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


CALIFORNIA, by which I mean the territory of the present state, was discovered in 1542 by Cabrillo, partly through a series of accidents. Cabrillo made the first voyage into the North Pacific along the American shore, an exploration which was set in motion partly due to the death of his close associate, Alvarado, the conquistador of Guatemala. Cabrillo found some friendly and some unfriendly natives, and indeed came to his death on one of the Channel islands off Santa Barbara through the accident of breaking his leg on going ashore to give assistance to a landing party which was being attacked by the local people (Heizer 1972). But Cabrillo found no people with valuable metals; just more poor Indians, and no effort was made to follow up his discovery. Vizcaíno in 1602 coasted California in search of Monterey Bay, in the hopes of finding a harbor where the exhausted crews of the Philippine ships could find relief, presumably at a spot where a colony also would be founded. But nothing came of this attempt. While Cabrillo did not attempt to colonize, it may be important to note that he took back to Mexico two young persons of the Chumash tribe to teach them Spanish. This may indicate some thought that these two would later be useful in the event of a settlement being established in the Santa Barbara region.

By 1542, a bare 50 years after Columbus’ voyage of discovery, enough of northern Mexico and the Southwest and the southern Great Plains had been seen by Spaniards so that they probably knew that north of the zone of the civilized Aztecs there were only rude and savage barbarians. If this is true, it could help to account for Spain’s disinterest in Alta California for so long after Cabrillo’s voyage. In 1719 Philip V suggested colonization either at San Diego or Monterey, employing idlers, vagabonds and beggars from Mexico City as settlers in order to protect the area from pirates operating off the west coast. The order was never carried out (W. Cook 1973: 44-51). By the late eighteenth century, however, the Pacific was no longer a Spanish ocean. The British and French and Russians were colonizing all over the lot, including the north Pacific, (W. Cook 1973: 44-51) and Spain decided that it would be good policy to protect the northwestern frontier of Mexico by settlement and thus affirm its claim of sovereignty which went back to Cabrillo in 1542. That claim, although supported by repeated performances of the Act of Sovereignty, rested on pretty slim evidence.

What was needed was some concrete act of settlement to establish the Spanish claim of ownership to the lands north of Mexico—a need dramatized by Cook’s voyage of 1776 into the North Pacific. In 1765 Visitor General José de Galvez arrived in Mexico, and three years later with Viceroy Carlos Francisco de Croix, submitted a plan for the colonization of California. This in turn was presented to Serra, President of the declining Franciscan missions of Baja California which recently been taken over from the expelled Jesuit order. Action came, remarkably quickly in terms of how slowly most things moved in those days, and in March, 1769, an overland expedition left Mexico under the command of Fernando Rivera y Moncada, accompanied by Fray Crespi, while a second contingent departed in May under command of Gaspar de Portolá and accompanied by Father Serra. By July, they had founded the first of what was to become by 1823 a chain of 21 missions extending from the initial settlement at San Diego in the south to Sonoma in the north. Below San Francisco Bay, most of the missions were directly on the coast, the furthest inland being Soledad, some 30 miles from the shore.

What I propose to discuss here is the theory of the Franciscan mission system, how it actually operated until its termination in 1834, the Indian reaction to the system, and its effects on the native population in cultural, psychological and demographic terms. In the eighteenth century the religious zeal that is illustrated in Lope de Vega’s play, San Diego de Alcalá, was part of official government policy as well as the one put into action by the acts of the Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries. A clear statement of Spain’s official Indian policy is contained in Revilla Gigedo’s instructions to his Secretary, a commissioned frigate Lieutenant, who was charged with a detailed exploration of the western coast from 56 degrees north to San Francisco. Natives were to be treated kindly and with fairness in order to lay “a foundation for friendship perhaps very useful in the future to religion and the sovereign” (W. Cook 1973: 328-330). The propagation of the faith was given equal importance to the welfare of the nation. Conversion of the heathens was a religious duty.

Spaniard beating a Mexican native prisoner

In a sketch from the NOTEBOOKS OF TONAYUCA (c. 1567) a Spaniard is shown beating a Mexican native prisoner soon after the Conquest

By 1769 the Spanish had had nearly two and a half centuries of experience in dealing with American Indians, and were therefore prepared for managing the California Indians who had nothing worth taking, and who fell in that class of people called “Barbarians.” Spanish Indian policy was at heart that of the obligation to civilize these barbarians (Hutchinson 1969:70-74). Rather than try to explain this Indian policy in my own words, I quote my anthropological colleague, Edward Spicer. He says:

“Church and civil officials were in agreement from the start on what the Indians should be made to accept as fundamental elements of civilization. It was agreed that Spanish regal authority and law must be the framework of Indian life. It was also agreed that the setting for these primary elements of civilization must be town life. In addition, the Indians must be made to dress in the Spanish manner. . . They must also practice monogamy and employ formal marriage ceremonies, and they ought to live in adobe or stone houses. . . Prevailing Spanish opinion, especially among officials at a distance from the Indians, was that the barbarians lacked law and real authority, that they had no religion at all or a species of worship which was called idolatry and was wholly evil. . . that their settlements were not organized communities, that their sexual lives were unregulated, that their forms of body covering were not clothing properly so called, and that they lacked houses worthy of human beings. Thus, the Spanish view in respect to the process of civilizing was not that they were replacing existing functional institutions and culture traits, but rather that they were giving the Indians things which the latter did not have. Lacking government, religion and civilized decencies, the Indians were being given the opportunity to know these things and should be grateful for them” (Spicer 1962: 282).

Friar Font, an educated, literate and humane missionary, on his way to Monterey, California, with Anza and the group of colonists in 1775, saw clearly that the purpose of the expedition was civil—military in intent, but also records that the patroness of the expedition was the Virgin of Guadalupe, “the mother and patroness of the Indians and this America.” After visiting the Yuma Indians at the Colorado River crossing, Font wrote in his diary (Bolton 1931:110-112):

“I might inquire what sin was committed by these Indians and their ancestors that they should grow up in those remote lands of the north with such infelicity and unhappiness, in such nakedness and misery, and above all with such blind ignorance of everything that they do not even know the transitory conveniences of the earth in order to obtain them; nor how much less, as it appeared to me from what I was able to learn from them, do they have any knowledge of the existence of God, but live like beasts, without making use of reason or discourse, and being distinguished from beasts only by possessing the bodily or human form, but not by their deeds. Since God created them, his Divine Majesty knows the high purposes for which He wished them to be born to such misery, or that they should live so blind. But considering that the mercy of God is infinite, and that so far as it is His part, He wishes that all men should be saved, and should come to the knowledge of the eternal truths, therefore I cannot do less than piously surmise, in favor of those poor Indians, that God must have some special providence hidden from our curiosity, to the end that they may be saved, and that not all of them shall be damned.”

That statement by Font I take as reflecting the guiding principle of the missionaries (see also Hutchinson 1969: 50 ff.). That Indians were a different order of human being is clearly something believed by the missionaries. They were animals in human form who had to be made truly human by conversion to the Faith. One could speculate or ruminate on whether the Franciscan order was being used by the Crown to pacify and exploit the native populations for its temporal goals of securing land threatened by other European powers, or whether the Crown did in fact embrace honestly the spiritual values of the Franciscan order, but this would serve little point. I do not doubt the sincerity of the missionaries as a group in the remarkable work they attempted at introducing Spanish colonial civilization in a new and essentially isolated land and among a completely alien people. Their degree of success and its cost to the native populations is another matter and this we can examine.

The theory of the mission establishment was first the reduction of heathenism through conversion; instructing the neophytes in the doctrine and educating them so that they could be released to follow useful pursuits in the secular towns or pueblos. Mission lands were to be utilized for the support of the mission and its people, but were held in trust for the Indians and would revert to them as owners when the mission had finished its sacred task. Each mission was allotted two priests. As a rule, one managed temporal affairs and the other took charge of spiritual matters, though no doubt each helped the other in his main duties. The missionaries who first established and supervised the building of the church and other structures, instructed the converts in religious matters, and oversaw the whole complex operation, were truly remarkable men. Only men imbued with an indomitable spirit and faith could have done what they did in these rough frontier outposts where there were so few amenities. It is small wonder that the strain was too much for a few of them, and they went mad, or that the pressures were so great that some forgot their vows of celibacy and contracted syphilis, or took their duties so seriously that they became cruel in inflicting punishment in their attempts to keep their neophyte populations under control. Those were human emotions and reactions which I think that we can understand. The missionaries were, after all, not supermen, and while some of them are surely subject to criticism, we must be aware that we do so from the standpoint of being far removed from the reality of life in California in the late eighteenth century.

The native population of California in 1769 has been calculated at about 310,000 (S. Cook 1976b: 42-43). Not all of these were subsequently missionized, though most of them probably felt some of the indirect effects of the mission program. The direct zone of mission influence was that running from the Mexican border south of San Diego some 600 miles north to Sonoma, and extending inland from the Pacific shore from 30 to as much as 60 miles in some spots. This portion of the state, usually referred to as the Mission Strip, can be divided into three sections: the north, comprising the eleven missions lying north of Purisima with a land area of about 11,000 square miles and an original population of about 26,000; the central section comprising the four Santa Barbara Channel missions with a land area of about 5,000 square miles and an original population of 18,500; and the southern section including the missions from San Fernando south whose native population is calculated to have been at the beginning of missionization 20,000 in a land area of 10,500 square miles. The grand total of persons in 64,500.

