The Lesser-Told Story Of The California Missions

Each day, countless residents pass by San Francisco’s oldest building, Mission Dolores. Its modest white adobe chapel— dedicated 225 years ago this August— rests in the shadow of its sister basilica on 16th and Dolores streets. Every year, 300,000 visitors tour its historic church and cemetery (one of two remaining graveyards in San Francisco). The city of San Francisco emerged from that site, where Franciscan missionary Francisco Palao, under the direction of Father Junípero Serra, established a mission in 1776.

The story from there depends on whom you ask.

Last September, Pope Francis canonized Junípero Serra, the first saint canonized in the United States. During the mass in Washington D.C., the Pope said of the friar, “He learned how to bring to birth and nurture God’s life in the faces of everyone he met; he made them his brothers and sisters. Junípero sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it.”

Old Mission Dolores next to the newer basilica. Photo: ECV-OnTheRoad/Flickr

But according to journalist and author Elias Castillo, this couldn't be further from the truth. Castillo calls Serra “a madman” who, blinded by his single-minded goal of saving souls, oversaw the enslavement and deaths of thousands of California Indians. (The California Indians we spoke to for the story preferred that term over "Native American.") In “A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California’s Indians by the Spanish Missions,” published last year, Castillo draws on seven years of research to present a scathing history of the mission period between 1769 and 1833 and the subsequent Mexican and American rule.

Castillo, a three-time Pulitzer prize-nominated journalist and former reporter for the San Jose Mercury News and Associated Press, discussed his book with indigenous author Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz at a January talk entitled “The Destructive Legacy of Junípero Serra and the Mission System,” held at Hayes Valley’s Green Arcade Books. We spoke with him about what he uncovered, and went in search of what others in San Francisco had to say.

In 2004, an op-ed Castillo wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle caught the attention of the U.S. Congress. The article criticized a Senate bill to help fund the missions' restorations for language depicting them as places of harmony between Spanish and Indians. Castillo wrote:

What the bill utterly omits is that locked within the missions is a terrible truth — that they were little more than concentration camps where California's Indians were beaten, whipped, maimed, burned, tortured and virtually exterminated by the friars.

Then-Nevada Congressman Jim Gibbons read Castillo’s words into the Congressional record, and before the bill passed, all language praising the Missions was stripped away. “That’s when I decided, OK, this is big enough,” Castillo says. “So I wrote a book.”

Castillo spent seven years gathering research, paging through volumes of Serra’s writings, combing university libraries, and searching the historical archives at Mission Santa Barbara and in his home country of Mexico.

Statue of Junípero Serra in Golden Gate Park

A Brutal Tale

In his book, Castillo details the two-plus centuries of Spanish colonization leading up to the mission period, when conquistadores destroyed native people and cultures in what is now Mexico and the Caribbean. As much of Europe moved toward the 18th century Enlightenment, Castillo describes a Spanish empire in the midst of the Catholic-led Inquisition, hampered by a doctrine of fatalism, a rigid caste system, illiteracy, and trade and manufacturing restrictions. 

In 1767, Spain’s New World empire was facing a threat from Russian fur traders making their way south from Alaska. King Carlos III devised a plan to establish presidios, pueblos, and missions up and down the Alta (Upper) California coast to guard their land. He ordered the California Indians educated and Christianized, thereby transforming them into Spanish subjects and reinforcing Spain’s claim to the land. (Franciscan missionaries would later ignore the education mandate, Castillo writes.) Lacking the financial and military resources necessary for such an undertaking, however, the governors turned to the church for help.

Helming the expedition would be Franciscan padre presidente, Junípero Serra, a keenly intelligent theologian and devout Catholic. Alongside Spanish soldiers and a few pioneers, the Franciscans embarked on an arduous trek up the California coast. Between 1769 and 1823 they established 21 missions throughout California, nine of them before Serra's death.

Serra was single-minded in his goal, says Castillo. “His attitude was that he was there to save souls for God, and it didn’t matter what type of life [the Indians] had in the missions. If they died soon, then that’s more souls to heaven. That’s what was in his mind. To keep the Indians free from sin.”

Towards this end, Castillo describes long buildings, called “conventos,” where the missionaries locked all Indian girls over age ten to keep them separate from males. The buildings often contained one or two buckets for hundreds of girls. Conditions were ripe for disease, and epidemics spread constantly.

Some of the first Indians to visit the missions were impressionable teenagers, Castillo says, curious about the Spaniard’s steel weapons and the friars’ promises of an easier life. “Then they found out at bayonet point they were not allowed to leave.” Mothers followed their children, and men followed their wives. The disruption to the labor system caused by the loss of manpower eventually gave many Indians no choice but to go and join the missions.

