California Missions – Indians Under The Padres

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 Serra’s diary, his thought on this matter is trans-parent. In one place he thus naively 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?

All civilization is comparative; all happiness relative. The highest civilization, and, therefore, the most laudable object of ambition to one, is a burden and weariness of the flesh to another. And no thinker will deny that it is an exceedingly difficult matter for the objects of one kind of civilization to look with any but superior, haughty, and critical eyes upon the objects of every other civilization. It is only since the Congress of Religions in Chicago that the Western world has learned to look with rational eyes, and a little more tolerance, upon the civilization, thought, and religious life of the Orient. Hence, in dealing with this question of the condition of the Indians under the padres, we are met with widely differing opinions and standards. Without discussing the religious question — for all experience demonstrates that no reasoning or argument will remove sectarian prejudices — let us consider the matter of the education of the Indians. What is education? The teaching of the ” threer’s ” and of various ologies? God forbid! There are more foolish things done to-day in the enlightened and civilized United States of America under the name of ” education ” than the Catholic missionaries in all the centuries have ever done. My definition of education is a common-sense one, according to my view of life. To educate is to educere — draw out — the recognition of what one should do and be in order to make the best of his life. Religious education, among other things, should give the inspiration of the will, the resolution to do what one sees is best.

According to these definitions and the light and experience they possessed, the padres went to work. They surveyed the ground to be covered, and made as good a study of the Indian as conditions permitted. Then they began at the bottom. They first taught the Indian how to live ; how to wear clothes ; how to deserve eating and clothing by working ; and better still, how to raise and manufacture what they needed. Certainly this was good, viewed from any standpoint, and, anyhow, we have not improved upon it, for it is just what our government with all its boasted advancement is now doing for them. But along with this the padres taught (what was really their prime business), in accordance with their own belief, the most necessary lessons of all, namely (and here I quote one of them), ” the knowledge of whence they came, whither they were finally going, and what was most essential to attain that end fixed by the Creator Himself.” On this portion of their work the padres knew, as we know, the futility of expecting to find unanimity of opinion amongst people who have ten thousand different shades of theological and untheological belief. Now, to quote from a modern Franciscan missionary’s recent letter to me: ” The fathers soon discovered that so much was all the Indians could grasp, and all for which they could be led to take an interest, just like unreasoning children who live but for the present day. This was true education, which gave the word its proper meaning. It was the only education the Indians were capable of comprehending, and the only kind the same Indians are capable of grasping even now, as Uncle Sam has discovered at last. Book learning, except the rudimentary, is not for the Indians (the major portion of them) even at this date; and the United States government is going back to the methods of the old Catholic missionaries in their essential points. The fact is, this kind of education is the most suitable for the generality of the white people. It would make them contented and happy, whereas now they are being ` educated’ to an unfitness for performing the ordinary duties of a simple life.

” Nevertheless, the padres, despite the drawbacks of having no suitable teachers, no suitable books, no suitable material, such as are plentiful now, taught any of the Indian boys, that showed any inclination, how to read and write and figure, and many other useful things.”

I believe this to be, from all the study I have given the subject, a true statement of the facts. Hence 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 near 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 regime 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, as I show elsewhere, 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.

Many women also became tailors and dressmakers. At San Gabriel, under the administration of Padres Zalvidea and Sanchez, there were four thousand Indians, all of whom were clothed by the work of Indian women. Eulalia Perez de Guillen, the first owner of the Rancho San Pasqual (the site of the modern Pasadena), taught the spinning, weaving, and tailoring. She herself cut out all the dresses and clothes, and then had general oversight of the work.

It is interesting to look back and note that perhaps the very first manual training attempted in California was given by convicts. Governor Fages proposed to the authorities that artisans imprisoned in Mexico and Guadalajara should have their sentences changed to exile to California on condition that they worked at the presidios, and on the expiration of their terms remained in the country as settlers. There is record of three such men being sent in 1791, and in that same year are references to a convict blacksmith teaching his trade to the Indians in San Francisco.

In the last decade of the century a decided and successful effort was made to promote manufactures. Skilled artisans were sent from Mexico under government pay to teach various trades to the neophytes. Between 1792 and 1795 about twenty of these ” manual-training ” teachers — themselves skilled artisans, came to California. Here, then, was the beginning of technical schools in California. The artisans were distributed among the presidios and Missions, and some of them travelled to and fro as occasion required. In 1793–4 several San Carlos Indians received expert instruction in stone-cutting, bricklaying, etc. After 1795 the padres no longer had the services of the artisans free. They had to pay the military officers for all work done, and if they retained the services of the artisans for teaching the Indians they were required to pay their salaries. On the other hand, if they saw fit to send the Indians to the presidios they were educated there free of charge. But as this removed them from the moral control of the padres it was avoided as much as possible. By 1800 this plan of education had produced many good workmen, and the padres felt that they were now far better able to get along than they had been hitherto. Looms were set up at many of the Missions, and the wool sheared from the Mission sheep turned into blankets and fabrics for their own clothing. In fact, after 1797 no more blankets were brought from Mexico. A little cotton was brought up from San Blas, and this the Indians wove into cloth.

