History of San Diego, 1542-1908

PART ONE: CHAPTER 4: The Day of Mission Greatness

WHEN PRESIDENT SERRA heard of the noble death of Father Jáume, he exclaimed: “God be thanked! now the soil is watered; now the reduction of the Dieguinos will be com­pleted.” And it was indeed a case where the blood of the, martyr became the seed of the church. The mission was re-established and dedicated in 1777, though it was not com­pleted until 1784, and was yet to be finally dedicated in 1813. But the uprising in which Father Jáume lost his life really marked the end of the first hard period of struggle in which the outcome seemed doubtful, while the rapid recovery from that disaster signalized the beginning of the long day of mission greatness.

Of that day it is important that we should have a true con­ception, for it will always supply a romantic and picturesque background to local history; but it would be an error to sup­pose that it is vitally related to the city which finally grew up in the neighborhood of the pioneer settlements and which now bears the name of San Diego. The real history of the place be­gins at a later period than that which saw the passing of the Mission Fathers and the crumbling of their works under the pitiless footsteps of the years. Nor were their institutions or their influence much more substantial than their adobe walls. And yet, for a period of about two generations, the Spanish soldier and the Franciscan missionary ruled the land and, partly by leading and partly by driving, converted many of the savages to the ways of religion and civilization.

Conflicting tales come down to us from the earliest years of the joint reign of the soldier and the priest, and the written records are so bound with red-tape and saturated with conscious piety that it is frequently difficult to get at the facts; but there can be no doubt that the sword was the constant ally of the Cross, and that the glory of God and of the King were utterly synonymous to the minds of that generation. Neither is there any doubt of the earnestness of the missionaries in bring­ing souls to Christ. They were so deeply in earnest that they did not hesitate to employ the military arm as a means of forcible conversion. There is reason to believe that whole vil­lages were sometimes surrounded and their inhabitants driven to the missions. It appears that the soldiers themselves had a poor opinion of the Indians, yet co-operated heartily with the priests in bringing them under subjection. Apparently, neither the military nor ecclesiastical authorities were under any il­lusion concerning the inherent unfitness of the Indians for real citizenship. Both clearly understood that they could only be utilized in connection with a patriarchal establishment. Somebody else must think and plan and direct; it was their part to labor, and to labor in the fear of God. As to the treat­ment of the Indians, accounts differ widely. They were better clothed, fed, and housed than in their native state. They learned useful arts. They caught a spark of industry which, had they been made of more inflammable material, might easily have been fanned into a fierce enthusiasm for the modes of civilized life, and thus have lifted them permanently from bar­barism. But there were many impartial observers who re­garded their condition as no better than slavery. Thus Alfred Robinson, in his fascinating book, Life in California, said that “it is not unusual to see numbers of them driven along by the alcaldes, and under the whip’s lash forced to the very doors of the sanctuary.” He adds: “The condition of these Indians is miserable indeed, and it is not to be wondered at that many attempt to escape from the severity of the religious discipline of the Mission. They are pursued, and generally taken; when they are flogged, and an iron clog is fastened to their legs, serving as additional punishment, and a warning to others.”

That the good Fathers thought it more important to save the souls of the Indians than to spare their feelings or their backs, is easily susceptible of belief, for their missionary zeal knew no bounds. Better a converted soul in chains than a free heathen! There is no doubt that they sincerely subscribed to this doctrine, and they were no more fanatic than many others of their time all over the world. Nevertheless, the fair-minded student will not forget that while they were saving souls they were organizing a mass of cheap labor which worked for the enrichment of the Franciscan order, and founding settlements which they thought would secure the permanent possession of an opulent land for the benefit of their sovereign. In other words, their duty and interest happened to be the same, and they had thus a double motive for what they did. They thought it was good religion and good statesmanship.

When the Spaniards came, the whole beautiful western slope of the present San Diego County belonged to no one—but the Indians. With the raising of the royal standard it came under the nominal ownership of Spain, and it was agreed that each of the missions should take so much of the territory as it needed. The San Diego Mission laid under tribute something like forty square miles, with its religious and industrial headquarters in Mission Valley and its military base on Presidio Hill. It was expected that the mission would become self-supporting, and more. This expectation was grandly fulfilled after the first hard years had been outlived. But ships arrived each year in the harbor with supplies for the military establishment. The day came when they were able to depart with larger cargoes than they brought, for when the Mission Fathers had enrolled thou­sands of laborers, and when their herds had multiplied, they had a surplus of good things for exportation. The boundaries of the mission domain seem to have been quite indefinite, but when the property was finally transferred to Santiago Argüello, in 1846, the deed covered 58,208 acres; 22 and 21-100 acres, con­taining the mission buildings and gardens, were reserved for the church and still remain in its ownership.

