Apologize for This

Mission founder Junipero Serra brought death and destruction to Californias natives. Now hes one step away from sainthood

It was a rich and complex society, on the verge of agriculture.

California's native peoples were isolated by ocean, mountains and deserts, but they certainly would have known about the Spanish. From the south, along the ancient trade routes from Mexico, word would have come of the fall of the Aztec empire to advancing white men. Spanish ships had periodically cruised the coast and would have been seen by the Native Americans. Crew members from these ships would have landed to replenish water supplies and would have come face to face with Native Americans along the coast; word of these encounters almost certainly filtered into the interior. What the Native Americans thought of the white men is impossible to know, but they certainly wouldn't have viewed the newcomers as gods. Their skin was white, they rode on animals, they made use of complicated machines, they brought new diseases, and their attitudes about the Earth were entirely strange, but they were clearly men—men to be viewed with a combination of anxiety and great curiosity.

So the seasons revolved, generation after generation, rumors and stories about these white men increasing and creeping into the Native Americans' lore, and it finally became, in our reckoning, the year 1769. There is some scholarship that suggests California was just then emerging from a strong El Niño pattern, which would have temporarily disrupted the local food supply. This is important to remember because Spanish apologists would later try to justify the disastrous effects of the mission system on the native way of life by arguing that the Spanish arrived in Southern California to find an Native American population just barely alive.

Through the spring and early summer of 1769, the various components of the Spanish exploring expedition had been moving toward what is now San Diego. Ships had transported all manner of supplies, even chamber pots, to stock the planned settlements and missions. Characteristically, Father Serra had chosen to accompany the land part of the expedition, which spent a month and a half on the brutal trail across the Baja deserts. Father Serra walked, of course, at one point his foot and leg becoming so inflamed with ulcers that the expedition's commander, Gaspar de Portolá, wanted to send him back. Father Serra refused and had one of the muleteers treat him with an ointment of herbs and tallow. On July 1, 1769, all parts of the expedition were united at San Diego. Buildings and fortifications of brush and mud were built, and on July 16, Father Serra blessed Mission San Diego de Alcalá, the first permanent white settlement in Alta California.

While Father Serra remained behind, Portolá led an exploring party north. His band became the first white men to enter what is now Orange County. It was the high California summer, the streambeds dry and dusty, the hillsides burned brown. Seven days out of San Diego, the party—several officers, 34 soldiers, seven muleteers, two servants, two priests, 15 Christianized Baja natives, and 100 mules loaded with salt pork and grain—struggled north across the flats that are now the northern reaches of Camp Pendleton. They had passed large areas of grassland that they concluded had been burned by natives to facilitate the hunting of small game, but so far the only Native Americans they had seen had been at a distance.

About midday on July 22, following signs left by their scout, Sergeant Jose Francisco Ortega, the party crested a low hill and then descended to a dry riverbed curving off to the northwest. Following this riverbed, which climbed gently toward low hills a mile away, they entered a thicket of alders and oaks. Here, at a small spring, they found Ortega—and a village of about 50 Native Americans. Two little girls of the village were ill and were brought forward by the Native Americans, probably in the hope that these white men, so strangely dressed and carrying machines that emitted fire and transporting their goods on the backs of animals, might have powers that could cure them.

The priests baptized the two children, naming them Maria Magdalena and Margarita. After the baptism, Portolá and his party moved on.

You can visit this place of first contact today. Take the Cristianitos exit off I-5 and follow Cristianitos Road northeast toward Camp Pendleton. At the camp gate, a Marine will direct you about a mile farther on. You will come to a small gravel parking lot on a little bluff overlooking the canyon. In the distance to the southwest gleams the Pacific. Steps lead down the side of the canyon, but tread warily, for the trail is in poor repair and overgrown with brush. At the bottom, near a grove of oaks, you will come to a little spring. Beside it is a marker: "Near this spring the first Christian baptism in Alta California was performed by Padre Francisco Gomez."

The leaves of the oaks rattle sadly in the breeze. Water drips through moss and grass. The noise of the modern world is distant.

There is no record of what happened to the two little girls.

Portolá's expedition continued north but, as it turned out, totally missed Monterey Bay—the whole point of the journey —and discovered San Francisco Bay instead. Father Serra himself later had to set out for Monterey and reached it by sea. At any rate, under Father Serra's direction, the hand of the white man worked busily across Alta California. Father Serra made his headquarters at Carmel and tirelessly traveled his new domain—a string of missions established rapidly up and down the country. From their pulpits, his voice often rang out in a kind of rapture: "Come, you pagans! Come to the Holy Church! Come, come to receive the faith of Jesus Christ!" In October 1775, the usual party of priests, soldiers, muleteers and Native American laborers arrived in what is now southern Orange County and began work on a mission to be named for a Franciscan saint who had distinguished himself at the siege of Belgrade in 1456: San Juan Capistrano. Their work was interrupted by an Native American revolt in San Diego but resumed the next year with the building of a church, living quarters and various sheds. On Nov. 1, 1776, Father Serra officially founded the mission.

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