The California missions: A lot worse than most people realize

It’s dawned on me that the California’s missions were a lot worse that most people realize—objectively a cross between the ISIS theocratic state and Nazi concentration camps. Call it California’s Gulag Archipelago. European visitors at the time were horrified by what they saw. The Mexican government, as soon as it was independent from Spain, immediately disbanded the missions and sent the radical priests packing.

Today, we don’t even hold the missions to the moral standards of that time. We white-wash them, cover them with bougainvillea, glorify them, and have even developed an entire architectural style based on them: we have mission-style banks, restaurants, homes, and hotels.

The notorious missions are still glorified today.

Slave camps

For sixty-five years, from 1769 to 1834, the Natives of California lived Father Junípero Serra’s archipelago of twenty-one missions stretching along most of the coast and valleys.  Each mission depended on Native labor and controlled vast lands, maintained thousands of head of livestock, and provided traders and nearby settlements with corn, wheat, beans, vegetables, butter, tallow, hides, leather, olive oil, and lots of wine. The Franciscan friars lived so well that they had servants to handle all the silver and gold they earned; they could not touch it due to their vows of poverty. 

Every Californian is familiar with the mission bells that commemorate the El Camino Real (the king’s road) that connected the missions.

Serra and his missionaries were extremists.  Many were into self-mortification, gauging their own flesh in spiritual penitence.  Moreover, unlike Spanish missions elsewhere in the world, they restricted the converts from leaving the missions without permission and deliberately kept them illiterate.

The priests sought to maintain their labor force. Escapees were re-captured. Natives outside the mission were threatened or taken by force. To increase the birth rate within the missions, the priests resorted to punitive measures. They suspected that the high miscarriage rate among Native women was the result of deliberate abortions. Women suffering miscarriages were whipped, put in stocks, and publicly humiliated, forced to stand outside the church holding “a hideous painted wooded child in her arms.” At Mission Santa Cruz, Friar Roman Olbés ordered a Native couple to have sex in his office while he watched. When they refused, he settled for an inspection of their genitals. When it was her turn, the Indian woman fought back and a struggle ensued between her and the priest.  He screamed for help and the woman was hauled away, given fifty lashes, and made to hold the wooden child outside the church.  Her husband was shackled and forced to attend daily mass wearing bull horns lashed to his head. 

Death rates

As usual, the Catholic Church is slow to turn the cruise ship on this one. I anticipate an apology in the next 300 years.

The purpose of Serra’s kingdom was to convert as many Indians as possible and send their souls to heaven.  In this regard he was efficient; they were dying faster than they could reproduce. The Native “converts” lived in squalor, worked hard, ate little, attended mass daily, and were whipped frequently, sometimes during mass if they were not paying attention to the sermon, which was given in Latin. Diseases spread through their dark crowded dormitories more often than not. The priests seemed to care little. In 1775, Fray Pedro Font wrote that “they are so savage, wild, and dirty, disheveled, ugly, small, and timid, that only because they have the human form is it possible to believe that they belong to mankind.” During the mission period, 1769–1834, the Indian population at the missions, according to one estimate, declined from 72,000 to 18,000, with deaths exceeding births by 60 per cent.

The death rate within the missions equaled that of the worst slave plantations. In November of 1790, Father Fermín Lasuén, Serra’s successor, reported to Mexico City that, of the 13,308 Indians living in the missions, 4,780 had died so far that year—that is 36%— and there were still six more weeks to go. Thirty years later, high death rates remained a hot topic in communications between the missions and Mexico City.  Father Mariano Payéras, another successor of Serra, blamed the Indians. He reported that they did not “value their health as they should but rather waste it and place it secondary to vile pleasures and whims.” 

Their bones, however, do not lie. They are stunted and show signs of malnutrition, in contrast to Natives from outside the missions. The Natives did not lie either. On one occasion, twenty-three escaped the Mission Dolores and were re-captured. Six listed hunger and starvation as their reason for leaving, nine described the deaths of immediate family members, and, when a cause of death was given, it was starvation. Eight of the captives mentioned they were whipped or put in stocks for not working while they were sick. One man said that, after his wife was raped by a vaquero, he was whipped because he had not properly protected her.  