In organizing the first expedition, in 1769, Galvez supplied it with material for planting such field, garden, and orchard crops as he thought adapted to the climate. It is probable that the famous olive orchard, which still flourishes, and which is recognized as the mother of all the olive trees in California, owed its existence to the thoughtfulness of Galvez. There were many other varieties of trees of the early planting, such as peaches and pears, but the olive outlives all its contemporaries, and those ancient trees in Mission Valley should remain to receive the homage of generations unborn.

By 1783 the San Diego Mission had began to assume some­thing of its permanent appearance. The church occupied a space eighty-two feet long by fifteen wide, running North and South. The granary was nearly as large. There was a store­house, a house for sick women and another for sick men, a mod­est house for the priests, a good-sized larder, and these enclosed on three sides a square one hundred and fifty-one feet long, the remaining side being enclosed by an adobe wall eight feet high. As the years went on the establishment was gradually extended to provide a series of small shops around the patio for the arti­sans and mechanics and accommodations for the increasing numbers of neophytes outside the walls, but close at hand. It was not until 1804 that the buildings took on the final shape which is preserved in the pictures of the mission period. But the plan of the Fathers was always the same, with its low, gently-slanting roofs, its interior square, its Roman towers; and the material was always adobe, with burnt tile for roofs, windows, and doorways. The walls were about four feet thick. There can be no question that the architecture harmonized with the landscape, for it was the architecture of Spain in a landscape resembling Spain in all essential aspects.

There is a tradition of unusual interest concerning the build­ing of the San Diego Mission, which is related as follows in the San Diego Weekly Union of September 24, 1878:

“From an old woman now living near San Luis Rey, named Josefa Peters, and whom we believe to be at least 124 years of age, Mr. W.B. Couts learned that the timber for the mission came from Smith’s Mountain, at least sixty miles inland from this city. The old lady says that after the timbers had all been nicely hewed and prepared, and blessed by the priests on the mountain, on a certain day a vast number of the stoutest Indians were collected and stationed in relays of about a mile apart, all the way from the summit of the mountain to the foundations of the mission buildings in the valley near this city. At a given signal the timbers were sprinkled by the as­sembled priests on the mountain, and were then hoisted on the shoulders of the Indians, and were thus carried to the first re­lays and changed to their shoulders, and so on, all the way to San Diego, without touching the ground; as it was considered sacrilege to have one of them touch the ground from the time of starting until it arrived at its final destination in the Church. As there are an immense number of these timbers, it shows the zeal and devotion of the Indians at that date, and their obedience to the Reverend Fathers.”

THE OLD MISSION DAM. Built by the Franciscans in the closing years of the eighteenth century in connection with the water supply of Mission Valley.

As the mission grew it became evident that the San Diego River could not support the large community without something better than the crude works which had been built at first. This condition gave rise to some talk about removing the mission, and there are early reports still extant which speak of the “barren soil.” But the soil needed only water to make it produce successive crops of hay and vegetables, and annual harvests of fruit in great variety. There is nothing more remarkable about these priestly builders than the versatility of their talent and the manner in which they met all demands. Thus they were able to supply the engineering capacity to solve the problem of a permanent water supply. They went ten miles up the valley, found bedrock, and proceeded to build a dam of solid masonry, cross the river bed, two hundred and twenty-four feet long and twelve feet thick. The remains of this work are still in existence and exhibit a wall fourteen feet high, as seen from the lower side. The water was conducted by means of well built ditches and a short tunnel, and supplied the mission at all seasons of the year. It is this achievement which gives the Mission Fathers a high place in the history of irrigation, and the remains of that ancient dam should be regarded as a hallowed shrine in a land where water is the God of the Harvest. Having thus thoroughly possessed themselves of the charming valley, and established the material life of their mission upon firm foundations, the Franciscan enthusiasts were at last ready to proceed triumphantly with their designs, both religious and secular.

