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The Old Franciscan Missions Of California By George Wharton James Characters: 21112

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

The Mission padres were the first circuit riders or pastors. It is generally supposed that the circuit rider is a device of the Methodist church, but history clearly reveals that long prior to the time of the sainted Wesley, and the denomination he founded, the padres were "riding the circuit," or walking, visiting the various rancherías which had no settled pastor.

Where buildings for worship were erected at these places they were called chapels, or asistencias. Some of these chapels still remain in use and the ruins of others are to be seen. The Mission of San Gabriel had four such chapels, viz., Los Angeles, Puente, San Antonio de Santa Ana, and San Bernardino. Of the first and the last we have considerable history.


As I have elsewhere shown, it was the plan of the Spanish Crown not only to Christianize and civilize the Indians of California, but also to colonize the country. In accordance with this plan the pueblo of San José was founded on the 29th of November, 1776. The second was that of Los Angeles in 1781. Rivera was sent to secure colonists in Sonora and Sinaloa for the new pueblo, and also for the establishments it was intended to found on the channel of Santa Barbara.

In due time colonists were secured, and a more mongrel lot it would be hard to conceive: Indian, Spanish, Negro, Indian and Spanish, and Indian and Negro bloods were represented, 42 souls in all. The blood which makes the better Spanish classes in Los Angeles to-day so proud represents those who came in much later.

There was nothing accidental in the founding of any Spanish colony. Everything was planned beforehand. The colonist obeyed orders as rigidly executed as if they were military commands. According to Professor Guinn:

"The area of a pueblo, under Spanish rule, was four square leagues, or about 17,770 acres. The pueblo lands were divided into solares (house lots), suertes[5] (fields for planting), dehesas (outside pasture lands), ejidos (commons), propios (lands rented or leased), realengas (royal lands)."

[5] Suerte. This is colloquial, it really means "chance" or "haphazard." In other words, it was the piece of ground that fell to the settler by "lot."

On the arrival of the colonists in San Gabriel from Loreto on the 18th of August, 1781, Governor Neve issued instructions for founding Los Angeles on the 26th. The first requirement was to select a site for a dam, to provide water for domestic and irrigation purposes. Then to locate the plaza and the homes and fields of the colonists. Says Professor Guinn:

"The old plaza was a parallelogram too varas[6] in length by 75 in breadth. It was laid out with its corners facing the cardinal points of the compass, and with its streets running at right angles to each of its four sides, so that no street would be swept by the wind. Two streets, each 10 varas wide, opened out on the longer sides, and three on each of the shorter sides. Upon three sides of the plaza were the house lots, 20 by 40 varas each, fronting on the square. One-half the remaining side was reserved for a guard-house, a town-house, and a public granary. Around the embryo town, a few years later, was built an adobe wall--not so much, perhaps, for protection from foreign invasion as from domestic intrusion. It was easier to wall in the town than to fence the cattle and goats that pastured outside."

[6] A vara is the Spanish yard of 33 inches.

The government supplied each colonist with a pair each of oxen, mules, mares, sheep, goats, and cows, one calf, a burro, a horse, and the branding-irons which distinguished his animals from those of the other settlers. There were also certain tools furnished for the colony as a whole.

On the 14th of September of the same year the plaza was solemnly dedicated. A father from the San Gabriel Mission recited mass, a procession circled the plaza, bearing the cross, the standard of Spain, and an image of "Our Lady," after which salvos of musketry were fired and general rejoicings indulged in. Of course the plaza was blessed, and we are even told that Governor Neve made a speech.