Missionaries reaction

Many of the young missionaries, arriving from Spain with visions of helping the poor, quickly became disillusioned, because “the manner in which the Indians are treated is far more cruel” than they expected. Of the three young Franciscans met by the worldwide French expedition, one quit in his thirties, another was relieved after seven years due to “depression”, and the third lasted only a few years, becoming “incapacitated for work by reason of insanity.”

European reaction

In 1779 King Carlos III of Spain heard that the conditions were “worse than that of slaves”
and ordered all Natives freed after ten years of education.  But the order was ignored and the Natives were kept illiterate; most could not even speak Spanish. Seven years later, a visiting French expedition noted that “corporal punishment is inflicted on the Indians of both sexes who neglect the exercises of piety, and many sins, which in Europe are left to Divine justice, are here punished by irons and the stocks.”

Visiting Russians and Americans had similar reactions.  When a new priest was sent to fill a vacancy at the Mission San Miguel and was shocked that “the manner in which the Indians are treated is far more cruel” than he expected, he was quickly removed from his post, branded unstable, and returned to Spain. 

Native reaction

In addition to constant runaways, there were notable uprisings. In 1775 the Kumeyaay rose up and sacked Mission San Diego. Priests constructing the mission as San Juan Capistrano heard about it, abandoned their construction site, and buried the giant mission bells to hide them. An attempt to build missions up the Colorado River was quashed by Quechan (Yuma). The Great Chumash Revolt of 1824 at Missions Santa Inés and Santa Barbara led to the establishment of a secret survivor’s colony at Walker Pass in the southern Sierra.

White-washing history today

Notice the attribute to Father Junipero Serra. The biggest miracle associated with him is that he managed to pull off running a network of slave camps– until the Mexican government shut it down.

For decades California’s 4th graders studied a sanitized and white-washed version of the missions, complete with the infamous assignment to build a model of a mission out of sugar cubes, complete with a bell tower to summon the faithful to mass. This would be akin to German children building little models of Auschwitz. The mere fact that California history (the mission period was followed by a state-sponsored genocide in the 1850s) is relegated to 4th grade, is itself questionable. The topics are inherently difficult and violent, more suitable to older children. This would be akin to Rwanda only teaching its history in 4th grade. It’s a deliberate decision to avoid topics.

California recently revised teaching standards, but the mission models may live on thru various school districts and teachers.

Today most of the missions are preserved by the Catholic Church. None of them offer an experience such as at Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, curated to put visitors in the position of the slaves and walk them through the daily life of a captive. None of that. Instead, you can pray in the chapel or visit the giftshop, replete with little statues of Mary.

I’ll end with her words from what is known as the Song of Mary or the Magnificat, one of the more radical pieces of literature ever written at the time, a prayer for the poor and against the powerful:

 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
    but has lifted up the humble.

 He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.

It’s time to teach the true history of the missions and remember those who suffered.

Mission architecture provides a pleasant façade to the actual history of the slave camps.

About Stephen Carr Hampton

Stephen Carr Hampton is an enrolled citizen of Cherokee Nation, an avid birder since age 7, and a former resource economist for the California Department of Fish & Game, where he worked as a tribal liaison and conducted natural resource damage assessments and oversaw environmental restoration projects after oil spills. He writes most often about Native history and contemporary issues, birds, and climate change.
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2 Responses to The California missions: A lot worse than most people realize

  1. shichils says:

    I live in a town with one of these missions. I’ve always avoided the place-whenever I see it, I feel sad knowing so many were tortured and killed there.

  2. House says:

    Though what happened at the missions is horrible and many lives were lost, most of the events you list of torture and death didn’t kick off till after Serra had died. Serra had only founded the first 8 missions, ending with the mission Buenaventura. Though he had advocated for corporal punishment, there is a letter written by him to the governor in 1780 realizing the error and admitting that other friars had taken things to far. I reiterate by saying that what happened at the missions is horrible, disgusting, and is a dark part of history for both Catholics and Native peoples of California. Along with this, I don’t believe all the blame can be placed on Serra as he genuinely wanted a willful conversion from native peoples. A side note, I cannot comment on the wealth of the missions after Serra’s death, but as early as 1774 the missions were doing horrible as we see in his letters to the governor, and at each mission there only seemed to be 40 heads of cattle and little too no agriculture being produced and the fact that Serra was constantly asking for supplies.

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