Popular Science Monthly/Volume 37/August 1890/Missions and Mission Indians of California
By HENRY W. HENSHAW.
FROM the time of its discovery by Grijalva in 1534 until 1607, a number of fruitless attempts had been made by the Mexican authorities to colonize the peninsula of Lower California, and no small amount of treasure had been wasted in the efforts.
The sole obstacle to the success of the schemes for colonization lay not in the indolent and peaceably disposed Indians, but in the barren and inhospitable nature of the country itself, the wastes of which offered but moderate subsistence to the natives, and nothing whatever to satisfy the love of adventure and the thirst for wealth of the Spaniard. Finding that all attempts to colonize the new country were failures, the Mexican Government turned it over to the Jesuits, who readily undertook its subjection to ecclesiastical authority. The first settlement was made on the Bay of San Dionisio in 1697. The establishment of the missions proper began immediately, and between this period and 1745 no fewer than fourteen were established on the peninsula. It was not until 1769 that the occupancy of Upper California was inaugurated by the founding of the mission of San Diego by the Franciscans, who had superseded the Jesuits in charge of mission work in western Spanish America. From this date until 1823 mission after mission was established to the number of twenty-one, until the entire coast area of California up to and a little beyond the Bay of San Francisco was under mission sway. As mission history forms one of the most interesting chapters relating to the aborigines of this continent, it is the purpose of the present paper to briefly notice the subject, with especial reference to some of the more salient features of mission life and its effect upon the natives.
But, before turning to the subject proper, let us glance at the California Indian as he was found by the missionaries. And first as to his physical appearance.
Vancouver visited San Francisco in 1792, and thus alludes to the natives: "If we except the inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego,
and those of Van Diemen's land, they are certainly a race of the most miserable beings, possessing the faculty of human reason, I ever saw. Their persons, generally speaking, were under the middle size, and very ill made; their faces ugly, presenting a dull, heavy, and stupid countenance, devoid of sensibility or the least expression."
A few years later, in 1806, Langsdorff describes the same Indians with somewhat more detail, as follows: "These Indians are of a middling, or rather of a low stature, and of a dark-brown color approaching to black. . . . They have large, projecting lips, and broad, flat, negro-like noses; indeed, many of their features, as well as their physiognomy, and almost their color, bear a strong resemblance to the negroes. Their hair is, however, extremely different, being long and straight; if left to grow, it will hang down even to the hips, but they commonly cut it to the length of four or five inches, sticking it out like bristles; this has a very disagreeable appearance in the eyes of a European: the hair grows very far down toward the eyes, so that the forehead is extremely low; the eyebrows are small and the beards thin; many shave them close with mussel-shells. None of the men that we saw were
Fig. 1.—Group of Mission Indians from Mesa Grande, San Diego County.
above five feet high; they were ill-proportioned, and had such a dull, heavy, negligent appearance that we all agreed we had never seen a less pleasing specimen of the human race."
The Indians of Santa Clara Mission, many of whom were from the interior tribes, appear to have impressed Langsdorff much more favorably, and he concludes his description of them with the statement that "the people of this mission are, indeed, generally considered as the handsomest in New California."
The present Indians of San Diego and Los Angeles Counties, a group of whom are presented in Fig. 1, are fair representatives of the mission Indians of southern California. They approach more nearly to Langsdorff's description than to the pen-portrait drawn by Vancouver. It is to be remembered, however, that these Indians belong to the great inland Shoshonian family, and are doubtless intellectually brighter than were their brethren of the coast farther north, about Santa Barbara and San Francisco, who represent distinct families.
I have seen a considerable number of the mission Indians in recent years, and can testify to the general accuracy of Langsdorff's description, though of course they differ much individually and among different tribes. In general it appears to me that the Indians of the interior of the State are less sluggish physically, and are mentally brighter, than those nearer the coast. Taking the coast tribes all in all, they are the lowest type of Indian I have ever seen, and it is probable that they represent the lowest type north of Mexico.
