Appalling, Ignorant, and Sad

Last September, Pope Francis canonized an eighteenth century Spanish Franciscan priest, Junipero Serra, drawing attention to his work as a missionary among Native people in Mexico and California. The canonization mass was held in Washington D.C., far from Serra’s birthplace in Spain and equally far from the system of missions he founded in “Alta” California, from San Diego to Sonoma. The decision to hold the ceremony across the ocean from Spain may have had something to do with a desire to highlight the Church’s work in the “New World.” Pope Francis himself is Argentinian, and the Church hopes to build on its strength in Latin American countries. The choice to hold the mass at a distance from California is perhaps simpler: efforts to canonize Serra have always been controversial in California. Among Native people in California, in fact, there is little controversy. Serra has always been known as the face of the brutal mission system, and the Church’s plan to lift him up as a saint has long been seen as an affront, an institutional denial of a well-documented, though little discussed, heartbreaking history of abuse and enslavement.

Miguel Joseph Serra was born three hundred and three years ago in 1713, in Petra, on Majorca, an island 130 miles off the coast of Spain. When he was sixteen, he joined the Franciscans as a novice, and he was accepted into the order two years later, taking the name Junipero, in honor of Saint Junipero, one of Francis of Assisi’s — the founder of the Franciscan order — companions. Serra excelled academically, earning doctoral degrees in philosophy and theology, and teaching for a dozen years at the Pontifical Imperial Royal and Literary University of Majorca. During this time he achieved renown not only for his teaching but also for his sermons, about which one retired professor is said to have commented, “This sermon is worthy of being printed in letters of gold” (Francisco Palou, Life and Apostolic Labors of the Venerable Father Fray Junipero Serra, p.5).

But in 1749, at the age of 36, Serra gave this up and traveled to Mexico to join the Colegio de San Fernando, which prepared Franciscan priests to work as missionaries among American Indians. For ten years, Serra worked among the Pame Indians in the mountains of central Mexico, establishing a mission and building a church in Jalpan, a remote village 150 miles north of Mexico City.

Offering local Indians religious instruction as well as training in agriculture may appear benign and even beneficial, but missions like the one Serra founded were a mainstay of Spanish imperialist ambitions. The goals of the Catholic Church in Mexico – to abolish Indian language, culture, and lifeways, to help establish Christian towns modeled after those in Spain with plazas and churches at their center, and to convert the heathen Indians to Catholicism – aligned closely with those of imperial Spain, for whom indigenous people and their prior claim to the land were a problem. In Jalpan, Indians came to Serra’s mission after the Spanish military burned their village.

Called back to Mexico City in 1759, Serra spent the next eight years preaching in and around the city. At the time, the Franciscans were not the only Catholic religious order to found and operate missions in Baja California. The Jesuits founded twenty missions on the peninsula, the first (though short-lived) in 1683 in San Bruno, on the Gulf of California. But in 1767, reacting to anti-Jesuit sentiment in Spain and across Europe, King Carlos III ordered the expulsion of all members of the religious order from “New Spain.” The job of enforcing this was left to Jose de Galvez, then Inspector General. Ambitious, ruthless, and unstable, Galvez was the most powerful person in the colonies. When riots broke out in response to the expulsion, Galvez suppressed them violently, with summary trials and sentences of life imprisonment.

Less than a month after Spain’s decree to oust the Jesuits, Galvez appointed Serra to take over administration of the Jesuit Missions. This, however, didn’t last long, because Galvez had other, grander ideas. He spent the next year planning a project: the colonization of Alta California. His partner in this grand enterprise would be Junipero Serra, and the primary tool would be the mission system.

The Spanish Government wasn’t interested in California Indians, either corporally or spiritually. What it wanted was their land, a way to lay claim to it and settle it before others –Russia, for example – did. But in 1769, when Galvez and Serra arrived in Alta California, the Spanish empire was overextended and in decline. Lacking the economic and military resources to claim and hold California, Spain turned to the Church, and the Franciscan missions became the primary institution of colonial expansion. Serra established the first mission in California in July of that year, in San Diego. Tellingly, the Royal Presidio of San Diego was established alongside the mission, visible evidence of the wedding of Church and State. The following year, Serra sailed to Monterey and established a second mission. “On June 3, 1770, amid cannon blasts and musket fire, Serra celebrated Mass for the first time in the area. This was followed by the planting of a large cross and the unfurling of the Spanish king’s royal standards, signifying formal acquisition of the land.” (A Cross of Thorns, by Elias Castillo). Mission Carmel, as it is called, became Serra’s headquarters. Alongside it stood El Presidio Real de San Carlos de Monterey, the seat of Spain’s government in California.

