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   Chapter 7 THE INDIANS UNDER THE PADRES

The Old Franciscan Missions Of California By George Wharton James Characters: 11903

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


The first consideration of the padres in dealing with the Indians was the salvation of their souls. Of this no honest and honorable man can hold any question. Serra and his coadjutors believed, without equivocation or reserve, the doctrines of the Church. As one reads his diary, his thought on this matter is transparent. In one place he thus na?vely writes: "It seemed to me that they (the Indians) would fall shortly into the apostolic and evangelic net."

This accomplished, the Indians must be kept Christians, educated and civilized. Here is the crucial point. In reading criticisms upon the Mission system of dealing with the Indians, one constantly meets with such passages as the following: "The fatal defect of this whole Spanish system was that no effort was made to educate the Indians, or teach them to read, and think, and act for themselves."

To me this kind of criticism is both unjust and puerile. What is education? What is civilization?

Expert opinions as to these matters vary considerably, and it is in the very nature of men that they should vary. The Catholics had their ideas and they sought to carry them out with care and fidelity. How far they succeeded it is for the unprejudiced historians and philosophers of the future to determine. Personally, I regard the education given by the padres as eminently practical, even though I materially differ from them as to some of the things they regarded as religious essentials. Yet in honor it must be said that if I, or the Church to which I belong, or you and the Church to which you belong, reader, had been in California in those early days, your religious teaching or mine would have been entitled, justly, to as much criticism and censure as have ever been visited upon that of the padres. They did the best they knew, and, as I shall soon show, they did wonderfully well, far better than the enlightened government to which we belong has ever done. Certain essentials stood out before them. These were, to see that the Indians were baptized, taught the ritual of the Church, lived as nearly as possible according to the rules laid down for them, attended the services regularly, did their proper quota of work, were faithful husbands and wives and dutiful children. Feeling that they were indeed fathers of a race of children, the priests required obedience and work, as the father of any well-regulated American household does. And as a rule these "children," though occasionally rebellious, were willingly obedient.

Under this régime it is unquestionably true that the lot of the Indians was immeasurably improved from that of their aboriginal condition. They were kept in a state of reasonable cleanliness, were well clothed, were taught and required to do useful work, learned many new and helpful arts, and were instructed in the elemental matters of the Catholic faith. All these things were a direct advance.

It should not be overlooked, however, that the Spanish government provided skilled laborers from Spain or Mexico, and paid their hire, for the purpose of aiding the settlers in the various pueblos that were established. Master mechanics, carpenters, blacksmiths, and stone masons are mentioned in Governor Neve's Rules and Regulations, and it is possible that some of the Indians were taught by these skilled artisans. Under the guidance of the padres some of them were taught how to weave. Cotton was both grown and imported, and all the processes of converting it, and wool also, into cloth, were undertaken with skill and knowledge.

At San Juan Capistrano the swing and thud of the loom were constantly heard, there having been at one time as many as forty weavers all engaged at once in this useful occupation.

San Gabriel and San Luis Rey also had many expert weavers.

At all the Missions the girls and women, as well as the men, had their share in the general education. They had always been seed gatherers, grinders, and preparers of the food, and now they were taught the civilized methods of doing these things. Many became tailors as well as weavers; others learned to dye the made fabrics, as in the past they had dyed their basketry splints; and still others--indeed nearly all--became skilled in the delicate art of lace-making and drawn-work. They were natural adepts at fine embroidery, as soon as the use of the needle and colored threads was shown them, and some exquisite work is still preserved that they accomplished in this field. As candy-makers they soon became expert and manifested judicious taste.

To return to the men. Many of them became herders of cattle, horses and sheep, teamsters, and butchers. At San Gabriel alone a hundred cattle were slaughtered every Saturday as food for the Indians themselves. The hides of all slain animals were carefully preserved, and either tanned for home use or shipped East. Dana in Two Years Before the Mast gives interesting pictures of hide-shipping at San Juan Capistrano. A good tanner is a skilled laborer, and these Indians were not only expert makers of dressed leather, but they tanned skins and peltries with the hair or fur on. Indeed I know of many wonderful birds' skins, dressed with the feathers on, that are still in perfect preservation. As workers in leather they have never been surpassed. Many saddles, bridles, etc., were needed for Mission use, and as the ranches grew in numbers, they created a large market. It must be remembered that horseback riding was the chief method of travel in California for over a hundred years. Their carved leather work is still the wonder of the world. In the striking character of their designs, in the remarkable adaptation of the design, in its general shape and contour, to the peculiar form of the object to be decorated,--a stirrup, a saddle, a belt, etc.,--and in the digital and manual dexterity demanded by its execution, nothing is left to be desired. Equally skilful were they in taking the horn of an o

x or mountain sheep, heating it, and then shaping it into a drinking-cup, a spoon, or a ladle, and carving upon it designs that equal those found upon the pottery of the ancient world.