As to when the first church was built in Los Angeles there seems to be some doubt. In 1811 authority was gained for the erection of a new chapel, but nowhere is there any account of a prior building. Doubtless some temporary structure had been used. There was no regular priest settled here, for in 1810 the citizens complained that the San Gabriel padres did not pay enough attention to their sick. In August of 1814 the corner-stone of the new chapel was laid by Padre Gil of San Gabriel, but nothing more than laying the foundation was done for four years. Then Governor Sola ordered that a higher site be chosen. The citizens subscribed five hundred cattle towards the fund, and Prefect Payeras made an appeal to the various friars which resulted in donations of seven barrels of brandy, worth $575. With these funds the work was done, José Antonio Ramirez being the architect, and his workers neophytes from San Gabriel and San Luis Rey, who were paid a real (twelve and a half cents) per day. Before 1821 the walls were raised to the window arches. The citizens, however, showed so little interest in the matter that it was not until Payeras made another appeal to his friars that they contributed enough to complete the work. Governor Sola gave a little, and the citizens a trifle. It is interesting to note what the contributions of the friars were. San Miguel offered 500 cattle, San Luis Obispo 200 cattle, Santa Barbara a barrel of brandy, San Diego two barrels of white wine, Purísima six mules and 200 cattle, San Fernando one barrel brandy, San Gabriel two barrels brandy, San Buenaventura said it would try to make up deficits or supply church furniture, etc. Thus Payeras's zeal and the willingness of the Los Angele?os to pay for wine and brandy, which they doubtless drank "to the success of the church," completed the structure, and December 8, 1822, it was formally dedicated. Auguste Wey writes:

"The oldest church in Los Angeles is known in local American parlance as 'The Plaza Church,' 'Our Lady,' 'Our Lady of Angels,' 'Church of Our Lady,' 'Church of the Angels,' 'Father Liébana's Church,' and 'The Adobe Church.' It is formally the church of Nuestra Se?ora, Reina de los Angeles--Our Lady, Queen of the Angels--from whom Los Angeles gets its name."

That is, the city gets its name from Our Lady, the Queen of the Angels, not from the church, as the pueblo was named long before the church was even suggested.

The plaza was formally moved to its present site in 1835, May 23, when the government was changed from that of a pueblo to a city.

Concerning the name of the pueblo and river Rev. Joachin Adam, vicar general of the diocese, in a paper read before the Historical Society of Southern California several years ago, said:

"The name Los Angeles is probably derived from the fact that the expedition by land, in search of the harbor of Monterey, passed through this place on the 2d of August, 1769, a day when the Franciscan missionaries celebrate the feast of Nuestra Se?ora de los Angeles--Our Lady of the Angels. This expedition left San Diego July 14, 1769, and reached here on the first of August, when they killed for the first time some berrendos, or antelope. On the second, they saw a large stream with much good land, which they called Porciúncula on account of commencing on that day the jubilee called Porciúncula, granted to St. Francis while praying in the little church of Our Lady of the Angels, near Assisi, in Italy, commonly called Della Porciúncula from a hamlet of that name near by. This was the original name of the Los Angeles River."

The last two recorded burials within the walls of the Los Angeles chapel are those of the young wife of Nathaniel M. Pryor, "buried on the left-hand side facing the altar," and of Do?a Eustaquia, mother of the Dons Andrés, Jesus, and Pio Pico, all intimately connected with the history of the later days of Mexican rule.

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It must not be forgotten that one of the early methods of reaching California was inland. Travelers came from Mexico, by way of Sonora, then crossed the Colorado River and reached San Gabriel and Monterey in the north, over practically the same route as that followed to-day by the Southern Pacific Railway, viz., crossing the river at Yuma, over the Colorado Desert, by way of the San Gorgonio Pass, and through the San Bernardino and San Gabriel valleys. It was in 1774 that Captain Juan Bautista de Anza, of the presidio of Tubac in Arizona, was detailed by the Viceroy of New Spain to open this road. He made quite an expedition of it,--240 men, women, and Indian scouts, and 1050 animals. They named the San Gorgonio Pass the Puerto de San Carlos, and the San Bernardino Valley the Valle de San José. Cucamonga they called the Arroyo de los Osos (Bear Ravine or Gulch).

As this road became frequented San Gabriel was the first stopping-place where supplies could be obtained after crossing the desert. This was soon found to be too far away, and for years it was desired that a station nearer to the desert be established, but not until 1810 was the decisive step taken. Then Padre Dumetz of San Gabriel, with a band of soldiers and Indian neophytes, set out, early in May, to find a location and establish such a station. They found a populous Indian ranchería, in a region well watered and luxuriant, and which bore a name significant of its desirability. The valley was Guachama, "the place of abundance of food and water," and the Indians had the same name. A station was established near the place now known as Bunker Hill, between Urbita Springs and Colton, and a "capilla," built, dedicated to San Bernardino, because it was on May 20, San Bernardino's feast-day, that Padre Dumetz entered the valley. The trustworthiness of the Indians will be understood when it is recalled that this chapel, station, and the large quantity of supplies were left in their charge, under the command of one of their number named Hipolito. Soon the station became known, after this Indian, as Politana.

