by Rose Marie Beebe and Robert M. Senkewicz

The Journal of San Diego History
San Diego History Center Quarterly
Summer 2019, Volume 65, Number 2

The authors of this article came to our study of early California history through two different paths. One of us is a native Californian. Her experience was typical of many people of the same background. If you ask people of a certain age who attended elementary school in California what they remember about fourth grade social studies, there is a very good chance that they will respond immediately with, “My mission model!”

Her 1960s introduction to California history was in that vein. In the third grade at her elementary school she and her classmates learned a little bit about the Ohlone people of the Santa Clara Valley. That was followed by a brief unit on the two missions that were constructed in the valley—Santa Clara and San José. The focus of the mission unit was basically architectural, and she and her fellow students each had to create a cardboard box/milk carton version of a mission. There were no pre-fab mission kits available at craft stores back then, so by and large, the students’ mission models were constructed under the direction of their very own personal “contractors,” i.e. Mom and Dad. After the models were brought to class and put on display, the unit on California history came to an abrupt end. She remembered wondering what had happened to the Ohlone people after the missions were built and how was it that those Spanish missionaries just happened to “appear” in California.

Mission San Diego de Alcalá, c. 1846 (SDHC #1119-21).

The fourth grade social studies unit on California picked up where it had left off in the third grade. The missions were re-visited but the indigenous people were left in the background. Instead of creating a mission model, the students at her school wrote reports on a mission of their choice, focusing on when the mission was founded, the types of goods and crops it produced, and when the mission fell into ruin. The last assignment she had regarding the missions was to come up with a list of buildings in and around where she lived that had been influenced by the “mission style” of architecture. This, the class was told, was the legacy of the missions. The indigenous people who built the missions and were greatly affected by them had disappeared from the elementary school social studies narrative. But this left her with questions. She wanted to know what happened to the people who lived here before the Americans took over the region. As a bilingual child she was curious about the lives of those people who didn’t speak English—people like her Spanish-speaking grandmother.

The other author of this article came to California history from a distance. On September 10, 1969 he boarded a plane at JFK in his native New York City and headed to California. His notion of California’s geography was as vague and ill-informed as that portrayed in the famous New Yorker cartoon that would be published a few years later, “A View from Ninth Avenue.” His understanding of California history was equally paltry. He did not know that 1969 was the 200th anniversary of the founding of Mission San Diego, or that, on that very day two centuries earlier, the Portolá party was near Cambria. In fact he had most likely never heard of Portolá or Cambria.

A number of aspects of his new state puzzled him from the beginning. It seemed odd, for instance, that a local Safeway supermarket had the same kind of tiled roof as he could see on Mission Santa Clara, a scant three blocks away. And it seemed unbearably grandiose to call a local street, whose defining characteristics appeared to be used car lots, gas stations, and strip malls, El Camino Real, which he soon discovered meant the Royal Road. But he eventually realized that missions and Spain were apparently crucial parts of California’s popular identity.

The two of us did not really begin to study systematically what was behind those grammar school projects and that puzzling popular identity of California until we began to collaborate on our translation and annotation of an 1851 manuscript that was in the Santa Clara University Archives, “La historia de Alta California” by Antonio María Osio. We came to realize that, broadly speaking, two conflicting views of California in the Spanish and Mexican periods had been developed. The first of these was centered on missions and the Iberian Peninsula. It was a romantic interpretation of early California that crystallized during the Spanish Revival era. This was the view that one of us had encountered when she was in grammar school and the other when he landed in California in 1969.

Blossoming in Southern California towards the end of the nineteenth century, and indebted to an idyllic reading of Ramona that Helen Hunt Jackson never intended, this interpretation foregrounded heroic and selfless Spanish missionaries who left the comfort of the Iberian Peninsula to bring civilization and Christianity (generally regarded as the same thing) to the benighted indigenous people of California. This view was present in some pages of Hubert Howe Bancroft’s historical works, especially in his volumes aimed at a more popular audience. It attained maturity in the pronouncements of various Southern California boosters, notably Charles Lummis, in the early years of the twentieth century. It found its preeminent scholar in the Franciscan writer Zephyrin Engelhardt, whose many volumes consistently featured altruistic missionaries bringing Christianity to California’s indigenous peoples. These native peoples were presented as generally eager to receive Christianity, except when they were led astray by unscrupulous Spanish officials and, later, greedy Mexicans anxious to obtain mission lands and indigenous labor.

Mission San Diego de Alcalá, 1899 (SDHC #11251).