Replica of an Ohlone Indian ruway, or small house, at Mission Dolores

Once there, according to the book, Indians were housed in overcrowded, filthy conditions and forced to labor without pay on the missions’ considerable ranches and farms. Castillo writes that Indians who previously enjoyed a varied diet of fish, small mammals, acorns, and plants experienced severe malnourishment under the friars, who knew little about agriculture and animal husbandry. As evidence, he pointed to bones found at mission Indian burial sites, comparing them with their pre-Hispanic counterparts. “The [pre-Hispanic Indian bones] were fine and robust, but those who died in the missions were considerably stunted and far smaller,” Castillo says.

The mass deaths posed logistical problems for the friars, he wrote, who were losing the workforce needed to maintain the mission’s vast farms and ranches. They went out searching in greater distances for new Indians to replace those who were dying.

Some Indians, angered by the harsh treatment and longing for their villages, tried to escape. The book documents several such efforts, including a successful 1795 escape by 200 Indians from Mission Dolores, fleeing Friar Antonio Danti, who repeatedly beat them. The book goes on to detail several organized Indian rebellions.

Punishments for trying to escape were harsh, Castillo writes. Some Indians were bound in shackles. Many were whipped. A trading ship captain described one incident at Mission San Francisco, cited by the book, where the friars used a hot iron to burn crosses into the foreheads of a group of escapees.

In a 1775 letter published in the book, Serra wrote to his military commander about a group of captured runaways, “I am sending them to you so that a period of exile, and two or three whippings which Your Lordship may order applied to them on different days, may serve, for them and for the rest, for a warning, may be of spiritual benefit to all; and this last is the prime motive of our work. If Your Lordship does not have shackles, with your permission they may be sent from here.”

“The Franciscans are always saying Serra never whipped the Indians,” Castillo says. “Well here’s an actual letter he wrote that was published by the Franciscans in a book called The Writings of Junípero Serra.”

Rather than mourn Indian deaths, Castillo says Serra celebrated them, as they meant more souls in heaven. He pointed to one of Serra’s letters to his superior, published in the book. Serra writes, “In the midst of all our little troubles, the spiritual side of the missions is developing most happily. In [Mission] San Antonio, there are simultaneously two harvests, at one time, one for wheat, and of a plague among the children, who are dying.”

“He relishes the fact that children are dying,” Castillo says. “You have to ask the question, was this guy nuts? He was certainly a fanatic, and I think he was twisted. I think his mind was very twisted.”

After Mexico declared independence from Spain in 1821, the Franciscans left, and the Indians were freed from the missions a little over a decade later. However, according to the book, their mistreatment and killing continued, and by many accounts, worsened under Mexican and American rule.

Largely uneducated, inexperienced living in secular society, and with their villages dissolved, some Indians resorted to stealing cattle for food, and were hunted by Mexican ranchers, who considered them vermin. In 1851, California Governor Peter H. Burnett signed an executive order to exterminate all Indians in the state. Estimates published in the book place the pre-Spanish coastal California Indian population between 133,000 and 300,000. By 1890, it had fallen to under 17,000.

Junípero Serra in the National Statuary Hall, Washington D.C. Statues of Serra and Ronald Reagan represent California. Photo: iwishmynamewasmarsha/Flickr

Fourth Grade History Class

Each year, Mission Dolores gives tours to 30,000 schoolchildren, most of them fourth graders studying the mission system. Indigenous writers, and Castillo, have criticized the state curriculum, claiming it glosses over the Indians' brutal treatment. Deborah Miranda, an Ohlone author, has likened the fourth grade mission diorama assignment to asking "fourth graders to study the Holocaust by carefully designing detailed concentration camps."

While the textbook used by students in the San Francisco Unified School District, Reflections: California – A Changing State (2007), acknowledges the use of forced Indian labor, the language does not approach Castillo's description of the missions as "little more than concentration camps." About Indians joining the missions, the textbook says:

"Indians provided the workers that the missions needed.  Some Indians came to the missions on their own. Others were forced to the missions by soldiers. Indians were taught new skills including farming. They were not allowed to practice their traditional beliefs. Those who did could be punished, although many did so anyway."

And about Serra: 

“Today, Serra is known as the Father of the California Missions.  Serra started the first California mission at San Diego in 1769.  He started a total of 9 missions, which helped the new California colony grow. For many California Indians, the missions also led to the end of their traditional ways of life.”

The state curriculum, most recently updated in November, acknowledges the lack of California Indian voices:

The historical record of this era remains incomplete due to the limited documentation of Native testimony, but it is clear that while missionaries brought agriculture, the Spanish language and culture, and Christianity to the native population, American Indians suffered in many California missions."