At first this fact seems totally at variance with the fitness of things; for, if California was not literally a land flowing with milk and honey, it possessed every attribute to be desired by a barbarous people. Its climate was mild and equable; its coast and inland waters teemed with fish and mollusks; while the land abounded with game and with nuts, roots, and seeds which were both nutritious and easily procured. With such advantages as these it might be supposed that the natives would have far outstripped the dwellers of less favored sections. Human progress, however, does not always follow the lines of least resistance, and it is probable that in their struggle toward civilization the races of the world owe less to their advantages than to their disadvantages. To put this seeming paradox in other words, man's improvement has been largely compulsory, and, when he is not too heavily handicapped, adverse surroundings stimulate instead of checking his progress. Certain is it that the fine climate and abundant natural products of California had their full effect in developing, or rather in retarding the development, of the natives. Though not deficient physically, the Indians, especially of the warmer portion of the State, were exceedingly indolent and stupid. As a rule they were not hunters but fishers, and hence their blood was not quickened and their muscles hardened by the excitement and toil of the chase; nor were their wits sharpened to the same extent as those of the hunting tribes by the manifold and varied necessities of their calling, nor by the sterner duties of war; for the hunting tribes are invariably warlike. Not so the Californians; though there was a multiplicity of tribes and an abundant population, and hence ample cause for intertribal strife, their warfare was in keeping with the rest of their character, and had in it little of the aggressive fierceness which characterized other Indians to the eastward. No better evidence of their pusillanimous spirits need be required than their abject submission to mission rule, enforced as it was at each mission by the presence of two or three priests and only a half-dozen armed soldiers.
Fig. 2.—Ruins of Branch Mission of Pala, twenty-five miles east of San Luis Rey; established in 1816.
Though the natives of southern California, as the result of living under rather similar conditions of environment, conformed in a general way in physical appearance and in their mode of life, it must not be supposed that there were not very many distinct tribes which differed in many minor particulars. Within the mission area there were scores, if not hundreds, of tribes—just how many we can not tell—and they were divided among no fewer than nine distinct linguistic families. Perhaps the linguistic differences that characterized these tribes formed the most remarkable point of distinction, and it is doubtful if anywhere else in the world within the same area have there ever been observed so many distinct families of language and so many dialects as in California. As Lamanon remarks, "It is the difficulty of learning all the languages that consoles the missionaries for their not knowing any." In point of fact, the language changed dialectically every ten or fifteen miles, while totally distinct linguistic families succeeded each other in bewildering profusion.
The California tribes were in no sense nomadic. That to some extent they changed their place of abode with the season is doubtless true, and in winter the tribes living immediately on the more exposed parts of the coast moved inland a greater or less distance.
Although by no means densely populated according to modern ideas, yet California was well divided up among the numerous tribes, and was probably more completely occupied than any other part of the United States. This is attested by the accuracy with which the tribal lands were marked off in many places by artificial boundaries, as also by the rigidness with which trespass on the territory of neighboring tribes was punished. Population must be large, and the natural products of the soil of considerable value, ere land rights are so carefully guarded. A large population is to be inferred also from the proximity of the missions to each other, since each one required a populous area from which to draw its converts; and, finally, a large population is attested by the mission figures, which show that during the mission period, from 1769 to 1834, some seventy-nine thousand converts were baptized; and yet this number can not by any means have represented the total population for the sixty-five years, since by no means all the Indians were converted.
As the Californian Indians were practically in the same culture state as those of other portions of the United States, though upon a somewhat lower plane, I need not dwell further upon their habits save to say that they lived in conical or wedge-shaped lodges of tule or thatched grass, or in temporary wigwams of branches; wore very little clothing; lived largely on fish, mollusks, and seeds, and to a less extent upon game; for the most part made no pottery, but employed soapstone for domestic utensils when that material was available, or used basketry vessels when it was not; were very fond of ornaments; had a complex mythology; resorted to their shamans for the cure or prevention of disease, for the destruction of enemies, either personal or tribal, for luck in hunting or fishing; and, finally, were fetich-worshipers. Such were the people to enlighten and Christianize whom was to be the life-work of the Franciscan fathers. Let us now observe the methods adopted for these praiseworthy ends.
