History of San Diego, 1542-1908

PART ONE: CHAPTER 3: The Taming of the Indian

FATHER SERRA and his associates now stood at the threshold of their real work—the taming of the Indian—and a stupendous task it must have seemed, even to the optimistic minds of the missionaries. They were a long distance from any reliable base of supplies, and the means of communication were most uncertain. The country itself produced practically nothing, as yet, for their subsistence. The climate, of course, was glorious, but it has been proved again and again that men cannot live on climate, even in San Diego. Water and fuel they had in abundance, and supplies to last them a few months; but beyond this they must create the situation which should make permanent settlement possible. In order to do so successfully, they must convert the Indian in a double sense, for it was not enough to bring him to the foot of the Cross; he must also be converted to habits of industry and made a useful member of civilized society. No one but in enthusiast like Junípero Serra, equipped with a fund of experience in similar work, could possibly have contemplated the undertaking with anything like confidence in the result, and even the stout heart of that great teacher and lover was sorely tried before the seed took root and began to flourish.

The Indians who swarmed about the bay of San Diego were, apparently, as poor material as ever came to the social mill. All the early observers, except the missionaries, spoke of them with contempt. Humboldt classed them with the inhabitants of Van Diemen’s Land, who, of all human beings, seemed nearest to the brute. Neither physically nor intellectually did they compare with the Indians of Eastern America nor with those whom the settlers encountered in the region of the Mississippi and its tributaries. No one ever called the San Diego Indian “the noble red man,” for he was neither noble nor red, but a covetous, thievish, and sneaking creature, of a brownish complexion, something like the soil. There were no orators among them and, it is to be feared, very few brave men, for when they fought they acted like a pack of cowards. They never attacked an enemy except in overwhelming numbers, and they ran like so many curs before the snap of a whip the moment their enemy obtained a momentary advantage.

It is unpleasant to speak harshly of the poor creatures, but no just appreciation of what the missionaries accomplished in later years can be had unless we begin with a true estimate of the human material they had to deal with in building their institutions. It was very poor material, and the Mission Fathers did exceedingly well in moulding it into some semblance of civilization.

The Indians had their homes in rude huts, made of sticks and mud, and generally grouped in villages. Some of these villages were large, containing hundreds of huts, with a population which often reached a thousand or more. They were governed by hereditary chiefs, with a captain in each village. They had some simple laws, which were made from time to time to meet conditions as they arose, and the death penalty was inflicted for certain crimes. The method of execution was shooting with arrows. Prisoners of war were cruelly tormented in the presence of the assembled chiefs. Marriage customs were quite similar to those now common among Southwestern Indians, and punishment for infidelity fell exclusively upon the wife. They had a vague, instinctive belief in a supreme being, and they showed much reverence for certain animals. The owl, for example, was held in esteem, and the porpoise was regarded as an intelligent being, intrusted with the duty of guarding the world.

The men went naked, but the women wore some clothing, for sake of decency, yet furnished scant patronage for the dressmaker. They wore a single garment of deer skin, or were clad in braided strands of rabbit skins, which hung to the knees. Frequently the garment was adorned with bright beads or grasses, for even Indian women had some concern for their appearance and desired to make themselves attractive. They painted, of course, after their own fashion, smearing their faces with colored mud.

The Indian diet cannot be recommended, for they were fond of rats, ground-owls and snakes, and regarded a large, fat locust, roasted on a stick, as a particular delicacy. They caught plenty of fish, and knew how to cook them; and they had all sorts of game, together with many things which grew wild in the vegetable kingdom. On the whole, they lived pretty well, and it was the life of one large family, generally quite peaceful, but sometimes marred by fierce tribal wars.

The San Antonio had sailed for San Blas on July 9th, leaving the San Carlos in the harbor to await its return with seamen to take the places of those who had fallen by scurvy and now slept in the sands along the shore. Portolá had marched northward to Monterey on the 14th. The little settlement was alone in the wilderness. There were forty persons, all told, including priests, soldiers, sick sailors, and Indians from Lower California.

FAMOUS PALMS OF OLD TOWN. Planted at the foot of Presidio Hill (which appears in background) in 1769, and unquestionably the first palms ever planted in California.

