The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1978, Volume 24, Number 1
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor


IN MY estimation the work of Father Francis Guest exhibits two notable qualities: One is the objectivity with which he judges most situations, without the apologetic bent often found in work of this type. Another is the impressive number of direct documentary sources which have been used. Among the paper’s significant contributions, I would point to the advice offered regarding the caution we must use in employing the expression “mission system.” Such a phrase carries the risk of falling into invalid generalizations since, as he makes manifest, the missions presented a series of variants. Among these stand out those of Nuevo Santander, established under the influence of José de Escandón.

The general conclusions reached by our speaker are also very important and I would summarize them in the following manner:

(A) The original projects of the Spanish government for the colonization of Upper California conceived of a system of mission towns which were racially integrated, including the presidios, and based on agricultural production. This was different from the older system of mission plus garrison (presidio), with the two entities physically separate, as seen in Baja California. The new system clearly violated the portions of the Leyes de Indias which required certain minimum distances between Spanish towns and Indian settlements.

(B) This governmental proposal for racial integration of mission Indians and civilized men (gente de razón) was achieved in only a very small way due to two basic factors: (1) The attitude of the missionaries, who sought to isolate the Indians from people who might present disturbing examples, and (2) the generally bad conduct which was frequent among both soldiers and civilian Spaniards.

(C) As a consequence, in their actual functioning, the missions of Upper California probably did not differ in any significant way from the older missions to the South.

This last conclusion carries special interest and, given the similarity which Father Guest demonstrates between the missions of Upper and Lower California, I think it is worthwhile to present a brief resumé of the operation of the latter. In that way it may be possible to point out with greater clarity the similarities which in fact existed, and also to highlight certain differences.

The Jesuit missionaries established themselves on the peninsula of Baja California in 1697, imposing themselves with tenacity on the inhospitable soil. Although the occupation was financed with their own resources, the Jesuits obtained from the Crown a number of concessions which made them the supreme spiritual and civil authority in the region. They established a unique regime in the missions, one with theocratic aspects, which aspired to a utopia of a fully Christian society based on a reformed Indian community. Under the administration of the missionaries, the Indians worked the land in a communal fashion, and the product was distributed in the same way. In practice, the low productivity of the mission centers, due primarily to the aridity of the soil, forced the Jesuits to adopt a system of alternating visits to the missions by the Indians. This circumstance had prejudicial effects on the Indians, since they were unable to assimilate in a definitive way to the new life-style. This, in turn, was a factor in their demographic decline.

Afraid that the mission Indians might be exposed to disturbing influences, the Jesuits avoided as much as possible the settlement of people in the region who were independent of the Mission network. By the time the Jesuit period was well advanced, these obstacles to civil colonization brought the followers of Loyola into conflicts with the authorities and with private individuals. One is reminded of the conflicts between Fray Junípero Serra and the Governor Pedro Fages in Upper California, although the context is somewhat different. While discouraging colonization, the Jesuits also refused to distribute the land among the Indians as individual property, with the same result as in Upper California, that the Indian was never prepared for a life independent of the mission.

Given the peculiarities of their regime, the Jesuit missions were exceptions within the framework of New Spain which, among other things, impeded the growth of taxpaying Spanish and Indian towns on the peninsula. To the contrary, they regularly required aid from the Crown. As a general result of the mission period, for reasons which have not been adequately explained, the Indian population suffered a dramatic decline. One must conclude that as of the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1768, the effort to establish a permanent Christian society had not only failed, but had been unable to establish the bases of a secular society.

Following the departure of the Jesuits, the viceregal authorities established a new order which affirmed civil power and subordinated the succeeding Franciscans and Dominicans to it. In this context the authorities began to encourage civil colonization by settling people independently of the missionaries. The ultimate goal was to create towns of Spaniards and Indians which would supplant in importance the mission settlements. To this end, land was taken from the missions and distributed to soldiers from the garrisons which were connected with the missions and to Spaniards and Criollos from the far side of the Sea of Cortes, in particular from Sinaloa. Lands were also given to the Indians with the intent of removing them from the tutelage of the missionaries.

In general, the initiatives of the government were failures. The anticipated new settlement centers failed to develop. As time passed the population grew—for other reasons—but continued concentrating in the communities which had originated as missions, considerably changing their character in the process. The Indians, in spite of legal restriction, sold the lands given to them and continued in the same lamentable conditions. Consequently, speaking in terms of racial integration as does Father Guest, we find that it did not exist, since the Spaniards and Criollos continued to constitute a sector completely separate from the Indians. The latter continued the drift towards depopulation and remained in the same cultural backwardness in which they had been discovered by the missionaries. They never adopted the western life-style as exemplified by those who called themselves “civilized men” (gente de razón). Unquestionably there were mestizos on the peninsula, but they were the product of intermarriage which took place outside the region, in the continental massif of Mexico. They had no blood relationship with the indigenous Californians who, dispersed over the hills and debilitated by a series of diseases, marched towards their extinction.

During the first half of the nineteenth century this process of extinction intensified, leading to the decay of the missions, which entered their last phase in the decade 1830-40. From that period, and until the departure of the last Dominicans in 1855, the majority of the missions had only a nominal existence.

In summary, it is worth reflecting that, as much in the process of colonization in Baja California as in that of Alta California, one notes different tendencies in the missionaries and in the civil authorities. This was a consequence of substantial differences in goals and especially in the hierarchies of objectives. For the missionaries the basic objective was conversion of the Indians and their preservation within the observance of the Catholic faith. Beside that, everything else was secondary. On the other hand, for the civil authorities the first priority was the affirmation of royal power in the region. They sought to turn its inhabitants into loyal vassals of the King and contributors to his treasury—or at least to remove them from welfare.

If one keeps in mind this divergence of aims as the background of the events which transpired during the colonization process, one understands better the opposing forces which operated within it. These forces sometimes interfered with colonization, sometimes resisted it, and sometimes confronted it with violence, as in the previously mentioned altercation between Fray Junípero Serra—custodian of the souls of the mission Indians—and Governor Pedro Fages—representative of the temporal power and guardian of royal interests. In this thundering polemic the actors spoke totally different languages, each incomprehensible to the other. One wonders how much of either argument was intelligible to the Indians, passive personalties in a drama which was deciding their destiny.