The Spanish and Mexican authorities did not intend that the mission reign should be permanent. The viceroys of New Spain saw in California an important political addition to Spanish-Mexican territory, and even when secular colonization failed, and the attempt was abandoned in favor of ecclesiastical methods, the approved plan of the Government for the mission establishments contemplated these as but a temporary means to an end, and full provision was made for the conversion of the missions into secular establishments, quite independent of priestly authority, and for the conferring of citizenship upon the Indians. To this latter end it was provided that after ten years' service in the mission an Indian might claim his liberty, provided a respectable settler would become responsible for his good conduct. It was the clearly expressed idea of the Government that the Indians should be rendered self-supporting as rapidly as possible, and the missions were looked upon as educational establishments to this end. Though not openly antagonizing these provisions, the fathers never yielded a hearty assent to the policy, and from the very first sought to render the converts totally dependent and to establish between themselves and their charges the relation of father and children, in which policy they were only too successful. It was no part of their plan to make the Indian self-supporting. The danger of mission disestablishment disturbed the missionaries little, as they openly said the Indians were incapable of self-maintenance.
For its own support and the maintenance of its converts each mission had allotted to it fifteen square miles of land. The buildings were laid out in various ways—sometimes in the form of a square inclosed by a high wall, and sometimes in detached sections. To each mission was allotted a well-built church; and though externally these presented a rather rude appearance, yet their interiors were finished with considerable care, and lavishly decorated as far as the circumstances permitted. Among the pictures that
Fig. 3.—Modern Hut of Mission Indians, Coahuila Valley. Ramona and Children in Foreground.
hung upon the church walls were always to be found two, representing respectively hell and paradise. The former depicted in the most vivid way the future torments of the unregenerate, and it proved a very effective means of conversion.
The houses of the neophytes were usually a little distance from the mission proper, and consisted of open rows of little huts. The accompanying sketch (Fig. 3) affords as good an idea of these primitive structures as is to be found among the modern mission Indians, and is quite primitive. The roof is composed of thick branches of a kind of sage-brush, and the pole wattles constituting its sides are chinked with mud.
Late in mission history the houses were built of sun-dried bricks, and were reasonably comfortable habitations, but in the early period they were most miserable affairs. Vancouver describes them in 1792, and they were evidently nothing but the native huts, made of willow saplings planted in the earth and brought together at the top, with twigs interwoven and with a thatching of grass and rushes. Vancouver says of them: "These
Fig. 4.—Adobe House of Mission Indians, Coahuila Valley, San Diego County.
miserable habitations, each of which was allotted for the residence of a whole family, were erected with some degree of uniformity, about three or four feet asunder, in straight rows, leaving lanes or passages at right angles between them; but these were so abominably infested with every kind of filth and nastiness as to be rendered not less offensive than degrading to the human species."
Fig. 4 shows the modern adobe house, the use of adobe being introduced into California by the Spaniards.
The fact is, that in the aboriginal state the sanitary condition of the Indians was preserved by seasonal changes of residence, or by burning the houses, for one reason or another, chiefly superstitious. They probably never burned them of their own accord to be rid either of vermin or filth, as the idea of cleanliness for the sake of cleanliness is foreign to the savage mind. Constant residence in one spot, under such conditions as Vancouver and others described, had its legitimate effect upon the health of the neophytes, as we shall see.
In these huts lived the married only; the unmarried were domiciled in separate buildings, usually directly under the eyes of the missionaries, where they were locked up at night, each sex separate. The unmarried women also worked separately, and always under supervision.
