by Jack S. Williams

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

I was 14 years old in 1969. It seemed everyone I knew was excited that the City of San Diego was launching an ambitious celebration of the beginning of European civilization in San Diego. There were barbeques, speeches, and major new publications. Old Town, the historic core of the city, became a State Park. The public schools held art contests to find an appropriate logo. There were stories about heroic missionaries and brave soldiers. Everyone was celebrating Fiesta 200.

The 250th birthday of San Diego provides a useful occasion to consider how the perspectives of scholars and the public have changed since 1969. Today, we have a much fuller account of life during those distant times. However, the celebrations have been muted, and San Diego’s colonial heritage has become the source of controversy.

The last fifty years have seen an amazing amount of research on the colonies of northern New Spain that collectively sheds light on early San Diego. These larger studies, which have often focused on regional and provincial social and political development, have established a more comprehensive profile of the settlement’s institutions and leaders. A great deal of this work has been synthesized by David Weber and appears in the anthologies of David Hurst Thomas.

By contrast, the most important works specifically covering early San Diego have remained the monumental scholarly contributions of Hubert Howe Bancroft and Zephyrin Engelhardt. The most comprehensive popular version of the story remains Richard F. Pourade’s volumes. These studies laid out the basic narrative of events and biographical information about the San Diego story and have continued to provide a framework for more recent works.

Presenting the Fiesta 200 flag to Commander Bissell aboard Canadian ship HMCS Chaudière at Broadway Pier, 1969 (SDHC #UT85:H5783-1, Union-Tribune Collection).

Since 1969, scholarship on San Diego has expanded beyond the topics and approaches of traditional historians. This research has provided insights into the lives and character of the less well-documented people of the frontier, including ethnic minorities, women, and children. We have also found ways to include material evidence, along with texts, to create a more accurate picture of otherwise unrecorded—or poorly recorded—things, such as eating habits, trade goods, clothing, and architecture. Much of our understanding of the social history and archaeology of the colonial settlement has been created since 1969.

As information has accumulated, an even more fundamental change has occurred in the general perspectives of researchers regarding the relations involving newcomers and indigenous people. This change in approach, more than the accumulation of new information, has redefined how many people have viewed the colonial experience.

San Diego Presidio, ca. 1810, from the north (conjectural reconstruction based on archaeological data). Drawing by Jack Williams.

Utopia and the California Romance

In 1969, most scholars focusing on the Spanish frontier embraced the idea that the advance of European civilization was both beneficial and inevitable. Historians such as Herbert Eugene Bolton (1870-1953) argued that altruistic Catholic missionaries played a significant role in the development of the Spanish empire. Much of the “Bolton School” focused on biography and institutions. These narratives were often presented in terms of adventure stories. The Iberian newcomers were heroic figures, conquering the land and native people in the name of “civilization.”
The Bolton School’s researchers often portrayed the Indian people as primitive or ignorant savages. They rarely explored indigenous peoples’ stories in sympathetic terms. When pressed, they claimed that their views were informed by the authors of the colonial narratives. Given that virtually no written Indian accounts of the events have survived, where could they find a reliable Indian interpretation of what happened?

The view that scholars presented reinforced the already popular romance of early California. In the wake of the gold rush, many of California’s residents had adopted the idea that the lives of the original Hispanic settlers had played out in a kind of utopia, where people enjoyed prosperity and there were few social conflicts. In San Diego, this tradition had become a feature of civic pride and tourism by the first decades of the twentieth century.

Both the Bolton School and the proponents of a romantic pastoral period were attempting to counter commonly held negative views of Spaniards that drew on anti-Catholic beliefs, or ones based on other notions of Anglo-American superiority. Their objectives included embracing the Iberians as equals in the settling of the West and the formation of American civilization.

As noted below, the researchers of the Bolton School were increasingly challenged by a variety of scholars after 1969. However, for some the traditional view that there was something inherently positive and exceptional about San Diego’s colonial experience has endured. Perhaps not too surprisingly, the descendants of the newcomers and Spaniards have continued to appreciate the tradition of honoring the first colonists. Perhaps more extraordinarily, Fray Junípero Serra, a figure who looms large in the traditional narratives of the colony, has been elevated to sainthood.

The history of changing attitudes about Serra is complex and fascinating but falls outside the scope of this essay. However, for San Diego, his canonization has changed the nature of the colonial heritage to an extent never imagined in 1969. What were once simply historic places are now destinations for pilgrims. The heritage of sainthood is an honor few cities in the United States can claim. Of course, Serra’s new recognition as a saint is opposed by many who have a darker view of Spanish colonial times.

Dystopia and Forced Conversion

Since 1969, scholars, laypeople, and activists have challenged the traditional positive view of the founding and colonization of San Diego. Among those who have led this challenge are some leaders of the Indian civil rights movement, anthropologists, and historians. These individuals have argued that the colonial experience was far from a utopia.

