ch. 20: “Lasuén Completes the Mission”
ch. 21: “Secularization, Gold, and the Destruction of the Missions”
Journey to the Sun, G. Orfalea

 Franciscan Friar (17th c.)

Gregory Orfalea, Journey to the Sun, Junipero Serra’s Dream and the Founding of California (Scribner, 2014)

20. “Lasuén Completes the Mission”, (Missions after Serra)

21  “Secularization, Gold, and the Destruction of the Missions”


CHAPTER TWENTY: Lasuén Completes the Mission






A palm tree stands in the middle of Rusafa,
Born in the West, far from the land of palms.

From the moment Father Fermín Lasuén crossed out Serra’s own handwriting —Misión y — from the would-be Santa Barbara founding documents (restricting Serra’s blessing to the presidio and not the mission), the new president of the California missions asserted himself.

    Lasuén, no mystic or follower of mystics, a far more pragmatic, urbane man, simply scratched out Serra’s irrational hope for a final mission in the land of light. And then he rode north, toward the mountains. Two years after Serra’s death, on December 4, 1786, on a knoll overlooking the sea, Fermin Lasuén planted the cross a mile uphill from where Serra had said his presidio Mass alongside a bog. Thus the “Queen of the Missions” was born, the elusive monument to St. Barbara that Serra had promised since the day nearly forty years before when the lady of the tower had saved the Franciscans offshore at Veracruz.

Serra last saw Lasuén in San Diego in 1783, on his final confirmation tour, but he wrote his Basque confrere to the end, clearly handpicking his successor. Months before his death, Serra saluted Lasuén post-Christmas: “Words fail me to tell you all that I feel.” God would, he assured, support San Diego long past the old father president, who seemed to be dissolving: “He who can do all things loves them [the Kumeyaay] more and in His court no good deed is ever lost. May God reward your Reverence and the new Christian chief and all his people. May He give them great faith and abundant grace in this life and eternal glory in the next. Amen. I am very, very, very happy.” Only a Serra close to death would have allowed himself such emphatics.

Lasuén’s views of the Indians were at once less tolerant (rather racist, actually) than Serra’s, and more understanding—a paradox. Stirred to write an extraordinary forty-page “Refutation of Charges” defending the Franciscan cause in California against accusations of a priest cashiered from the new Mission San Miguel who showed signs of severe mental disorder, Lasuén fumed, “Here are aborigines whom we are teaching to be men, people of vicious and ferocious habits who know no law but force, no superior but their own free will, and no reason but their own caprice.” (Serra would have been bothered by much of this, especially that “no reason”; he had castigated Neve for saying essentially the same thing.)

Unlike Serra, Lasuén was under no illusions about mass conversion of California Indians. Lasuén understood the psychology of a people under conquest, and he didn’t delude himself into thinking that, caught in what Serra always called “the spiritual net,” they would feel the catch benign, like a hammock. More like a shackle. “The majority of our neophytes have not acquired much love for our way of life,” he confided to a colleague, when notified that the governor was thinking of lessening forces at the presidios. Lasuén insisted they were “addicted” to the pull of the natural world.

On October 25, 1785, the warrior population of six rancherias (the exact number of attackers is unknown) descended on Mission San Gabriel, with a woman shaman of nearby Japchivit rancheria in the lead as some native victress, a Tongva Joan of Arc, who had “encouraged them to be brave and fight.” It was Toypurina. As a girl, she had probably witnessed her chief’s head hanging on a pike for his challenge to a soldier guilty of raping the chief’s wife. Toypurina had waited fourteen years for revenge. She had joined forces with San Gabriel’s native alcalde, Nicolas José, a complex and conflicted man, who had procured women for Spanish soldiers and also lost two wives and a son to the mysterious pox.

The San Gabriel missionaries had been tipped off to the rebellion, and no sooner had the war party arrived than they were surrounded by the Spanish guard; those who did not escape were arrested. Twenty-five Tongva were lashed up to twenty-five times and released. Four, including Nicolas José and Toypurina, stood trial. When asked during the legal proceedings, “Have they [the Tongva] been harmed in any way at the hands of the soldiers, priests, or other Christians which would make them want to kill them?” Toypurina responded, “the only harm she had experienced was that we [the Spaniards] were living on their land.” There is no more succinct expression of Indian motive to revolt in California, or anywhere else on the continent. Imprisoned “as much for her own protection as punishment” (some rebels blamed her for inciting them to a battle lost before it started), Toypurina was impregnated in prison. She ended up marrying a Spanish soldier—Manuel Montero—turning Christian (taking the name Regina Josefa), and raising three children at Carmel before her death in 1799 at Mission San Juan Bautista. (In 1821, one of her daughters, Clementina, was accused by a priest at Mission Santa Cruz—himself accused of “immoral conduct” — of having “mother’s milk like snake venom.”)

