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


PROFESSOR HEIZER discusses the theory of the Franciscan mission system, the actual operation of the system, and its cultural, psychological, and demographic effects on the native population. He has accomplished his goals very effectively and I will limit most of my comments to the third and most central topic—the impact of the missions on the native society. This will be done by comparing his general conclusions with the specifics of the demographic, cultural, and psychological effect of missionization on the native population of the San Diego region.

A general comment that is worth emphasizing is Professor Heizer’s observation about the ethnocentric bias of the Spanish missionaries in their assumption that in “civilizing” the natives, the Spaniards were filling a void in the lives of the Indians. This Spanish attitude should be constantly kept in mind in order to understand the policies and actions of the missionaries. Given this concept of civilizing the natives, the priests, as the purveyors of the only true religion, had in their own minds no choice but to bring as many heathens into the Church as possible.

My first point involves the estimated Indian population prior to missionization. I am inclined towards a considerable upward revision of the estimate presented by Professor Heizer for the size of the native population in the region between Los Angeles and the current Mexican border.1 The revision is based on a combination of three types of evidence. The most important are the early historical reports of sizes of Indian villages and accounts of the presence of large groups of natives along the coast and in inland valleys.2 I also have taken into consideration a heightened appreciation today of the devastating effects on isolated populations of diseases borne by the Spaniards. This is dramatically reflected in the reconstruction of pre-Columbian populations of Central Mexico, Hispaniola, and Columbia by Professors Sherburne Cook and Woodrow Borah of the University of California, Berkeley,3 a pattern which can be applied to California as well. In addition, I am influenced by recent ecological studies emphasizing the varied food sources of natives in nearby areas, especially of the Luiseños and of the Cahuillas further inland.4 These studies point to a much denser population than was previously thought possible, based upon a richer food supply than we could suspect viewing the landscape as it is today.

I raise this question of the size of the pre-1769 population in order to suggest that the impact of colonization in the San Diego area was even more devastating to the survival of its native peoples than Professor Heizer has indicated. Heizer uses Professor Cook’s demographic calculations for the region extending south from San Fernando Mission in the Los Angeles Basin to San Diego and the border.5 My own work is concentrated essentially on the area claimed by the missions of San Juan Capistrano, San Luis Rey, and San Diego de Alcalá. My analysis is based on primary evidence in archives, the work of Raymond White, Lowell Bean, and others in revising upward the plausible population levels through a reexamination of the ecological base. This is combined with the suggestions of Henry Dobyn for a “depopulation ratio” reflecting a predictable contrast of known later populations with the earlier ones. Later populations were commonly as low as 5 to 10 percent of their pre-Hispanic numbers.6

From these materials I developed estimates of the San Diego population before the arrival of the Spaniards ranging from 15,000 to 19,000.7 This contrasts with the Cook estimate used by Professor Heizer, of 20,000 persons for a geographic area double that covered by the three missions in my analysis. It is a sharp revision of Cook’s slight increase of the first estimates made by Artheur Kroeber back in 1925. He calculated a total of 8,500 for a region roughly the same as the one I have used.8 The larger estimate of 15,000-19,000 coincides with findings concerning other parts of California and Mexico which have raised the pre-Hispanic population estimates in those regions.

The participants in this symposium have presented material to illustrate the cultural contrasts between conquering and conquered peoples, between European colonizers and the inhabitants of a region feeling for the first time the impact of the European intrusion. It is important to keep in mind these differences in analyzing the cultural and psychological effects of Spanish colonization in Alta California.

For example, Professor Heizer referred to one of the few instances in which the California Indians reacted to missionization with concerted violence. He noted that the Diegueños, as the natives of this area were called by the Spaniards, seemed to have some of the martial spirit of the Yuman-speaking people along the Colorado River, to whom the Diegueños were related. The Colorado River Yuman groups were notably warlike in relations with other tribes as well as in their persistent resistance to Spanish encroachment on their territory, after an initial period of accepting Spanish settlers.

Certainly the large-scale attack by the Diegueños on the San Diego Mission in November, 1775, reflects a greater spirit of resistance than was seen in other groups along the Alta California coast. More specifically, however, the attack should be viewed as the response to a series of provocations on the part of the Spanish intruders. The latter did not, of course, record clearly these causes for this violent reaction on the part of the Indians, since their preconceptions made it hard for them to recognize provocation as such.

As part of the context it should be noted that the first attack on the embryonic military and religious establishment six years earlier in August, 1769, was carried out by a small band identified as “more than twenty” Indians from the immediate vicinity. Father Junípero Serra indicated in a report to Viceroy Bucareli that only one village had been involved in this first skirmish.9 Father Luis Jayme, who was killed in the second Indian attack of 1775, had commented on this earlier attack, which had occurred before he arrived in San Diego: “No wonder the Indians here were bad when the mission was first founded. To begin with, they did not know why [the Spaniards] had come unless they intended to take their lands away from them.”10 Only six years later, perhaps as many as a thousand natives from more than forty villages joined together to attack the Spaniards, being united in their desire to eliminate these foreigners forever.11 Provocation must have been substantial.