In planning to establish missions and presidios, there was, of course, no consideration whatsoever of the rights of California Indians, including their longstanding prior claim to the land. This is well known and hardly surprising. Colonizing powers don’t ask permission. What’s not so well known is how the missions operated, how the Indians who lived there were treated, and how the friars responded when Indians fled. First, though, let’s be clear that Indigenous people in California did not need European knowledge to lift them out of the technological dark ages any more than they needed Catholic teachings and practices to save them from sin and savagery. This was, however, the point of view of Europeans, among them, no doubt, Fray Junipero Serra. Early European visitors to California looked around and marveled that “no use” was being made of the land. Accustomed to the efficacy of their own technologies and economic ways of life, they expected to see themselves. It was no mistake that the colonies were referred to as “New Spain.” They expected fences and farms, livestock and pastures. They were not able to see and value successful alternate ways of living.

What European colonizers couldn’t see was, well, everything. What they couldn’t see was thousands of years of environmental management and its productive effects on the natural world around them. They couldn’t see that California Indians, far from being unambitious, childlike creatures who didn’t know the economic value of the land and needed to be patiently showed its agricultural fertility, had in fact extensively and carefully managed the environment in ways that benefitted both themselves and the plants, animals, and fish they depended upon. Today, scientists recognize that intensive Native land management and horticultural practices carried out in California over thousands of years contributed significantly to the evolution of its plant communities. The land that Europeans stepped into in the 17th and 18th centuries wasn’t an untouched wilderness but a magnificent garden, deliberately cultivated. Europeans couldn’t see that California Indians, far from needing a wise and strong father to protect them and help them and their cultures advance, had in fact developed, among other things, a sophisticated and precise knowledge of their local environments; effective methods of healing both physical and psychological illnesses; social norms and mores that bound them to each other in clear and powerful relationships and protected the environment from overuse; effective governing structures; technologies that were precisely adapted to their ways of life and the world they inhabited; beautiful art and complex, beautiful languages; religious ceremonies and spiritual practices that met their individual, familial, and communal needs; and extensive systems of trade. In short, all the things that an “advanced” society is said to comprise.

That Junipero Serra, formed by the prejudices of his times and steeped in Catholic dogma, didn’t recognize the beauty of Indigenous lifeways and religious practices is not a discredit to him, but the brutality of the missions he founded and administered most assuredly is. That the Catholic Church, just shy of 250 years after the founding of that first mission in San Diego, should choose to grant him its highest honor, sainthood, thereby holding him up as a role model for others, is appalling and ignorant and sad.

In his statement at the Canonization Mass, Pope Francis first draws a parallel between the “faces of pain, hunger, sickness, weariness, doubt, pity, and sin” in a “dirty, unkempt, broken” world that Jesus embraced, and the people and world that Junipero Serra and his fellow missionaries embraced in California. He suggests that, like Jesus and the Franciscan missionaries, Catholics should embrace those who are “burdened by pain and failure, who feel that their lives are empty,” again implying that was the state of California Indians when missionaries arrived in the 18th century. This couldn’t have been farther from the truth. Pope Francis then extols Serra as someone who “was excited about blazing trails, going forth to meet many people, learning and valuing their particular customs and ways of life.” He states plainly, as though it were the simplest of truths, that “Junípero sought to defend the dignity of the Native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it. Mistreatment and wrongs which today still trouble us, especially because of the hurt which they cause in the lives of many people.” Serra did nothing of the sort. And in a large part of California, the mistreatment and abuse that “trouble” Native people today, began, gathered momentum, and flourished thanks to Serra and his missions.

Mission San Diego de Alcala was the first of twenty-one missions that Spain established in California, stretching from San Diego in the south to Sonoma in the north. Spanish rule in the Americas ended in 1821, when Mexico won its independence. At every mission, the first converts were made among young Indians, particularly the men, who were attracted to the Spaniards by their “steel weapons, and enthused by the friars’ promises of an easier life. Older Indians kept their distance” (Castillo, p. 73). As soon as possible after they entered the mission, Indians were taught just enough – a few prayers and songs – to be officially welcomed into the Christian family through baptism. But once baptized, Indians were not free to leave. Ironically, the sacrament of baptism, which is meant to “free” a person from humanity’s “original sin,” made captives of the Indians, imprisoning them inside the missions.

