Time of the Bells, 1769-1835

CHAPTER FOUR: Death On A River

The year was 1776. On the other side of the vast continent, beyond the barriers of desert, mountain and plain, a people threw off their ties with Europe – the bonds of more than 200 years. Concord and Lexington and Boston were followed by a Declaration of Independence. The 13 colonies on the eastern seaboard, no longer dependent on an exhausted Britain for protection, formed their own union, the United States of America. A new nation and a new spirit of progress and adventure were rising. Mountain men were pushing ever west, and new enterprising ships of commerce began to appear in New World sea lanes so long dominated by Spain. All this was far removed from the little struggling settlements on the Pacific Coast. But peace was to be shattered by an Indian uprising along the Colorado River that threatened the Spanish hold on California and fatefully shut off a land connection with New Spain. Thus the hold of Spain, and later of Mexico, on California, remained a weak and tenuous one. In time, ambitious Americans were to break through by sea and by land.

Rebuilding of the San Diego Mission was begun with the help of sailors under Capt. Diego Choquet of the San Antonio, with Rivera’s reluctant assurance of protection. All went well until Rivera, becoming alarmed by rumors that a new Indian uprising was imminent, withdrew the guard from the mission and beat a hasty retreat to the presidio. This so angered Choquet that he also withdrew his crew and sailed for San Blas. All work on the mission stopped and its fate hung in the balance, until it again was saved, this time by the arrival of a new force of soldiers, who had been recruited by Capt. Pedro Fages and sent up from Guadalajara. They bore letters from the Viceroy expressing his sorrow over the tragedy at San Diego and making the first order of business restoration of the mission and the refounding of Mission San Juan Capistrano. Fr. Serra rang the bells upon hearing the joyous news; Rivera assigned a new guard, and himself hurried north to direct the founding of two other new missions, at San Francisco and Santa Clara, as previously had been ordered.

This was good news, too, for Fr. Fermín Francisco de Lasuén, who had come to California with Palóu and had been destined for assignment at San Juan Capistrano. Impatient with the long delay in its establishment, he had petitioned to return to Mexico, but his plea was rejected, and he was kept at San Diego, fortunately for the future missions of California.

Bucareli agreed with Serra that it was “more fitting to win over the rebellious neophytes than to punish them,” and he said he was notifying Rivera that the Indians were to “receive kindness and good treatment rather than punishment and destruction of their villages which they had to expect because of their revolt. I have likewise made it known to the commandants that the chief aim of the present moment is the re-establishment of Mission San Diego and the founding of the new Mission San Juan Capistrano” …. and “it is my mind that the 25 men I ordered recruited in Old California for the better protection of those missions in New California, should serve as reinforcements of the presidio. I ordered that a sufficient guard be placed at the Missions San Diego and San Juan Capistrano, until Lt. Col. Don Juan Bautista de Anza returns and I receive fresh information. Then new and appropriate action will be taken. . .”

When the captain of the San Antonio reported to the Viceroy that Rivera had retreated merely upon hearing rumors of Indian dangers, which did not materialize, it was too much, at last for Bucareli. He put into effect the wishes of the King of Spain for a new hand in control of California. In a letter to Serra, Bucareli expressed his displeasure over Rivera’s action in suspending reconstruction of the ruined San Diego Mission, “especially because of the light excuse given, as I learned from a letter written to me by Naval, Lt. Don Diego Choquet, commandant of the packet boat El Principe, (the San Antonio).” Bucareli said that he supposed Rivera had carried out his latest orders, but if not, the new governor would. The new governor was Felipe de Neve.

Neve had been nominal governor of both Baja California and Alta California, but as his capital was at Loreto, it had little meaning, and he was ordered to Monterey as governor, and Rivera was sent to Loreto as lieutenant governor. The ascendency of New California over the Old was established. He arrived at Monterey on Feb. 3, 1777, with a letter of instructions. He also carried an order from the King informing him that a Capt. Cook had been dispatched from England on two vessels on a voyage of discovery to the South Sea and he was not to let him enter any port.