Some version of Toypurina’s story runs through much of the Indian population of the California coast. In fact, against all likelihood of trends at Serra’s death, when the missions seemed on the verge of either secularization, closure, or loss to the Dominicans, their numbers and their population began to wax. Ironically, they did so under a father president skeptical of the whole conversion process. Despite Lasuén’s withering attitudes about the attraction of mission life to Indians or about their capacities to adapt to Spanish ways, the eighteen-year period of Lasuén’s presidency (1785-1803) was truly the golden age of the California missions. During that time, the number of missions doubled (from nine to eighteen) and the number of missionaries did, too (from eighteen to forty), prompting one commentator to note that if Lasuén’s challenges with his rank-and-file padres increased, it did so because their numbers did.

The abundance of the missions—no doubt the chief attraction for the Indians, and one they themselves helped bring about by the sweat of their brow—reached extraordinary levels in the early nineteenth century. By 1803, the wheat, barley, and corn crops were five times those at Serra’s death, mission cattle twelve times greater, and the number of converted Indians themselves in threefold increase—from 5,125 under Serra to 15,562 under Lasuén. Disease in the villages, as we have seen, spurred not a little of this. Nevertheless, the seeds Serra had sown in the toughest ground—an uncertain people with plenty of questions if not fear of Spaniards and their ways — had not only sprouted, they were suffused with fruit. Soon the villages along the coast were emptying, and then villages farther inland—from a combination of disease, hunger, desperation, and hope.

The first of Lasuén’s contributions to the exponential growth was Mission Santa Barbara. The conversion of the charismatic Chumash chief Yananoli (named Pedro at baptism) and his family went a long way to signaling favor for the padres in the Chumash communities at large. Santa Barbara reignited San Fernando’s hesitance to send new missionaries, and soon they sent six. The first building, little more than logs strapped together with reed covering, gave way to an adobe church, completed in 1794, which collapsed in the devastating 1812 earthquake. The church visitors see today, set stunningly above a sprawling grassy knoll and rose garden facing the Pacific, essentially dates from the rebuilt church of 1820, the product of master stonecutter José Antonio Ramirez.

A young Chumash girl who ran alongside ditches and workmen in 1820 as the Santa Barbara mission came back to life, Maria Ignacio, spoke of “running along the edge where they were digging.” According to her present-day ancestor, a female shaman and nurse who participates in cross-cultural services at Mission Santa Barbara, Maria was “very, very happy to see the mission resurrected.” Santa Barbara’s signature eighty-seven-foot double steeple—the only such steeple in the entire chain—and pink facade could be seen by boats for miles. Its beauty became world-famous in the nineteenth century. The most neoclassical of all the missions, Santa Barbara’s design, with its six half columns on which rest statues of Faith, Hope, and Charity, was based on the writings of the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius Pollio in 27 BC. At the same time, the mission has decidedly Chumash features, including an altar of inlaid abalone (so often vandalized it had to be removed for safekeeping), a lavanderia where clothes were washed and tallow melted, sporting an 1808 gargoyle spigot sculpted with the head of a cougar, considered the oldest public sculpture in California; and “winged lightning” settings for chandeliers in the church’s ceiling.

Santa Barbara was marked by sizable affordable housing. Though they could live in their half-orange-shaped tule huts, over time Indians were offered single-unit individual homes-252 of them by 1807 ­eighteen-foot-by-twelve-foot adobes with tiled roofs, a movable window, and a door. To build them it was not unusual to have forty Indian laborers a day out in the mountain ranges forty miles off cutting timber.

A remarkable grammar and personal memoir has come down to us of the last native speaker of Chumash, Mary Yee, in care of her daughter Ernestine de Soto, who charted the family back through six generations of exceptional Chumash women in Santa Barbara. The progenitor of this lineage, Maria Paula (Maria Ignacio’s mother), was born the year Serra entered California and Portolâ and Crespi first came through the Santa Barbara Channel-1769. Mary Yee recounts how her ancestors loved “taking a bath” in an icy stream or cold sea, letting the wind dry them off as they ate breakfast.

Everyone at Mission Santa Barbara, including the Chumash, ate extraordinarily well; no surprise Santa Barbara is to this day an epicure’s delight. Santa Barbara was the only mission the Franciscans never abandoned; they are still there.