Most likely, these first “neophytes,” as the newly baptized were called, expected they could leave the mission compound and return home whenever they chose. If so, “they were sadly mistaken. At their first attempt to say goodbye, they were told by crude sign language they could not leave. It is probable that the converts simply ignored the friars and continued their preparations to leave. If the Indians did not heed the exhortations of the friars, the missionaries then signaled the soldiers assigned to each mission to surround the neophytes and use force to keep the Indians within the mission boundaries.” (Castillo, p. 117).

Whatever might be said about the Friars’ beliefs in the efficacy of their sacraments, Indigenous people were baptized into slavery. Even the sacrament of Baptism itself, which adults and children over a certain age are supposed to choose freely, was in fact often forced on Indians, as the following account told by Gabrielino (Tongva) Indians to American rancher Hugo Reid attests. (Born in Scotland, Reid came to California in 1832, married a Gabrielino Indian woman, and adopted her two children. In addition to firsthand experience visiting the missions, he also had the trust of Gabrielino elders who spoke to him about their experiences.).

Baptism could not be administered by force to adults, it required a free act; so taking an Indian as guide, part of the soldiers or servants (alcaldes) proceeded on expeditions after converts. On one occasion they went as far as the present Rancho del Chino [in the San Bernardino Valley near present-day Chino, CA], where they tied and whipped every man, woman, and child in the Lodge [Reid’s term for an Indian village], and drove part of them back with them. On the road they did the same with those of the Lodge at San Jose. On arriving home [at the mission] the men were instructed to throw their bows and arrows at the feet of the Priest, and make due submission. The infants were then baptized, as were also all children under eight years of age. (The Indians of Los Angeles County: Hugo Reid’s letters of 1852. Edited and annotated by Robert Heizer).

Reid goes on to relate that the infants were returned to their mothers, but the young children were separated from their parents. The consequences were predictable. First the mothers agreed to be baptized so as to be with their children, then the fathers agreed to baptism so as to be with their families. The man and woman were then married in the Catholic Church (In 1852, Reid published a number of letters in the Los Angeles Star. Noted California anthropologist and historian Robert Heizer collected these letters, commented upon them extensively, and published them in book form. A digital copy of the letters and Heizer’s notes is available on the Internet.).

Those Indians who were able to flee the miserable conditions inherent in Native life in the California missions – the forced and unpaid labor, compulsory segregation of sexes, obligatory prayers, frequent flogging, confinement in stocks and iron shackles – were hunted down, bound, and marched forcibly back. Not infrequently, this involved raids on outlying Indian villages where the “fugitives,” as the runaways were called, had taken refuge. Serra, whose own spiritual practice involved severe physical deprivations, including wearing a hairshirt with barbs that cut into his skin and beating himself with knotted ropes, believed in the efficacy of corporal punishment. Indians who violated the rules were whipped, shackled, and locked in stocks, sometimes for days. Floggings were a common, integral aspect of life in the missions. In a March 29, 1779 letter to the Military Governor, Felipe de Neve, who favored more freedom for Indians living at the missions, Serra justified this treatment the grounds that it had been common practice since Spain came to conquer the Americas. “That the spiritual fathers should punish their sons, the Indians, by blows appears to be as old as the conquest of these kingdoms, and so general, in fact, that the saints do not seem to be any exception to the rule. Undoubtedly, the first to evangelize these shores followed the practice, and they surely were saints.” (Quoted in Castillo, p. 81).

In 1786, a major French scientific expedition, under Navy Captain Jean Francoise de Galaup, Comte de Laperouse, sailed into Monterey Bay to visit the presidio and the mission founded by Serra. The French stayed for several days, studying the flora and fauna, mapping the coastline, and sketching the mission and presidio compounds. In his official journal, Laperouse comments on the treatment of Indians. Everything about the mission, he wrote, “brought to our recollection a [slave] plantation at Santo Domingo or any other West Indian island. The men and women are collected by the sound of a bell; a Missionary leads them to work, to the church, and to all their exercises. We observed with concern that the resemblance is so perfect that we have seen both men and women in irons, and others in stocks. Lastly, the noise of the whip…”

Laperouse took special note of the alcaldes, the armed neophytes who were appointed by the friars to a position of special power to carry out the friars’ orders. “There are three in each Mission,” he wrote. “We must observe that [they] are like the overseers of a slave plantation.” The alcaldes played a central role in ensuring that Serra’s policies were followed. According to Castillo, the “alcaldes beat any Indian, no matter what age or sex, who violated mission rules or displayed reluctance to do assigned work. Nearly all the violations called for flogging, ranging from ten to fifty lashes, which could kill a victim.” At Mission San Gabriel, the alcaldes wielded an “immense scourge of rawhide, about ten feet in length, plaited to the thickness of an ordinary man’s wrist! They did a great deal of chastisement, both by and without orders.” (Hugo Reid’s letters, edited by Heizer).