There were signals that such an attack was imminent, but the Spanish missionaries misinterpreted or did not heed them. Four native Christians had warned the missionaries at different times in previous weeks that a large group of Indians was planning to attack the Spanish establishments, but each time the fathers threatened them with punishment for telling “such lies.” José María, a Diegueño interpreter who had tried twice to alert them, expressed plaintively the dilemma of the mission Indians: “Fear of the gentiles [non-Christian Indians] obliged them to tell . . . [of the attack], and fear of the lash forced them to be silent.”12

A contributing cause to the Indian hostility may have been a program of mass baptisms the Franciscans initiated at San Diego Mission in July of 1775, some months before the November attack. The number of natives brought into the Church reached three hundred in three months, bringing the total for the San Diego Mission to nearly 500 baptisms at the time of the attack. A record of this sudden acceleration in conversions can be found in The Book of Baptisms one of the missionaries wrote to replace the original, which had been destroyed in the burning of the mission during the attack. He related that two extra priests were at the mission in the months preceding the attack, in addition to the two regularly assigned there. They were at San Diego while awaiting the opening of San Juan Capistrano Mission a little further up the coast. As the priest reported in the Book of Baptisms, the religious divided the Indians to be baptized into four groups by age and sex, that is, men, women, girls, and boys. Each of the four priests present baptized the converts of one group, presumably in order to accomplish their task more efficiently.13

The last and most numerous group of baptisms early in October was not accomplished at the mission but in one of the nearby native villages just northeast of the mission, in a valley the Spaniards called San Luis.14 Although the missionary gave no explanation, it probably was more convenient to take the religious rites to the Indians because of the large numbers rather than try to bring all of them into the new mission church in Mission Valley. Interestingly, the recently baptized chief of that village where the baptism of Diegueños from other villages as well as his own was performed, whom the missionaries had christened Luis, was later one of the leaders in the attack against the mission. This Luis of the Valle de San Luis conducted himself with great pride and almost disdain for the Spaniards during his interrogation after the attack. He had seen his people subjected to the incursions of unruly soldiers who raped the women, invasions by grazing livestock, and the punishments of military officials and a zealous missionary.15

Sometime in the weeks before the attack, as related by the Indian convert named José María, the Indians from one of the villages of the Valle de San Luis had been dancing, “according to their native custom.” When the priests learned of this, the Christians from the mission who had taken part were whipped as punishment for participation in the pagan rites. The people of the village became angry, according to the witness, and went into the back country to join a group of dissidents who had left the mission early in October. The villagers wanted to get the help of this dissident group in uniting the people of all the surrounding villages to attack and kill the priests and soldiers.16

I believe these details are of interest, because the resistance they depict was indeed rare in Alta California. The natives seldom had the element of surprise on their side. In fact, its rarity pointed up one of the greatest advantages the Spaniards had: they knew why they were there. The Diegueños seem to have had a better idea than most of the other native groups what those motives were.


1. Lucy Killea, “Colonial Foundations of Land Use and Society in San Diego, 1769-1846,” Ph.D. Dissertation, UCSD, 1975, pp. 99-119.

2. Ibid., pp. 111-118, Appendix 1, pp. 391-393.

3. The Aboriginal Population of Central Mexico on the Eve of the Spanish Conquest, Ibero-Americana 45 (1963); Essays in Population History: Mexico and the Caribbean (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), Vol. I.

4. Raymond C. White, Luiseño Social Organization, University of California Publications in American Archeology and Ethnography, Vol. 48, No. 2 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963), and Lowell John Bean, Mukat’s People: The Cahuilla Indians of Southern California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972.)

5. Killea, “Colonial Foundations,” pp. 79-80.

6. White, Luiseño Social Organization, pp. 110, 117; Bean, Mukat’s People, pp. 68-82; Henry F. Dobyns, “Estimating Aboriginal American Population: An Appraisal of Techniques with a New Hemispheric Estimate,” Current Anthropology, VII (October, 1966), 395-449.

7. Killea, “Colonial Foundations,” table on p. 119.

8. Arthur L. Kroeber, Handbook of the Indians of California (Berkeley: University of California, 1925), p. 883.

9. Junípero Serra, Writings of Junípero Serra, Trans, annot. by Antonine Tibesar (Washington, D.C.; Academy of American Franciscan History, 1955), Vol. I, 151, 369.

10. Luis Jayme, Letter of Luis jayme, O.F.M. San Diego, October 17, 1772, trans., ed. by Maynard Geiger (Los Angeles: Dawson’s Book Shop, 1970), p. 40.

11. José Francisco de Ortega, “Dilixencias sobre el alzamiento o sublebación quel el dia cinco de noviembre hube, a la una de la noche, en la misión de San Diego en el año de 1775,” MS, 1775, The Doheny Memorial Library (St. John’s Seminary), Camarillo, California, a copy of which is in the California Room, San Diego Public Library. A copy of Ortega’s report of the uprising also has been published in Diario del capitán comandate Fernando de Rivera y Moncada: con un apéndice documental, ed. and annot. by Ernest J. Burrus (Madrid: Ediciones José Porrua Turanzas, 1967), II, 429-81. A chronology of the events before and after the attack based on Ortega’s official report is given in Killea, “Colonial Foundations,” pp. 394-404.

12. Rivera y Moncada, Diario, II, 460.

13. San Diego Mission Records, “Libro primero de los bautismos,” MS, Diocese of San Diego, microfilm reel No. 65.

14. Ibid., pp. 20-24.

15. Rivera y Moncada, Diario, II, 447-56.

16. Ibid., p. 450.