California Missions – Secularization Of The Missions

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, today, 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 today 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. There were several endeavors by the secular authorities to interfere with them, and this book could be filled with the records of Serra’s troubles with Fages and Neve, and those of his successors. These troubles largely sprang from jealousy; and this did not decrease when the military authorities saw the wonderful successes of the padres, not only in controlling the neophytes, but in accumulating property and making it valuable. On the other hand, the padres felt they were the stewards of this property for the Indians, and were determined to guard it to the utmost of their ability. What if they did enlarge their churches, workshops, fields, pastures, gardens, flocks, herds, crops, output from workshops? — were not all these things for the Indians? The better the church could be equipped, the better could the services for the Indians be conducted. The larger the fields, the more for the Indians when the time came to divide these up amongst them. In the meantime, as they had directed the accumulation of the wealth, they had fought the battles against ignorance, sloth, and barbarism; had taught the Indians how to work and live ; what more natural than that they should feel that none could conduct the establishments — even their temporalities — as well as themselves? And I for one am not ready yet to believe that when any person has built up a large institution it is just to deprive him of its control on the ground that it is too large for him to handle. The creator of an enterprise that has taken many years to develop prima facie is the best person to control it. This was the secret of the trouble between Neve and Serra. The former wished to introduce into the government of the new Missions to be established during his incumbency the plan of pueblo-Missions (which I shall fully describe in the companion volume to this), which had resulted so disastrously on the Colorado River. Serra objected, urging that ” well enough be left alone,” especially seeing the results at Yuma.

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 ex-pressed his dissatisfaction with the results. Three years later, Governor Borica, writing on the same subject, ex-pressed 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 faraway 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 coworkers 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 Arguello 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 Jose Maria Echeandia, who arrived in San Diego 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 commandante 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, Echeandia 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 in 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 Echeandia’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 Jose Maria Padres, Echeandia 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, Jose Castro for San Miguel, Antonio Castro for San Antonio, Tiburcio Castro for Sole-dad, 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 Echeandia’s decree, and to write to Mexico and explain fully that it was undoubtedly owing to the influence of Padres, whom he well knew. But before the end of the year Echeandia 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 Echeandia was overlooked and Figueroa appointed governor in his stead.

Prior to this, however, Padre Duran had written (August, 1831) to the fathers, asking them for their opinion of a plan of virtual secularization, which gave freedom from Mission supervision to the Indians, division of property so that it would provide for the services of the Church, the support of the padres, and help found new Missions. Only three replies are extant. These are interesting. Bancroft thus summarizes these letters :

” Padre Juan Cabot writes from San Miguel August 24th, that while he would be glad to be freed from his cares, he can see no way of distributing the estates without producing ruin. The Indians of his mission would have to be scattered at long distances in order to get a living, and he could not be responsible for their spiritual care. Padre Jose Sanchez deemed the execution of the project probably inevitable, but sure to result, as it was intended to, in total destruction to the missions. Taking into consideration what had happened in Baja California, and Sonora, he could see no possibility of good results here. ‘ So far as it concerns me personally,’ he writes, ‘ would that it might be tomorrow, that I might retire between the four walls of a cell to weep over the time I have wasted in behalf of these miserables.’ Padre Jose Joachin Jimenez of Santa Cruz wrote in October that in view of the reasons urged by the government, and of the fact that the burden was becoming insupportable to the friars, it would be wisest to free the Indians and distribute the property on the basis proposed; but also that the Indians should be obliged to keep their share and to work.”

One matter of importance must not be forgotten. In 1833 ten padres from the college of Zacatecas were sent to California. It must be remembered that all the padres of the old regime were Spaniards. Mexico had revolted from Spain, and there were not a few who constantly agitated their fears that the Spanish padres of California would not fail to intrigue for the restoration of Spanish control. Orders of banishment were issued against them, but the governors found it practically impossible to enforce them. The padres were growing old, and new blood was required ; so, as the Zacatecans were all Mexicans, their college was required to send priests to supply the vacant places. They were given control of all the seven Missions north, including San Carlos. Their superior, who had the title of Commissary, was Francisco Garcia Diego, and he went to reside at Santa Clara.

In the meantime the Californian delegate to the Mexican Congress, Carlos Carrillo, was making strenuous efforts to keep the Missions and the Pious Fund intact. His zeal delayed any immediate action on the Missions, but a decree was passed May 25, 1832, empowering the executive to rent out the properties owned by the Pious Fund for the period of seven years, the proceeds to be paid into the national treasury. There can be no doubt whatever but that this fund excited the cupidity of the Mexican politicians. These moneys and the prosperous condition of the California Missions were the chief causes of their downfall.

With Figueroa the battle grew fiercer. So much time and attention did he give to it that he finally published a ” Manifesto ” to the Mexican people, explaining in extenso his action. This, better than anything else, shows how the vultures at that time were flying towards the declining Missions. The successive blows had been subversive of discipline, of everything worth preserving, and the end was not far off.