“Another fruitful occasion for wholesale capture was the escape of converts to neighboring tribes and the attempt to recapture them by armed force.” Any resistance by the neighboring tribe “always meant a fresh supply of converts.” (H. W. Henshaw, Missions and Mission Indians of California, in The Popular Science Monthly, Vol. 37, May – October, 1890 p. 475, ed. William Jay Youmans)

In addition to working a full day in the fields for which they weren’t paid, Indians at the missions were forced to attend mass twice a day, morning and evening. After the bell which called people to mass finished tolling, the armed alcaldes would go from hut to hut and, using whips, drive any recalcitrant Indians to the church. In 1826, British Navy Captain Fredrick Beechey recorded these observations of mass at Mission San Francisco:

The congregation was arranged on both sides of the building, separated by a wide aisle [down] the center in which were stationed several [alcaldes] with whips, canes, and goads, to preserve silence and maintain order, and, what seemed more difficult than either, to keep the congregation in their kneeling posture. The goads were better adapted to this purpose than the whips, as they would reach a long way and inflict a sharp puncture without making any noise. The [back of the] church was occupied by a guard of soldiers under arms, with fixed bayonets…(Henshaw in The Popular Science Monthly, Volume 37, p. 477. Edited by William Jay Youmans).

Mission policies were especially hard on girls and young, unmarried women, who in a traditional Native society would not only have had important roles within their family and in their community, but would also have had considerable latitude in their relations with boys and young men. In the missions, however, the friars implemented policies intended explicitly to prevent such mingling of the sexes. Laperouse describes these policies with disdain.

The holy fathers have constituted themselves guardians of the virtue of the women. An hour after supper they take care to secure all the women whose husbands are absent, as well as the young girls above the age of nine years, by locking them up, and during the day they entrust them to the care of elderly women. All these precautions are still inadequate, and we have seen men in the stocks and women in irons for having eluded the vigilance of the female Arguses [in Greek mythology, a giant with a hundred eyes ordered by Hera to watch over Io]. (in Castillo, p. 118).

The friars called these buildings the monjeria or convento, Spanish for nunnery or convent. For the women and girls locked inside the building each night, conditions were terrible. Packed into the airless rooms, they slept on top of each other on narrow, wooden cots, with only a few buckets available if they had to go to the bathroom or vomit. In the stifling, unsanitary, fetid conditions, diseases spread easily and quickly.

Women who violated the rules were punished. During even his very short visit, Laperouse noticed that “Women are never whipped in public, but in an enclosed and somewhat distant place that their cries may not excite too lively compassion, which might cause the men to revolt.” (in Castillo).

At Mission San Gabriel, in southern California, Friar Jose Maria Zalvidea was especially cruel to women who suffered miscarriages. Instead of comforting them, he assumed they had aborted their child, and had them punished cruelly, “ordering them to be lashed for fifteen consecutive days, their heads shaved, and irons bolted around their ankles for three months.” On Sundays, the bereaved mother had to stand on the church steps holding “a hideous painted wooden child in her arms.” (Hugo Reid’s letters, edited by Heizer).

Similar punishments were meted out at other missions. At Mission Santa Cruz, Friar Ramon Olbeis tried to force a childless Indian couple to have sex “in his presence to prove they had the potential to conceive.” They refused and were punished. The woman was locked in her room where Olbeis interrogated her, asking her if she and her husband had intercourse and why she didn’t bear children. When he tried to “examine her private parts, she resisted him…There was a strong and long struggle between the two that were alone in the room. She tried to bury her teeth in his arm, but only grabbed his habit.” Finally, Olbeis cried out and an alcalde intervened to help him. But the abuse continued. Olbeis ordered that she be lashed fifty times, then shackled and locked in the women’s quarters. For nine days she was forced to carry a wooden doll, made to look “like a recently born child.” For his punishment, the man was shackled and forced to wear cattle horns, fixed to his head with leather when he was led from his jail cell to Mass. We can only imagine the terror that other childless couples felt after hearing about and witnessing this abuse. (Interview with former neophyte Lorenzo Asisara in Native American Perspectives on the Hispanic Colonization of Alta California, as quoted in Castillo, pp. 124-25).