By Oct. 17, 1776, the new buildings were ready for occupancy. During the next year Fr. Fuster was shifted to San Gabriel and Fr. Juan Figuer joined Lasuén at San Diego. A report of 1777 lists a church 80 by 14 feet, built of adobe with a thatched roof, two dwellings for the fathers, a refectory or dining hall, a granary, kitchen, harness room and a dormitory for boys and young men, and a corridor along the front of the padres’ quarters and the storeroom. Adobe had replaced poles but the roofs yet were not of tile. The mission was kept alive by help from the other missions. The first baptism took place on Dec. 8, 1776, and in all there were now 440 baptized Indians living at the mission.

It was not a peaceful land, for all of that. The Pamo Indians of Santa María Valley, it was learned, were making arrows and enlisting the help of four other bands for another surprise attack. Lt. Ortega sent a warning to Chief Aaaran, and back came his challenge: Come on and fight. Sgt. Guillermo Carrillo took him up, and with eight men raided the Pamo rancheria, killing two Indians, burning two others who refused to come out of their hut, and seizing 80 bows, 1500 arrows and many clubs. The Indian bravery melted away. Other warriors surrendered and were flogged on the spot. The four chieftains — Aachil, Aalcuirin, Aaaran, Taguagui — were bound and taken to San Diego, tried on April 6, and convicted of plotting to kill Christians. Ortega pronounced the sentence,

“Deeming it useful to the service of God, the King and the public weal, I sentence them to a violent death by two musket shots on the 11th at 9 a.m., the troops to be present at the execution under arms, also all the Christian rancherias subject to the San Diego Mission, that they may be warned to act righteously.”

Ortega instructed Frs. Lasuén and Figuer to “prepare the condemned, for the good of their souls, in the understanding that if they do not accept the salutary waters of holy baptism, they die on Saturday morning; and if they do – they die all the same!”

This would have been the first public execution in California. Evidently it was never carried out. Bucareli’s policy was one of mercy and anyway, Ortega had no authority to impose such a sentence. From all that can be gathered, the ringleaders later became proper Christians.

In the mountains, inter-tribal warfare flared up. Supposedly Christianized Indians joined with a band of pagans in an attack on a rancheria called Jalo, in which 12 were killed, and it developed that the leader was the same Carlos who had instigated the attack on the San Diego Mission in which Fr. Jayme was killed. Carlos also was suspected of being one of the Indians who attacked the presidio soon after it was founded, when Serra almost met the same fate as Jayme. Three of the leaders in the Jalo attack were put to hard work, but after a long series of arguments as to what to do with them, Ortega took them out at night and banished them to Baja California. This saddened Serra because to him it meant the Indians would die away from their homes and be unable to go to confession because there would be no one to understand their language.

In 1778, Serra received permission to confirm, as California had no Bishop, and he went to San Diego and confirmed 610 persons. But there was a drought that year and the next, and prospects for the mission again looked gloomy indeed. The fathers were beginning to feel frustrated and wanted to retire to San Fernando College. Fr. Lasuén remained, however, and he was to succeed Serra as president.

The missionary pioneering spirit was far from dead and it received new strength along the Colorado River in the lonely explorations of Fr. Francisco Garcés, who had been the first white man to wander up through the northern wastes of Baja California into the Imperial Valley from where he sighted a gap in the coastal range. This was Coyote Canyon which leads out of Borrego Valley to San Carlos Pass in the San Jacinto Mountains, and he took Anza over this route in opening the Sonora-California land route to San Gabriel Mission and Monterey. He made a friend of Chief Palma of the Yuma Indians, a relationship developed by Anza. Now, Garcés was back on the trail, entering the vast interior mountain regions through Cajon Pass and penetrating as far north as San Joaquin Valley, and then returning to the Colorado-Gila junction by way of the Mojave Desert.

Forces were shaping up for new tragedy, this time involving the Yuma Indians. The Diegueños of San Diego were members of the same Yuman linguistic family, but did not equal the Yumas in physical appearance and fierceness.