With the dedication of the Presidio and the Mission, the first institutions had been established in what is now the State of California. These institutions were typical of Spanish civilization—the soldier and the priest working side by side, but always with the sword above the Cross in point of authority. It was essentially a military government, and the commandant was empowered to deal out justice, civil and criminal. The San Diego garrison was always pitiably weak and could never have protected the Spanish title to the country against any serious attack. In fact, the whole military establishment along the coast, after the four districts of San Diego, Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San Francisco had been organized, was a mere shell, with less than two hundred soldiers. There were, in addition, a few mechanics and numerous native laborers. Each soldier had a broadsword, lance, shield, musket, and pistols, together with six horses, a colt, and a mule. As settlement increased, the carrying of the mails between the missions was the most arduous and useful service the soldiers performed.

Father Serra and his associate minister, Father Parron, found it very difficult to make Indian converts. It was no task to assemble the natives, for they swarmed to Presidio Hill in such large numbers as to become a nuisance. They had well-developed bumps of curiosity and were persistent beggars, but, fortunately, they were afraid of the strangers’ food. They would have none of it, for they imagined it was the food the Spaniards ate which made so many of them sick. It is dreadful to think what would have happened to the white men if the Indians had liked their food as much as their cloth and trinkets—they would have been eaten out of house and home! As it was, the Indians became so obnoxious that trouble could not be avoided. They tried to plunder the San Carlos, and it was necessary to keep a guard constantly on board to protect the ship.

The trouble reached its acute stage on August 15th, when the new settlement was a month old. It was a feast-day and Father Parron was saying mass on the ship, with a guard of two soldiers. During his absence, the Indians burst into the Mission and proceeded to strip the clothing from the beds of the sick, Four soldiers rushed to repel them, but they were greeted with a volley of arrows. A boy was killed—he was José María Vegerano, the first person of white blood to die a violent death in San Diego—and the blacksmith was wounded. Serra and his fellow-priest, Viscaino, had just finished mass and were sitting together in the hut. Viscaino rose to shut the door and received an arrow in the hand at the moment when the boy staggered in and fell dead at Serra’s feet. The four soldiers gave the Indians a volley of musket-balls and the blacksmith fought like a demon. The Indians ran away, notwithstanding their superior numbers, but they had the assurance to return soon and request medical aid for their wounded.

The Indians had made the acquaintance of gunpowder and it did them good, for they behaved much better after that adventure. Nevertheless, the good Fathers had the wisdom to erect a stockade around the Mission and to make a rule forbidding the savages to come inside without first depositing their weapons. The Indians continued very neighborly, yet none embraced the faith. This does not seem remarkable in view of the fact that the missionaries could not converse with them intelligibly, having to rely wholly upon sign language at first. Even when one of their men had mastered the savage tongue sufficiently to act as interpreter, they were still unable to enroll a single neophyte. So far as known, this was absolutely the most discouraging experience the missionaries had ever had, for nearly a year had passed without one conversion. But that was not the worst of it. Converts could wait but mouths must be fed. The supplies were dwindling while sickness increased.

Those were gloomy days on Presidio Hill—the Summer and Fall of 1769—in spite of the smiling sky and genial atmosphere. No converts, no progress toward cultivating the soil, no white sails on the horizon to tell of returning ships from Mexico—nothing but sickness and death and the chill portent of coming disaster. Of the forty whom Portolá had left when he marched away, nineteen died before he returned, and the survivors were heartsick with the sad work of laying them in their graves. Of those who died, eight were soldiers, four sailors, six Indians, and one a servant. No wonder the savages wanted none of their food!

On January 24, 1770, the disheartened party of twenty souls living within the stockade on Presidio Hill was startled by a discharge of musketry. It was Portolá and his men, returning from their futile search for Monterey. But they brought small comfort for Father Serra. Portolá had accomplished nothing in the North; he could not see that Serra had accomplished anything in the South, and he declared “that San Diego ought to be abandoned while there were yet supplies enough to enable the party to get back to civilization. Poor Junípero Serra was heart-broken at the decision. He was not a soldier of the flag, seeking to win territory for his King, but a soldier of the Cross, seeking to win souls for his God. He could not abandon the gentiles of California to the fate of the heathen, and while he acknowledged the worldly wisdom of Portolá’s advice, there is every reason to believe that his own private decision was to stay at every cost and, if need be, to offer his life as a sacrifice on the altar of the Mission of San Diego. For Portolá spoke from without, and Junípero Serra only obeyed the Voice Within.