In 1787, Lasuén founded his next mission (number 11) on the Lompoc Peninsula, completing the threesome contemplated by Serra for the central coast Chumash. It was La Purisima Concepcion, founded on what became the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 8), near the Indian village of Algascupi. Idyllically set in a sweeping area surrounded on three sides by the sea, La Purisima was devastated in the 1812 earthquake, not just by the shake, but also by a flood that crashed down from the hill behind and collapsed it. The mission was rebuilt by 1818 in a form unique in the entire mission system, not a quadrangle, but a “shotgun” line of twenty buildings in file. When it fell to ruin after secularization, it was sold at auction for $1,100 to an L.A. man. However, beginning in 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt’s CCC—Civilian Conservation Corps—took on the project of restoring La Purisima, and it is today the most fully restored of all the missions, uniquely comprising a California state park on two thousand acres of land.

Not nearly as driven as Serra to establish missions, Lasuén waited four years to found one of his own (i.e., not in the Santa Barbara Channel pipeline that Serra had sketched) —the hard-luck mission of Santa Cruz. Founded on August 28, 1791, on a lovely site on the northern rim of Monterey Bay along the strategic San Lorenzo River, Santa Cruz began auspiciously, with an abundance of coastal redwood nearby for building and trade. But soon it was hit by everything from earthquakes and floods to the pugnacious civilian settlement, the Villa Branciforte, begun nearby in 1797 with a number of ex-convicts from Guadalajara. In fact, when the French pirate Hippolyte de Bouchard threatened the Santa Cruz coast and the mission personnel retreated tothe hills, Branciforte residents looted the mission, leaving Bouchard with little to do.

Lasuén soon moved to fill in another gap—Nuestra Senora de la Soledad (“solitude” in Spanish), plunked halfway between Mission San Antonio and Serra’s own Carmel, in a windy, dusty plain surrounded by bare hills. It was haunting to Serra, who thought he heard the word soledad spill from an old Salinan woman’s lips when the Spaniards first came through; it was haunting at its founding on October 9, 1791 by Lasuén, who, strangely, wrote virtually nothing about the event. It was Soledad’s misfortune to be the assignment of two of the most bizarre priests who ever came to California—the thick-black-bearded Mariano Rubi and Bartolomé Gill, with his red beard and “honey-colored eyes,” both from Serra’s own Mallorca. The two of them would break into wine storehouses, bang on kettles like Indians, and throw wooden balls around—at two in the morning. Rubi contracted syphilis; Gill brandished pistols; both of them disappeared, the former on the Mexican coast, the latter on the docks of Cadiz. Geiger’s assessment of the two: “psychopaths.”

The trouble at Santa Cruz and Soledad may have soured Lasuén on new missions. Six years passed without one, but the increasing level of resistance to the Spanish by tribes east of San Francisco Bay led Serra’s successor to found La Misiôn del Gloriosisimo Patriarca Senor San José (Mission San José) the first of four near the Camino Real in one whirlwind year, 1797. San José drew Yokuts, Miwok, and Ohlone from the Lodi and Stockton areas. The mission of San José actually was placed twelve miles north of the pueblo of San José, near today’s Fremont. Ultimately, Mission San José prospered, with the second highest amount of grain and produce of all twenty-one missions (289,000 bushels); with its rich soil, San José was also known for its exquisite pear orchards (six hundred trees), as well as groves of olive, peach, and apple. Its Indian population swelled to the third largest in the chain (1,886 in 1831), just behind San Antonio and the king of all, San Luis Rey. Over a span of twenty-seven years, Father Narciso Duran directed a thirty-person Indian orchestra with flutes, violins, trumpets, and drums. For six years, while he was father president, Duran “whose aguardiente was double distilled and as strong as the revered father’s faith,” made San José the mission capital. American trappers Kit Carson and Jedediah Smith took refuge at Mission San José, Father Duran giving Carson horses and provisions for his return trip over the Sierras to the United States. Nevertheless, where there was prosperity there was pain, an old mission theme. The year 1806 saw a horrific measles and smallpox epidemic that killed 150 Indians at San José (1806-10 was the worst epidemic period for Spanish California). In 1828, a favorite Yokuts of Durân’s, Estanislao Cucunuchi, twenty-eight, failed to return to the mission while visiting his home village and instead led a one-thousand-warrior rebellion against the Spanish, repelling two Spanish campaigns and declaring himself king of the central valley. A third military effort of 157 men (including fifty Indian auxiliaries), led by (soon to be general) Lieutenant Mariano Vallejo, taking advantage of a cannon barrage, captured and executed many rebelling Yokuts.