There exists a formidable mass of statistical data recorded at the missions on crop production, baptisms, births, marriages and deaths. These have been utilized, though not in their totality, by scholars such as Hubert H. Bancroft, Father Zephyrin Engelhardt, Father Maynard Geiger, J.N. Bowman (1958) and Sherburne F. Cook (1976) for purposes of securing vital statistics figures. None of the conclusions reached by these scholars agree in detail, and indeed they are at times quite different. Taking Cook’s figures from zero population in 1769, the maximum number of mission residents (i.e. neophytes) of about 21,000 was reached between 1821 and 1824. There were logged 81,000 baptisms and 60,600 deaths. Bancroft (1888: 621) tabulated the death rate from 1769 to 1834 for children and adults. Children’s death rates were two to four times that of adults. The combined death rate for the 66 years of mission operation averaged about 7.6 percent; for children the average is 13.3 percent and for adults 5.9 percent. In certain years disease hit hard as, for example in 1806 when measles swept through many of the missions and elevated the death rate that year to 17 percent. In 1834, the last year of mission operation, slightly over 15,000 neophytes were resident in the 21 missions, the most populous being San Luis Rey with 2848, and the least being San Francisco with 136, the average being 743. Baptisms had been declining for a full decade; the birthrate in the missions was in process of a steady decline from 47 per thousand in 1779 to about 30 per thousand in 1829, the decrease being about 35 percent. Unless massive conversions could be secured the mission system was doomed to extinction simply because it was running out of new Indians. There were plenty of fresh recruits who could have been dragooned into the missions from the native villages that lay beyond the zone of safe travel, by which I mean the empty region which had already been drained of its people, brought into the mission either voluntarily or by force. In the first decades, 1770-1790, baptism was probably largely voluntary, or at least accomplished with a minimum of physical force. After 1790 there was increasing fugitivism, which represented a drain on the neophyte numbers and an increase in force employed in recruiting new converts. But the military power in California was insufficient to be used effectively to collect fresh Indians.

The chain of missions had little unity, except that each shared the same basic purpose. The missions were ill-supplied with necessities from Mexico, and the operation was subject to many internal strains. Put briefly, the Franciscan missions in California were ill-equipped, badly managed places where Indians came to be subject to unaccustomed labor, unsanitary living conditions, disease, poor food, and a disruption of family ties and accustomed social relationships. And through these experiences their lives were very often the cost. Conditions probably need not have been so poor, but with the government unwilling to provide more, with the priests unable, despite their herculean efforts, to do better, and with internal disaffection a constant problem, there was really not much that could be done to ameliorate mission life. The primary result of the mission system, in human terms, was the huge waste of life in the very people which the system was intended to aid and to guide out of savagery into civilization. In the end, of course, it died by decree through secularization resulting from the anticlerical revolution in which Mexico achieved its independence. But, regardless, of that, it was scarcely a viable and self-perpetuating institution because it was nourished on a continuing fresh supply of human beings which were in increasingly short supply. To continue to feed the furnace would have required a military force of much greater power than was available to go further each year into the unconverted interior and bring back the human fuel. Perhaps that is too flowery, but I believe it is accurate.

The missions were largely self sufficient, raising their own food through farming and stockraising. Cloth for dressing the neophytes was woven of wool in each mission. But the documents from the missions are full of reports of shortages: one mission with bad crops of wheat or barley would not have enough food in its warehouses to support its neophytes and would borrow food from another mission; iron for tools was ever in short supply for forging into simple farm tools; at times the supply of holy oil was exhausted and certain church rituals could not be performed. Although a surgeon was stationed at the capital, Monterey, these men were usually so untrained as to scarcely be called doctors (Cook 1937). The missions, in short, were destitute of medical facilities. One of the most serious problems the missionaries faced was that of essential supplies which came only from Mexico. Overland communication with Mexico was time consuming, costly, and full of danger because of the mounted and aggressive tribes which held the “Apacheria” that had to be crossed (Spicer 1973; McWilliams 1968:53). Each mission was supported by a grant of 800 pesos drawn from the Pious Fund which had originally been established by the Jesuits for missionizing efforts and which was confiscated and turned over to the Franciscans in 1767. The Fund came from bequests of estates and capital contributed by wealthy individuals. Surplus productions such as hides, salt, tallow, cloth, grain, furs were sent back to Mexico on the annual supply ship (which at times failed to make an appearance) to be sold and the money credited to the Pious Fund. There was some trading, usually illicit and against regulations, with foreign ships which stopped to revictual or take on water, and in this way some necessities (iron or finished tools) and luxuries (e.g. chinaware and liquor) could be obtained. Vancouver (1801: Vol. III) when he made his first visit to California in 1792 and was received with great hospitality, repaid the missionaries’ kindnesses to him and his crew with “culinary and table utensils, some bar iron, with a few ornaments for the decoration of their churches; to which I added one hogshead of wine, and another of rum,” gifts which he later learned “were received as very acceptable presents.” The neophytes presumably shared in this bounty; perhaps not to the extent of having the wine and rum divided with them, but in being able to admire the church ornaments and get some exercise with the farm tools forged from the bar iron.