When the missions were first established, the good fathers, as a rule, experienced little difficulty in securing converts. Kind words, and the gifts the Indians received in the shape of food and clothing, proved an efficient means of conversion, and they were baptized in gratifying numbers. Converts were encouraged to visit their wild brethren at home, and by flattering accounts of mission life induced many to return with them. As neophytes grew scarce, the area from which they were drawn was extended, and a greater or less number of recruits was obtained from the distant interior tribes. Later, such means proved unavailing, and other and more questionable methods were resorted to. Upon one pretext or another, armed soldiers and armed converts were sent out who frequently returned with a goodly number of captives; and, for two reasons, these were mostly women and children: first, because they were preferred, since the husbands frequently followed them into captivity; and, secondly, because in the conflicts which preceded the capture of the wives and children many of the men were killed and the rest driven away. In these conflicts the wounded appear to have received little mercy. Beechey witnessed the tragical issue of one of these holiday excursions by the neophytes of the mission of San José, and we are indebted to him for the details. An armed launch had been placed in charge of an alcalde of the mission, who while on the trip planned an attack upon the Cosemenes of the San Joaquin, either directly for the purpose of securing converts or in revenge for some aggression. While in camp near the village they intended to attack, the neophyte party was surprised by the Cosemenes, and thirty-four were killed or taken captive. In this case apparently the alcalde acted without authority, and doubtless without knowledge or connivance on the part of the priests. However, when the news reached the mission it was thought necessary to strike terror into the victorious tribe, and accordingly an expedition was sent against them. The result was that forty men, women, and children were killed and forty women and children were captured and brought back to the mission. Thus the loss of the converts was more than made good, the surrounding tribes were inspired inspired with terror, and all with the loss of one Christian, who was killed by the bursting of his own gun. Such acts reveal the darker side of mission history, and the attempt has been often made to free the priests from the blame of such transactions, on the ground that they were ignorant of the extreme means employed. Such
Fig. 5.—Coahuila Indian, formerly a Neophyte of San Gabriel Mission, Los Angeles County.
can hardly have been the case. Even when the ostensible purpose of the visits of the converts was peace and not war, they were armed, the boat being often provided, as Beechey tells us, with cannon and musketry. Under such circumstances of superiority it would have needed no prophet to foretell the probable action of Indian neophytes, doubtless often with old grudges to pay off and eager to find favor in the eyes of their masters, and to claim the reward of their zeal in the new faith. Another fruitful occasion for wholesale capture was the escape of converts to neighboring tribes, and the attempt to recapture them by armed force, to which are to be added, of course, the petty manifestations of hostility on the part of the unconverted tribes. Overt acts on their part were followed by reprisals, and these always meant a fresh supply of converts.
Having gained possession of their subjects, the next step was to convert them to Christianity—a process neither very long nor tedious. Before baptism it was customary to prepare the candidates—if the term be applicable to unwilling captives—by preliminary instruction, which the padres state never occupied less than eight days. How clear an insight into the mysteries of the Christian religion a pagan Indian, fresh from the worship of his fetiches, is likely to obtain in eight days may be imagined; but the fathers declared that the instruction was ample. The usual method of enlightenment is thus detailed by Beechey:
"Immediately the Indians are brought to the mission they are placed under the tuition of some of the most enlightened of their countrymen, who teach them to repeat in Spanish the Lord's Prayer and certain passages in the Romish litany; and also to cross themselves properly on entering the church. In a few days a willing Indian becomes a proficient in these mysteries, and suffers himself to be baptized and duly initiated into the church. If, however, as it not unfrequently happens, any of the captured Indians show a repugnance to conversion, it is the practice to imprison them for a few days, and then to allow them to breathe a little fresh air in a walk round the mission to observe the happy mode of life of their converted countrymen; after which they are again shut up, and thus continue to be incarcerated until they declare their readiness to renounce the religion of their forefathers." A remark by Beechey that he thought the teachers had an arduous task, elicited from the priest the reply that "they had never found any difficulty; that the Indians were accustomed to change their own gods, and that their conversion was in a manner habitual to them." This was undoubtedly true, as was evidenced by the rapidity with which numbers apostatized in favor of their earlier gods whenever occasion offered.