It is pleasant to linger upon the personal character of these California Fathers. While they furnished no exception to the rule that “there is a black sheep in every flock,” they were for the most part men of the rarest virtues, consecrated to the work in which they were engaged. It would be difficult to select from human annals two loftier characters than Junípero Serra and Luis Jáume, yet these men are but conspicuous examples of the spirit which moved the Franciscans in all their labors for the upbuilding of California. The early priests came from Spain, the later ones from Mexico, and observers appear to have agreed in the opinion that the former somewhat excelled, both in attainments and zeal. It seems very remarkable that men so deeply immersed in spiritual concerns should also have been practical men of affairs and capable executives. Had they not been very competent in both respects they would have failed in their difficult undertaking. This very unusual combination of qualities seems to have been common to nearly all the priests, and it is little wonder that they obtained the confidence of the Indians to a very large degree and became their trusted advisers in all their troubles.

The ordinary dress of the Franciscan was a loose woolen garment, of brownish color, reaching nearly to the ground. It was made whole and put on over the head. The sleeves were wide, and the hood usually rested on the shoulders, though it could be drawn over the head when the weather required. A girdle was worn at the waist and was usually tied, with tassels hanging down in front. It was one of the requirements of the order that priests should have shaven crowns, the circular spot being about three or four inches in diameter. Thus the priest was readily distinguished wherever he went, and his benevolent, picturesque figure will always stand out clearly in California history.

OLD MISSION OF SAN DIEGO DE ALCALA. This view represents the establishment in Mission Valley much as it appeared at the height of its prosperity.

As soon as the mission was firmly established the number of neophytes steadily increased, though it fluctuated a good deal with the passing years. The life of the place soon settled down into a regular routine, but it was ever marked by two predom­inant facts—worship and labor. The activities of the day began at daylight. Everybody who was able to move went to mass. Then the invariable breakfast of ground barley or atole was served and sunrise found everybody ready for the daily task. The midday meal was served between 11 and 12 o’clock. Again ground barley did duty in various forms. Sometimes mutton was supplied, and frequently the Spanish frijoles, or beans. The sick and aged were fed largely on milk, which was something of a luxury. An interesting custom was the distribution of a liquid made of vinegar and sweetened water, which was carried through the fields in the hot afternoon on the backs of burros and always received with enthusiasm by the workers. At six the evening meal was served. This con­sisted principally of the inevitable ground barley and of such nuts and wild berries as the Indians gathered for themselves.

The commissary department was organized on a semi-mili­tary basis with a keeper of the granary in charge. He dis­tributed rations to each individual or family. The unmarried neophytes carried their share to a common kitchen where it was prepared and then served at a common table. The married men took their rations to their homes and shared them with their families.

At sunset the angelus summoned the Indians, the workmen, and the priests to the chapel, where the litany was sung and the evening blessing pronounced. This marked the ending of the long day of devotion to religion and labor. Each night found the mission a little richer and the Indian no poorer.

The life of the Indian girls and unmarried women was some­what different and the echo of cheerful laughter comes down to us through the years. There was a low building built around an open court which served as a sort of nunnery under the supervision of a trusted old Indian woman. Here the girls and young women lived, weaving and spinning, and making all the cloth which was used at the mission. They seem to have been happy in this association and to have had many love affairs which ripened into lawful marriage with the approval of the priests.

The Fathers ruled their little kingdom with a strong hand, which was doubtless necessary. It is easy to understand that discipline was indispensable and that the failure to maintain it must have resulted in speedy demoralization. Imprisonment was a common punishment, but the priests did not hesitate to use the rod for minor offenses. The most serious cases were turned over to the military authorities at the Presidio and some­times resulted in the execution of the culprits by shooting.

Alfred Robinson visited the mission at the time of its great­est prosperity and left the following account of the hospitality he enjoyed:

“Riding along, following the course of the river up the valley, passing on their way two or three small huts, without anything particular to note, they reached the Mission, where they met the two Father Missionaries at the door, they having just re­turned from a walk around the premises. The visitors were welcomed, and alighted to have half an hour’s chat before dinner—that is, before twelve o’clock, their usual hour for that meal; and accordingly sat down on one of the rude benches so generally found at all these establishments. The author’s friend, being an old acquaintance of the Fathers, had consider­able to say to them in relation to their travels, which was of great interest to them. At length the church bells announced the hour of noon, when both the holy friars turned around, and knelt upon the bench upon which they had been sitting, with faces turned to the building, while three or four young pages knelt by their side, on the pavement, when the elder of the two friars commenced theAngelus Domini, in a very devout manner, and led the prayer, which was responded to by the brother friar and the pages, the bells of the church chiming an accompaniment.