Ironically, the next mission, San Juan Bautista, planted right on the San Andreas Fault east of the central Monterey Bay by Lasuén on June 24, 1797, was one of the few missions not harmed by the 1812 earthquake. Called “the Mission of Music” due to an Indian youth choir expertly trained by Estevan Tapis with four-color music sheet parchments, Bautista drew Miwok from as far away as the Sierra Nevada foothills. Yokuts and Mutsun Costanoan also crowded into what became the largest mission church in Alta California: 188 by 72 feet, containing side aisles through grand arches, a feature unique in the mission chain (perhaps modeled on Roman ruins at Segovia). Its romantic setting and fervent Mexican-American community have drawn Hollywood: Alfred Hitchcock filmed Vertigo at San Juan Bautista in 1957; and novelist Joan Didion married her screenwriter husband, John Gregory Dunne, at its altar.

The third of Lasuén’s sudden ring of “protective” inland missions was Mission San Miguel Arcângel, the sixteenth mission, founded by Serra’s successor one month and a day after San Juan Bautista (July 25, 1797), in honor of “the Prince of the Celestial Militia.” San Miguel was equidistant from San Antonio and San Luis Obispo, in the golden foothills of the central coast along the Salinas River. The Indians revered a medicinal hot springs nearby (in present-day Paso Robles).

Rather small, San Miguel nevertheless was granted extensive lands sixty-five miles east deep into the San Joaquin Valley (and the Tulare Indians), and thirty-five miles from the Pacific Ocean. It was the farthest of all the missions from the sea, and though modest in its agricultural output, it soon developed a hefty hide-and-tallow trade following an old Indian trail to the ocean at San Simeon (passing over hills that would 150 years later see the construction of the gaudy Hearst Castle). In 1831, when the newly independent Mexico announced the secularization of the mission system and Commissioner Juan Alvarado told the neophytes at San Miguel that “No tyrannical priest could compel them to work,” gesturing that those who wanted freedom could move to the right, those who chose “hideous bondage” should go left, nearly the entire congregation went to the left. Still, San Miguel eventually deteriorated into a saloon and dance hall.

The San Fernando Valley was the site of the last of Lasuén’s 1797 three-month flurry of missions, brought into being at a fertile confluence of four streams as San Fernando Rey de Espana, named after the thirteenth-century Spanish King Ferdinand. Not far from it, the Porciûncula (or Los Angeles Wash) flooded into the valley, until it was stopped up centuries later by the Sepulveda Dam. The 1806 church was destroyed in the latter-day Sylmar earthquake (1971), and the 1994 Northridge quake badly hurt the uniquely detached convento section with its nineteen exceptional Roman arches.

San Fernando was the birthplace of perhaps the most important and mysterious works of art in early California: the fourteen Stations of the Cross (Via Crucis) painted on canvas, almost certainly by several Indians, including Juan Antonio, baptized from Rancheria de Topanga (in today’s Topanga Canyon) in 1798, San Fernando’s first year of existence. Ironically, these paintings are referred to in an 1849 inventory as cuadros muy ordinarios, very ordinary pictures. They were anything but. Clearly, the Indian artists projected themselves and their plight (as well as their need for a Savior) onto the dramatic scenes of Christ’s final suffering journey from Pilate’s headquarters to judgment to Crucifixion, Golgotha, and the Cross. At Station 6, an Indian-like Veronica wipes Jesus’s face while two clear Indians help Christ carry the cross, one looking sideways at the viewer like a knowing bird.

Lasuén saved the best for last (as had Serra with Buenaventura). On June 13, 1798, he founded “the King of the Missions” (to Santa Barbara’s “Queen”) between San Diego and San Juan Capistrano —Mission San Luis Rey de Francia. Thus did Lasuén play a politically ecumenical role, honoring royalty of both Spain and France. Though founded late in mission history as the eighteenth mission, San Luis Rey became in short order the most prosperous, most populous, and healthiest of all the missions. At its peak year (1826), San Luis Rey had 2,869 Indians (Luiseno, Cupeno, and Cahuilla mostly); this was three times the mission average. It had over 57,000 head of livestock, half cattle, half sheep, far beyond any other mission. And, at a time when most of the missions were rapidly losing population to disease, San Luis Rey was growing. How did this happen? “Recent studies have attributed this to Father Antonio Peyri’s unusual decision to allow nearly half of his baptized neophytes to remain in their traditional villages instead of requiring them to move to the mission community.”

Father Peyri was essentially a joyous man, full of energy and acumen; he was a great builder and architect, designing the cruciform church of San Luis Rey, the only one like it in California, and creating an asistencia twenty-five miles east of the mission at Pala so durable and beloved it is the only surviving mission structure that serves primarily an Indian population (on the Pala Reservation today). (On the bell tower at Pala grows an unlikely old cactus just below the cross, planted, according to legend, by Peyri as a reminder of Christ’s enduring a crown of thorns.)