Shoemaking was extensively carried on, for sale on the ranches and to the trading-vessels. Tallow was tried out by the ton and run into underground brick vaults, some of which would hold in one mass several complete ship-loads. This was quarried out and then hauled to San Pedro, or the nearest port, for shipment. Sometimes it was run into great bags made of hides, that would hold from five hundred to a thousand pounds each, and then shipped.

Many of the Indians became expert carpenters, and a few even might be classed as fair cabinet-makers. There were wheelwrights and cart-makers who made the "carretas" that are now the joy of the relic-hunter. These were clumsy ox-carts, with wheels made of blocks, sawed or chopped off from the end of a large round log; a big hole was then bored, chiseled, or burned through its center, enabling it to turn on a rude wooden axle. Soap or tallow was sometimes used as a lubricant. This was the only wheeled conveyance in California as late as 1840. Other Indians did the woodwork in buildings, made fences, etc. Some were carvers, and there are not a few specimens of their work that will bear comparison with the work of far more pretentious artisans.

Many of them became' blacksmiths and learned to work well in iron. In the Coronel Collection in the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce are many specimens of the ironwork of the San Fernando neophytes. The work of this Mission was long and favorably known as that of superior artisans. The collection includes plough-points, anvils, bells, hoes, chains, locks and keys, spurs, hinges, scissors, cattle-brands, and other articles of use in the Mission communities. There are also fine specimens of hammered copper, showing their ability in this branch of the craftsman's art. As there was no coal at this time in California, these metal-workers all became charcoal-burners.

Bricks of adobe and also burned bricks and tiles were made at every Mission, I believe, and in later years tiles were made for sale for the houses of the more pretentious inhabitants of the pueblos. As lime and cement were needed, the Indians were taught how to burn the lime of the country, and the cement work then done remains to this day as solid as when it was first put down.

Many of them became expert bricklayers and stone-masons and cutters, as such work as that found at San Luis Rey, San Juan Capistrano, San Carlos, Santa Inés, and other Missions most eloquently testifies.

It is claimed that much of the distemper painting upon the church walls was done by the Indians, though surely it would be far easier to believe that the Fathers did it than they. For with their training in natural design, as shown in their exquisite baskets, and the work they accomplished in leather carving, I do not hesitate to say that mural decorations would have been far more artistic in design, more harmonious in color, and more skilfully executed if the Indians had been left to their own native ability.

A few became silversmiths, though none ever accomplished much in this line. They made better sandal-makers, shoemakers, and hatters. As horse-trainers they were speedily most efficient, the cunning of their minds finding a natural outlet in gaining supremacy over the lower animal. They braided their own riatas from rawhide, and soon surpassed their teachers in the use of them. They were fearless hunters with them, often "roping" the mountain lion and even going so far as to capture the dangerous grizzly bears with no other "weapon," and bring them down from the mountains for their bear and bull fights. As vaqueros, or cowboys, they were a distinct class. As daring riders as the world has ever seen, they instinctively knew the arts of herding cattle and sheep, and soon had that whole field of work in their keeping. "H.H.," in Ramona, has told what skilled sheep-shearers they were, and there are Indian bands to-day in Southern California whose services are eagerly sought at good wages because of their thoroughness, skill and rapidity.

Now, with this list of achievements, who shall say they were not educated? Something more than lack of education must be looked for as the reason for the degradation and disappearance of the Indian, and in the next chapter I think I can supply that missing reason.

At the end of sixty years, more than thirty thousand Indian converts lodged in the Mission buildings, under the direct and immediate guidance of the Fathers, and performed their allotted daily labors with cheerfulness and thoroughness. There were some exceptions necessarily, but in the main the domination of the missionaries was complete.

It has often been asked: "What became of all the proceeds of the work of the Mission Indians? Did the padres claim it personally? Was it sent to the mother house in Mexico?" etc. These questions naturally enter the minds of those who have read the criticisms of such writers as Wilson, Guinn, and Scanland. In regard to the missionaries, they were under a vow of poverty. As to the mother house, it is asserted on honor that up to 1838 not even as much as a curio had been sent there. After that, as is well known, there was nothing to send. The fact is, the proceeds all went into the Indian Community Fund for the benefit of the Indians, or the improvement of their Mission church, gardens, or workshops. The most careful investigations by experts have led to but one opinion, and that is that in the early days there was little or no foundation for the charge that the padres were accumulating money. During the revolution it is well known that the Missions practically supported the military for a number of years, even though the padres, their wards, and their churches all suffered in consequence.

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