The Mission(s) of Father Serra
This picture in the wilds of Baja California, one hundred years ago, is a pleasant, peaceful one to contemplate. We can see the little group of dusky natives squatting contentedly around their friar-friend, while floating skyward, through the stillness of the starlight rises a ‘tender song of the love of God'.
When Junípero Serra, a Spanish monk of the powerful Franciscan order, traveled north from Mexico City to Baja California in 1768, he had the protection of Mexico’s colonial government in the form of soldiers under the military command of Don Gaspar de Portolá. This group established a series of Catholic missions guarded by soldiers along the California coast, beginning at San Diego and ending at the San Francisco bay in Alta California. These missions intended to convert the native "gentiles", as the padres called the Californians, into good Christian souls while also protecting Spanish territory from Russian encroachment (Fitch 1914: 57).
The area had been explored by Spaniards, but at the time that Serra and Portolá embarked on their journey there were no European settlements in Alta California. However, a number of indigenous tribes inhabited the region. Because of the primacy of missionaries in establishing contact with these groups, we have very little information about the pre-contact population and their practices that has not been filtered through a Franciscan friar. In giving an account of the natives in the area of the San Juan Capistrano mission, A.L. Kroeber, an early twentieth-century scholar of native Californians, relies on the work of one Father Geronimo Boscana, whose 1826 essay "Chinigchinich" is the earliest resource on pre-mission native life. Kroeber writes that, because of the sympathetic style and comprehensiveness, Boscana’s “account of the religion and social customs of the Juaneño is by far the most valuable document on the California Indians preserved from the pen of any of the Franciscan missionaries” (Kroeber 1976: 945).
Unfortunately, understanding accounts of the California natives form the exception, not the rule, of Franciscan writing on the subject (Fitch 1914: 34, 102). Of the natives of the region, Serra biographer A.H. Fitch says that, “this then was the object of their existence, to eat, to drink, to dance, to have wives in abundance. Such briefly were the savages, for whose sake Fray Junipero Serra had painfully journeyed long stretches of desert country” (1914: 127). Fitch characterizes the Californians as hedonistic folk worthy of contempt. This heightens the missionary “sacrifice” of Serra, and also reflects a belief in the basic inferiority of those natives that persisted into the twentieth century.
The Californians saw a new form of life descend upon them forcibly when missionization began. To start a mission one needed few things:
The business of founding a mission was usually a sufficiently simple one. It was enough that a padre should consecrate some sort of a shelter for a church, that he should be furnished with two or three sacred vessels and a small stock of provisions for himself and the soldiers who remained with him. Spiritual work was then at once begun. (Fitch 1914: 185)
The church was of course the most important part of the settlement. Relying on curiosity and the neophytes who had already joined the group to attract natives to their traveling party, the padres began saving souls right away. Fitch includes one interesting account of such a conversion from Serra’s own journal. After traveling for several days without blessing any “wild” Indians, the mission party spotted some gentiles.
“Two Gentiles were again visible on the same height, and our Indians—shrewder than yesterday, went to catch them with caution that they should not escape them. And although one fled from between their hands they caught the other. They tied him, and it was all necessary, for even bound he defended himself that they should not bring him and flung himself upon the ground with such violence that he scraped and bruised his thighs and knees. But at last they brought him. They set him before me” …After making the sign of the cross over him, Junípero untied him, still ‘most frightened and disturbed’ (Fitch 1914: 90).
By force the Californians were subject to the shock of Catholicization, though many came into mission life of their own accord. In order to retain the converts the padres immediately gave them food. It was expected that the natives would work in exchange for such support.
Fitch, A.H. Junipero Serra: The Man and His Work. Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co., 1914.
Kroeber, A.L. Handbook of the Indians of California. New York: Dover Publications, 1976.