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History: Indians

Historical Sketch of the California Indians

Mission Period

Throughout the 16th Century, Spain held much of the New World in its own control. After the defeat of the Spanish Armada, at the end of the 16th Century, however, the Dutch, English, and French gained access to the oceans and began to seek out lands for colonization and trade. Throughout the 17th Century, Dutch, English, and French moved into parts of North America that eventually became the United States. By the second half of the 18th Century, the French laid claim to the largest portion of North American (the entire drainage of the Mississippi River) and the Russians were exploring south of Alaska. There was also an English presence in the Northwest --- the Hudson's Bay Company.

In the United States, Spain had occupied only New Mexico and portions of the Gulf Coast; however, it had always laid claim to all the land westward to the Pacific Ocean. By the second half of the 18th Century, the presence of other nations, especially Russia and England in the Northwest, was a growing concern; thus, in order to establish authority over Alta California and to secure the coast from foreign intervention, Visitor-General Jose de Galvez formulated a plan for the consolidation of Spanish power in all of the northern provinces of New Spain.

A crucial part of this plan was the expedition of 1769 into Alta California that would lead, ultimately, to missionization of the entire coastline, from Baja California north to Sonoma. The expeditionary force was two-fold; it included soldiers under the command of Gaspar de Portolá and Franciscan missionaries under the leadership of Father Junipero Serra. The project, as it was then conceived, was to establish a foothold in San Diego from which a further expedition could reach and establish itself at Monterey Bay. Monterey was chosen because the value of its harbor had been considerably extolled, though in fact exaggerated, by the reports of Sebastián Vizcaíno in 1602, returning from the last of the early sea expeditions. While the expedition suffered great losses and hardships, both by sea and by way of its land approach, through Baja California, it arrived in the area of San Diego now called Mission Valley in July 1769. From here, Portola and some soldiers continued northward to Monterey, while Serra remained behind to found the first mission.

Mission San Diego de Alcala (named for a Franciscan, Diego of Alcala, sainted in 1588) was ceremonially established by the erection of a cross and celebration of mass on a great hillside overlooking the ocean. The party attempted to attract the attention of local Indians by hanging bells in trees and putting out token gifts. The Indians remained unimpressed, however, and attacked the settlement within its first month. In 1774, the mission itself was moved across and up the valley somewhat to a better location, and the Presidio remained on the commanding hillside. Relations with local Indians remained poor. Not a single Indian was baptized during the mission's first year; and only sixty were baptized when the new mission church was constructed in 1774. In the following year, the church was burned to the ground in an attack that also led to the death of Father Luis Jayme, California's first Catholic martyr. Tension remained high for at least two years, when finally a new church was built. Indians surrendered to superior Spanish firepower.

While the first military post, Presidio de San Diego, and the first mission, San Diego de Alcala, were being founded in 1769, Portola was hunting desperately for the magnificent bay of Monterey. Having planted a cross and temporary fortification next to the only bay to be discovered, which he thought could not possibly be the one praised by Vizcaino, he continued his search northward. Alas, Portola finally recognized the mistake, and Fr. Serra moved the location of the mission complex five miles south of Portola's presidio, naming it after San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, founding what became the community of Carmel. The first building at Carmel was not finished until 1797. The last of the missions, San Francisco Solano de Sonoma, was founded in 1823, just two years after Mexico had declared its independence from Spain. In all, twenty one missions were established along the entire length of coast from San Diego to Sonoma.

The mode of Spanish settlement was simple and followed the same essential lines in each location. A cross was erected; mass was celebrated; and attempts were made to contact the local Indians. As labor and resources were organized, permanent buildings were constructed. These always included a fortress, or presidio, and a mission complex, including a church, residencies, and work areas. Eventually, these were joined by a small civil complex, or colony. Indians were invited to create a village next to the mission complex, though unmarried Indian women and children were usually forced to live inside the mission in chaste seclusion.

The Spanish attitude toward indigeous people was to recognize them as human beings living in a natural relationship with their environs, rather like the animals of the forests. From a cultural point of view, generally speaking, they recognized no tendency toward civilization among these people and, instead, viewed them as entirely uncivilized. They responded by viewing themselves as "bringing the gifts of civilization" to these people, though later analysts have questioned whether such gifts were needed. From a Spanish theological standpoint, indigenous people were pagans who were desperately in need of conversion to Christianity for the salvation of their souls. This conversion was a high priority and was implemented through baptism, instruction in Catholic rituals, moral education, incorporation into the mission community, and enforcement of strict discipline. "Enforcement" included incarceration, public humiliation, flogging, and even capital punishment.