Still, as he aged, and the demands of the new state pressed on him — including the expulsion of most of the Spanish-born priests—Peyri decided it was time to go, slipping away one night to San Diego to board a ship. His flock, however, had other ideas; when they got wind that Peyri had gone, five hundred Indians of San Luis Rey rushed down to San Diego, begging him to stay, walking into the surf with their sorrow. Peyri blessed them and left, though he took with him a Luiseno Indian who would be the first native to study for the priesthood from California—Pablo Tac.

In 1803, at sixty-seven, Lasuén died in Carmel, to the end retaining “a low estimate of himself.” There he was buried on one side of Serra (Crespi on the other). Lasuén had matched Serra’s nine missions with nine of his own, however, and doubled if not tripled their agricultural output.

The last three missions were each founded by a different priest. Mission Santa Inés, Virgen y Martir, named for the third-century thirteen-year-old girl (Agnes) martyred in Rome, was established by the new mission president, Esteban Tapis, on September 17, 1804. Despite its short life (thirty years), the rich soil of the valley over the Santa Inés Mountains from Santa Barbara brought Santa Inés high wheat harvests. Its inaccessible, rural area sidestepped the vandalism that plagued other missions; Santa Inés has some of the best-preserved original buildings and surrounding land, including olive groves and fields of lavender. It also maintains some of the most striking early art, especially native art, in California, including the famous Chumash artist rendering of the Archangel Rafael as an unmistakable Chumash warrior, clutching a large channel rockfish. Santa Inés was also the site in 1824 of the ignition by Ineseno Chumash of perhaps the most effective (though short-lived) uprising of Indians in California. The Chumash Revolt began as a response to the flogging of a young neophyte by a Spanish soldier at Santa Inés, where the Indian workshops and soldiers’ quarters were burned down, and it quickly spread to Santa Barbara and La Purisima, which were both seized for a month.

In 1816, Russian visitor Otto von Kotzebue (whose botanist named the California poppy), noted poignantly that the Indians, on mission “leave” twice a year to visit their native villages, felt it “the happiest period of their existence,” but they would sit for days, stunned, “without taking any food, so much does the sight of their lost home affect these new Christians.” Soon the social earthquake that would lead to independence from Spain shook the natives so that that melancholic gaze was then turned back at the mission.

The last two of the Alta California missions—the only two north of San Francisco—were put in place as a last-gasp effort of Spain to extend its influence northward and confront the Russians in Bodega Bay. On December 14, 1817, Mission San Rafael Arcângel was founded by Father Vicente de Sarria fifteen miles north of San Francisco, at first as an asistencia for Mission Dolores’s sick population. San Rafael became California’s first sanitarium and hospital, with two hundred initial patients. One of the smallest missions, San Rafael was also atypical in that it had no quadrangle, no bell tower, and no accommodations for the Indians, outside of sickbeds. It did have the children of one rogue priest running around—Father Mercado. San Rafael was the first mission to be secularized, and it soon fell into ruin. John Frémont housed his soldiers in the lost rooms of San Rafael during the Mexican—American War, and soon after Gypsies took up residence. By the early twentieth century, all that was left of San Rafael was one pear tree.

The trail that Serra had begun fifty-four years before finally came to rest with Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma, the twenty-first and last California mission, begun by a priest who started it without permission on July 4, 1823, the only mission begun under an independent Mexico and the most short-lived. Number 21 was named for one of Serra’s favorite saints, Francisco Solano, who served in Peru and Paraguay with both flute and flog. Solano’s large moment in history—and a telling one for the new rulers coming from the East—took place on June 14, 1846, when Lieutenant Colonel John C. Frémont captured General Vallejo of Mexican California and, across from the mission, ran up the Bear Flag on which a grizzly padded, proclaiming California an independent country, at least for a month. Its first and last president was William Ide. In July, the US Marines landed in Monterey, and that was that. The great guns of the East—and gold in them thar hills—soon drowned out what was left of Serra’s mission bells. The missions, and Serra’s dream, fell apart.







CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE Secularization, Gold, and the Destruction of the Missions






There is no real way to deal with everything we lose.

IN 1821, after eleven years of armed conflict, Mexico was declared independent of Spain. Fanned by an anticlerical strain in the Enlightenment, Mexican independence was the death knell of the California mission. By mid-century, most of the twenty-one missions had fallen into ruin and most of the priests gone back, heartbroken, to Spain—if they weren’t dead, or, like Gill and Rubi, loco. By 1824, Mexico embraced a secular constitution, and California came under a liberated Mexico’s umbrella.

Secular leanings were no stranger by then to California. The pueblos of San José and Los Angeles had already begun to challenge the missions’ authority and its land and water. Ranchos outside the mission’s orbit, where old soldiers were rewarded for their service to Spain, as well as Spanish noblemen, had grown to seventeen even before the missions were secularized, though the ranchos greatly proliferated after secularization in 1834 (an astonishing eight hundred ranchos were created in the fourteen years before the coming of the Americans and gold).

