Apologize for This

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

The establishment of San Juan Capistrano and the other missions began the process that would transform California and bring an end to native culture. Father Serra had won from the government in Mexico City a proclamation that "the government, control and education of baptized Native Americans should belong exclusively to the missionaries." Father Serra apologists would later proclaim this a "Bill of Rights" for the Native Americans. In reality, it was the legal framework for a system of colonization and ruthless exploitation.

All Native Americans in the area surrounding a mission were urged to come to it and be converted to Christianity. Once converted, the Native Americans were bound to the mission—told where to live and work, and what to eat and wear. If an Native American misbehaved, he was whipped. If he ran away, he was hunted down and brought back and whipped. All surrounding land was held in trust by the mission. After 10 years, when the natives were at last "civilized," the land would in theory be returned to them; but that was a rare outcome. The Native Americans labored exclusively for the mission, grew its food and tended its livestock. At sunrise, they assembled for Mass and then ate a breakfast of porridge. They spent the morning laboring in the fields under the direction of padres, at noon were fed a bowl of pozole, then returned to the fields until evening. In the evenings, they went to church again.

The mission system turned the natives' world upside-down. The Spanish introduced sheep, horses, cattle and hogs, all of which ate the very same foods the Native Americans had lived on for centuries, destroyed the gardens and disrupted the game ranges. White settlers were lured by grants of land, livestock, implements and seed. Forests were cleared for firewood and construction materials. Plows turned the land, exhausting it and leaving it open to erosion. Thus the Native Americans became dependent on farming and were even more tightly bound to the missions.

The effect of this cycle of exploitation was evident even at the time. In 1786, the French scientist and navigator Jean-François de Galaup La Pérouse, circling the globe as part of a research expedition, visited California and recorded his impressions of the mission system. Of the missionaries personally, he spoke with praise, complimenting their individual character and zeal. Toward the system they operated, however, he was not so favorably inclined. The neophyte, the Native American converted to the church, was treated as both child and slave, he wrote, "The government is a veritable theocracy for the Native Americans. They believe that their superiors are in immediate and continual communication with God." He was reminded of the slave plantations of Santo Domingo: "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." La Pérouse noted that Native Americans who left the mission were hunted by soldiers; he thought "the progress of the Faith would be more rapid if they were not under constraint." He concluded: "I confess that, friend of the rights of man rather than theologian, I should have desired that to principles of Christianity there might be joined a legislation which . . . would have made citizens of men whose condition hardly differs now from that of the Negroes of our most humanely governed colonies."

This was the system that Father Serra created.

Father Serra remained tireless in overseeing that system, traveling some 11,000 miles throughout California, visiting missions, conducting mass baptisms, jealously guarding the rights of the church from secular interlopers. He even found time, when Spain joined France in the war against England over the fate of the American colonies, to order that each mission Native American be taxed one peso to support the war effort.

But his health was deteriorating rapidly. In July 1784, he made one final tour of his missions and then returned to San Carlos in the north. The presidio surgeon applied irritants to his chest, but with little effect. At Father Serra's orders, the mission carpenter began building a coffin. Father Serra spent much of his final night praying and toward dawn received absolution. Visited by some friends and officers, he asked to be helped outdoors to feel the sun one last time. It was recorded that for an instant, the shadow of some unknown fear crossed his face but was quickly gone. Returning to his cell, he lay down. A short time later, a friend came and found him dead. His body was placed in the coffin and covered with flowers. Neophytes came to touch his body with their medals and rosaries. All of his clothing was cut into fragments and passed out as relics. Only the robe on his body was reserved, but in the end, despite a constant vigil, someone made off with a part of that as well.

During the mission period, the Spanish baptized 100,000 Native Americans. There were 28,000 marriages and 74,000 burials recorded.

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