From an economic and political standpoint, indigenous people represented the lowest possible class of people in Spanish feudal society and were easily folded into the feudal system which the missionaries carried with them into Alta California. Under this system, only the highest classes of Spanish society actually owned land, had rights, and made decisions. It was expected that all others would sort themselves out into subordinate classes which, if they exercised power or autonomy, possessed importance only relative to each other. Of these classes, those who found themselves at the lowest levels were destined to work hardest and were expected to give up most of the product of their labors for the enrichment of the system as a whole. It was inherent to the Spanish view of life and society, in other words, that the Indian, once brought within the gifts of Spanish civilization, would occupy the lowest rung of social order and, thereupon, would perform the necessary labors of brick making, timber cutting, building construction, farm maintenance, and domestic service.

Later rationalizations of the mission era would look back upon it fondly as a period of education for the Indians, bringing them agriculture and modern trades as well as the gift of Catholic salvation. What a strange shock it must have been for the Native Californians who lived along the coast, from San Diego to San Francisco Bay, to experience these revelations of European civilization. Having lived thousands of years without interference, Native Californians found themselves intruded upon by numbers of strangely clothed people who brought with them remarkably powerful weapons as well as domesticated animals, never before seen --- horses, oxen, cows, pigs, etc. These newcomers behaved as though the land was theirs and asserted their right to dictate events. They urged Native people to adopt their gods and rituals; and they encouraged them to adopt European agriculture and animal husbandry. If an Indian accepted what the Fathers called "baptism," he or she was forced to leave the family village and kinship relations and to live within the mission complex. The Indian experiencing "missionization" was commanded in many ways, not just to work, but also to foresake all elements of the Indian's natural culture, from diet to dress to behavior. The Spanish were neither understanding nor forgiving of "infractions" against their rules and laws; the Indian who carried natural behavior into the Spanish world quickly learned how violent a disciplinarian the Spanish could be.

In consequence of all this, the attrition from mission back to village was high. Baptismal records themselves tend to demonstrate that the largest number of Indians who availed themselves of baptism were either infants, too young to know what was happening, or aged, too old to run away to the village. After a relatively short period of seeking voluntary submission, the Spanish missionaries began using the soldiers to bring in healthy Indian "recruits" for salvation from increasingly distant villages. Equally well, the soldiers were used to enforce discipline by bringing back Indian neophytes who had attempted to return to their villages, and this process was facilitated by branding the missionized Indians with crosses or other signs.

By far the greatest cause of attrition, however, was disease. The Spanish brought European diseases for which Native Americans had no established immunity; these included common venereal and respiratory diseases as well as pneumonia, tuberculosis, small pox, and measles. Careful research has demonstrated that, in most mission areas, the Indian death rate rose to a point more than double the declining birth rate. It is estimated that, during the mission period, from 1769 until 1832, the population of indigenous people affected by the Spanish had declined by 50%. It is also estimated that one half of this decline was the direct result of imported diseases. The greatest effect was experienced by women, whose populations declined so swiftly that the proportion of men to women rose from 1.1, at the beginning of the period, to 1.45 or above.

Beyond disease itself is the matter of diet. California Indians were accustomed to a rich and varied diet of natural grains, vegetables, fish, and animal meat. The "gift" of European agriculture and animal husbandry brought them milk, which made them sick because they lacked the enzymes for digesting it, and a monotonous ration of atole, a starchy cereal soup. The Spanish knew little of acorn nutrition and thrived on corn; however, as much as they tried to teach California Indians the cultivation of corn, they failed because the varieties of corn available to them did not grow well along the California coast. (Ironically, there is some evidence to show that California Indians were well informed about corn cultivation from their eastern neighbors but already knew that corn did poorly in their climate.) Combined with the European taste for crowded housing, in which sanitation and fresh air were problems, Indian health was constantly placed at risk. Sadly, however, there is ample written evidence to indicate that, from the Spanish Catholic point of view, the only important matter was achieving a satisfactory conversion to Catholicism prior to inevitable death.

By the end of the mission era, the Spanish had clearly established missions, military strongholds, and small civilian colonies. They had exercised a substantial influence over all indigenous people from San Diego to north of the San Francisco Bay and from the coast inland even into the western sides of the Central Valley. Those Indians who had been baptised and who had lived within the mission world for any significant period had acquired knowledge of European agriculture, animal husbandry, and construction techniques. They had been molded into a primitive but significant labor force. These same people had been thoroughly instructed in Christian life and ritual, and every attempt had been made to force their conformity to Christian moral practices. They had been given Spanish names and Spanish clothing; substantial attempts had been made to destroy their indigenous cultures, break their family and village ties, and especially end the spiritual connection with tribal shamans. In most of this the Spanish had been successful, though at incredible cost of lives. Indians learned well and adopted attractive aspects of Spanish material culture, as it was practical to do so.

Suggested Readings:

Costo, Rupert and Jeanette Henry Costo (eds). The Missions of California: A Legacy of Genocide (San Francisco: Indian Historian Press, 1987)
Jackson, Robert H. Indian Population Decline: The Missions of Northwestern new Spain, 1687-1840 (University of New Mexico Press, 1994)
Rawls, James J. Indians of California: The Changing Image (University of Oklahoma Press, 1984)

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