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The Old Franciscan Missions Of California By George Wharton James Characters: 16363

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

It was not the policy or intention of the Government of Spain to found Missions in the New World solely for the benefit of the natives. Philanthropic motives doubtless influenced the rulers to a certain degree; but to civilize barbarous peoples and convert them to the Catholic faith meant not only the rescue of savages from future perdition, but the enlargement of the borders of the Church, the preparation for future colonization, and, consequently, the extension of Spanish power and territory.

At the very inception of the Missions this was the complex end in view; but the padres who were commissioned to initiate these enterprises were, almost without exception, consecrated to one work only,--the salvation of souls.

In the course of time this inevitably led to differences of opinion between the missionaries and the secular authorities in regard to the wisest methods of procedure. In spite of the arguments of the padres, these conflicts resulted in the secularization of some of the Missions prior to the founding of those in California; but the condition of the Indians on the Pacific Coast led the padres to believe that secularization was a result possible only in a remote future. They fully understood that the Missions were not intended to become permanent institutions, yet faced the problem of converting a savage race into christianized self-supporting civilians loyal to the Spanish Crown,--a problem which presented perplexities and difficulties neither understood nor appreciated at the time by the government authorities in Spain or Mexico, nor by the mass of critics of the padres in our own day.

Whatever may have been the mental capacity, ability, and moral status of the Indians from one point of view, it is certain that the padres regarded them as ignorant, vile, incapable, and totally lost without the restraining and educating influences of the Church. As year after year opened up the complexities of the situation, the padres became more and more convinced that it would require an indefinite period of time to develop these untamed children into law-abiding citizens, according to the standard of the white aggressors upon their territory.

On the other hand, aside from envy, jealousy, and greed, there were reasons why some of the men in authority honestly believed a change in the Mission system of administration would be advantageous to the natives, the Church, and the State.

There is a good as well as an evil side to the great subject of "secularization." In England the word used is "disestablishment." In the United States, to-day, for our own government, the general sentiment of most of its inhabitants is in favor of what is meant by "secularization," though of course in many particulars the cases are quite different. In other words, it means the freedom of the Church from the control or help of the State. In such an important matter there is bound to be great diversity of opinion. Naturally, the church that is "disestablished" will be a most bitter opponent of the plan, as was the Church in Ireland, in Scotland, and in Wales. In England the "dissenters"--as all the members of the nonconformist churches are entitled--are practically unanimous for the disestablishment of the State or Episcopal Church, while the Episcopalians believe that such an act would "provoke the wrath of God upon the country wicked enough to perpetrate it." The same conflict--in a slightly different field--is that being waged in the United States to-day against giving aid to any church in its work of educating either white children or Indians in its own sectarian institutions. All the leading churches of the country have, I believe, at some time or other in their history, been willing to receive, and actually have received, government aid in the caring for and education of Indians. To-day it is a generally accepted policy that no such help shall be given. But the question at issue is: Was the secularization of the Missions by Mexico a wise, just, and humane measure at the time of its adoption? Let the following history tell.

From the founding of the San Diego Mission in 1769, until about sixty years later, the padres were practically in undisturbed possession, administering affairs in accordance with the instructions issued by the viceroys and the mother house of Mexico.

In 1787 Inspector Sola claimed that the Indians were then ready for secularization; and if there be any honor connected with the plan eventually followed, it practically belongs to him. For, though none of his recommendations were accepted, he suggested the overthrow of the old methods for others which were somewhat of the same character as those carried out many years later.

In 1793 Viceroy Gigedo referred to the secularization of certain Missions which had taken place in Mexico, and expressed his dissatisfaction with the results. Three years later, Governor Borica, writing on the same subject, expressed his opinion with force and emphasis, as to the length of time it would take to prepare the California Indians for citizenship. He said: "Those of New California, at the rate they are advancing, will not reach the goal in ten centuries; the reason God knows, and men know something about it."