What then was the life experience of the Indian neophyte, drawn from his native village and into what must have seemed at first a strange and even perhaps wonderful place, the mission? Let us look at labor, by which I mean the energy expenditure of the neophytes for the maintenance of the mission establishment. We have various accounts of the daily routine, and from these we can generalize that there were from 7 to 8 hours of labor and 2 of prayer. On Sundays and feast days the period of rest and worship was extended to 4 or 5 hours. Failure to attend church services was punished by being put in the stocks and/or whipped. Men worked in the fields or on “piece work” such as making adobe bricks or roof tiles. Women ground barley or wheat into flour on a metate. La Perouse, the French explorer, in the late 1780s observed at Carmel Mission that the grinding of seeds on the metate was both “tedious and laborious,” and in an attempt to help caused one of his men to leave a “mill,” but this contrivance we learn from a later visitor was never used. Perhaps it did not work well, but it is more likely that its use would have interfered with the routine of women’s duties. Children performed light tasks such as keeping birds out of the fields and orchards or pulling weeds. Very old persons were exempted from work, perhaps on the grounds that little was to be gained from making them exert themselves, and to do so might cause disaffection with their younger relations who might also be inmates. Pregnant women worked.

The labor demanded of neophytes does not appear to have been excessively heavy, though some of it would probably be classed as hard work—for example a man’s quota was 40 adobe bricks or 28 roof tiles per day—but we have to look at the labor demanded and expended in terms of the reaction of individuals to it. The compulsion to labor and steady work was something new to the Indian who was unused to forced and continuous energy exertion. Unaccustomed to this in their own way of life, although capable of extraordinary exertion at such times as the acorn harvest or salmon run, they reacted by malingering unless under the eye of an overseer. If this was reported it was considered a serious infraction of the rules by the priests for the simple reason that the mission was of necessity self-sufficient, and if production was not maintained there would not be enough to eat. We can assume that reasoning on these grounds with a lazy and work-avoiding neophyte made little impression, so the priests resorted to punishment to secure the essential effort. And, we can assume that the priests soon learned that if they were lenient with one such offender there would be others who would follow. What the missionaries failed to instill in their charges was the moral need to work. Had they succeeded in communicating this a system better for all would have resulted. Probably they went through the motions of arguing this, but the idea is not really a simple one to grasp, and under the manifold difficulties which the mission operation faced this would merely have been one of many. I think that it cannot have been much fun to have been a missionary in California two centuries ago, and I am more positive in the thought that being a neophyte in one of the missions was even less attractive.

Let us examine the matter of punishment in the missions. In order to maintain the system against the neophytes’ objections or apathy, the missionaries applied various forms of restriction and complusion to conform to the rules. All of this ultimately came to rest on individuals in the form of corporal punishment, and this in turn became the focus of the neophytes’ objections to the missionaries whom they correctly saw as personally responsible, and to the mission as the institution which was the vehicle. Punishable offenses were of two main types: 1), criminal, which included murder, assault, theft, armed robbery, and sex delinquencies such as incest, sodomy, fornication and rape which were strongly disapproved of by the Church; and, 2), political (or perhaps better, political-religious), which included fugitivism (classed as abandonment or renunciation of the faith), the refusal to perform assigned tasks, conspiracies to incite acts to overthrow the regime, destruction of mission or military goods or property, physical assult on either missionaries or soldiers.