Discipline among the converts was administered with some severity. As was to be expected, desertion and the non-performance of their religious duties were the chief occasions of punishment. A church-service is thus described by Beechey (page 367):
"After the bell had done tolling, several alguazils went round to the huts to see if all the Indians were at church; and if they
Fig. 6.—Coahuila Mission Indian grinding Seeds. Indian Potter, Baskets, Seed-beaters, etc.
found any loitering within them, they exercised with tolerable freedom a long lash, with a broad thong at the end of it—a discipline which appeared the more tyrannical, as the church was not sufficiently capacious for all the attendants, and several sat upon the steps without.
"The congregation was arranged on both sides of the building, separated by a wide aisle passing along the center, in which were stationed several alguazils with whips, canes, and goads to preserve silence and maintain order; and, what seemed more difficult than either, to keep the congregation in their kneeling posture. The goads were better adapted to this purpose than the whips, as they would reach a long way, and inflict a sharp puncture without making any noise. The end of the church was occupied by a guard of soldiers under arms, with fixed bayonets—a precaution which I suppose experience had taught the necessity of observing." The spectacle presented of church doors guarded by soldiers, and of attendants provided with whips' and goads to prick the unwilling or ignorant into kneeling, is certainly not a very edifying spectacle according to later ideas, and savors far too much of slavery. Indeed, the resemblance was suggested to more than one eye-witness; and Pérouse finds in the system an unhappy resemblance to the slave plantations of Santo Domingo. He says: "With pain we say it, the resemblance is so perfect that we have seen men and women in irons or in the stocks; and even the sound of the lash might have struck our ears, that punishment being also admitted, though practiced with little severity."
It is not improbable that there were occasional instances in which undue severity was exercised in punishment, but it is safe to conclude that cases of actual cruelty were not common. When such occurred, it is probable that they were the acts of the subordinate officers of the missions, who were chiefly Indians, and that they were not sanctioned by the priests. Nevertheless, the charge was more than once made by the Government authorities. Offenders were punished by fetters, the whip, and the stocks, and by imprisonment. Estudillo says that the friars treated the neophytes as their children, correcting them with words, and for serious offenses with from twelve to twenty-five lashes. Subsequently the latter number was the extreme limit fixed by authority, the implication being that occasionally at least this number had been exceeded. A deserter, says Langsdorff, was bastinadoed, and an iron rod a foot or a foot and a half long was fastened to one of his feet.
From the very first the fathers adopted the policy of compelling the neophytes to work. By this means not only were they instructed in certain useful occupations and kept out of mischief, but by the products of their labor the missions were largely inspired and a considerable revenue derived from the sale of such products to the presidios. All the agricultural and manufacturing work was performed by the Indians. Each mission had a large flock of sheep, the eleven missions in 1800 possessing eighty-six thousand. The Indians sheared the wool, and spun and wove if into blankets and coarse fabrics for clothing. They also made
Fig. 7.—Aboriginal Granaries made of Willow.
soap, and tanned the skins and hides; they were the shoemakers and saddlers, the carpenters and blacksmiths.
With respect to the number of hours the neophytes were compelled to labor, there seems to be some doubt. In reply to the commandant's charge that the neophytes were compelled to work from six to nine hours a day, with extra work on special occasions as in harvest-time, and that the tasks laid upon both women and men were too heavy, the fathers asserted that the working hours were only from four to six hours, and that tasks were light, since not more than one half the neophytes worked at any one time, being excused on one pretext or another; and that even when they did work they never worked hard. Those familiar with the Indians will be likely to accept the statements of the missionaries, since to induce the average Indian, half or wholly wild, to overwork himself in steady toil would require a much more severe regime' than there is any evidence was ever employed at the missions.