In 1813 came the first direct attack upon the Mission system from the Cortes in Spain. Prior to this time a bishop had been appointed to have charge over church affairs in California, but there were too few parish churches, and he had too few clergy to send to such a far-away field to think of disturbing the present system for the Indians. But on September 13, 1813, the Cortes passed a decree that all the Missions in America that had been founded ten years should at once be given up to the bishop "without excuse or pretext whatever, in accordance with the laws." The Mission Fathers in charge might be appointed as temporary curates, but, of course, under the control of the bishop instead of the Mission president as hitherto. This decree, for some reason, was not officially published or known in California for seven or eight years; but when, on January 20, 1821, Viceroy Venadito did publish the royal confirmation of the decree, the guardian of the college in Mexico ordered the president of the California Missions to comply at once with its requirements. He was to surrender all property, but to exact a full inventoried receipt, and he was to notify the bishop that the missionaries were ready to surrender their charges to their successors. In accordance with this order, President Payeras notified Governor Sola of his readiness to give up the Missions, and rejoiced in the opportunity it afforded his co-workers to engage in new spiritual conquests among the heathen. But this was a false alarm. The bishop responded that the decree had not been enforced elsewhere, and as for him the California padres might remain at their posts. Governor Sola said he had received no official news of so important a change, but that when he did he "would act with the circumspection and prudence which so delicate a subject demands."

With Iturbide's imperial regency came a new trouble to California, largely provoked by thoughts of the great wealth of the Missions. The imperial decree creating the regency was not announced until the end of 1821, and practically all California acquiesced in it. But in the meantime Agustin Fernandez de San Vicente had been sent as a special commissioner to "learn the feelings of the Californians, to foment a spirit of independence, to obtain an oath of allegiance, to raise the new national flag," and in general to superintend the change of government. He arrived in Monterey September 26, but found nothing to alarm him, as nobody seemed to care much which way things went. Then followed the "election" of a new governor, and the wire-pullers announced that Luis Argüello was the "choice of the convention."

In 1825 the Mexican republic may be said to have become fairly well established. Iturbide was out of the way, and the politicians were beginning to rule. A new "political chief" was now sent to California in the person of José Maria Echeandía, who arrived in San Dieg

o late in October, 1825. While he and his superiors in Mexico were desirous of bringing about secularization, the difficulties in the way seemed insurmountable. The Missions were practically the backbone of the country; without them all would crumble to pieces, and the most fanatical opponent of the system could not fail to see that without the padres it would immediately fall. As Clinch well puts it: "The converts raised seven eighths of the farm produce;--the Missions had gathered two hundred thousand bushels in a single harvest. All manufacturing in the province--weaving, tanning, leather-work, flour-mills, soap-making--was carried on exclusively by the pupils of the Franciscans. It was more than doubtful whether they could be got to work under any other management, and a sudden cessation of labor might ruin the whole territory."

Something must be done, so, after consultation with some of the more advanced of the padres, the governor issued a proclamation July 25, 1826, announcing to the Indians that those who desired to leave the Missions might do so, provided they had been Christians from childhood, or for fifteen years, were married, or at least not minors, and had some means of gaining a livelihood. The Indians must apply to the commandant at the presidio, who, after obtaining from the padre a report, was to issue a written permit entitling the neophyte and his family to go where they chose, their names being erased from the Mission register. The result of this might readily be foreseen. Few could take advantage of it, and those that did soon came in contact with vultures of the "superior race," who proceeded to devour them and their substance.

Between July 29 and August 3, 1830, Echeandía had the California diputacion discuss his fuller plans, which they finally approved. These provided for the gradual transformation of the Missions into pueblos, beginning with those nearest the presidios and pueblos, of which one or two were to be secularized within a year, and the rest as rapidly as experience proved practicable. Each neophyte was to have a share in the Mission lands and other property. The padres might remain as curates, or establish a new line of Missions among the hitherto unreached Indians as they should choose. Though this plan was passed, it was not intended that it should be carried out until approved by the general government of Mexico.