Nevertheless, preparations were made for the abandonment, and March 19th was fixed as the day for the formal ending of the work which had been so auspiciously begun in the previous July. But one thing could save San Diego now—not only San Diego, but California as well, for Galvez had planned the conquest of the whole coast. This one thing was the timely return of the San Antonio which had been so long awaited in vain that no one now expected it—no one, save the immortal priest. He went up to the hilltop on that fateful morning and turned his eyes to the sea as the sun rose. All day long he watched the waste of waters as they lay there in the changing light. It was a scene of marvelous beauty, and, as he watched and prayed, Junípero Serra doubtless felt that he drew very close to the Infinite. So devout a soul, in such desperate need, facing a scene of such nameless sublimity, could not have doubted that somewhere just below the curve of the sea lay a ship, with God’s hand pushing it on to starving Sin Diego. And as the sun went down he caught sight of a sail — a ghostly sail, it seemed, in the far distance. Who can ever look upon the height above the old Presidio, when the western sky is glowing and twilight stealing over the hills, without seeing Father Serra on his knees, pouring out his prayer of thanksgiving!

Captain Perez had made a quick trip to San Blas, but had been long delayed in his preparations for returning. His orders were to proceed to Monterey, where it was supposed Portolá’s men would be found in need of help, and it was the merest accident which sent him to San Diego at the last moment when his arrival could save the colony. This accident was the loss of an anchor in Santa Barbara Channel and the consequent need of seeking a safe harbor. He had been told by the natives at Santa Barbara that the land party had passed south, but he would have gone to Monterey, nevertheless, in accordance with his strict orders, except for the loss of the anchor. Thus it happened that he reached the Bay of San Diego, four days after the missionary had caught the first glimpse of his blessed sail.

The arrival of supplies and recruits changed the whole face of the situation. Portolá thought no more of abandoning the settlement, and decided to renew the northern exploration and the quest for Monterey. Father Viscaino went to Lower California to obtain live-stock and other necessaries. Father Serra proceeded with his work of mission-building with a glad heart and renewed vigor.

Presidio Hill was not destined to be the permanent seat of the mission establishment. The story of the two or three years immediately succeeding the return of Captain Perez cannot be told with any fullness, since all sources of information are barren on this period, and since the early mission records were destroyed by fire, but the fact that the mission was removed supplies convincing evidence that it was not prosperous. However, some progress was made and there is good authority for the statement that in 1773 seventy-six converts had been enrolled and some material progress made. The live-stock at that time consisted of the following: forty cattle, sixty-four sheep, fifty-five goats, nineteen bogs, two jacks, two burros, seventeen mares, three foals, nine horses, four riding and eighteen pack mules—a total of 233 animals.

There was now no thought of abandoning the settlement. It had begun to take hold both of the natives and the soil, but there were evidently imperative reasons for changing its location. One important consideration was the fact that the presence of the soldiers seriously interfered with the work of interesting the Indians, both spiritually and industrially. A removal had been suggested by Commandant Fages in 1773, but Serra opposed it. Father Jáume, however, who was in charge of the mission, threw his influence in favor of the removal. He desired an atmosphere which should be wholly free from the distraction of the military, yet not so far removed from the Presidio as to deprive him of protection. In his walks about the country he had discovered the ideal location. In fact, it must have suggested itself, for he had but to follow the river a few miles up the fertile valley to see where nature pointed with unerring finger to the very place which seems to have been created for his purpose.