Establishment of settlements on the Colorado near the Yuma crossing on the Sonora- California route, below the confluence of the Gila and Colorado Rivers, was decided on; though through unwise influences, a decision was made to establish a new system uniting missions, presidios and pueblos, and putting Spaniards and Indians in the same compound, in direct opposition to the laws of Spain. The authority of the missionaries was restricted to religious matters, and the control and direction of the natives given to the military and civilians. Garcés protested and Anza, who knew the Yumas best, sent warning that such a settlement could not be established without the strongest kind of protection. But all this was ignored by the new commandant of the interior provinces, Gen. Teodoro de Croix, and the pueblo of La Purísima Concepción, at the site of the old Fort Yuma, was founded in 1780, and soon after, the pueblo of San Pedro y San Pablo Bicuñer was begun eight miles to the southwest. Both were on the west bank of the river. Colonists arrived and lands were distributed in disregard of Indian rights or claims.

The Yuma Indians, who had kept out of the uprising that burned the mission at San Diego, took a new look at their situation. Even though their chief, Palma, had been to Mexico City with the respected white captain, Anza, and seen its majesty and been welcomed by the Viceroy, all they got out of it were some trinkets. The bedraggled colonists were just people and poor ones, not lords. Santiago de Islas, in command, tried to pacify the increasingly resentful natives by installing Palma’s brother as governor of the lower Yumas, but soon turned around and put him in the stocks. Bands of arrogant Indians roamed through the pueblos, carrying clubs and showing contempt for the settlers. And up from Sonora came Capt. Rivera, now in charge of recruitment, leading a new company of 40 recruits, their families and 1000 cattle, who were to be settled in the new pueblo of Los Angeles and at the new mission and presidio of Santa Barbara. At the Colorado, refusing to take too seriously the fears expressed by the missionaries and in contempt of the hostility of the Yumas, he sent the main company and military force on to San Gabriel, and with about a dozen men, crossed to the east side of the Colorado and camped opposite Concepción, to rest the cattle. He had made a fatal mistake. He had placed the river, impassable without help, between himself and the small forces at the presidio. Their strength had been divided. The time for war was at hand.

On Tuesday, July 17, the Indians struck. The first attack was launched against the lower village of San Pedro y San Pablo. The slaughter was quick and terrible. The Frs. Juan Díaz and Matías Moreno, a sergeant and most of the soldiers and male settlers met instant death. All the women and five men, including two Indians were taken prisoners. The buildings were burned and everything destroyed.

At the village of Concepción, all was quiet, the people unsuspecting. Father Garcés was saying Mass. The Indians fell upon them, slaying the commandant Islas, a corporal, and most of the men found in the adjoining field. But the two padres at the mission, Frs. Garcés and Juan Barraneche, were spared. Across the river, the camp of Rivera was attacked on the following morning. Rivera and his men had thrown up some barricades and they fought to the end, with no hope of rescue and no quarter expected. The frontier at last claimed Capt. Fernando Javier de Rivera y Moncada. He had only wanted to retire to the quiet of his hacienda.

A Fr. Juan Domingo de Arricivita, who wrote a summary of the tragedy for the Franciscans, said regarding Rivera’s last hours:

“He made a kind of a trench and got ready his soldiers and arms, and on the morning of the 18th a multitude of Yumas assaulted him in a mob. They were received by the mounted soldiers with a volley from the guns which had full effect, killing many but as the crowd was very great, at the firing, they rushed upon the horses and disabled them with blows, and the riders falling they threw themselves upon him, and in this way killed some. For this reason the rest united in the trench, but it gave little shelter, and it did not protect them, and although they defended themselves vigorously, causing much loss to the Yumas, overwhelmed by the multitudes, they were all killed. Thus ended the captain who manifestly underrated the Indians, and whose reckless confidence delivered him into their hands; for if he had had an adequate guard, his boldness would have punished them; and his sad fate is clear proof that the destruction of the towns would not have occurred if the measures had been taken which experienced people proposed.”