Pérouse has left us an account of a day's routine at one of the missions, and, as the methods varied but little at the several establishments, it will probably answer for all: "The Indians, as well as the missionaries, rise with the sun and go to mass, which lasts about an hour. While this is in progress the breakfast is prepared, the favorite atole or pottage, which consists of barley-flour, the grain being roasted previously to grinding. It is cooked in large kettles, and is seasoned with neither salt nor butter. Every cottage or hut sends for the allowance for all its inmates, which is carried home in one of their large baskets. Any overplus that remains is distributed among the children as a reward for good behavior, particularly for good lessons in the catechism. After breakfast, which lasts about three quarters of an hour, they proceed
Fig. 8.—Mission Indian Graveyard in Coahuila Valley, Sam Dieuo County.
to their labors, either out of doors or within. At noon the dinner is announced by a bell, and the Indians quitting their work go and receive their rations as at breakfast-time. The mess now served is somewhat of the same kind as the former, only varied by the addition of maize, peas, and beans; it is named pozzoli. After dinner they return to their work, from two to four or five; afterward they attend evening mass, which lasts nearly an hour, and the day is finished by another supply of atole, as at breakfast. In the intervals of the meals and prayers the Indians are of course variously employed according to their trade or occupation—that is to say, either in agricultural labors, according to the season, or in the store-rooms, magazines, and laboratories of the mission. The women are much occupied in spinning and other little household labors, the men in combing wool, weaving, melting tallow, etc. One of the principal occupations of the missions is the manufacturing a coarse sort of cloth from the wool of their own sheep for the purpose of clothing the Indians. The grinding the corn is left almost entirely to the women, and is still performed by a hand-mill."
It was a shrewd stroke of policy on the part of the fathers to allot the laborious work of grinding meal to the women, in whose hands it had been from time immemorial, since the men would have stooped to such labor only by dint of the strongest coercion.
Fig. 9.—Modern Mission Indian on his Travels.
With reference to the grinding of corn, Langsdorff (1806), learning that the hand-mill which Pérouse, out of the kindness of his heart, left at the San Carlos Mission (1786), with the view to lighten the heavy labor of the mealing-stones, was not in existence, and that no use had been made of it as a model to manufacture others, records the curious fact that in perpetuating the use of the stone grinding process the fathers were actuated by motives of policy. To use his own words, "As they have more men and women under their care than they could keep constantly employed the whole year, if labor were too much facilitated, they are afraid of making them idle by the introduction of mills." With the fathers the important question was, not how many converts can be well instructed, and by what method can their progress to civilization be best facilitated, but how many can be got together to be baptized and saved from the devil. Not improvement but conversion was their guiding motive.
There is no good reason to believe that the neophytes were not well fed, though the contrary was asserted by officials inimical to the mission policy. That their fare lacked variety is probable, but there was enough of it, and it was served three times a day, as Beechey tells us, adding that it consisted of "thick gruel made of wheat, Indian corn, and sometimes acorns, to which at noon is generally added meat."
That the rule at the missions was not all work and no play is evidenced by the fact that the neophytes were allowed to indulge in their own habits and customs so far, says Langsdorff, as "they are not inconsistent with their new religion. In their dances, their amusements, their sports, their ornaments, they are freely indulged." Like other Indians, they were great gamblers; and, whether by the tacit permission of the priests or not, they indulged freely in the passion, chiefly by means of games of their own invention. Drunkenness was more or less common among them.