Shortly after Serra died in 1784, Pedro Fages assigned one of the first huge land grants, Rancho San Pedro, to Juan José Dominguez, a soldier who had weathered the uprisings in San Diego; the nearly fifty square miles covered present-day Long Beach, San Pedro Harbor, the Palos Verdes Peninsula, Culver City, and Inglewood (including the area of present-day Los Angeles International Airport). Dominguez was so lax in developing the land that thousands of his horses became feral, interbreeding with horses from Mission San Gabriel, so that they, too, became wild. Another invalido (as these old and sometimes not so old veterans of military service were called) who struck it rich at this time was José Maria Verdugo, whose name is on streets, a town, a set of hills, and a hospital in present-day Los Angeles.

The largest land grant of all was Rancho La Puente, comprising much of East Los Angeles, Orange County, and beaches south of Palos Verdes to Newport Beach, given to José Manuel Nieto, who promised “not to harm a living soul,” though soon his animals were overgrazing Mission San Gabriel land, his harvests of corn three times that of San Gabriel. At the time of his death in 1804, Nieto was wealthy beyond just about anyone in California, Alta or Baja. As if to assert the rule of money over Indian, as well as Christian deities, one of Nieto’s sons built a large adobe house near the decrepit Mission San Gabriel right on the site of Povuu’nga, where the Tongva and Juaneno believed their god Chinigchinich had once appeared.

For a quarter century, Mexican California enjoyed a sort of independence within the independence. The Californios, as they called themselves, Spaniards, most actually mestizo and nominally pledged as citizens of Mexico, lived a leisurely life and developed a strong sense of their own culture of cattle and wine along the Pacific coast. In 1832, four thousand Californios existed. A handful of families dominated the landscape, passing the governorship back and forth, absorbing early ranchos, and handing out ranchos in a flurry as the missions were taken apart. Mariano Vallejo strode across Rancho Petaluma and the area north of San Francisco; Juan Bautista Alvarado dominated the politics of Monterey; Santa Barbara was led by Pablo de la Guerra; Los Angeles split between the Pico brothers, Andrés and Pio; Orange County by José Andrés Sepulveda; and San Diego by José Antonio Carrillo and Juan Bandini, whose descendants attached the Bandini name to a fertilizer that fueled the growth of L.A. suburbs after World War II. The life the Californios lived—made possible by Indian labor that was suddenly turned out of the missions, to both relief and vertigo—was one of abundance:

It was a prodigal existence, generous and unheeding. Innumerable longhorn cattle roamed the hills. Families were large and extended. It was common for more than twenty relatives, near-relatives, and retainers to sit down to plentiful meals of beef, tortillas, chili peppers, tomatoes, garbanzo and green beans, pumpkins, onions, oranges, apples, pears, and imported chocolates and spices, all of it prepared by Indian cooks under the supervision of the mistress of the house.... In a society challenged by a paucity of civil institutions ... family was everything.

The rancho had supplanted the mission as the center of life, though the religious life was still somewhat important, especially to the senoras, memorialized by Senora Moreno, the matron of the hacienda in Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona. With the few priests left in the state, religious festivals led with the cross, trailed by a procession of fine lace, brocaded dresses, top hats, sombreros, black satin chaleco waistcoats, and silver-clad saddles, finally ending in an evening of rodeo, Indian vaqueros doing the honors of roping. Was it so strange that those who were roped were great ropers? Freedom had brought them a life primarily as cowpunchers, entertainers, and servants, at least for those who had forgotten—if they ever knew them—the ways of the woods.

Then there were the bull-and-bear fights, where Californios and Indians both spent several days and nights drinking aguardiente (a brandy, literally “firewater,” but also called mule kick), betting on whether or not the bull’s upending horns would disembowel a bear before the bear’s teeth and claws would bleed the bull to death. (More often than not, the old bull prevailed.) Imbued with a fascination with the wild, with the largeness and power of nature, California had fostered a soul of drama from the beginning; bell-ringing Junipero Serra had seen to that.

And California had welcomed wealth, something Serra and Crespi neither experienced nor valued, but foretold when they beheld those vast lands and rivers and roses. Strangely enough, it wasn’t the meat of cattle that drew customers from all over the world—meat spoiled quickly unless it was cooked or made into jerky—it was the hides and the tallow. Clothes and soap. There was something Protestants and Catholics could agree on. And the Californios, often glutted with cattle, were not concerned about strays or even thieves: “If an occasional cow was killed mysteriously it was of no consequence as long as the ‘California dollar’ [the hide] was left behind. The poor had a ready source of food.”