All this seems singular to us now, reading three quarters of a century later, for, March 8, 1830, Manuel Victoria was appointed political chief in Echeandía's stead; but as he did not reach San Diego until November or December, and in the meantime a new element had been introduced into the secularization question in the person of José María Padrés, Echeandía resolved upon a bold stroke. He delayed meeting Victoria, lured him up to Santa Barbara, and kept him there under various pretexts until he had had time to prepare and issue a decree. This was dated January 6, 1831. It was a political trick, "wholly illegal, uncalled for, and unwise." He decreed immediate secularization of all the Missions, and the turning into towns of Carmel and San Gabriel. The ayuntamiento of Monterey, in accordance with the decree, chose a commissioner for each of the seven Missions of the district. These were Juan B. Alvarado for San Luis Obispo, José Castro for San Miguel, Antonio Castro for San Antonio, Tiburcio Castro for Soledad, Juan Higuera for San Juan Bautista, Sebastian Rodriguez for Santa Cruz, and Manuel Crespo for San Carlos. Castro and Alvarado were sent to San Miguel and San Luis Obispo respectively, where they read the decree and made speeches to the Indians; at San Miguel, Alvarado made a spread-eagle speech from a cart and used all his eloquence to persuade the Indians to adopt the plan of freemen. "Henceforth their trials were to be over. No tyrannical priest could compel them to work. They were to be citizens in a free and glorious republic, with none to molest or make them afraid." Then he called for those who wished to enjoy these blessings of freedom to come to the right, while those who were content to remain under the hideous bondage of the Missions could go to the left. Imagine his surprise and the chill his oratory received when all but a small handful quickly went to the left, and those who at first went to the right speedily joined the majority. At San Luis and San Antonio the Indians also preferred "slavery."

By this time Victoria began to see that he was being played with, so he hurried to Monterey and demanded the immediate surrender of the office to which he was entitled. One of his first acts was to nullify Echeandía's decree, and to write to Mexico and explain fully that it was undoubtedly owing to the influence of Padrés, whom he well knew. But before the end of the year Echeandía and his friends rose in rebellion, deposed, and exiled Victoria. Owing to the struggles then going on in Mexico, which culminated in Santa Anna's dictatorship, the revolt of Echeandía was overlooked and Figueroa appointed governor in his stead.

For a time Figueroa held back the tide of secularization, while Carlos Carrillo, the Californian delegate to the Mexican Congress, was doing all he could to keep the Missions and the Pious Fund intact. Figueroa then issued a series of provisional regulations on gradual emancipation, hoping to be relieved from further responsibility by the Mexican government.

This only came in the passage of an Act, August 17, 1833, decreeing full secularization. The Act also provided for the colonization of both the Californias, the expenses of this latter move to be borne by the proceeds gained from the distribution of the Mission property. A shrewd politician named Hijars was to be made governor of Upper California for the purpose of carrying this law into effect.

But now Figueroa seemed to regret his first action. Perhaps it was jealousy that Hijars should have been appointed to his stead. He bitterly opposed Hijars, refused to give up the governorship, and after considerable "pulling and hauling," issued secularization orders of his own, greatly at variance with those promulgated by the Mexican Cortes, and proceeded to set them in operation.

Ten Missions were fully secularized in 1834, and six others in the following year. And now came the general scramble for Mission property. Each succeeding governor, freed from too close supervision by the general government in Mexico, which was passing through trials and tribulations of its own, helped himself to as much as he could get. Alvarado, from 1836 to 1842, plundered on every hand, and Pio Pico was not much better. When he became governor, there were few funds with which to carry on the affairs of the country, and he prevailed upon the assembly to pass a decree authorizing the renting or the sale of the Mission property, reserving only the church, a curate's house, and a building for a court-house. From the proceeds the expenses of conducting the services of the church were to be provided, but there was no disposition made as to what should be done to secure the funds for that purpose. Under this decree the final acts of spoliation were consummated.

The padres took the matter in accordance with their individual temperaments. Some were hopefully cheerful, and did the best they could for their Indian charges; others were sulky and sullen, and retired to the chambers allotted to them, coming forth only when necessary duty called; still others were belligerent, and fought everything and everybody, and, it must be confessed, generally with just cause.

As for the Indians, the effect was exactly as all thoughtful men had foreseen. Those who received property seldom made good use of it, and soon lost it. Cattle were neglected, tools unused, for there were none to compel their care or use. Consequently it was easy to convert them into money, which was soon gambled or drunk away. Rapidly they sank from worse to worse, until now only a few scattered settlements remain of the once vast number, thirty thousand or more, that were reasonably happy and prosperous under the rule of the padres.

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