At first the new governor was inclined to follow Echeandia’s plans (who, by the way, was still in California, posing as a preserver of peace and respecter of authority), but he soon saw that too rapid secularization would demoralize everything. He reported to Mexico that the Indians were but as children with a natural predilection for the customs of their ancestors, and for a savage life without work. During their ” reduction ” they had learned, perforce, only to cultivate the soil imperfectly, to practice some rude industries, and to manage horses. If freed at once from their present state of mild servitude, they would soon from proprietors become beggars, after having bartered away their possessions for liquors and gewgaws. They would then return to the wilderness and join the wild Indians in stealing cattle and horses, in order to sell them to the New Mexicans and foreigners. Nevertheless he issued a series of provisional regulations on gradual emancipation, awaiting instructions from the general government.

It was at this time that Don Jose Maria de Hijar appeared in company with the exiled Padres upon the scene, Figueroa’s ill health had led him to resign. Doubtless knowing of this through his official ” pulls ” in Mexico, Padres had intrigued with such success that the Cortes passed, August 17, 1833, the law of secularization by which the final crash was brought about. 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. Hijar was to be made governor of Upper California for the purpose of carrying this law into effect.

But in the meantime Figueroa’s health having been re-stored, he was continued in office, so that, when Hijar and Padres appeared on the scene with a number of colonists, he met the former’s instructions to take the political chieftainship, with later instructions from the supreme government requiring of him ” that you must not deliver up the said command, and that you must continue in discharge of the government.”

Here, indeed, was a pretty kettle of fish. It cannot be denied that it was awkward for all concerned. Hijar and Padres had started out on an elaborate expedition, the initial cost financed by the government, and a law passed providing for the later expenses. They had come a long distance, and had brought the colonists into a foreign land, these latter necessarily relying upon the good faith of the supreme government and assured of the integrity of their leaders, and then, suddenly, they find their high hopes blasted by a complete reversal of the government’s plans. Their position was critical and embarrassing. Regardless of who or what they were, we cannot fail to sympathize with them in their situation. Yet, equally so, can we realize the position of Figueroa and honor him for his determined stand, not to allow the Missions to be spoliated, and the Indians robbed because of the bungling, or worse, of the politicians in the colonization scheme. The ” Manifesto ” is Figueroa’s statement of what transpired between himself and Hijar in the hot and sore controversy that ensued. Had he manfully stood by his first position he would have been regarded as a sincere defender of the Missions ; but after a long period of quarrelling with Hijar and Padres, he exiled them on the ground of their complicity in a revolution which sought his overthrow, and then published the ” Manifesto ” to the Californian and Mexican peoples to explain his action.

There is strong reason, however, to doubt Figueroa’s sincerity. Just as Echeandla had forestalled the government’s action, so did he. Even though he had deemed his own plans of secularization superior to those of Mexico, he was sworn to carry out the laws. If he could not conscientiously do this he should have resigned. To his own high-handed breaking of the law much subsequent lawlessness must be attributed.

As to what was actually accomplished under his orders, the records give uncertain knowledge. It is known that ten of the Missions were fully secularized. Bancroft summarizes all the information he found about the year 1834 somewhat as follows : ” There is nothing in relation to San Diego. At San Luis Rey, Captain Portilla was commissioner in November, and the accounts turned over by Padre Fortuni showed assets of $46,613 and liabilities of $14,429. In December the Indians refused to work, and ran away, taking most of the horses and killing many cattle ; but in January they began to come back and behave better. There is no record for San Juan Capistrano, except that Juan Jose Rocha, probably the commissioner, acknowledges on November 22 receipt of resolution to secularize the Mission. At San Gabriel an inventory was made in November, 1834, and Lieutenant-colonel Gutierrez was doubtless the commissioner, being in charge early next year. Lieutenant Antonio del Valle was the commissioner at San Fernando, and was engaged in October in making inventories. At Santa Barbara Alf. Anastasio Carillo was commissioner from September, with Jose Maria Garcia as majordomo from October. Domingo Carillo was commissioner of Purisima in November. There are no records for San Luis, San Miguel, San Antonio, San Carlos, San Juan, or Soledad. Santa Cruz, which was now known as Pueblo de Figueroa, was delivered to Alf. Ignacio del Valle as commissioner on August 24; and Juan Gonzalez was majordomo from October. There is no record of secularization this year at Santa Clara or San Jose. At San Francisco de Asis Joaquin Estudillo took charge as commissioner in September. At San Rafael an inventory was taken in September, the pueblo was marked out in October by Ignacio Martinez, who was probably the commissioner, and stock was distributed in December. San Francisco Solano was perhaps not fully secularized until next year.”

In 1835 it is noted that six additional Missions were secularized, — San Diego, San Luis Obispo, San Antonio, Soledad, San Juan Bautista, and San Francisco Solano. So far as the records show, nothing had yet been done to definitely change the status of San Buenaventura, Santa Ines, San Miguel, Santa Clara, and San Jose. In 1836-37, however, these were secularized, the first two owing to a quarrel the padres had with the new governor, Chico, and the others by order of the assembly.