The picture of the California neophyte under mission rule thus presented, while having its dark side, is by no means a revolting one, and at first sight it might be supposed that the Indians under such a system should be better off and happier than in their original condition. They were well fed, well clothed, if not well housed; their tasks were not heavy, a reasonable amount of amusement was allowed, and they needed to take no thought for the morrow, for everything was provided. While it must be evident at once that such a system could not but prove an absolute failure as regards the true civilization of the Indian, it does not immediately appear why he should not have been contented with his lot. If he was not contented, the fault lay with the system or the Indian, and certainly not with the personal character of the priests; for, while there were a few black sheep among them, as a body they represented a high standard of benevolence and integrity. All who visited the missions in the early days extol the fathers for the unselfish spirit with which they devoted themselves to what they believed to be the welfare of their subjects and their kind-heartedness. It is doubtful if a purer and more devoted set of men ever labored for the good of the heathen than the early missionaries of California. Having power the most absolute, in the main they wielded it with moderation if not always with discretion; and, if they placed the spiritual welfare of their children above their earthly good, it was due to the times and their calling. It may be added that the same error is too often to be discerned in missionary systems the world over. In order to Christianize, the missionary should first educate.
The best proof of the good character and kindness of the fathers is to be found in the fact that many of the neophytes cherished an unbounded affection for them, as is attested by many contemporaries. Nevertheless, from first to last of mission rule, discontent was rife among the converts, and had the mission Indian possessed but a spark of the courage which characterizes our Eastern tribes, mission sway would have been short-lived. Imagine a body of Iroquois driven to church by the whip, or forced to kneel by being punched with goads! The evidences of discontent appear in the threatened uprising at all the missions and the actual revolts at several, by the hostile attitude of all the gentile tribes who were brought into direct or indirect relation with the missions; and, above all, by the numerous yearly desertions at every establishment. The causes of trouble are not far to seek. In the first place it is evident that, call it by what name you will, the neophytes were subjected to a state of slavery—a slavery, too, which galled, however mild the type, but from which they found it exceedingly difficult to escape; for, in addition to the aid of the soldiers in hunting renegades, the priests could usually count upon the assistance of the gentile tribes to return fugitives. The wild Indians hated the neophytes, and the rule among them was—once a neophyte always a neophyte. How strongly linked was the chain which bound the neophyte appears in the provision that, even when liberty was given him after ten years' service, a portion of his earnings was still claimed by the Church. The crops the neophytes were compelled to sow were sown mainly for the profit of others, the harvests they reaped were not their own. Thus the usual incentives of toil were absent. Though professedly regarded as a child by the fathers, the Indian was virtually a slave.
The sudden breaking up of all tribal ties and the substitution of arbitrary authority for the independence of the liberty-loving Indian, together with the complete change of life, must also have been irksome and productive of unhappiness.
Possibly, however, the most potent of all causes for discontent is to be ascribed to the fearful mortality which from the very first raged among the mission folds. Its sources are somewhat obscure, although it is safe to attribute it largely to what may be termed unnatural conditions of life. It is stated, and it may be readily believed, that when visited by even trifling disorders the Indian became despondent, generally refused to be ministered to, and often died without apparent adequate cause. The Indian rarely has much faith in civilized medical methods, and when really sick almost invariably prefers the ministrations of his own shaman. Moreover, in the case of the California Indians there is reason to believe that their want of faith in the skill of the padres was well founded; for both Beechey and Langsdorff, differing from Vancouver, note the astonishing amount of sickness among the converts, and comment upon the lack of medicines and the ignorance of the fathers as medical advisers.
Acknowledgments are due to Hubert H. Bancroft, not only for a mass of hitherto unpublished facts relating to mission history, but for many statistics of baptisms, births, deaths, etc., which he has culled from mission archives. These are given by decades for every mission. From these it appears that during the mission period, from 1769 to 1834, an interval of sixty-five years, seventy-nine thousand converts were baptized and sixty-two thousand deaths were recorded. An analysis of the statistics furnished by Bancroft reveals the fact that the death-rate among the neophytes was about twice that of the negro in this country, and no less than four times as great as the death-rate of the white population.