There is no definite record as to when grapes, oranges, and other fruits were brought into California, but it is possible they were all brought up by way of the peninsula in the earliest of the expeditions (between 1769 and 1773), as nearly all the varieties were in flourishing condition before Padre Serra’s death in 1786. Wine was manufactured in several of the southern Missions before 1785.

In 1795 a special attempt was made at San Jose to introduce the cultivation of flax and hemp. After over-coming the first difficulties, samples were later sent to Mexico which gave satisfaction, and in 1800 it was deemed promising enough to send Joaquin Sanchez to superintend the industry in California.

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 arts of lacemaking 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 experts and manifested judicious taste.

To return to the men. Many of them became cattle, horse, and sheep herders, teamsters, and butchers. At San Gabriel alone a hundred cattle were slaughtered every Saturday as food for the Indians. 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 it left nothing to be desired. Equally skilful were they in taking the horn of an ox 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.

A large amount of meat was cut into strips and jerked, or sun-dried, either with or without salt, — for home use, to sell, and to trade. The Indians taught this art to the padres, and it is common among the Mexicans to this day. A writer of November, 1818, says he remembers his mother travelling in a carreta ” which had two hides for a floor and two more for a roof, where, after supping on half-roasted strips of dried meat without salt, she gathered around her the whole family.”

Up to 1814 all the meal used in California was ground by the women by their old-fashioned methods of metate and meal-stone, but in that year Padre Zalvidea built the first water-power grist-mill in the State. The next was erected in 1839 in San’ Francisco. At San Gabriel the Indians became the millers, making a coarse, unbolted meal of wheat, corn, or barley. Then it was carried to the storerooms where the women put it through a simple process of sifting.

Soap was also made on a large scale, the ashes from the brick and tile works, the bake-ovens, and tallow-furnaces, being used to leach lye for the soap. At San Antonio, old, rusty, and discarded, is an old soap-kettle that was once capable of holding many gallons.

A large number of old-fashioned tallow-dip candles were made for home use, and for sale to the ranches and vessels. An amount of lumbering was carried on that, for those days, was large. The Indians cut down the trees, trimmed them, and brought the logs to where they were required.

They then hewed or split them with axes, or sawed them by hand. Santa Anita Canyon, near Pasadena, is still, by the old people, called Saw-pit Canyon, for in the early days a saw-pit was established there ; and Hugo Reid tells us that every old Indian who was accused of witchcraft was made a sawyer. These unfortunates were chained in couples and compelled to work, two on the saw above and two below. In 1810 or 1812, however, a water-power saw-mill was set in operation by Padre Zalvidea at San Gabriel, and soon the Indians did all the work there. Lumber was sawed for buildings, fences, carts, wine-vats, cooperage, candle and soap boxes, etc.

Many of them became expert carpenters, and a few even might be classed as fair cabinet-makers, as the chapter on woodwork will show. 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, and then a big hole bored, chiselled, or burned through its centre, 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 burnt 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 Ines, 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 the 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 and bring them down from the mountains for their bear and bull fights with no other ” weapon.” As vaqueros, or cow-boys, 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 today 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, performing their allotted daily labors with cheerfulness and thoroughness. There were some exceptions necessarily, but in the main the domination of the missionaries was complete. In the years 1803–1807 G. H. von Langsdorff, Aulic Councillor to the Emperor of Russia, journeyed around the world with Captain Krusenstern, the first Russian circumnavigator. He visited the San Francisco and Santa Clara Missions in March, 1806, and says : ” The monks conduct themselves in general with so much prudence, kindness, and paternal care toward their converts, that peace, happiness, and obedience universally prevail among them. . . . There are seldom more than from three to five soldiers, at a time, at any Mission, but this small number always has been found sufficient to keep the Indians under proper restraint.”

Occasionally the priests went out in search of converts ; over their breasts and shoulders then they wore a short leathern mantle made of deer-skin. This was to protect them against the arrows of hostile Indians, for ” by a royal command, the ecclesiastics must not carry about them any other weapons than the Bible and the Cross.”

Of the girls and widows, the same traveller says:

“They live in separate houses, and are kept at work under lock and key; they are only sometimes permitted by their superiors to go out during the day, but never at night. As soon, however, as a girl is married, she is free, and lives with her husband in one of the villages of the Indians, called rancherias, which belong to the Mission. By such institutions, the ecclesiastics hope to bind their converts more closely to the establishment and to spread their religion more securely and extensively. . . . The number of converted Indians at this Mission is about twelve hundred.”

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 but to 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.