Freedom for the Indian, however, was hardly invigorating. Despite punitive excesses, for decades he had had a deeply ordered, communal life under the paternal watchfulness and care of the padres. To suddenly be thrown into a private enterprise system with little or no money, vying for properties with rich alcâldes from Mexico was disorienting, to say the least. The memoirist-voyager Richard Henry Dana (Two Years Before the Mast) went ashore and stayed in Santa Barbara during the early years of secularization, contrasting the dedication of the mission priests to “administradores [who] are strangers sent from Mexico, having no interest in the country; not identified in any way with their charge, and, for the most part, men of desperate fortunes, broken-down politicians and soldiers—whose only object is to retrieve their condition in as short a time as possible.”

The government of Mexican California, to Dana, was “arbitrary democracy,” and that was probably a generous assessment. Some Indians left for work in Los Angeles, some hired for slave wages onto the lands of the rancheros, and some sank back into the woods. With none of the hardihood of days before the white man showed his face, life in the woods was a rainy, muddy, dusty hell.

In fact, the new “liberating” laws were, for the Indian, not very liberating. Governor José Figueroa issued twenty-three articles in his 1835 Reglamento that transferred mission land and property to ranchos and others: “As the articles clearly state, the secularization of the missions did not free the neophytes but placed them under different management. Title to land was denied them. True ownership of animals and equipment placed in their care also was denied.” Even the compulsion to work, which stood among many republican Mexicans as a sore point in mission life, did not disappear; the mayordomos “could compel the Indians to work at their respective tasks and to chastise them moderately for any misdemeanors they might commit.” Randall Milliken is a dissenting voice on the Reglamento: “If enacted as written, the Indians of California would have had pueblos like New Mexico. But the government didn’t keep to it.” Some tribes took advantage of the changeover to assert themselves; the Cahuillas, for example, seized the asistencia at San Bernardino, and made off with sacred vessels of the chapel, grain, and even Father Tomas Estenaga, who had come from San Gabriel to negotiate return of property. Some Indians managed to survive the turmoil by intermarriage with those building ranchos.

Between 1827 and 1829, the new Mexican government expelled most royalist Spaniards living in California, including priests. Replacing them were Zacatecan Franciscans, homegrown in Mexico, and “less inclined to a reducciôn-style of missioning.” They were greeted in 1833 on the eve of secularization by a fractious system already coming apart, “with mission finances greatly reduced, then cut off.”

Some Indians simply refused to work, or became itinerant workers. In 1839, when Estenaga asked a “freed” Indian to make stirrups and saddles for vaqueros, he ignored him, taking up two dead carpenters’ tools and making off. Estenaga asked new visitor-general William Hartnell (an Englishman), charged by Mexico with inspecting the secularization, “If only the most useful were emancipated, who and how will one-half of the community maintain itself, composed as it is of aged, infirm, children, etc.?” Californio squatters flooded into the mission space, overwhelming the remaining padres. Meanwhile, Indians were reverting to nakedness, as ranchos did not supply them with clothes as had the padres. If they could labor naked, fine. In 1840, Estenaga (whom Hugo Reid called “a truly good man ... and despiser of hypocrisy”) spent his entire salary of nine hundred pesos plus savings of a thousand pesos on clothing for Indians who would not or could not leave the crumbling mission.

And then came the houses of firewater. Taverns started up, not just in pueblos, but also in what was left of Indian rancherias or in their “new” shantytown settlements. In 1840, one rancho owner “sold aguardiente to all the Indians who could afford it and then punished most severely those who got drunk.”

In fact, the onset of Indian alcoholism in California—only a small portion of a disease that ravages Indian reservations across the country today—was spawned in an era of Californio license. Juan Bautista Alvarado, the first native-born Californio governor, was quite a libertine. Alvarado kept a mistress at an adobe down the street in Monterey from his governor’s mansion, had five daughters with her, and for good measure had a son out of wedlock in Los Angeles for whom Pio Pico stood as godparent. Described as “sober, taciturn, without affection” when he got liquored up, Alvarado “destroyed everything he could lay his hands on.”

If anything, for all the bugaboo about nakedness, miscegenation was less feared under the padres than after secularization. For a five-year period in the 1770s, Monterey, for instance, recorded 37 percent of marriages as interracial, no doubt due to “Spanish priests’ famous disregard of Indian phenotype—usually attributed to the Iberian Peninsula’s history with the Moors.” But over time and into secularization, that rate was cut in half, at least intermarriages with Indians. With increasing visitations by Colorado and Appalachian trappers like Jedediah Smith (who made an early penetration from the east in 1826), Bostonian whalers, traders, and land speculators, intermarriage between Californios and Yankees was favored—and politically astute for those rancheros who sensed the inexorable tide of empire coming from the east as stronger than that of the Mexican south. When José Antonio Carrillo of Santa Barbara sought husbands for his five daughters, every one of them was American.