Cook (1976a: 116-121) has compiled from the mission records a list of 94 cases of disciplinary action involving 362 persons and covering the period 1775 to 1831. These were criminal cases and were judged by the military authorities. Most of these cases in this sample fall in the “political” category. The sanctions handed down seem severe: 70 percent were flogged with 15, 20, 25, 50, 75 times 3, and 25 times 27 lashes; 57 percent were imprisoned from one month to 4 years, sometimes at hard labor; and 36 percent were both flogged and jailed. A few persons received the death sentence for homicide, conspiracy or robbery. Beyond the official records of punishment we have a neophyte’s autobiographical document dictated in 1890 at Santa Cruz by one Lorenzo, or Lorenzo Asisara, born at Santa Cruz Mission in 1819. In describing life in the mission he says, “The Indians at the missions were very severely treated by the padres, often punished by fifty lashes on the bare back. They were governed somewhat in the military style, having sergeants, corporals and overseers, who were Indians, and they reported to the padres any disobedience or infraction of the rules, and then came the lash without mercy, the women the same as the men. . . We were always trembling with fear of the lash” (Heizer 1974: 79). Women were punished separately and privately, being flogged by other women in the female quarters. Public punishment of women caused much unrest among the men, hence the privacy. Father Tapis in 1800 said of flogging: “They take this punishment with humility and after suffering it are still as fond of the fathers as before”—a statement we may doubt, since any strong reaction to what was considered justifiable punishment would presumably be followed by more. Attitudes of the missionaries toward punishment were stated by Lasuen when he wrote, “It is evident that a nation which is barbarous, ferocious and ignorant requires more frequent punishment than a nation which is cultured, educated and of gentle and moderate customs.” There were instances where priests were charged with outright brutality, but investigations even when made seem to have led to no more than a momentary amelioration. The missionaries complained that when they were ordered to relax punishment the neophytes became correspondingly more unruly and misbehaving. In each mission were 3 caciques or alcaldes who were elected by the neophytes subject to the approval of the missionaries (Phillips 1975: 29-30; Bancroft 1886: 585). La Perouse in 1789 described these functionaries at Carmel as “very passive beings, blind executors of the wishes of their superiors, and their principal function is to serve as beadles in the church and to maintain good order and the appearance of devotion there.” Another duty of the alcaldes was to administer the floggings ordered by the priests. It is obvious that by having Indians punish Indians a certain amount of hostile reaction would be diverted from the priests. I think that the record is clear that flogging was very common, and that the priests believed that this was the only way in which their control could be maintained. Unable to create an esprit de corps among the neophytes which would make the mission operation one of cooperation and mutual benefit, the mission became a polarized dual-cultural institution, and one which had strong resemblances to a penal institution.

Let us examine another social aspect of the mission, that of sexual and family relations among the neophytes. One of the biggest problems the priests faced was harmonizing their own theories about sex with native practices. California Indians were, generally speaking, pretty freethinking about sex. They did observe everywhere in their original state the institutions of marriage and divorce (Nelson 1975). Premarital sex was, except in certain tribes for special reasons, not disapproved of, although my impression is that it was less prevalent than in the United States in 1976.1 do not think that we know enough in detail about what went on in the missions between men and women, but have the impression that in this new situation even the ordinary sexual restraints may have been relaxed, perhaps due to the stress or pressure of the new way of life individuals found themselves subject to. The missionaries, seeing the Indians as being licentious, totally immoral, acting as though they were mere animals, and practicing no sexual restraints, took the very steps which we would expect them to have taken. Unmarried women and girls over the age of nine were locked up at night. Unmarried men were also confined at night in the hope that this enforced segregation would prevent immoral acts. The records show that this was not wholly successful, but at the same time it must have had some of the desired effect. Among the living conditions to which the neophytes continually objected was that of the barracks they were locked into each night. They were badly overcrowded. Cook (1976: 90) calculates that the women’s night detention quarters provided a space of 7 by 2 feet per person, barely enough space to sleep in, and there are numerous reports that they were inadequately ventilated, unsanitary, and full of filth. The resentment of the inmates can only be imagined when we know they must have been remembering the freedom of their life in the native villages.

Among the social practices generated, at least in part, by such confinement was homosexuality and sodomy, and perhaps as well the increasing practice by married neophyte women of abortion and infanticide. The reason usually given, though we cannot be certain now that it was the main one, was that the women did this in order to remain good looking and not lose their husbands. Or, as seems more probable to me, there were no advantages whatever to having children, especially if they were to grow up only to become another chattel of the mission. Abortion and infanticide, in short, may have been one form of protest. Since male and female neophytes were permitted, and even encouraged to marry, many of them did so. Each couple was permitted to live in a separate house within the mission compound or just outside it, and were allowed to keep chickens which must have aided considerably in providing adequate food in the form of eggs, so there were decided advantages in marrying. Divorce of such couples was strictly prohibited by the priests, who to their credit often worked to reconcile disaffected couples, but there were no doubt many couples who did not get along well. If so, it is certain that there occurred some wife-trading, or perhaps better and more technically, adultery, (Ruíz 1811; Argüello 1811 (?); Olivera 1822), and that pregnancies resulting from these liaisons were the cause of abortion and infanticide. But that is the merest speculation on my part.

On the whole the matter of sex relations in the missions was badly handled by the missionaries. The birth rate fell steadily until the end, and the measures used to keep unmarried persons separate caused unrest and disaffection and led to severe punishment of persons who broke the rules. The regulations worked against renewal of the steadily-diminishing human crop. The problem of replacing persons was similar in some ways to that which plagued the slaveowners in the antebellum American South. It is possible that the missionaries justified, and continued, their restrictive regime over the sexual practices of their wards because they assumed that there was an unlimited supply of unconverted heathen, or gentiles, which could be dragooned and brought to the missions. But, as realists, they also knew that this method of augmentation was becoming increasingly more difficult to carry out with success, and in the end, bound by their doctrinal beliefs they continued to insist upon these while knowing that they were among the causes of the progressive deterioration of the mission in which each served.