The Indians weren’t through. They made a second attack on Concepción. Chief Palma had ordered them to bring the two priests, Garcés and Barreneche, to him unharmed, but the raid was led by a Christian Indian deserter from Altar, who, according to the Franciscan report, shouted that “If these remain alive, all is lost, for these are the worse.” They were slain on the spot. The Yumas preferred to kill rather than capture. If they had time they decapitated their victims. If not, they took scalps, though they seemed to hold them in some dread. They liked to capture young women but generally did not abuse them. In the two days of slaughter they killed between 46 and 50 persons and took 91 prisoners, mostly women and children. Fr. Moreno’s body was decapitated.

The dead lay where they had fallen, under the hot summer sun. More than a month later, the soldiers who had escorted the settlers as far as San Gabriel drew near the Colorado on their march back to Sonora and picked up reports of the disaster. At Concepción they found the burned buildings and saw the bodies still lying in the plaza. The Indians, one of them wearing the uniform of the dead Rivera, made a quick attack on them, wounding the leader, Alférez Limón, and his son, and killing two men who had been left a distance back with some cattle. They retreated to San Gabriel by way of Santa Olaya in Baja California, and back up through Borrego Desert and Coyote Canyon.

The Spanish reaction was strong but two months elapsed before any rescue expedition could be organized and arrive at the scene. The task was handed to Don Pedro Fages, now a lieutenant colonel, and after a council of war at Arizpe in north central Sonora, he and his soldiers left from the site of Hermosillo on Sept. 16. Although they packed cannon, and at one time were to face 1500 armed Indians, the first objective was to obtain release of an captives that might still be alive. Within five days they had picked up the trail of warring bands, and after one brief engagement, two women and one infant, who had been held slaves, were rescued. On Sept. 22, they rescued 16. On Oct. 18, they halted along the banks of the Colorado. The Yumas sent a captive soldier to the Spaniards, and Fages reported in his diary:

“Miguel Antonio Romero came to meet us. He brought a letter from Captain Palma, in which the letter said that if we came in peace, he was also thus inclined. When we had come to the exact edge of the river — on the bank at the top of the cliff, there were about 500 Indians armed with bows, arrows, spears, and some with guns, while many other Indians were coming and going from neighboring villages — we negotiated with Palma for the exchange of the captives for maize, blankets, beads, and cigarettes, etc. We secured the return of 48 captives, including men and women, adults and children. To two Indians who came to our side of the river we gave some boxes of cigarettes. By these men we sent to Captain Palma one of my peaked hats (gallooned with silver and having a cockade), a shirt, and some boxes of cigarettes, to keep them contented. He reciprocated with some muskmelons, watermelons, squashes, about three almudes of maize, and three of yurimury. The scene of the murder of Captain Rivera and some of his companions was identified. Their bodies had been consumed, but that of Rivera was unmistakably identified by the break in one of the shin-bones. Several papers were found which I ordered gathered up, although they were torn to bits.”

Then the expedition received some rather unwelcome assistance. More than 600 Indians of neighboring tribes of Jalchedunes, Pimas Gileños, and Coco-maricopas united for an opportune attack on the Yumas, which they carried out with considerable killing and burning. The Spaniards joined in, and among the Yumas, Chief Palma and his brother were both wounded. But in view of the spreading warfare, and the burden of the women and children, the Spaniards adopted “a course agreeable to the service of God and King, and to the welfare of all,” and retired temporarily from the Colorado. At Sonoitac the women and children were sent to Altar, Sonora, and the expedition returned to seek the remainder.

It was Dec. 3 before any more were rescued, this time seven women, in exchange for other prisoners held by Fages. The Yumas still had one white woman prisoner, named María Juliana Sambrano, of Altar, as hostage, and the Spaniards two, while a new peace parley was undertaken. Fages’ diary continues:

“The two Indian women were held by us, so that the next day the Yumas should bring the remaining Christian women who were yet in their power. This they promised to do. The band of Indians which gathered on the other side of the river numbered about 600. Among other things, they said that they felt resentment on account of the Indians whom we had killed on the preceding days; to which we replied that they had first raised arms against us. With this they were convinced, saying that we had done quite properly. They also assured us that if we wanted to fight, they were ready, for they would die at the very spot where they had killed Captain Rivera and his companions. They declared to us that they realized the mistake that they had made, and that they were mortal, and not wood or stone; but that if we desired peace, they wanted the same thing.”