In his journal, Laperouse wrote, “…it must be observed that the moment an Indian is baptized, the effect is the same as if he had pronounced a vow for life. If he escape to reside with his relations in the independent villages, he is summoned three times to return; if he refuses, the Missionaries apply to the Governor, who sends soldiers to seize him in the midst of his family and conduct him to the Mission, where he is condemned to receive a certain number of lashes with the whip.” In actuality, it was worse than a “vow for life,” because there was an accepted mechanism for recanting a vow. What the mission Indians faced was enslavement and imprisonment.

The Franciscans were both ambitious about expanding their reach and deadly serious about holding on to any Indians who had come into the mission system. In his carefully researched book, Indians and Intruders in Central California, 1769 – 1849, George Harwood Phillips describes numerous “incursions” by mission groups into territory held by sovereign California Native tribes. In October, 1810, Padre Jose Viader left Mission Santa Clara with a sizable group comprised of twenty-four soldiers and about fifty “neophyte auxiliaries.” The group “invaded” Chulamni Yokuts territory on the San Joaquin River, “secretly taking up positions near a village whose residents were conducting a ceremony,” which probably went well into the night. “At dawn, on October 21, they struck, capturing fifteen fugitives from Mission San Jose, and sixty-nine gentiles [unbaptized Chulamni Yokuts individuals].” Fifty-one of the gentiles, all women, were released, but Viader had enough soldiers to send the fifteen fugitives and the eighteen male gentiles back to San Jose under armed guard, while continuing on with the rest of his party. (Phillips, p. 53).

Further upriver, the party stopped outside a Mayem Yokuts village that Viader suspected of harboring fugitives. He sent word that “any Christians that gave themselves up would be pardoned.” In other words, they wouldn’t be beaten and shackled, but they would most assuredly be returned to the mission. Several Mayem Yokuts met with him and assured him there were no fugitives in the village. Viader didn’t believe them, but he departed, continuing in this fashion all the way to the Merced River before turning back. On its return, Viader’s party tried to lure the residents of a village into a trap, but “they refused to come out…They guessed right for they would have been taken captive.” (Viader’s Report, in Phillips, p. 53). So here we have a Franciscan priest and leader of Mission Santa Clara organizing and leading a war party, traveling deep into sovereign tribal territory, plotting to kidnap and imprison Natives, threatening to attack villages, and in some cases carrying out raids. These kinds of expeditions weren’t merely frequent, they were an essential part of how the missions operated, how they survived, and how they grew, capturing fugitive Indians and, without cause, adding others who had never had any connection to the missions.

When such an “expedition,” failed to capture fugitives from Mission San Jose, the friars sought the help of Hudson’s Bay Company fur trappers working in the Central Valley along the Cosumnes River, Kit Carson among them. The Ochejamne Miwok tribe, who were protecting the Indians who fled the mission, had repulsed the first expedition. It must be remembered that the Ochejamne were a sovereign nation, with a well-defined territory that they had every right to defend. Moreover, they would not have seen the Indians whom they were protecting as the property of the Mission. The expedition, of course, saw it differently. Revived by the infusion of well-armed trappers, it attacked. The ensuing battle was hard fought and many Indians were killed or wounded. Carson later wrote in his autobiography: We “entered the village in triumph, set fire to it, and burned it to the ground…The next day we demanded the runaways, and informed the [Ochejamne] that if they weren’t immediately given up we wouldn’t leave one of them alive. They complied…and we turned our prisoners over to those from whom they had deserted.” (In addition to Carson’s autobiography, this event is referenced in numerous writings; see Albert Hurtado, Indian Survival on the California Frontier, p. 45).