Onto this stage strode John Sutter, a German-Swiss immigrant, who made a pact with Governor Alvarado in 1839 to guard the northern frontier against the Russians, building a fort on the site of what became Sacramento to brandish a totally self-fabricated myth of his prowess with the Royal Swiss Guards. Something of a megalomaniac, Sutter called his 48,000-acre spread New Helvetia. He provisioned at his huge general store or employed in his sawmills everyone from Mormon irregulars in an American battalion to some of the ill-fated Donner Party, eighty-seven people from Missouri snowbound in the High Sierras in the winter of 1846-47, most of whom froze to death, only seven surviving after cannibalizing the dead.

If silver had seduced Spain, riveting its interest in Mexico, gold in the Far West was about to do that to the eastern Americans. On January 24, 1848, a carpenter named James Wilson Marshall spotted some golden pebbles in a tailrace of the Sutter sawmill, thinking them quartz. Soon what he found out the world found out, and the die was cast on what Josiah Royce, the California-born Harvard philosopher, was to call “the original sin” of Californian history—the forcible seizure of Serra’s dream coast by the United States after the discovery of massive seams of gold in the Sierra Nevadas.

Following the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo between the United States and Mexico, California became a territory of the United States, and shortly after the Gold Rush that year, in 1850 America declared the Golden State the thirty-first of the union. In 1865, three weeks before he was assassinated, President Abraham Lincoln restored the missions of California to the Catholic Church. Perhaps in giving the missions of California back to God, Lincoln sensed he would soon be following.

But in fact the missions were already gone. Lincoln gave them back to ghosts. The effect of the Gold Rush on California was total, and can be divined by the following facts: within two years the number of ships in San Francisco Bay went from a few dozen to 635, most of them abandoned while the miners from all over the world rushed to Sutter’s Mill; in a decade the equivalent of $10 billion in ingots left the goldfields for the East; the rate of homicide in one of the larger mines (Sonora) was fifty times the US rate in 1999, while the homicide rate in 1850-51 in Los Angeles was the all-time highest in US history (literally 1.2 percent of the city were murdered). No surprise that in this violent paroxysm of greed the missions—and the Indians loosed of them—were barely footnotes in the burgeoning life of the new Golden State. The American state of California, sanctioning indenturing of Indians to whites as early as April 1850, “fostered the rise of a slave trade, with slave traders being especially interested in kidnapping Indian children,” while clearing the mining areas of Indians became nothing short of genocide. The Clear Lake Massacre alone, in May 1850, saw the slaughtering of hundreds of Pomos by the US Army. The first American governor of California, Peter Hardeman Burnett, put it bluntly: “It is inevitable that the Indian must go.”

Gold miners turned Mission Dolores in San Francisco into a hotel and tavern, featuring a spiked “milk punch.” San Juan Capistrano, sold by Pio Pico to his brother-in-law, spent most of the nineteenth century in complete ruin. Protesting the theft of twenty-three violins at Mission Santa Clara, the breakage of its choir door, and arsonists burning the wooden walls, for his troubles in 1851 Father José Real was told to leave California. Before taking off, he managed to intercede with John Burton, the alcalde of Pueblo San José, for the release of an Indian couple forcibly seized by the American authorities. Real took to gambling and womanizing, finally leaving the priesthood, ending up alone in Baja.

The mission Indian population, about eighteen thousand at the moment of secularization, went down to one thousand by 1839. The value of the mission holdings went from 548,100 pesos (in 1834) to 73,755 (in 1845)—a drop of 86 percent. Flocks of sheep and cattle herds fell 74 percent at thirteen of the twenty-one missions, and most of what was left transferred to the rancheros.

The destruction of the California Indian limned that of the missions; though indeed the mission system had begun that destruction, it was greatly accelerated by the Gold Rush, the rapaciousness if not unconscionable cruelty of the American settlers and armies, as well as diseases. “We were begging on our land to the American pioneers,” said one Ohlone descendant. “My father was furious that he had to pay for a hunting license on our own land.” A California Indian population of 150,000 in 1845 dropped to 30,000 by 1870, 60 percent of the loss due to disease, but 40 percent due to murder. The last stand of the California Indians took place in 1873 with the Modoc War, pitting fifty-three Modoc Indians in a remote northeastern corner of the state against a one-thousand-strong US Army regiment. For a while, the brave Modocs held out in lava beds, before the few survivors escaped to Oregon, where there were no missions or gold.












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