David J. Weber, Book Review Editor
Letter of Luis Jayme, O.F.M., San Diego, October 17, 1772. Translated and edited by Maynard Geiger, O.F.M. (Published for The San Diego Public Library by Dawson’s Book Shop, Los Angeles, 1970). Notes. 66 pages. $10.00.
Reviewed by Richard F. Pourade, editor emeritus of The San Diego Union, general editor of Copley Books, and the author of a six-volume history of San Diego.
Little by little we are learning more about the burning of the San Diego Mission by the Indians in 1775, and the consequent violent death of Father Luis Jayme.
One of the few existing original letters written by Father Jayme came into the possession of the San Diego Public Library through a purchase from the Thomas Winthrop Streeter Collection. It has been printed in a handsome but small volume by Dawson’s Book Shop in Los Angeles as No. 22 of its Baja California Travel Series.
The letter has been translated and edited by Father Maynard Geiger, O.F.M., of the Santa Barbara Mission Archives and author of a two-volume work on Father Junipero Serra.
There always will be some disagreement as to whether the burning of the mission was strictly a wanton and random act, or whether the Indians had some provocation, not because of actions of the mission fathers, but because of excesses of White soldiers. There is no agreement, either, as to the place of the Indians of San Diego on the scale of human development.
Jayme’s letter does suggest they possessed some alert sense of logic. He wrote: “No wonder the Indians here were bad when the mission was first founded. To begin with, they did not know why they (the Spaniards) had come, unless they intended to take their lands away from them.”
Also, they did not see any virtue in immediately becoming Christians. They saw that when the supply ships of the Portola-Serra expedition reached San Diego, the crews were dying of scurvy.
Thus, Jayme wrote, “they were loathe to pray and did not want to become a Christian and then they would die immediately.”
Father Geiger has not been particularly enthralled by the Stone Age people of California, looking upon them generally as a dirty, thieving and lying lot, but in his translation of Jayme’s letter he brings out the following: “They all know the natural law, which, so I am informed, they have observed as well or better than many Christians elsewhere. They do not have any idols; they do not go on drinking sprees; they do not marry relatives; and they have but one wife.”
When the Indians explained their sexual conduct, and their unhappy reaction to the soldiers’ assaults upon their women, even though they themselves lived in fear of heaven-sent punishment for similar acts, Jayme wrote: “When I heard this, I burst into tears to see how these gentiles were setting an example for us Christians.”
The detailing of the sexual assaults upon Indian women and little girls by the White soldiers adds more bitterness to one of the unpleasant chapters of our state’s history.
Father Serra had succeeded in having the mission moved from its original site on Presidio Hill to its present location, in order not only to be nearer available water but to separate the Indians trying to be Christians from the soldiers who had been gathered from the impoverished and mixed people of northern Mexico.
But, as Jayme’s letter makes clear in detail, the abuse of Indian women continued in other villages in the vicinity and as soldiers passed up and down the trails of California. Punishment of the soldiers was casual at best. In time the Indians turned against the Whites, and even against the fathers who had tried to protect them, and attacked the mission. Father Jayme and two workmen died.
There were other reasons for the attack, too, but that the Indians had cause for a violent reaction seems clear from Jayme’s own judgments.
In his introduction Father Geiger himself says that as a result of reading Jayme’s letter, “I am more inclined to state that military immorality must have been a contributing factor.”
We can also recall an earlier warning of Father Serra, in regard to the danger of soldiers passing up and down California and Baja California, beyond the notice of mission fathers, that if the Indians were continually exposed to that kind of molestation, “it is certain that the poor gentiles, until now as gentle as sheep, will turn on us like tigers.”