Let us look next at the problem of food and nutrition in the mission. The Indians in their original state are best described as omnivorous. They dug roots and bulbs, collected many kinds of small seeds, gathered and stored acorns where the oaks grew, fished, collected mollusks, and hunted large and small game. The aboriginal diet was varied and adequate, and instances in the ethnographic record of famines or long periods of food shortage are rare. Neophytes rose at dawn, listened to mass, had breakfast of barley mush, lunch of a mush of barley, peas and beans, and dinner (after divine service) of barley mush again. Depending upon the supply and the inclinations of the priests there was some meat from the mission herds. Reports vary as to the number of cattle killed and distributed, but in general it seems to have been not large. If food ran short in the mission, as it did not infrequently due to bad crops, the neophytes were sent into the country to collect what they could for their sustenance. Father Payeras in 1821 wrote to Sola from San Francisco mission that “for the last three or four months the neophytes have had nothing to eat.” Whether neophytes actually starved to death in any mission is to be doubted, but at the same time it is clear that they were at times on very short and inadequate rations. S.F. Cook (1976a: 47) has calculated that the average mission convert got about 2000 calories of energy in his daily food. This is enough to sustain life, but sub-optimum for good health. The conclusion is that physiological resistance to disease resulting from an inadequate diet was an important cause in making them susceptible to infection, a situation made worse by the lack of sanitation and the natural lack of immunity to European-introduced complaints. Cook (Op. cit.: 50) concludes that “the Indians as a whole lived continuously on the verge of clinical deficiency.” We cannot ignore the probability that at least in some of the missions there was daily foraging for wild foods or vegetables while at work or from the mission gardens. On the whole, if we except occasional years of bad crops, it seems that one of the more successful elements of the California mission system was in providing a regular if minimal supply of food.

We turn now to examine two matters of the direct reaction of the Indian neophytes in the mission to the system. Up to this point I have been talking about the effect or impact of the system in terms of food, punishment, labor, sex relations and the like to which, of course, the individual Indian reacted, but over which he had little control, and about which he could do little by his own volition. The California Indians, with the exception of the Yuman speaking tribes who held the territory from the coast at San Diego eastward to the Colorado River (these were the Diegueño, Kamia and Yuma) were notably unaggressive and pacific peoples. They might engage in what anthropologists call war, but perhaps better as feuds which amounted to little more than a dangerous sport (James and Graziani 1975). But the tribes I just mentioned by name had a different attitude about conflict; they were, as part of their cultural pattern and outlook on life, imbued with a martial spirit. They were tough and aggressive, and they engaged in war because that pursuit had, through historical development, in some manner become an activity of value, not only to persons who engaged in it but also as redounding to the spiritual benefit of the tribe. This attitude was most pronounced among the tribes of the Colorado River, but it seems to have been present to some degree among the Diegueno on the west. We have a good illustration of this in the fate of the Colorado River mission founded among the Yumas in 1779 by Father Garces who had earlier visited them and found them friendly. The site was on the west, or California, bank of the Colorado just below where the Gila River enters. There were soldiers attached to the mission, and some local converts, but there was also some trouble, and less than two years later, in 1781, the Yumas attacked and burned the mission, killed the two missionaries and the neophytes, and destroyed the two churches then a-building. Garces and his companion became martyrs to the Faith, which probably they had always hoped for, and the redoubtable Fages shortly afterward marched east with a military company and killed off a lot of Yuma citizens with guns. There, Spanish honor being avenged, the matter remained. No attempt was ever made to rebuild the missions, probably because the Spanish knew whom they were dealing with. A second instance also involves Yuman speaking people—the Diegueños. The mission at San Diego was the first to be established. Founded by Portolá’s expedition on July 16, 1769 it attracted some interest by the local natives who were looking not for conversion but Spanish goods, especially cloth. Through the natives’ effort to commit theft a fight broke out on August 16, just two months later, and there were a few dead and more wounded. No converts offered themselves for over a year, but finally the mission was built and there were some sixty converts. Then, on November 4,1775 in the night, a strong force of Diegueños said to have numbered from 800 to 1000, recruited from nearby villages and perhaps (though uncertainly) including some of the recently converted neophytes, attacked the mission, killing one priest, a blacksmith and a carpenter (DeThoma 1899; Bolton 1931: 199-208; Bancroft 1886). Father Serra, the President of the Missions, is reported to have said at Carmel when he heard of the destruction of the mission, “God be thanked; now the soil is watered; now will the reduction of the Diegueños be complete.” An adobe church was later built at San Diego in 1780 and conversions followed. True, there were some minor attacks or mission revolts elsewhere, but these two were the most determined and effective, and they were committed by the two missionized tribes which ethnographers could have predicted.