This interpretation was challenged in the demographic studies that Sherburne Cook began to publish in the early 1940s, and it flourished in conjunction with the “new history” that in the 1960s began to emphasize the experiences of hitherto suppressed historical actors. San Diego’s bicentennial coincided with the beginning of the 1969-1971 occupation of Alcatraz Island by Indian activists. That event helped to ensure that a reinterpretation of the experiences of California native peoples would be an integral part of California’s new history. Building on the works of scholars like Jack Forbes and Florence Shipek, demographers and historians, including prominent native scholars such as Edward Castillo, offered a picture of the pre-US California experience diametrically opposed to the earlier ruling interpretation. These scholars widely employed an analogy first propounded by Carey McWilliams that the missions were like concentration camps. The missions, in some tellings, became sites of a systematic and grisly genocide directed by missionaries who were nothing more than brutal agents of Spanish colonialism.

These conflicting perspectives formed the interpretive landscape we encountered when we first began to work on the Antonio Maria Osio manuscript. But we found that the manuscript, written by a native of Baja California who lived in Alta California between 1825 and 1851, was not consistent with either interpretation. More precisely, this primary source contained within itself elements that were congruent with aspects of both interpretations but not entirely consistent with either. Osio acknowledged at the beginning of his manuscript that missionaries were very powerful actors in both Spanish and pre-secularization Mexican California. He related that when the last Spanish governor arrived in 1815, California’s leading missionary obtained a private audience with him. At the end of their conversation, the missionary told his colleagues that he was convinced that he already had the newly arrived governor “in his pocket.” Osio wrote that some priests, notably the chief cleric at Mission San Luis Rey, were quite concerned about the welfare of the indigenous inhabitants of the missions. But at the same time, the missionaries were quite deluded about the actual commitment of the baptized indigenous peoples to the Christianity the missionaries thought had taken root among them. Osio mocked the missionaries for thinking that “simply because they had been sprinkled with baptismal water” the indigenous converts at the missions were “true Catholics.”

The Osio manuscript suggested to us that both the traditional Spanish Revival and the more recent revisionist interpretations contained both strengths and weaknesses. One strength of the Spanish revival interpretation was that its adherents discovered, preserved, and employed a wide variety of primary source material. The labors of Bancroft ultimately resulted in the creation of one of the West’s great research libraries that contains an unrivaled collection of primary sources dealing with California history before the gold rush. The Franciscan missionaries themselves were prodigious record keepers. They managed to preserve an impressive array of ecclesiastical correspondence, sacramental records, and family papers at Mission Santa Bárbara. This collection enabled historians like Engelhardt to offer assessments and conclusions that were heavily footnoted and thus could be checked and eventually challenged by others.

But this strength was also a weakness. In colonial California, as elsewhere in the seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries, extensive written records were kept by a very small segment of the population, a privileged elite who were removed from the daily lives and experiences of the majority of the people who lived in the region. The members of that elite who were missionaries tended to write about things that were important to them at any particular time. Often these items revolved around conflicts which they had with other colonial officials. These conflicts occasioned a great deal of missionary correspondence. But missionaries tended not to write extensively to other people concerning areas in which they all agreed. So the correspondence among missionaries, governors, and military leaders—all of whom were colonial officials whose salaries were paid by the crown—tended to ignore areas of agreement, such as the cultural inferiority of native peoples and the necessity to suppress native traditions and autonomy. As a result, the primary source documents can offer a distorted view of intra-Spanish relationships in California.

The great strength of the revisionist interpretation was in foregrounding the experiences of the overwhelming majority of the people who lived in the area that Spain called Alta California. The revisionists also called attention to the fact that oral tradition and community memory were vital primary sources for understanding the experiences of California’s indigenous peoples. They demonstrated that indigenous voices could be found buried in less-examined parts of the colonial archive and that significant indigenous agency could be inferred from seemingly innocuous statements of various missionaries or other colonial officials. They showed that late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century interviews of indigenous Californians by anthropologists from the Smithsonian and elsewhere could throw important light upon Indian peoples’ experiences decades earlier. And, most importantly, they demonstrated that the sacramental registers contained powerful evidence relating to the lives of indigenous people in their native rancherías and to the catastrophic population decline that was an integral part of the mission experience.

On the other hand, all the emphasis upon the missions’ effects on Indian people could at times give the impression of a greater indigenous passivity than the authors intended. And the emphasis upon the big picture, such as population decline over Alta California as a whole, could obscure regional variations and give insufficient attention to inter-group rivalries and tensions. For instance, some writings on indigenous rebellions tended to underplay the significance of the Indian soldiers who accompanied the Spanish military in their expeditions against the rebels.