Standing now among the relics of that historic settlement, one can easily imagine the joy which must have filled the old missionary’s heart as he took in each detail of the scene and roughly outlined the work which his followers were to do. Junípero Serra was not himself the builder of the San Diego Mission, nor did he personally organize the work which was done there for a period of more than two generations. His was the genius which could conceive great projects, then set others at work to carry them out, inspired with his own confidence in the beneficent consequences of the work. His name outshines those of all his contemporaries, for there were many lieutenants and an army of followers where there was but one great leader who saw the end from the beginning. When any important work is accomplished, all who have a part in it are entitled to their share of credit; but it is the man of bold conceptions, the man endowed with the creative instinct to initiate great undertakings and to set forces in motion to secure their execution, who changes the face of his times and takes high rank in human history.

The spot selected for the permanent mission is about six miles up the valley from the original settlement on Presidio Hill. It possesses every advantage, in the way of soil and water, of sheltering hills and gentle climate, for an agricultural, industrial, and pastoral establishment under a patriarchal form of government, like that of the Mission Fathers. If there was a drawback, it was the fact that the river did not furnish water at all seasons, and that some engineering skill and a large amount of labor were required to secure a reliable supply for the orchards and gardens. A perennial stream would have been an improvement, yet the water problem was readily solved after a time by going a few miles up the river, building a dam, and conducting a supply to the place of use by means of tunnels and ditches. This was not done, however, at first, nor was there urgent need of it until the community had grown to some size. There was good pasturage; grain could be raised without irrigation; and water could be had from the natural flow of the stream for one crop of vegetables and small fruits each season, while the rich soil along the river, with plenty of underground water not far from the surface, encouraged the growth of trees. Thus the missionaries were able to make an early start in their new location and could safely reserve the finer forms of development until the time when they should be called upon to sustain hundreds or thousands by a more intensive cultivation of the soil.

Statue of Father Serra at Monterey.

Aside from these material considerations, the place must have appealed powerfully to the devoted priests. It was like their native Spain in all its essential aspects; it was in the midst of the gentiles whom they wished to christianize and to make useful in field and shop; and the scenery offered by hill and valley, by sea and mountains, was as charming as the eye of man ever beheld. So there the missionaries went in August, 1774, to make a new start and to lay the foundations of a mission which they fondly hoped might last for many centuries. For more than a year the work proceeded prosperously, with a constant increase in the number of converts, with growing herds and increasing crops, and with Fathers Fuster and Jáume in charge of affairs. All was quiet as the hills and peaceful as the sunshine. The converted Indians seemed to enter more and more into the true spirit of the work.

Thus they celebrated the Feast of Saint Francis, founder of the Franciscan order, with every evidence of satisfaction, on October 3 and 4, 1775. On the first day the priests baptized sixty new converts, and on the next day Spaniards and Indians assisted in the solemn mass and procession and, later, joined in sport and play. There were horse and foot races. The Spaniards gave exhibitions in the art of fencing and the Indians displayed their skill with bows and arrows. Everybody seemed happy and nothing occurred to mar the harmony of the scene. And yet within a month of that time the Indians rose in revolt, the mission was wiped from the face of the earth, and the cause of the Franciscans received a staggering blow at the moment when its promoters felt entirely secure.

There is no explanation of the event except the innate cruelty of the Indian character. They had received nothing but kindness from the missionaries. The soldiers had not attempted to oppress them. Those who had accepted the new faith had been clothed and fed, while those who rejected the faith had been let alone. The Spaniards had been in the country for more than six years, and if the savages resented their presence it took them a long time to discover their state of mind. Had they been a people of any spirit they could have expelled or annihilated the intruders at short notice and killed the seed of civilization wherever it touched the soil. Instead, they acquiesced in the Spanish occupation, took all they could get from the missionaries, and then, when they had fully established their friendly character, turned into demons and sought to strike down the hand that was leading them from darkness to light. Such was the way of the Indian.