In the missions to the north of San Diego the maximal individual response was fugitivism—simply running away from the mission when it became unbearable to the individual. Organized revolts within the mission, or arranged beforehand with the help of villagers who were not yet converted, did not occur. As a corporate group, the bodies of neophytes were either disinclined to organize resistance movements, or were incapable of doing so. Possibly there were too many informers among the neophyte populations, which had been drawn from numerous villages, and perhaps also personal differences between individual neophytes, to make it possible to successfully organize and keep secret such plots. The 1824 revolt seems to have been spontaneous, arising as a reaction to the brutal flogging of a neophyte at Santa Ynez Mission. Word of the flogging spread to Purisima Mission whose neophytes went on the rampage and as well to Santa Barbara from which 453 neophytes decamped. Since the revolt was unpremeditated, it seems that tension in these Channel missions must have been at the spark point (Geiger 1970; Stickel and Cooper 1969). No Spaniards, either soldiers or priests, were killed, and the main effort by the neophytes was to escape. Hundreds left for the Tulare region; many were recaptured and returned to their missions; punishment was heavy, and things then proceeded pretty much as usual. One group of the 1824 fugitives, grown to number seven or eight hundred, was seen and described by Zenas Leonard as living in a village in Walker Pass, still in possession of “several of the images they pilfered from the church,” growing crops, having horses, and engaged at times with trading with ships on the coast. Throughout the whole of the mission period of some 65 years there were repeated alarms at one mission or the other of alleged or attempted revolts or rebellions (e.g. Arrillaga 1806, Santa Clara; Borica 1796, Santa Cruz; Gutierrez 1835, San Luis Rey; Figueroa 1833, San Diego; Neve, 177, Soledad; Fages, 1785, San Gabriel, for which see also Temple 1958). How much basis there was for these reports is uncertain, but one gets the impression that the Spanish intelligence network was good, and also that they were apprehensive.

Running away from the mission was a maximal response to intolerable conditions, and fugitivism was a very important matter to the priests. It depleted the labor supply, and unless runaways were brought back and severely punished they served as an encouragement for others to do the same. In addition, fugitives were automatically classed as apostates and thus suggested to the missionaries that they had failed in their holy duty. Every successful fugitive who cast off the religion which he had entered into only proved to the priests that Christianity was not the moral force they believed it to be. Successful fugitives also constituted a threat to the security of the missions because they could inform the gentiles of what life was really like in the mission and thus make it more difficult to entice them into conversion. From 1769 to 1831 no fewer than 3400 neophytes became successful, permanent fugitives. As early as 1800 proposals were made for an inland chain of missions, especially for the San Joaquin Valley, and these became increasingly urgent as time went on not only as a means of increasing the harvest of pagan souls, but also as a protection for the coastal missions which were subject to armed forays by mounted tribes in the valley (Beattie 1928; Heizer 1941a). Cook (1976a:61) calculates that ten percent of the neophyte population during the mission period became fugitives, and this was a serious matter to the missionaries. They reacted to this threat by sending out military parties who rounded up baptized persons who had escaped, severely punished the people in the villages where they had taken refuge, captured by force and brought back to the mission gentiles encountered on such expeditions, and meted out strong punishment to captured fugitives (Cook 1960, 1962). In short, when moral suasion failed, force was applied.

While conditions existing at one mission and date may not represent the situation at others, let me cite the answers some of the recaptured 23 neophytes who ran away from San Francisco in 1797 gave to the question of why they became fugitives. It is a sufficiently large number to sample the reasons for neophyte discontent. One said it was because he wept over the death of his wife and child and was ordered flogged on five occasions by Father Danti. Another because he was sick. Another because his wife and one son died. One gave as his reason because he was hungry and put in the stocks when he was ill. One neophyte gave as his only reason homesickness. Another because his wife, one son and two brothers had died in the mission. One did so because his wife and son were fugitives and because he was continually being beaten. Another because the “alcalde” beat him all the time and he was made to work while he was sick. One simply because he was given a blow with a club. One because he was beaten when he wept for a dead brother. One said he did so in order to see his mother. One because his mother, two brothers and three nephews had died in the mission, all of hunger, and he ran away so that he would not also die. One because his wife sinned with a settler and the priest beat him for not taking care of her. The rest are similar, and mention either lack of food, deaths of loved ones or harsh punishment. More than any record I know this particular one (Argüello 1797) with its simple and stark statements seems to bring home the fear and misery that must have been experienced by perhaps tens or scores of thousands of missionized natives.