The Franciscans promoted the missions to the Spanish Crown as a way of “civilizing” California Indians, and – by teaching them agricultural practices, useful crafts, and the Spanish language – preparing them to be brought fully into the orbit of the Spanish government as loyal and productive subjects. But from the founding of the first California mission, in 1769, the Spanish language was never taught to Indians at the missions. In 1793, King Carlos IV of Spain decreed that the Indians in its New World missions be taught to read and write. It took nearly two years for a copy of the decree to arrive in California, but when it did, it contained instructions to “acknowledge, read it, and to…take pains to teach the Spanish language to the different converts…” (quoted in Castillo, p. 129). Nevertheless, no steps were taken to implement a program of Spanish language instruction. Visiting the missions nearly forty years later, Hugo Reid commented that “Not one word of Spanish did they understand.” (Hugo Reid’s letters, edited by Heizer).

In his 1890 article about the California Indian Missions, ethnologist Henry W. Henshaw states, “It was clearly the expressed idea of the [Spanish] Government that the Indians should be rendered self-supporting as rapidly as possible, and the missions were looked upon as educational establishments to this end.” But “from the very first [the friars] sought to render the converts totally dependent…they openly said the Indians were incapable of self-maintenance,” despite, of course, having “maintained” themselves for thousands of years without assistance from Europeans. (Henshaw in The Popular Science Monthly, Volume 37, p. 471. Edited by William Jay Youmans).

The official Spanish decree by King Carlos III that granted the Franciscans authority to establish California missions included a stipulation that California Indians should be freed after ten years of education. The idea was that they would be taught a trade in the missions, learn the Spanish language there, and thus become productive citizens of the realm upon their eventual release. In 1780, Felipe de Neve, the first Governor of California, sought to enforce this law, believing the mission Indians’ lives were “worse than slaves.”

Neve did not hide his disdain for the missions or his disgust at the treatment of Indians, and he openly sought to limit Serra’s and the other friars’ power over them.

Recognizing that the alcaldes – who were appointed by the friars – were little more than enforcers, using violence and its threat to oppress the mission Indians, Neve insisted that the missions hold free, open elections, allowing the Indians to choose their own leaders. Serra forcefully resisted this, as he resisted any efforts to train Indians for independence. He understood all too well that the very existence of the missions depended on a class of Native subservient and unpaid laborers. Neve’s strategy for Spanish colonization of California ran counter to that of Serra and other Franciscan leaders in Alta California. Neve envisioned no great role for the Franciscan mission. Instead, he wanted secular towns (pueblos) at the center of development, supported by presidios or military forts. Accordingly, in 1777, using his power as Governor, he formally established the town of San Jose, and four years later the town of Los Angeles. The Franciscans openly opposed Neve’s plans, and Serra successfully resisted Neve’s reform efforts until Neve was moved, in 1782, to a new position outside of California.

The Missions were deadly places for California Indians. Introduced diseases, for which they had little or no immunity, and which spread rapidly in the missions’ overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions, took a heavy toll. In 1790, a report to the brigadier commandant general of the Internal Provinces of New Spain noted that 36% of mission Indians died that single year (4,780 out of a total of 13,308). Serra, however, viewed their deaths positively. Serra is reported to have frequently exclaimed, “Thanks be to God that by now there is not a mission that does not have sons in heaven.” (Friar Francisco Palou, Palou’s Life of Fray Junipero Serra, as quoted in Castillo p. 82). In the same dark vein, Serra reported to his superior in 1775:

In the midst of all our little troubles, the spiritual side of the missions is developing most happily. In [Mission] San Antonio there are simultaneously two harvests, at one time, one for wheat, and of a plague among the children, who are dying. (quoted in Castillo, p. 82).

Thanks to free, forced California Native labor and the vast tracts of land that had been taken without compensation from Indian tribes, the missions became important economic players in Spain’s Alta California. Mission San Luis Rey, the “King of the Missions,” eventually had more than 1,000 Indians working its lands. In 1832, it “reported a livestock herd of 57,330 animals, including 27,500 head of cattle and 26,100 head of sheep. It supplied most of the San Diego area with corn, beans, and wheat, and was also noted for its production of soap, blankets, and shoes. In the 1830s…the mission’s vineyards produced 2,500 barrels of wine annually.” (Castillo, p. 121). Several other missions had livestock herds totaling 25,000 to 30,000 head.

The missions became well-known for their lavish hospitality. “Although so severe to the Indians, [Padre Zalvidea] was kind in the extreme to travelers and others. There being so much beef, pork, and poultry, with fruits, vegetables, and wines, that a splendid public table was spread daily, at which he presided. Horses to ride were at their service, and a good bed to sleep on at night.” In comparison, the Indian laborers of the mission were called out of the fields by the church bell at lunchtime to receive a bowl of posole [beans and corn] and a piece of beef; they were back in the fields until sundown when they were called in for dinner, which consisted of atole, a thin gruel made of toasted cornmeal and water. (Hugo Reid’s letters, edited by Heizer).

