California – Junipero Serra’s Most Famous Walk

One thing that cannot fail to strike the reader of California’s history is the fact that Father Junipero Serra, the great founder and first President of the Missions, was a most extraordinary pedestrian. He followed literally the Franciscan tradition that a friar of his Order should never ride when he could possibly walk, no matter how arduous the journey.

The chronicles of the Mission days show that Father Junipero walked many times from Monterey to San Diego and back again, as he went about founding new Missions or visiting officially those that had been already founded. His performances are the more remarkable because of the chronic sore on his leg with which he was afflicted—an old wound received in Mexico and which rendered him at most times lame, besides giving him almost constant pain.

There can be no doubt that this wonderful old Franciscan covered more miles of California ground afoot than any other person who has ever lived upon that soil. In the first place, he came to California on foot from Old Mexico from which. country he arrived at San Diego, July 1, 1769. But he made a still more famous journey back to Old Mexico and return in 1772-3, when he walked a distance that aggregated at least 2400 miles. His route lay for many days over quite trackless deserts among wild beasts and savage men. His only companion was a Christian Indian of Monterey. Both were stricken with fever at Guadalajara, but recovered. It were hard to find a man to attempt the same journey today, when civilization and commerce have marked the trails and the water holes of the brown Southwest, whose trails are dim with death.

A simple yet eloquent account of this famous journey has been given us by Father Zephyrin Engelhardt, a Franciscan friar of Santa Barbara, whose monumental historical work must remain the standard authority regarding the Missions of California. Father Zephyrin’s account is in part herewith reproduced, not only for its accuracy as concerns the journey itself, but also for the information it affords as to the purposes for which the journey was undertaken and the results that were attained :

“Fr. Serra now urged Fages (the Comandante) to proceed with the establishment of Mission Buenaventura on the Santa Barbara channel, as originally planned by Don Galvez five years before. He spoke to Fages, says Palou, about an escort and other assistance necessary to start the Mission, but found the door closed and Fages giving directions whose execution threatened to bring about the loss of what had cost so much work to accomplish. To prevent such a result, the venerable Father used every means suggested by his prudence and skill; but in no way was he able to accomplish his purpose.

“Only a few months before, March 18, 1772, the viceroy had urged Fages to maintain harmony, to treat converts well, and to promote mission work in every way possible. Now, how-ever, the captain presented so many objections to the founding of San Buenaventura and similar establishments, that Fr. Serra began to suspect that orders must have eminated from higher authority prohibiting these undertakings for the future. He therefore consulted with the Fathers about the matter. It was the opinion of the four missionaries, Serra and Paterna of San Gabriel, Somera and Pena of San Diego, that Fr. Junipero, or someone selected by him, should proceed to Mexico, and represent to the viceroy the great needs of the Missions, and give correct information regarding the state of things in California. To obtain God’s assistance for the success of this journey, a solemn High Mass was offered up on the following day, October 13th, after which the three Fathers concluded that the only suitable person to transact a business of such importance was the Fr. Superior himself. Though in his sixtieth year and lame, the zealous Father agreed to make the long journey of 200 leagues by land, besides the voyage by sea, in order to secure the welfare of his Indian neophytes. During his absence Fr. Paterna acted as superior of the Missions.

“Fr. Junipero embarked on the San Carlos at San Diego on October 20th, and after a prosperous voyage arrived at San Blas, November 4th, in company with an Indian Christian from Monterey, who afterwards was confirmed by Archbishop Lorenzana. At San Blas Fr. Serra heard of the transfer of the Lower California Missions to the Dominicans. Learning that the Fr. Guardian had left Fr. Palou free to retire to Mexico or to go to Upper California, Fr. Junipero at once wrote to him from Tepic on November 10th: `If your Reverence is determined that we shall live and die in California, it will be to me a great consolation. I only say, act according to God’s will…. If the Fr. Guardian should order that only four go there, and that the others should return to the college, I have nothing to say, but I pray God may apply a remedy. Meanwhile let us obey.’

“Meanwhile Fr. Serra had proceeded on his way to the capital as far as Guadalajara, where both he and his neophyte companion fell sick with fever. They were reduced to the last extremity and received the sacraments of the dying. For him-self Fr. Junipero was resigned, but in regard to the neophyte he feared lest the death of the Indian youth might retard the conversion of the other natives, as they might imagine that the Christians had killed him. Almighty God, however, allowed both to recover and reach Mexico on February 6, 1773.

