Thursday, February 28, 2013

West Coast Slavery: The Missions of Southern California

"With the best theological intentions in the world, the Franciscan padres eliminated Indians with the effectiveness of Nazis operating concentration camps.  From 1776 to 1834 they baptized 4,404 Indians in the Mission San Juan Capistrano and buried 3,227."


In fourth grade at Rolling Hills Elementary School in Fullerton, we learned about the California Missions.  For a project, we each built a model of a different mission.  The image of the missions I learned in school was one of peaceful, quaint buildings where padres like Father Serra lived in harmony with local Native Americans.  This happy, nostalgic image was the one I carried in my mind well into adulthood, until quite recently, when I decided to actually research and read about the missions on my own.

What has emerged from my research is a far more disturbing picture.  Currently, I'm reading a book by Carey McWilliams called Southern California: An Island on the Land, which seeks to give a realistic account, based on a bedrock of research, of the history of southern California, an area whose real history has been shrouded by nice-sounding but false myths.  In a chapter entitled "The Indian in the Closet," McWilliams paints a picture of the missions that is far from the idyllic story I learned in the fourth grade at Rolling Hills.

Prior to Spain's conquest of California in the 1700s, there were approximately 30,000 Native Americans living in southern California, with several distinct language groups.  Most lived in relatively small settlements of 130-150 people.  For the most part, they were not nomadic and lived off the native plant and animal life.  They had unique cultures and religions.  Warfare was virtually unknown among Southern California tribes.

Following the Spanish conquest, primarily beginning with Gaspar de Portola's landing, the Native Americans began to die in vast numbers.  By 1910, their numbers had decreased from 30,000 to approximately 1,250.  The causes of deaths were diseases (like measles and syphilis), poor living conditions, and murder by Spanish soldiers and settlers.

The Missions established by the Franciscan padres contributed greatly to the near extinction of the local natives.  The padres first induced the Native Americans to come to the missions with gifts of trinkets and displays, and attempted to baptize them into the Christian faith.  When a Native American was baptized, he became a "neophyte".  McWilliams writes, "From the moment of conversion, the neophyte became a slave; he belonged thereafter to the particular mission."  Conditions in the missions were not good: "In the missions, they were herded together in large groups.  The sanitation was wretched, the diet inadequate."

As "neophytes" began to die in large numbers, "Indians developed a mortal fear of the missions."  At this point, Spanish soldiers were enlisted to physically force Native Americans into missions: "as many as two and three hundred Indians would be captured in a single raid."  Those who tried to escape the missions were severely punished.  "If the Indian would not work," writes historian C.D. Willard, "he was starved and flogged.  If he ran away, he was pursued and brought back."

The missions not only caused physical hardship and death--they also succeeded in decimating local cultures, religions, and languages.  From the Franciscan point of view, it was "vitally necessary to extirpate this individual beliefs and tribal customs which in any way whatever conflicted with the Christian religion."

In short, the southern California missions, far from being quaint pastoral enclaves, were basically west coast slavery.


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