The destruction of Politana in 1810 by savage and hostile Indians, aided by earthquakes, was a source of great distress to the padres at San Gabriel, and they longed to rebuild. But the success of the attack of the unconverted Indians had reawakened the never long dormant predatory instincts of the desert Indians, and, for several years, these made

frequent incursions into the valley, killing not only the whites, but such Indians as seemed to prefer the new faith to the old. But in 1819 the Guachamas sent a delegation to San Gabriel, requesting the padres to come again, rebuild the Mission chapel, and re-establish the supply station, and giving assurances of protection and good behavior. The padres gladly acceded to the requests made, and in 1820 solemn chants and earnest exhortations again resounded in the ears of the Guachamas in a new and larger building of adobe erected some eight miles from Politana.

There are a few ruined walls still standing of the chapel of San Bernardino at this time, and had it not been for the care recently bestowed upon them, there would soon have been no remnant of this once prosperous and useful asistencia of the Mission of San Gabriel.

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In 1803 a chapel was built at a ranchería called by the Indians Mescaltitlan, and the Spaniards San Miguel, six miles from Santa Barbara. It was of adobes, twenty-seven by sixty-six feet. In 1807 eighteen adobe dwellings were erected at the same place.

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One of the vistas of San Luis Obispo was a ranchería known as San Miguelito, and here in 1809 the governor gave his approval that a chapel should be erected. San Luis had several such vistas, and I am told that the ruins of several chapels are still in existence in that region.

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In 1816-19 the padres at San Diego urged the governor to give them permission to erect a chapel at Santa Isabel, some forty miles away, where two hundred baptized Indians were living. The governor did not approve, however, and nothing was done until after 1820. By 1822 the chapel was reported built, with several houses, a granary, and a graveyard. The population had increased to 450, and these materially aided San Diego in keeping the mountainous tribes, who were hostile, in check.

A recent article in a Southern California magazine thus describes the ruins of the Mission of Santa Isabel:

"Levelled by time, and washed by winter rains, the adobe walls of the church have sunk into indistinguishable heaps of earth which vaguely define the outlines of the ancient edifice. The bells remain, hung no longer in a belfry, but on a rude framework of logs. A tall cross, made of two saplings nailed in shape, marks the consecrated spot. Beyond it rise the walls of the brush building, enramada, woven of green wattled boughs, which does duty for a church on Sundays and on the rare occasions of a visit from the priest, who makes a yearly pilgrimage to these outlying portions of his diocese. On Sundays, the Captain of the tribe acts as lay reader and recites the services. Then and on Saturday nights the bells are rung. An Indian boy has the office of bell-ringer, and crossing the ropes attached to the clappers, he skilfully makes a solemn chime."

The graveyard at Santa Isabel is neglected and forlorn, and yet bears many evidences of the loving thoughtfulness of the loved ones who remain behind.


Eleven miles or so from Santa Isabel, up a steep road, is the Indian village of Mesa Grande. The ranchería (as the old Spaniards would call it) occupies a narrow valley and sweep of barren hillside. On a level space at the foot of the mountain the little church is built. Santo Domingo is the patron saint.

A recent visitor thus describes it:

"The church was built like that of Santa Isabel, of green boughs, and the chancel was decorated with muslin draperies and ornaments of paper and ribbon, in whose preparation a faithful Indian woman had spent the greater part of five days. The altar was furnished with drawn-work cloths, and in a niche above it was a plaster image of Santo Domingo, one hand holding a book, the other outstretched in benediction. Upon the outstretched hand a rosary had been hung with appropriate effect. Some mystic letters appeared in the muslin that draped the ceiling, which, being interpreted, proved to be the initials of the solitary member of the altar guild, and of such of her family as she was pleased to commemorate."

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One of the ranches of San Luis Obispo was that of Santa Margarita on the north side of the Sierra Santa Lucia. As far as I know there is no record of the date when the chapel was built, yet it was a most interesting and important structure.

In May, 1904, its identity was completely destroyed, its interior walls being dynamited and removed and the whole structure roofed over to be used as a barn.

