes was the comrade I had lost, and whom I loved and revered so much, and I could see to my shame, how shining were his virtues and what a weak imitation were my own poor efforts.”

Though Fuster makes no mention of it, Palou believes that Jayme virtually invited death by rushing out with arms extended to meet the onrushing Indians with his customary greeting: “Love God, my children!” Only those outside the stockade, or who went outside, were killed. Two Indians were sent to the presidio and soldiers finally arrived. They had slept or dozed through the entire affair. They put together five stretchers, two for the bodies of the men who had been killed and three for the two soldiers and master carpenter who had been wounded. The two soldiers, however, were able to ride to the presidio along old Friars Road that follows the north side of the valley, but the carpenter had to be carried; he was so badly hurt he died within five days. The Indians took charge of the little procession of dead and wounded and, Fuster said, “by slow stages we arrived at the presidio. I made my way on foot walking by the side of the dead. We reached the presidio, and the many sighs and tears of the people brought a fresh tide of sorrow to my own heart . . . ” Fuster buried his old friend as well as the carpenter under the floor of the church at the presidio. Jayme was only 35 years old at the time of his death.

Thus a man educated as a lector of philosophy on a distant Mediterranean island came to his end on the sandy bed of an unfriendly river in San Diego. His body was moved twice and now lies under the sanctuary of the present mission. The efforts of more than a year had been wiped out in one night. Across the road from the present restored mission structures, and just above a large tranquil pool of water in a sand pit crowded in with heavy growth, a concrete cross, scarred and broken, stands neglected in a patch of weeds. This spot is where some believe Fr. Jayme met his death. Lost in the fire were the leather-bound registers of baptisms, marriages and deaths and also the book containing the list of converts. Some of these records were restored from the memory of the fathers. Nothing was left but ruins, and the fathers were forced to ask residence in the presidio. The veneer of Christianity had proved to be a thin one. And so it was to remain for many years. The Indians weren’t much in the way of fighters either. The two soldiers who escaped the initial attacks were able to beat off the whole 600.

In a sense, the attack was a vindication of the fears expressed years earlier by Fages. In their failure to follow up the initial attack, the Indians lost an opportunity to perhaps permanently destroy all of the Spanish settlements in California. In the whole coastal strip of more than 400 miles there were only 75 soldiers guarding five missions and two presidios. The force gathered for the attack in San Diego had divided as it approached the mission, half going ahead to the presidio, which was to have been attacked first from above, the flames there to signal the moment for the charge on the mission, but the impatient and emotionally aroused Indians set the torch to the mission too soon. Those approaching the presidio feared the guards already had been aroused and turned and fled back to join those at the mission. Otherwise, probably all, at both the presidio and mission, would have been slain.

Ortega hurried back to San Diego and all through the rest of the month they lived in the fear and expectation of another attack. So it wasn’t until late in November that soldiers could be spared to take word of the disaster to Rivera at Monterey and Serra at Carmel. Relations between Rivera and the missionaries already had become strained and Font says that Rivera went to Serra and in his brusque manner told him of the death of his friend:

“Fr. President, I have just received a fatal notice from San Diego which obliges me to put myself on the road thither immediately, and it is that the Indians have revolted, burned the mission, and killed Father Luis. Only one thing pleases me very much, and it is that no soldier was killed, thanks be to God!”

Serra’s reaction, apart from his personal sorrow, was one of exultation in his belief that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” and he fell to his knees and exclaimed “Thanks be to God, that land is already irrigated; now the conversion of the Dieguenos will succeed.” Subsequently, Serra was to plead for mercy for all of the Indian attackers.

Spanish forces began to converge on San Diego, but things moved slowly in those days. Rivera went to San Gabriel Mission first and enlisted the help of Capt. Anza, who reached there after crossing the Borrego Desert on his way to San Francisco with a band of settlers to found a new colony. Rivera and Anza led 35 soldiers to San Diego, accompanied by Fr. Font. Two ships worked up the coast from San Blas, and Viceroy Bucareli shortly was to order troops sent up from Baja California.

The question was why the fire and shouting at the mission did not alert those at the presidio. Fuster commented that “the mission is in full sight from there, as everyone admits. Yet they not only did not send assistance, but they did not even see the fire. Now this will seem an extraordinary happening; to anyone who takes a look at the location of the two places it will cause much surprise.” Font, in his diary, gave this view: “The sentinel on duty at that hour in his declaration excused himself by saying that it was true he saw the light, but thought it was the light of the moon.” But, as Font pointed out, by the time of night when the attack took place the moon would have been in the west, not in the east in the direction of the mission. “But it is nothing new for the soldiers to fulfill their obligations thus.”

The sentinel’s excuse was that he did not recognize the difference, “seeing that the light came up from the east, because when he was put on sentinel duty he was charged only with looking after the prisoners, and since he was facing them and watching them, and therefore the light was at his back, although he saw it on one side, he did not turn to see where it came from.”

Font was outraged.

“So, this defense appeared to Senor Rivera to be sufficient, and he exonerated the sentinel and did not even arrest him, but charged the uprising to the lieutenant of the presidio, Don Antonio Francisco Ortega, and his bad conduct, although in the matter he was not at all to blame, for at that time he was occupied in the founding of Mission San Juan Capistrano. But since he was on very good terms with the fathers, he was very much disliked by Senor Rivera, who pays more attention to the soldiers than to the fathers. And so on this occasion there was opportunity for passions to arise.”

Altogether it was found that Indians from 40 rancherias, both Christian and pagan, took part in the attack. Some of the mission structures were ransacked before the general attack, indicating treachery on the part of the Christianized Indians. Font, a Franciscan, had no use for any of them and was critical of Serra, “In fine, the mission of San Diego is the worst of all those which the fathers of San Fernando have in these new establishments, and likewise its Indians are the worst.” He said they were like the ones who had attacked Anza in Coyote Canyon “both in perverse intentions and bad hearts, as well as because they are of degenerate bodies, ugly, dirty, disheveled, filthy, ill-smelling and flatfaced.” The Colorado River Indians did not join the conspiracy, still being under the influence of the friendship which had been established with them by Anza. Their turn was to come later.

Though Rivera remained at San Diego to capture the offenders, Font says all the captures were effected by a sergeant “while Senor Rivera was at the presidio eating the little food which the fathers had and wearying them by the disrespect with which he treated them.”

From time to time scouting parties brought in Indian culprits and they were punished by 50 lashings, one of them dying. Another committed suicide. Among those captured was Francisco, but Carlos eluded his pursuers until months later, when he finally walked into the presidio and sought asylum in its church. Rivera, by note, demanded that the fathers hand him over. They refused. Rivera, angered, drew a sword, and forcing his way in, seized the prisoner. His excuse was that the structure was a shack, or converted warehouse, and therefore not a sacred church. Fr. Fuster promptly declared Rivera excommunicated. This caused a turmoil. Eventually Serra upheld Fuster in the excommunication, and Rivera handed the prisoner back to the missionaries. They in turn formally released him to the authorities. All was forgiven. What finally happened to Carlos is not clear.

Anza had been impatient to get back to his own responsibilities, and left, but he and Rivera were to clash repeatedly in the months ahead. Anza finally prepared a record against Rivera, and leaving instructions with the lieutenant on how to proceed “if Rivera be pronounced crazy, according to the signs of dementia which he has given by his conduct,” went to Mexico to make his report to the Viceroy on conditions in California.