“Fr. Junipero found the new viceroy, Antonio Bucareli, no less favorably disposed toward the Missions than his predecessor, De la Croix. At the request of the viceroy he prepared a memorial on the state of the Missions in California, and presented the document to the government on the 15th of March. `In this statement,’ said he to the viceroy when presenting the papers, `you will find that I have said nothing but what is true, and what in conscience I was bound to say, and what I consider absolutely necessary to obtain that which his royal Majesty so much desires, namely, the conversion of souls who, for want of knowledge of our holy faith, remain in the slavery of the devil, but who by these means can easily be redeemed. I trust your excellency will speedily determine what is just and expedient, since I must return as soon as possible, whether or not I obtain what I ask, rejoicing if it be granted, and somewhat grieved, but resigned to the will of God if it be refused.’

“The statement consisted of thirty-two articles. The first and second point concerned the port of San Blas. Therein he strenuously urged the necessity of keeping that port open to furnish the Missions with the necessary supplies. It had been decided to close San Blas, and to send supplies by land. Fr. Serra’s arguments proved unanswerable, and his request was granted. The remaining articles were submitted by the viceroy to the `Junta de guerra y real hacienda,’ board of war and royal exchequer, of which Bucareli was a member. This body on May 6th granted eighteen of them and part of another, and denied only a part of article 32, in which Fr. Serra asked to have the expenses of his journey to Mexico refunded. Thus twenty of the original points were disposed of entirely in his favor. Four of these bore upon the past troubles between the Franciscans and the military authorities, and were intended to curtail the powers which had been assumed by the latter. Fr. Serra made specific charges against Comandante Fages, among which were these : His refusal to transfer soldiers for bad conduct at the request of the missionary ; meddling with the management of the Missions and the punishment of neophytes, as he had no right to do except for grave offences; irregular and delayed delivery of letters and property directed to the missionaries; insolence and constant efforts to annoy the Fathers who were at his mercy; opening of letters addressed to the missionaries, and neglect to inform them when mails were to start; taking away the Mission mules for the use of the soldiers; and retention of cattle intended for new Missions.

“By the decision of the Junta the comandante was ordered to remove any soldier of irregular conduct and bad example from the Mission guard to the presidio, at the missionary’s request; the missionaries were allowed to manage the Mission Indians as a father would his family, and the military commander was instructed to preserve perfect harmony with the Fathers; property and letters for them or their Missions were to be forwarded in separate packages, and their correspondence was not to be meddled with, but to pass free of charge like that of the soldiers; additional vestments and seven bells were to be furnished; two blacksmiths and two carpenters, with tools and material, were to be sent from Guadalajara for the exclusive use of the Missions, etc. Comandante Fages was subsequently relieved of his position and replaced by Rivera y Moncada. A set of new regulations provided for several points in Fr. Serra’s petition pertaining to the military and financial affairs of California.”

The journey was a great triumph for Junipero Serra and the cause which was so dear to his heart. He returned rejoiced and strengthened in heart and mind to prosecute with renewed vigor the work of the Missions. The physical endurance which he displayed in faring so far amid so many dangers, and the splendid courage of his soul in facing a task so supreme, was not without effect at the time and stands to this day as a thrilling memory in the annals of California.

In the report which was forwarded to Mexico by Father Junipero’s instructions immediately preceding his return to Monterey, Father Palou showed what the Franciscans had accomplished during the initial years of their labors in Upper California.

It appeared from this report that in the four years following the arrival of the missionaries at San Diego in 1769, five Missions had been founded. These were : San Diego de Alcala, San Carlos Borromeo, San Antonio de Padua, San Gabriel Arcangel and San Luis Obispo de Tolosa.

“Thus,” says Engelhardt, “there were, in the latter part of 1773, nineteen Franciscan Fathers engaged in missionary work among the Indians of California. Four hundred and ninety-one natives had been baptized, of whom twenty-nine had died, and sixty-two Indian couples had been united in Christian marriage.

“With regard to the Mission buildings, Father Serra reported that at every Mission a line of high, strong posts, set in the ground close together, enclosed a rectangular space, which contained simple wooden structures, serving as church and dwellings; the walls of these also generally took the stockade form. The square at San Carlos was seventy yards long and forty-three yards wide, with ravelins at the corners. . . . The soldiers’ quarters were apart from the Mission buildings and en-closed by a separate stockade, while outside of both enclosures were the huts of Indians. Adobes were used to some extent in constructing a few buildings at San Diego. At San Antonio the church and convent were built of adobe. Some of the buildings at Monterey were also constructed of adobe. . . . In agriculture only slight progress had been made so far, though by repeated failures the missionaries were gaining experience for future success.”