“During the prayer a large fly alighted on the wall just in front of the Father, who, apparently without any attention to the prayer, was watching the course of the fly and following it with the large round head of his cane, as it moved about, sometimes up, sometimes down, sometimes to the right, sometimes to the left, and ready to annihilate it, when, at the closing of the prayer, and pronouncing the word Amen! Jesus! he brought his cane down on the poor fly and crushed it, and then turned around to renew the conversation, as though nothing had trans­pired. This incident was amusing to the beholder, but serves to show the simplicity of the reverend Father, who was proba­bly not aware of having committed any impropriety.

“Dinner was now announced, when they entered through the large reception-room into the dining-room, where the table was spread, at which they sat down, and had an entertainment of the usual guisados, their fritos and azados, frijoles, and the universal tortilla de maiz, and plenty of good native wine, with the usual dessert of fruits peculiar to the climate; after which the old friars retired to take their siesta, and the author and his friend hurried away on their return to the town, where they arrived after half an hour’s ride.”

The economic life of the Mission was not confined to the cultivation of the irrigated fields and gardens in the fertile valley or the simple manufacturing that went on in the quaint little shops around the patio. The Mission Fathers were the merchants, the great stockmen, and even the bankers, of their period. They were busy men, indeed, with their spiritual af­fairs, their trade, and their management of immense herds of livestock. Vessels came to the port in increasing numbers, trav­elers constantly passed along the trail from Lower California to the north, and ranches were gradually established in the mountains. Thus it happened that the mission establishment more and more fulfilled the function of an ordinary town as a trading center. There were great opportunities for making money, and the shrewd priests made the most of them. They were bent upon the enrichment of their order because this meant a constant increase of their power, including the power to do good to the gentiles.



In those days the waters along the coast swarmed with sea-otters, a valuable fur-bearing animal. The priests encouraged the hunting of these animals by Indians and others, and thus built up a profitable fur trade. They also bought other skins, usually paying for them with goods from their store, and were thus able to make a double profit on the transaction. They were the first and best customers of the ships when they began to come around the Horn with cargoes from New England, and their store became constantly more important as a distributing center for all imported goods required in the country, and as a clearing house for surplus products available for shipment. They sometimes had large amounts of coin, which they kept beneath the tile flooring in their rooms. Their reputation for integrity was so high that they were implicitly trusted with the savings and property of others, and they were thus able to per­form a useful service as bankers for their neighbors.

The largest business operation conducted by the priests was in connection with the live-stock industry. They brought only 18 head of cattle, but by the year 1800, they had six hundred cattle, six thousand sheep, and nearly nine hundred horses. In 1830, the number of cattle had risen to fifteen thousand, of sheep to twenty thousand, and they had thousands of hogs. The horses which they originally brought to this country were shipped from Spain and were of Arabian blood. The annual harvest also reached large proportions, sometimes exceeding thirty thousand bushels of grain. The cattle were wastefully slaughtered, after the manner of the time, and were considered chiefly valuable for tallow and hides, which were sold to the masters of the ships coming to the port. Only the choicest portions of the beef were used for food.

From 1777 to 1833—a period of fifty-six years—life flowed smoothly on at the Mission and the Franciscans waxed strong and prosperous. Two other missions were established within the County, at Pala and San Luis Rey, the latter being founded on June 13, 1798, by Father Antonio Peyri, and named in honor of Saint Louis, who was Louis IX. of France. These Missions also prospered and lent strength to the mother settlement in Mission Valley. The total number of baptisms from 1769 to 1846 at the Mission of San Diego, was 7126; of confirmations, 1726; of marriages, 2051. It would be inter­esting to know the total value of property accumulated, and the total amount of wealth produced, during the same period. These facts are not available, but we know that the half-century of rule by military and ecclesiastical government was a day of material greatness, as it undeniably was of marked spiritual achievement.

Return to Books.


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