Figueroa was now dead, but the plan he had illegally set in motion was at work. The old padres, who, as it will be remembered, were now south of San Carlos, generally accepted the situation in good faith. They had fought a good and long fight, had lost, and, as gentlemen and christians, were accepting the result. It is said the new padres from Zacatecas were not so complaisant ; but there are so many wild rumors and exaggerated statements as the natural outcome of the strained political conditions of the time that it is almost impossible to get at the truth.

There have been hundreds of pages written about the wild slaughtering of cattle by the padres in order that they might turn into money everything under their control. That the officials of the province believed that something of this kind was going on is evident by the two decrees they passed upon the subject, and Bancroft thinks there was some foundation for the general belief, though much exaggerated. As to the further charge that the padres wantonly injured the Mission buildings, I cannot believe there is the slightest foundation of truth in it. They may have neglected the gardens and orchards, as who would not, not knowing at what moment they might be sent away, and the Indians feeling, as the slaves did in the South during the Civil War, all the unsettling influences of the time, and, therefore, making the task of controlling them especially hard.

It is possible that if things could have gone on for a decade as Figueroa had planned, all would have ended much more happily than it did. But fresh and worse disasters were ahead.

To attempt to recount them all is impossible. Mexico being in such a whirl of revolution, California was equally afflicted, and there came governor after governor, ” each worse than the other,” as a Hibernian might express it. Rival political factions outdid each other in their spoliation policies towards the Missions. Under any circumstances, — even of the very best, — the secularization plan would have required great wisdom to carry it out. As it was, it seems as if no combination of circumstances could have been worse. All writers are unanimous in saying that Governor Alvarado’s rule from 1836 to 1842 was one of plunder and ruin in Mission history. Bancroft says ” the methods of spoliation were substantially as follows : The governor and subordinate officials by his authority used the cattle and grain of the Missions as freely as they used the revenues from other sources. If the government contracted a debt to a trader, the governor gave in payment an order on any Mission for wheat, tallow, or hides, just as he would draw a check on the treasury. The major-domo, being an employe of the government, obeyed the order as a rule whenever the articles called for existed at his Mission.”

Governor Alvarado also ” loaned” Mission cattle to private individuals, on the condition that the same number of cattle be returned later. In nine cases out of ten the loans were never repaid.

Of the methods too generally followed by the administrators of the order of secularization, too strong words of censure cannot be spoken. They were selfishly cruel, wantonly wicked, and diabolically inhuman. There was no pretence to any care for the rights or interests of the Indians. The Mission establishments were merely objects of legalized pillage, or, at least, if the pillage were not legalized, it was overlooked and tacitly condoned. As business men they were incompetent and stupid, deliberately allowing valuable properties to drift to ruin without the slightest attempt to save them. ” Others were vicious as well as incompetent, always ready to sell any article of Mission property, not only live-stock, but kitchen utensils, farm implements, tools from the shops, and tiles from the roofs, for money with which to gratify their propensity for gambling. Still others were dishonest and able, devoting their energies to laying the foundation of future wealth for themselves and friends, oppressing the Indians,’ quarrelling with such padres, officials, and assistants as they could not control or deceive, and disposing of the Mission wealth without scruple for their own interests. Finally, there were, I suppose, some honest, faithful, and tolerably efficient managers, who did as well as was possible under difficult circumstances.”

When Pio Pico 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 courthouse. 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, as will be seen from a study of the chapter devoted to each Mission.

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, elsewhere I have shown the effect of the change upon them. It 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 to their care or use. Consequently it was easy to convert them into money, which was soon gambled or drank away. Rapidly they sank from worse to worse, until now only a few scattered settlements remain of the once vast number, 80,000 or more, that were reasonably happy and prosperous under the rule of the padres.

A laudable effort is now being made to save some of the things scattered at the time of secularization. One collection has been bought by the Southern California Archological Society, and it is eventually to be placed on permanent exhibition in Los Angeles. It is thus described :

” There is in Los Angeles, an invaluable collection of oil paintings, mostly very old, which formerly hung in the Francis-can Missions of Southern California ; and a collection of books which were once in the libraries of those Missions. At the time of the secularization these articles were pillaged, even as the tiles were stolen to roof sheds and pig-pens. About twenty years ago, a man with the right feeling — a poor man, it hardly needs be said — began gathering up these scattered articles, buying them at his own proper cost from the families into whose hands they had fallen.”

When it was known that the United States had designs on California the last scramble came. Lands, churches, everything was sold at whatever price it would fetch; in some cases given away by the last honorable governor. Properties were sold for as many tens as they were worth thousands.

When, finally, the United States gained possession, and a land court adjudicated the questions of title, all the Mission buildings were returned to the custody of the Church, and some of the lands. But their glory was de-parted; their sun was set; and we look upon them now as we look on their ruined temples of Assyria, the Nile, and India, — memorials of a time and conditions that are past.