A few days after the feast, two of the new converts slyly left the mission and returned to the mountains, where they proceeded to agitate for a movement against the Spaniards, visiting one rancheria after another to urge an uprising. They found most of the villages eager for the adventure, though a few declined to have any part in it. November 4, 1775, was fixed upon as the date for the attack, and large numbers of Indians wended their sway toward the seacoast to engage in the affair. The plan was to divide the forces and attack the mission and Presidio, which were six miles apart, simultaneously, and it was arranged that the firing of the mission should be the signal for the attack on the Presidio. The eagerness of the force assigned to the mission saved the Presidio, for the party which was headed down the valley saw the flames at the mission and reasoned that the soldiers at the fort would be alarmed at the sight and thus prepared to resist attack. They overestimated the Spanish soldiers, who were sound asleep instead of standing faithfully on guard; and they slept through that fateful night in blissful ignorance of the tragedy in progress a few miles up Mission Valley. The Indians, however, turned back and joined their companions in the assault upon the mission buildings. Thus it happened that the savages were eight hundred strong when they stealthily surrounded the sleeping Spaniards—eight hundred sneaking cowards, marshaled for a battle against eight friendly whites under cover of midnight darkness! Surely, they should have made short work of them, yet when day dawned there were white men still alive in the mission and it was the savages who were fleeing, laden with dead and wounded. But is was an awful night up there in the shadow of the hills, where the stars looked down upon a scene which seemed eloquent of peace.

The first move of the Indians was to surround the huts of the converts, waken them gently, and command them to remain quiet, on pain of instant death; the next, to invade the vestry and steal the church ornaments. Evidently, none of the Spaniards were troubled with insomnia, for these preliminaries were accomplished without rousing them. Then the Indians snatched firebrands from the camp-fire which still burned in front of the guard-house and applied them to the building, which was soon enveloped in flames. At last, the savages were ready to announce their presence, which they did by sounding a horrible war-cry with all the power of their eight hundred lungs.

There were sleeping in the mission the two priests, Fathers Fuster and Jáume, two children who were the son and nephew of Lieutenant Ortega (then absent at Capistrano), four soldiers, two carpenters, and a blacksmith—eleven in all, but only eight who could fight, as one of the carpenters was confined to his bed with illness and the children could do little but shriek.

The soldiers got to work promptly with their muskets and Father Foster joined them in the guard-house, with the children. The blacksmith tried to do the same, but was killed in the attempt. One of the carpenters succeeded in reaching the guard-house, but the one who was confined to his bed was terribly wounded and died the next day. “O Indian, thou who hast killed me, may God pardon thee!” he exclaimed, and when he made his testament, the next morning, he left to the mission Indians his small savings and belongings. Could there be a more striking evidence of the lofty spirit with which the Fathers imbued those around them than the Christlike attitude of this dying carpenter?

But it is Father Luis Jáume who will stand out forever in boldest relief as men read the story of that terrible night. He was quickly awakened and instantly understood what was happening, yet he did not seek the shelter of the guard-house nor seize a weapon for defense. He walked straight to the nearest and wildest group of savages and, extending his arms and smiling a gracious greeting, said: “Children, love God!” If there was ever a moment when the phrase, “Love God,” meant “Love your fellow men,” it was the moment when this saintly priest stood without fear in the midst of those howling demons. He loved them and would not have harmed a hair of their heads, but they fell upon him in overwhelming numbers, dragged him down to the river, tore his clothes from his body, tortured and stabbed him, and left him a mutilated mass of unrecognizable flesh.

In the meantime the six men and two children in the guardhouse were fighting for their lives in the midst of roaring flames. The place became too hot for them, and they decided to move into a slight building adjoining, which served as a temporary kitchen. It had only three sides and was wide open to attack on the other, and through this open side came constant volleys of arrows, clubs, and firebrands. To improve their situation, the defenders brought boxes, sacks, and chests from the adjoining storeroom and thus barricaded the open side. Only three remained to carry on the fight—two soldiers and Father Fuster—as all the others had been disabled. At this critical moment, the party of Indians who had gone to the Presidio returned and reinforced the crowd at the mission. It was then that the priest noticed that one of the chests forming the improvised breastwork contained all the powder that remained and was in imminent danger of exploding, for it was already afire. He seized it, extinguished the flames, and, with the aid of the two children, proceeded to load the guns for the soldiers, who shot as fast as they could, and always shot to kill. So the fearful night wore on. Daybreak came, and the craven besiegers had not dared to carry the frail shanty and overwhelm its two active defenders by bold assault. They picked up their dead and wounded and went back to the mountains, leaving the Presidio untouched, but the mission a smoking ruin.