The exchange was made the next day. All had been rescued. Now came the task of giving a Christian burial to those who had died in the massacre. On Dec. 7, Fages notes:

“Very early this day I set out for the ruined town of San Pedro y San Pablo de Bicuñer with Capt. Tueros, Ensign Don Manuel Antonio de Arbizú, 10 volunteers, and 34 presidial soldiers, leaving the rest of the garrison for guards of the camp and the horses. On our way we came to the villages of the petty chief and his Yuma band, which were all deserted. Arriving at dawn at the foot of the town mentioned, we found the body of Rev. Fr. Juan Díaz, which was still recognizable by the tonsure, which had not yet disappeared; and, as two people were with us who had been present at the time of the outrage, and declared that it was indeed he, I had his bones gathered up in my presence and put into a sack made of leather along with the body of the Rev. Fr. Moreno, which we found behind the church, and which, although the bones only remained, I ordered gathered up and placed with those previously mentioned. A holy crucifix was found, and some little pieces of the holy girdle, as I doubt not, all of which I gathered up with particular care. In examining the outskirts of the town, we found many bones of settlers and soldiers who died in the uprising of the people of the Yuma nation. I immediately had these bones burned and the ashes collected, except those of the reverend fathers, which I kept separate, as I have stated. The ashes I speak of were put into two other sacks. I had the great bell of the town taken up, and loaded into a hamper.”

The bodies of Garcés and Barreneche were found three days later near Concepción:

“Captain Don Pedro Tueros had the satisfaction of finding them; they were buried very close together, as if they had been interred side by side exactly in line, and laid out with their under-garments on, and they were not much decayed, especially the body of Fr. Garcés. On the bank where they were buried, a quantity of very fragrant camomile had grown. We were informed that an Indian woman who esteemed them highly had performed the kindly deed of burying them. We carefully gathered up these bodies, the sack of bones, and the bell which we had left behind on the seventh instant to go to the fight at the camp … and another bell which we found today. We halted at the town of San Pedro y San Pablo Bicuñer, and deposited the bodies and the bones of the four reverend fathers on the altar of the church, which, although burned, still had its walls almost intact, especially those of the high altar. Upon this altar candles were lighted, and, the troop and the rest of the people being gathered together, except the guard, we recited the holy rosary in concert with the Rev. Fr. Cenizo.”

The remains of the four priests were placed in large metal cigarette cases and carried back to Sonora. Serra described his reaction to the Yuma disaster in a letter to Lasuén:

“As to what happened on the Colorado River – both in regard to the new experiment in mission management and in regard to the frightful disaster that followed – what can I say? All that we can do is to offer our sympathy for the sufferings of so many poor fellows who met their death there and bow before the inscrutable will of God. If they now kill the Indians, nothing more can be expected from the Colorado River which was so much advertised and the center of so many hopes…. Our poor Don Fernando (Rivera), he who was so cautious in the matter of Indians; he who was as sturdy as an oak tree and with so large a force of armed men was killed in one fell blow! Alas! What are we to say on the matter? God alone knows. There is little more to be said. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Why the Indians gave up their captives so easily can only be guessed. The captives told a story corroborated in part by some of the natives, that the Yumas had been frightened away from the scene of their crimes by reports of nightly processions of white-robed figures with crosses and lighted candles marching through the desolation of Concepción. Night on the desert does strange things with the imagination and even now, looking out over the wastelands, pink and yellow in the moonlight, one can easily believe they can see the tall and warlike Yumas of old as they ran through the sharp desert nights with fire-brands held close to their bodies to keep them warm.

Nothing happened that winter, and because of spring floods along the river, it was decided to wait until September before attempting to capture and execute the Yuma chieftains and bring about permanent peace. But just as the campaign was about to begin, with 168 men in the field, Neve got orders by messenger appointing him commandant-general of the interior provinces and Fages was to succeed him as governor of California. There were a few desultory skirmishes but nothing was solved. The Yumas remained independent and unsubdued. No pueblos or missions were ever re-established on the Colorado. It remained a hostile land.