As the mission holdings grew, they included large herds of valuable horses grazed on tracts of unfenced land. To Native Californians, these introduced animals provided an opportunity to better themselves economically. Growing numbers of horse raids led to increasing violent interactions between Indians and Europeans in Alta California. The following account is related by American adventurer and fur trader, Zenas Leonard, who visited the missions in California’s central valley. [Leonard’s journal, Narrative of the Adventures of Zenas Leonard, available in digital format online, is a very interesting window on Indian-European relations and early American perspectives on Indians.]

A day after seeing a “large drove of horses followed by a few people,” Leonard and his animal-trapping colleagues were approached by a group of “Spaniards…[i]n search of a party of Indians who had eloped from the St. Juan Missionary Station [Mission San Juan], and [had] taken with them 300 head of horses.” The next morning Leonard and some of the other trappers “joined the Spaniards in the chase.” Following the Indians to the base of a mountain, the posse, which had been promised half the horses they recaptured, discovered several plumes of smoke rising above the woods. “From the smoke that rose, they thought the whole Indian force was concentrated [there] and the Spanish and American force surrounded the place in battle array determined to give the offenders a severe chastisement at once. When all the preparations were made, the word to fire was given. But instead of the lamentations of wounded Indians, and the frantic prancing of frightened horses, nothing but a dead silence answered the discharge of their artillery.” When the silence continued, the attackers dismounted and approached. They met with no resistance, because there were only “a few old and feeble Indians with some squaws and children,” who were hiding in their shelters and drying horse meat. Angry that the herd of horses had been led away, “the Spaniards fell to massacreing [sic], indiscriminately, those helpless creatures who were found in the wigwams with the meat, and cutting off their ears,” afterward. Some of the Indians who tried to flee were “driven into a wigwam…the door was barricaded, and a large amount of combustible material was thrown on and around the hut, for the purpose of setting fire to it and burning them all together.” The American trappers, however, couldn’t abide this. They intervened to prevent it, but didn’t stop the Spaniards from killing the Indians with their guns. Leonard writes, they “fell to work and dispatched them as if they were dogs.” (Leonard, pp. 188-91).

This event occurred well after Serra had died, but it was very much in keeping with the mission system he established and worked hard to shape, one that was founded upon violence, both within the mission and without. The missions treated baptized Indians as property, and violence was an acceptable – though hardly saintly – method of recovering property, whether it was a person who had fled or a horse that had been taken. Outlying villages where the “fugitive” Indians sought refuge either complied with mission demands or were subject to attack.

I distinctly remember how impressed I was in parochial elementary school by stories of saints. Surely other children were also impressed, consciously or subconsciously. This is part of how religion works: by holding up exemplary peoples’ lives, it inspires us, even if we are only six or seven years old. For more than a century, and too often, still today, schoolchildren in California have been taught a whitewashed version of mission history. The story is told of benevolent, paternal friars patiently instructing Indians in agricultural techniques and training them in modern crafts, lifting them into the modern world, gently and kindly civilizing them. The main symbols are the round, robed, wise friar, the childlike but industrious Indians, the white, sunburst adobe walls, the blue California sky, the mission bell high in its tower calling the Indians in from field and workshop to Mass.

For decades, California Indians have argued for a different, much darker, telling of this story, one that bends it far more toward actual experience, one in which Serra is much more of a demonic than a saintly figure. In my view, the really inspiring story is not that of Serra and how, in the recent words of Pope Francis, he did “defend the dignity of the native community” but of how California Indian peoples not only survived the brutality of the missions, but how they had the strength and resilience to carry forward important elements of their cultural identity, despite decades of suffering and violence designed to break and remake them in someone else’s mold. Sadly, it is a story whose themes have been reiterated in many places and many times, a story which still has relevance in an age where State violence is so prevalent. We should listen to California Indians’ telling of the story.

David Smith-Ferri is a member of Voices for Creative Nonviolence ( and the author, most recently, of  Where Days Are Stones, Afghanistan and Gaza Poems, 2012-2013. He recently returned from a VCNV delegation to Helsinki, where he visited with Iraqi friends who fled their country and are seeking asylum in Finland. He can be reached at