It originally consisted of a chapel about 40 feet long and 30 feet wide, and eight rooms. The chapel was at the southwest end. The whole building was 120 feet long and 20 feet wide. The walls were about three feet thick, and built of large pieces of rough sandstone and red bricks, all cemented strongly together with a white cement that is still hard and tenacious. It is possible there was no fachada to the chapel at the southwest end, for a well-built elliptical arched doorway, on the southeast side, most probably was the main entrance.

It has long been believed that this was not the only Mission building at Santa Margarita. Near by are three old adobe houses, all recently renovated out of all resemblance to their original condition, and all roofed with red Mission tiles. These were built in the early days. The oldest Mexican inhabitants of the present-day Santa Margarita remember them as a part of the Mission building.

Here, then, is explanation enough for the assumption of a large Indian population on this ranch, which led the neighboring padres to establish a chapel for their Christianization and civilization. Undoubtedly in its aboriginal days there was a large Indian population, for there were all the essentials in abundance. Game of every kind--deer, antelope, rabbits, squirrels, bear, ducks, geese, doves, and quail--yet abound; also roots of every edible kind, and more acorns than in any other equal area in the State. There is a never failing flow of mountain water and innumerable springs, as well as a climate at once warm and yet bracing, for here on the northern slopes of the Santa Lucia, frost is not uncommon.


I have elsewhere referred to the water supply of Santa Isabel as being used for irrigation connected with San Miguel Mission. There is every evidence that a large ranchería existed at Santa Isabel, and that for many years it was one of the valued rancheros of the Mission. Below the Hot Springs the remains of a large dam still exist, which we now know was built by the padres for irrigation purposes. A large tract of land below was watered by it, and we have a number of reports of the annual yield of grain, showing great fertility and productivity. Near the present ranch house at Santa Isabel are large adobe ruins, evidently used as a house for the majordomo and for the padre on his regular visitations to the ranchería. One of the larger rooms was doubtless a chapel where mass was said for the neophytes who cultivated the soil in this region.


The chapel at Pala is perhaps the best known of all the asistencias on account of its picturesque campanile. It was built by the indefatigable Padre Peyri, in 1816, and is about twenty miles from San Luis Rey, to which it belonged. Within a year or two, by means of a resident padre, over a thousand converts were gathered, reciting their prayers and tilling the soil. A few buildings, beside the chapel, were erected, and the community, far removed from all political strife, must have been happy and contented in its mountain-valley home. The chapel is a long, narrow adobe structure, 144 by 27 feet, roofed with red tiles. The walls within were decorated in the primitive and singular fashion found at others of the Missions, and upon the altar were several statues which the Indians valued highly.

Pala is made peculiarly interesting as the present home of the evicted Palatingwa (Hot Springs) Indians of Warner's Ranch. Here these wretchedly treated "wards of the nation" are now struggling with the problem of life, with the fact ever before them, when they think, (as they often do, for several of them called my attention to the fact) that the former Indian population of Pala has totally disappeared. At the time of the secularization of San Luis Rey, Pala suffered with the rest; and when the Americans finally took possession it was abandoned to the tender mercies of the straying, seeking, searching, devouring homesteader. In due time it was "home-steaded" The chapel and graveyard were ultimately deeded back; and when the Landmarks Club took hold it was agreed that the ruins "revert to their proper ownership, the church."




Though all the original Indians were ousted long ago from their lands at Pala, those who lived anywhere within a dozen or a score miles still took great interest in the old buildings, the decorations of the church, and the statues of the saints. Whenever a priest came and held services a goodly congregation assembled, for a number of Mexicans, as well as Indians, live in the neighborhood.

That they loved the dear old asistencia was manifested by Americans, Mexicans, and Indians alike, for when the Landmarks Club visited it in December, 1901, and asked for assistance to put it in order, help was immediately volunteered to the extent of $217, if the work were paid for at the rate of $1.75 per day.

With a desire to promote the good feeling aimed at in recent dealings with the evicted Indians of Warner's Ranch, now located at Pala, the bishop of the diocese sent them a priest. He, however, was of an alien race, and unfamiliar with either the history of the chapel, its memories, or the feelings of the Indians; and to their intense indignation, they found that without consulting them, or his own superiors, he had destroyed nearly all the interior decorations by covering them with a coating of whitewash.

The building now is in fairly good condition and the Indians have a pastor who holds regular services for them. In the main they express themselves as highly contented with their present condition, and on a visit paid them in April, 1913, I found them happy and prosperous.

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