The critics point out that colonists introduced diseases that devastated the native peoples. Those who posit a dystopian view use a variety of lines of evidence to assert that native people were forced to live in the missions, where they were subjected to a cruel, impoverished lifeway. They existed as little more than chattel slaves living in concentration camps. The mission critics have pointed to a few notable pieces of written evidence to support their claims. They have ignored or repudiated sources that emphasized the Iberians’ humane treatment of Indians. Instead, they have based much of their arguments on oral histories whose validity has been questioned by scholars accustomed to working with written sources.

Many scholars have challenged the views of these mission critics. There can be little doubt that mortality rates were high among mission Indians, but some researchers have stressed that it is difficult to establish reliable figures about the rest of the native population. We cannot even accurately determine what percentage of local Indian people lived in the missions. In the case of San Diego, the Franciscan program did not involve the creation of a centralized population (it was a misión sin reducción). Furthermore, the role played by forced conversion (and other forms of coercion) on the Spanish frontier remains unclear.

Presidio officer, San Diego Presidio, ca. 1775. Based on descriptions and contemporary artwork. Drawing by Jack Williams.

Spanish Imperialism and Social Justice

A second group of critics have emphasized that independent of arguments over the role of coercion in the missions, or population decline, the development of colonial California was fundamentally an act of imperialism. They suggest that no justification is possible for the conquest and occupation of the land at the expense of the native people. Some of these researchers combine this sentiment with Marxist interpretations of the colony. Others maintain that the Iberians were peculiar in the evil nature of their empire and suggest that other European colonial regimes (such as the British) were more able to create a just society and progress.

Evidence to support these views was drawn from the historic record. Neither the members of the Bolton School nor other critics of the Iberians have denied the basic role of imperialism in the development of the colony. Scholars have differed primarily in how they have seen the ethics and importance of imperialism. Most researchers who promote a more positive view of the newcomers accept that imperialism is unjustified but emphasize that the good created by the settlers outweighed whatever bad resulted from the Spanish occupation.

Commemoration, Condemnation, or Celebration?

The ferocity of the debate over the colonial period has often led to extreme positions. Some historians associated with older interpretive modes emphasize the Indians’ primitive technology and lack of political unification to downplay the value of native culture. Some apparently still accept the view that Indians were savages. Others argue that prehistoric peoples of the region lived in a state of continual peace and perfect harmony with nature. Some suggest that the newcomers interrupted an Indian utopia. (This view is a curious inversion of the position popular in 1969 that held that early colonists lived an ideal existence). Unfortunately, relatively few scholars have been willing to weigh the evidence offered by their opponents. The idea that the colonial era—and its newcomers and natives—had both positive and negative attributes, has not been popular.

Since 1969, I have been fortunate to devote much of my career to studying the Spanish frontier. I have no doubt that my interest in the subject grew from my exposure to Fiesta 200. I have had a chance to examine places and people from many regions of what was once Northwestern New Spain.

It seems to me that no matter how objective we are, it is hard not to acknowledge the aggressive character of the Spanish empire. Whatever the values we assign to native peoples, no one invited the newcomers to live in San Diego. No matter how gentle, there is a certain level of intolerance in supposing someone should replace their sacred beliefs with yours. The fact that nearly all European colonists held such beliefs does not justify them or make them more palatable.

However, it is impossible to claim that the Spanish colonial experience was worse than other episodes in the story of European expansion. There is an abundance of evidence that some missionaries worked hard to improve the future of Indians. The missions, though imperfect, were more than slave plantations or workhouses. It is also unfair to suggest that before 1769, prehistoric peoples lived in a utopia, or that they were inherently morally superior to the newcomers.

I think that the arguments over the merits of colonization have to some extent clouded our appreciation of the other challenges faced by the inhabitants of colonial San Diego. The early population struggled against an unforgiving environment. They endured fierce droughts and floods. Some people starved. Dangerous animals were abundant. There were few medical resources available to the sick. At times, the social tension between newcomer and native led to violence. Given these circumstances, it is even more surprising that some peace was achieved. Individuals managed to survive and even thrive. These determined people, and both the negative and positive aspects of their remarkable lives, deserve to be remembered. It was the struggle and sacrifices of the people living here, and not the triumph of empire, that ultimately laid the foundation of urban San Diego.

Virtually all scholars and members of the interested public agree on the importance of the events of 1769. The Spanish colonial period is clearly a pivotal moment in the history of San Diego. Beyond this, there are extremely different ideas about the meaning of what happened. The strong opinions that attend to Spanish Colonial San Diego have made it difficult for some people to talk about the 250th birthday of the city. Given that it has become so controversial, it is not too surprising that some organizations find it problematic to publicly recognize the events of 1769. The uncritical celebration, or condemnation, of colonial times will inevitably offend someone.

After fifty years the changes in scholarship and public attitudes have fundamentally modified the way we look at Spanish colonial times. Hopefully the 300th anniversary will see these issues resolved, and civic organizations will provide larger opportunities for residents to commemorate, if not celebrate or condemn, the people and events of the colonial era.