THE REAL EL CAMINO:
CALIFORNIA MISSIONS IN ANOTHER LIGHT
by Steve Clugston
Like expressions of the earth, the California Missions are rooted as
if ancient California redwoods, yet tell a story of Europe's first signet
mark on the West Coast of North America. Composed of indigenous mud
and Spanish straw, the adobe walls testify of the Hispanic attempts
to both colonize and convert the most diverse Native American culture
in North America.
Although Alta or Upper California was left relatively unscathed by the
Spanish until 1769, the founding of the first Franciscan Mission there,
it was not the first influence in the Californias. The Jesuits had built
a flourishing Mission and Pueblo system in Baja California during the
1600's, paralleling the initial English colonization of the East coast.
Juan Carlos III of Spain decided in 1767 to remove the Jesuits in the
south and to begin colonization of Alta California due to the perceived
threat of an encroaching Imperial Russian settlement on the Pacific
Coast coming down from Alaska. Colonel Gaspar de Portola and Fr. Junipera
Serra then were authorized to found a new Mission chain beginning with
the first Alta California Mission and Presidio on July 16, 1769 in San
The second mission site, San Carlos and the Presidio in Monterey, were
founded in 1770 after considerable effort in finding the Bay. In 1542,
both San Diego and Monterey Bays were first "discovered" by the explorer
Juan Cabrillo. Sebastian Vizcaino also landed at both natural harbors
in 1602 and wrote so euphemistically about Monterey that Portola and
his soldiers weren't sure they found it until their second visit there.
The California Missions represent to many, a religious and cultural
oppression and economic exploitation of the native population, yet they
still stand as a permanent reminder of the first European interaction
in California with the Indians. The main focus of American history at
this time is centered on the Revolutionary War with the British in the
East and the settlement of Kentucky. There was a marked difference in
the 18th century however between the Spanish approach of conquering
through conversion and that of Aglo-American removal or elimination
of native tribes.
Comprised of 21 Missions, four Presidios, Pueblos, Asistencias, and
several Rancherias, with cattle, crops, granaries, orchards and vineyards,
the Mission chain extends from San Diego in the South to Sonoma in the
North. The road which links them all is called El Camino Real, or "The
King's Highway". The last Mission, San Francisco de Solano in Sonoma,
(not to be confused with Mission San Francisco de Asis), was founded
in 1823, the only mission established during the Mexican period in California.
Intended also to be havens for travelers, the Missions were located
one day's journey apart from each other. Hispanic Hospitality was always
extended to all as food and lodging was provided to those weary from
the journey. The impacted Indians did not necessarily fare as well,
since they were the major source of cheap labor, performing their "neophyte"
Christian duties as builders, farmers, vaqueros, artists and general
laborers. The only advantage was their exposure to European ranching
and agricultural skills which may have helped them "adapt" in white
men's eyes, to the coming Assimilation.
Ironically, the Missions were officially secularized in 1834, and the
Indians who were indoctrinated by this ecclesiastical labor system were
then allowed to return to their native villages, or continue to work
as ranch workers. At least one of the Asistencias on the outposts, was
raided and even burned by the more resentful unconverted Indians during
the 1830's and 40's. This was especially true of Estancias, such as
the intended Asistencia of Mission San Gabriel in present day Redlands.
The Mission San Diego de Alcala was even attacked and destroyed as early
as 1775 by the local "Diegueno" (Yuma) Indians which also culminated
in the martyrdom of a Fr. Jayme and other Spanish colonists. It was
rebuilt in 1776, the same year the Capistrano Mission was officially
established after being initially founded in 1775 and then temporarily
abandoned due to fear of a larger Indian uprising.
Although much of the native population was impacted greatly by the Spanish
Colonial Mission system in California, they may not have been traumatized
as severely as the Anglo-American intrusion effected them. It was in
Northern California during the Gold Rush and in the1850's that the Indians
actually experienced wholesale genocide of some tribal villages, as
documented in Kroeber's book Ishi. Added to this is the fact that the
American settlers began the illegal homesteading of Indian reservation
lands. It is now that we may begin to see the Spanish Missions which
attempted to at least educate and train the California native population
in a slightly more favorable light. This does not negate the harsher
realities of the master-slave relationship between the padres and the
neophyte Indians. There is also evidence of the usual introduction of
European diseases which decimated many during this time.
In spite of these negative influences, the Missions themselves still
serve as an enduring sculpture, molded in native adobe, clay, stone,
timber and plaster. They are an epithet of a religious and architectural
culture unique in the New World. In fact, many of the chapels at the
Missions still function as churches today as an enduring witness of
their original intent.
Sources: Hoover and Rensch, Historic Spots in California,
Stanford University Press,1967. Haun, California's Missions,
Lowman, 1992. All 21 California Missions, Lowman, n.d. Miller,
Account of a Tour of the California Missions and Towns, 1856.
The Journal & Drawings of Henry Miller, Bellerophon Books, 1995.
Kroeber, Ishi, U.C. Press, 1920. Shipek, Pushed into the Rocks,
Southern California Indian Land Tenure 1769-1986, Univ. Nebraska
Press, 1987. Kroeber, Handbook of the Indians of California,
Calif. Book Co. 1967.