The neophytes crawled out of their huts and, with tears and sobs, assured Father Fuster and his bleeding companions that they had been closely confined throughout the night and unable to lift a hand in their defense. This was probably true enough, yet it seems a pity that they did not avail themselves of the opportunity to write one noble page to the credit of their race by showing some evidence of loyalty to those who had befriended them. However, Father Fuster required no explanations, but sent some of the converts to notify the Presidio, and others to find the missing priest, Father Jáume. They found the lacerated corpse by the river and identified it by reason of its whiteness.

The lazy incompetents at the Presidio listened with wide-mouthed wonder to the tale which the Indian messengers brought them from the mission. They had heard nothing, seen nothing, during the night, but had slept disgracefully well.

The destruction of the Mission of San Diego was a stunning blow to the Franciscans, and indeed, to the whole scheme of Spanish settlement on the coast of California. The vibrations of the shock did not stop at Presidio Hill, but went on up the coast, and culminated at Monterey in the form of a general alarm. A relief party was at once put in motion, and Father Serra hastened south to lend the inspiration of his courage and of his indomitable persistence in the holy cause. There was no serious thought of abandoning the settlement, for this would have encouraged both Indian and foreign aggression and might have put an end to Spanish dominion much sooner than it came in response to the inexorable logic of events.

The survivors of the mission fight were removed to the Presidio and tenderly nursed back to health. The dead were buried at the Presidio, but many years afterward the body of Father Luis Jáume was removed to the mission and placed between the altars, where it yet rests. The place where he sleeps should be marked by an imperishable monument, for he was one of those rarest of heroes who, refusing to do violence even in self-defense, look smilingly into the face of death and go down to the dust with a prayer for their enemies on their saintly lips.


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Main Page
Author’s Foreword
Introduction: The Historical Pre-Eminence of San Diego

PART ONE:   Period of Discovery and Mission Rule

  1. The Spanish Explorers
  2. Beginning of the Mission Epoch
  3. The Taming of the Indian
  4. The Day of Mission Greatness
  5. The End of Franciscan Rule
    Priests of San Diego Mission

PART TWO:   When Old Town Was San Diego

  1. Life on Presidio Hill Under the Spanish Flag
    List of Spanish and Mexican commandants
  2. Beginnings of Agriculture and Commerce
    List of Ranchos in San Diego County
  3. Political Life in Mexican Days
  4. Early Homes, Visitors and Families
  5. Pleasant Memories of Social Life
  6. Prominent Spanish Families
  7. The Indians’ Relations With the Settlers
    List of Mission Indian Lands
  8. San Diego in the Mexican War
  9. Public Affairs After the War
  10. Accounts of Early Visitors and Settlers
  11. Annals of the Close of Old San Diego
  12. American Families of the Early Time
  13. The Journalism of Old San Diego
  14. Abortive Attempt to Establish New San Diego

PART THREE:   The Horton Period

  1. The Founder of the Modern City
  2. Horton’s Own Story
  3. Early Railroad Efforts, Including the Texas and Pacific
  4. San Diego’s First Boom
  5. Some Aspects of Social Life

PART FOUR:   Period of “The Great Boom”

  1. Coming of the Santa Fe
  2. Phenomena of the The Great Boom
  3. Growth of Public Utilities
  4. Water Development

PART FIVE:   The Last Two Decades

  1. Local Annals, After the Boom
  2. Political Affairs and Municipal Campaigns
  3. Later Journalism and Literature [new material in second edition]
  4. The Disaster to the Bennington
  5. The Twentieth Century Days
  6. John D. Spreckels Solves the Railroad Problem

PART SIX:   Institutions of Civic Life

  1. Churches and Religious Life
  2. Schools and Education
  3. Records of the Bench and Bar
  4. Growth of the Medical Profession
  5. The Public Library
  6. Story of the City Parks
  7. The Chamber of Commerce
  8. Banks and Banking
  9. Secret, Fraternal and Other Societies
  10. Account of the Fire Department

PART SEVEN:   Miscellaneous Topics

  1. History of the San Diego Climate
  2. San Diego Bay, Harbor and River
  3. Governmental Activities
  4. The Suburbs of San Diego

Political Roster, City of San Diego
Political Roster, San Diego County