Native peoples who are under great pressure often develop messianic cults. Many of these are known among American Indians, including the 1870 Ghost Dance. Such cults, in which a person receives a vision through which he becomes the prophet, could very well have arisen in any of the California missions, but only one instance is reported—that in 1801 among the Chumash (Heizer 1941b) which was immediately suppressed. The priests worked very hard to stamp out the native religious beliefs and practices since these were classed as idolatry, and in the process they may have nipped a number of such movements in the bud. But we also know that shamanistic practices, curing ceremonies, and ritual dancing were surreptitiously maintained among the neophytes (see, for example, Bancroft 1888: 215—a Santa Clara neophyte practicing shamanism; Echeandia 1829—medicine dances at Santa Ynez; Heizer 1970: 75-76—sorcerers in the Chumash missions). There is also the interesting account of an old shaman named Atswen, a neophyte at San Antonio Mission, who claimed to have the power to produce rain. During a great drought, the Padre put Atswen in the mission jail, saying he would keep him there until it rained. After a bit of plea bargaining and some high jinks, it is reported that Atswen did make it rain (Mason 1912: 195). The story, if true, only proves that at least this Franciscan missionary also believed in the Devil, and in witchcraft, and in the ability of the Indians under his control to deal with the occult and the powers of darkness.

The neophyte in the mission was, in fact, a slave. By agreeing to conversion he gave up his freedom and became completely subject for the rest of his life to the rule of the mission priests. The theory that as neophytes became educated they would be released to populate the pueblos (of which there were three: Los Angeles, San Jose and Branciforte) the civil towns with municipal governments, was never effectively put into practice (Garr 1972). The Indians were not taught how to become effective free citizens, and in 1834 when the missions were secularized by decree (Hutchinson 1969; Servin 1965) the mission lands and property were not distributed to the Indians according to plan, but rather the lands were preempted by Mexicans, the missions fell into disrepair, the livestock herds were stolen, and the former neophytes either became vagabonds, or attached themselves as peons to Mexican rancheros, or went back into the interior to re-learn, as it were, how to be real Indians again (S. Cook 1976a: 197-254; Heizer 1941). Since secularization was inevitable after Mexican independence, why did not the missionaries use that interval of over a decade to try to prepare the neophytes for the day of manumission? It all adds up to the failure of the mission system to carry out in practice what it believed in theory. In 1796 Governor Borica in a letter noted that the missions were supposed to function for ten years and then be turned over to the clergy and said, “but those of New California will not reach the goal in ten centuries; the reason, God knows, and men know something about it.” One move which could have been taken and was discussed from time to time (Goycoechea 1796; Lasuen 1802) was leaving Indians in their rancherias after baptism. This was practiced up to 1779 at San Diego out of necessity because there were no accommodations for neophytes and insufficient food for them (Fages 1787). It was argued (e.g. Lasuen 1802) that the natives would revert to their former barbarous customs and forget their catechisms. Surely there would have been problems in such a program, but with hard work and some luck it might have turned out better than in the missions which were not much better than detention homes.

I see the mission system as rigid, inflexible, stabilized and unchanging, and aimed only at its own perpetuation. It never developed beyond minimal, and always tenuous, self-sufficiency. It was conceived as a dual-culture institution and it remained that way. That is probably the main reason for the failure of the missionaries to instill a sense of independence and initiative in the converts. The Indian neophytes were little more than an energy source which cost nothing to acquire and nothing to maintain—they were an expendable resource. If the mission system had been progressive; if the priests (and the Mission Presidents) had been able to learn from observation and experience, and thus allow changes to occur which would have been accommodations to problems of managing the neophyte populations, then there could have developed an operation which would have become more humane, and more consistent with doctrinal theory. But, like most established institutions which become locked into the straitjacket of their procedures, there was no adjustment of any moment, and the system was probably doomed to failure because it consumed Indians faster than they could be produced. There was a kind of Olympian reprieve for the Franciscans in secularization which intervened and shut down their California mission operation before it destroyed itself. The cost of the mission system is something beyond calculation in terms of human lives which were spent. It functioned in a not very enlightened age, and in California it was central to the first association of Europeans and its considerable native populations. All over the Americas, regardless of who the settlers were—English, French or Spanish—this first contact led to catastrophic declines of numbers of native people. If we accept the figure of about 300,000 Native Californians living at the moment of first settlement in 1769, probably only about 150,000 were alive in 1834 when the missions were disestablished. Diseases introduced by Europeans to which the native peoples had no resistance were probably the primary factor in this catastrophic decimation (Cook 1939, 1976a: 13ff). It was the same over all of North and South America, and was therefore the unintentional result of the meeting of Old and New World peoples. In 1846, the year in which California was seized from Mexico, there were according to Cook (1976b: 44) about 150,000 Indians in the state. Most of these lived east of the former Mission Strip where they were beyond Spanish and Mexican reach. The Gold Rush and American settlement was even more devastating than Spanish colonization. By 1855, ten years later, that population of 150,000 had been reduced to 50,000, one cause being disease, but homicide was the greatest factor in this reduction. So the near disappearance of the Indians of California appears to have been inevitable in the sense that it did not make much difference which group of whites, whether Spanish, Mexican or Anglo-American were dominant.


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