At no time would it appear that the number of the births among the mission converts was equal to the deaths. According to Bandine, the governor states, in a report for 1800, that the number of deaths is almost double that of births; and again, in 1815, the president of the missions stated that there were three deaths to two births. It was only by perpetual drafts upon the surrounding tribes that the missions were sustained at all. The high death-rate and small birth-rate explain what has become of the California mission Indian. The former can not be attributed to ordinary diseases, even when is taken into account the despondency of the Indians when sick and the lack of proper medical treatment. The records show that epidemics of small-pox, measles, pulmonary diseases, and intermittent fever prevailed at several periods, and all observers testify to the early introduction of syphilis among the natives and to its severe ravages. With this knowledge, perhaps it is not necessary to inquire further. When are taken into consideration the unnatural herding together of large numbers of Indians under the most unsanitary conditions, practically without medicines and without proper medical attendance, the ordinary effect of disease being heightened by the dejection of the patients, and then add an epidemic or two of any of the above diseases, and the probable result may easily be foretold. The wonder is, not that the Indians died off rapidly, but that any of them survived.
How many of them actually did survive can not be told, but the number was relatively very small. The decree for the disestablishment of the missions was made by the Spanish Cortes in 1813, but it was not carried into final effect until 1834. Between 1820 and 1830 there was a gradual but marked decline in mission prosperity. In 1834 the twenty-one missions contained fifteen thousand converts; but earlier than this the constant drafts upon the native tribes had about exhausted the supply, and by 1830 no more converts were to be had within reach of most of the missions. In fact, most of the natives had been converted out of existence.
The wealth of the missions was no mean dowry for the surviving neophytes, for collectively they now contained among other property one hundred and forty thousand cattle, twelve thousand horses, and one hundred and thirty thousand sheep; which totals, though reduced from previous years, will afford some idea of the wealth resulting from convert labor and missionary overseeing. The missions had been more successful in the accumulation of property than in civilizing the Indians.
As has been stated, the original plan of colonization contemplated the Indian as a citizen in individual possession of land, each with his share of the accumulated mission property, consisting of horses, cattle, sheep, etc. The experiment of giving the Indian his freedom, so long contemplated, was now (1834) to be tried. The fathers, facing the inevitable, recommended that a partial trial be made first, as they believed that the Indian was not ready for the experiment; and, indeed, how was it possible that he should be? Had the intention from the very first been to unfit him for independent existence, no better plan could have been devised than the one actually followed. Educated he was not, except in the necessary portions of the-ritual of the Catholic Church, and in so far as a certain number spoke Spanish. Civilized he certainly was not, since his knowledge of the art of husbandry and of the manual arts was only sufficient to enable him to be a producer under task-masters. He was, in fact, master scarcely of the rudiments of civilization. In short, at the end of mission rule, the Indian was really less capable of taking care of himself than at the beginning: he was found a free man—he was left a dependent.
Could the provisions of the secularization act have been carried out gradually and honestly by capable officers and with the co-operation of the missionaries, even then it may be doubted if the intelligence and civilized attainments of the Indian would have been equal to the occasion. As it was, political considerations prevented a fair trial of the plan, and the final act in the mission drama is little else but a history of robbery and oppression, in which the Indian, as usual, was the sufferer. The vast mission herds and flocks melted away; the implements which were intended for the use of the Indian farmers were not, as a rule, forthcoming; and, of course, without domestic animals and without the means of tillage, the land was of no use. The Government, though possessing no claims whatever upon the mission property, made frequent demands upon it, and, as Bancroft states, the period from 1836 to 1842 was one of disaster in mission history. The downward path of the natives was rapid. Those who obtained property sold it and converted the proceeds into liquor and then resorted to stealing, to flight to the wild tribes, or to return to bondage under the guise of servants in the town or on the ranches. In the area between the Bay of San Francisco and Los Angeles there are to-day probably not one hundred Indians. Of the so-called mission Indians in San Bernardino and Los Angeles Counties, the last Indian report gives a population of four thousand three hundred and thirty. But very few of these are descendants of the mission Indians of Franciscan times.
Such, in brief outline, is the history of the mission Indians. They lived and died, and their few descendants now drag on a miserable existence in out-of-the-way places, so poor and barren as to be beyond the covetousness of the whites, or live dependent wards of the Government.