Scholarship, of course, does not occur in a vacuum, and contemporary events can affect the context of public understanding of pre-gold rush California. The 1980s was a period of considerable ferment. This decade witnessed both the beatification of Junípero Serra and the determination of many native groups in the Americas that the 1992 Columbus quincentenary not be observed as a celebration of European expansion, as the 1892 event had been. The result was the greater appearance, in both scholarly and popular literature, of revisionist-oriented publications. The same phenomenon occurred after the announcement that Serra was going to be canonized in 2015.

In general, however, most scholarly work done over the past few decades has attempted to utilize the strengths of both sets of interpretations. The primary source documents that were staples of the traditional interpretation have been scoured for traces of indigenous voices. Scholars such as Douglas Monroy, Lisbeth Haas, Randall Milliken, and Steven Hackel have painstakingly demonstrated that the indigenous presence and voice is literally all over the traditional colonial archive, if one is only willing to confront that archive as those who composed it confronted their own environments. Spaniards in California knew that they were a very small minority of the population, and virtually every document they composed was written from that perspective.

Other types of documents have surfaced that enable us to attain a deeper understanding of missionary/indigenous interactions. For instance, the immense number of documents Father Maynard Geiger collected in Mexico and Europe have thrown considerable light upon the way the earliest California missionaries, such as Junípero Serra and Francisco Palóu, conceptualized their evangelization efforts. We used such documents in our recent biography of Junípero Serra. James Sandos’s synthesis on the evangelization of California relies heavily on these and other records.

The sacramental records have proven to be a continuing source of additional information about California’s indigenous peoples. The information the priests collected about parents, kinships, birthplaces, and rancherías provides great insight about indigenous social structures, strategies of accommodation and resistance, and methods of cultural persistence. James and Patricia Sandos have used these records to great effect to deepen our understanding of the sources of the Estanislao rebellion.

Oral traditions and collective memory have enabled scholars to understand the indigenous experience more profoundly. The recollections recorded by Smithsonian anthropologist John Peabody Harrington have greatly assisted scholars in understanding the context of the Chumash revolt and the interview work of Isabel Kelly has helped investigators understand the Coast Miwok people. In addition, archaeology focusing on indigenous people has made enormous strides in providing a more complete picture of a number of California’s indigenous groups before and during the contact era.

The result of these scholarly efforts is that California history has become more complex, nuanced, and ambiguous—in other words, it has become more human. And that is all to the good. History is, at its core, the interpretation of a specific past that is done in a specific present. The questions that we ask of the past are often influenced by the concerns that we experience in the present.

But past and present must be held in balance. This is not always easy to accomplish. In both the Spanish Revival and revisionist writings, the concerns of the present could dominate and distort the realities of the past. A valid approach would acknowledge that most eighteenth-century Europeans, including Spanish missionaries and officials in California, believed that they were culturally superior to indigenous people. A consideration of the roots and development of that set of beliefs is required in a genuine and full historical analysis. Also, the fact that twenty-first-century scholars believe that the view of those eighteenth-century Europeans was racist and wrong also needs to be an integral part of the historical treatment. And the manner in which those other beliefs functioned in a colonial context needs to be studied alongside a full and nuanced study of indigenous beliefs, traditions, culture, and agency.

The study of San Diego’s past has been greatly enriched by these complex interpretive currents of the past half-century. The bicentennial medallion of 1969, which contained simply one missionary and one soldier, symbolized how the older Spanish Revival picture still dominated public understanding. The intervening fifty years have witnessed a torrent of books and articles that have foregrounded the Kumeyaay people. These works have made us all understand that San Diego’s history is radically incomplete if the original San Diegans are not accorded the preeminent place in historical writing that Spanish and Mexican colonists knew they occupied in historical reality. The multicultural composition of San Diego’s population and the complexities of their interactions have taught us that the past experiences of the American Southwest never featured masses of “pure” Europeans bringing civilization and enlightenment to an uncivilized frontier.

Ginger Crocker, Miss Bikini of 1968, purchases an Anniversary Medal at US National Bank on Second and Broadway (SDHC #UT85:H824, Union-Tribune Collection).

The history of San Diego, in sum, turns out to be exactly the kind of history that all of us, Californians, Westerners, and Americans, carry within us. That history must acknowledge and study tensions between and within groups of people in the past. And it must also acknowledge and study the contradictions between past and present views. For only in examining those past tensions and contradictions can history help us confront the complex and tragic tensions and contradictions that plague our human present.