Evidence suggests the state has begun to hear concerns. The curriculum goes on to say, "Building missions from sugar cubes or popsicle sticks does not help students understand the period and is offensive to many." Heidi Anderson, spokeswoman for the San Francisco Unified School District, said that teachers in the city "have not been directed to, nor has there been a suggestion that they have students build dioramas of the missions."

The message may be slow to take hold, however. A Google search for California mission dioramas turns up results as recent as this month.

Perspectives From Inside Mission Dolores

Andrew Galvan, Mission Dolores's curator, regularly leads tours of the old mission and the stately basilica next door. Galvan is an academic, a Franciscan, a Serra supporter— he sat on the Junípero Serra Cause for Canonization board— and an Ohlone Indian. He credits his "blood degree" for landing him his job. In 1794, Galvan's great great great great grandfather was forced from his East Bay village and baptized at Mission Dolores. On a recent Saturday afternoon we joined about twenty tourists, locals, and a couple of fourth graders on a tour to hear Galvan's version of history.

Galvan's ancestors, the only marked Ohlone graves in the mission's cemetery

"I was hired to tell the truth," Galvan told the group. To illustrate this, he recalled a comment he made to a Chronicle reporter in 2004, shortly after becoming curator. Patting the mission walls, he remarked, "Pretty good for slave labor." When Father Bill, his superior at the time, called the next morning with news of complaints from church donors, Galvan thought he was fired. He recalled Father Bill's response. "We don't need donors who tell us not to tell the truth."

It's a mantra Galvan repeats. And factually, his tour does not contradict Castillo's findings, though he stops short of wholesale condemnations. "I know my ancestors didn't come here freely," he said. "It's obvious the Spanish needed workers." He later acknowledged, "The padres didn't come to baptize the Indians. They came to change them."

While echoing many of Castillo's assertions, Galvan also interjected defenses of the Franciscans. Describing how most infants died by 18 months after being fed milk by the friars, he said, "Most California Indians are lactose intolerant. In defense of the friars, do you think they knew this 250 years ago?" He went on to contrast these unintentional deaths with premeditated plans by other European colonizers to kill Indians via smallpox-infected blankets. "They wanted a workforce," he said. "You're not going to kill your labor."

"The mission system was 65 years," Galvan later told us. "Then we have Mexico, then we have us. The greatest disaster for California Indians is the United States of America," he said.

Vincent Medina Jr. is assistant curator at the mission, and Galvan's younger cousin. In his view, he and Galvan are in unique positions to "directly interpret our own history" from inside the mission. Aside from a few state-run missions— namely Mission La Purisma, Mission Sonoma, and parts of Mission Santa Cruz— he said most church-run missions he's visited do a poor job of representing Indian history.

"Most of the missions don't have any contemporary voices from the Indian community, so they just focus on the past" he said. "If Indian culture is talked about at all, it's usually in the past tense, or a very, very minimizing way, or both."

Medina called giving a voice to his ancestors, "who must have come very close to having their voices taken away in these places," an issue of social justice. "When fourth graders [on the tours] see a living. breathing Ohlone person, that reinforces that our community is still vibrant, even today in 2016. So I always feel if people walk away knowing the Ohlone community still exists today, then for me it's a success. Because we get to shatter misconceptions that we're an extinct people."

Getting more Indians in the door aligns with Galvan's goals. Towards this end, Mission Dolores offers native language classes, and they've considered other cultural education classes like basket weaving and beading. Mission tours, which cost $5 for adults, are offered free for people with native ancestry. "How do we get more native people to be involved at the missions that their ancestors were at?" Galvan asked. "That’s the crucial thing."

He acknowledged it will involve taking action to address peoples' anger.

"[The Church] can't go up and down the state and just say 'We're sorry.' And then nothing changes. They have to say 'We're sorry, and this is how we're going to change.' "

In September, the California Catholic Conference of bishops announced an 18 month project to revise the cultural content at missions and third and fourth grade curriculums in Catholic schools. Galvan is assisting the effort. "This is precious to me because from 1965 to 1970 my father worked to correct textbooks" under a now defunct publisher called the American Indian Historical Press, he said. 

Acknowledging the mission's brutal history while continuing to support Serra's canonization is a needle Galvan threads nimbly. He quotes Cardinal Richelieu, the 17th century French bishop. "'Give me six lines written by the most honorable of men, and I will find an excuse in them to hang him.' So yes, you can look at the writing of Junípero Serra, and if you were Cardinal Richelieu you would find reasons."

He continued, "We don't dispute [the evidence in Castillo's book.] But we qualify it. There's no smoking gun. There's no evidence of Junípero Serra ever beating an Indian. This business of 'at bayonet point;' that's the soldiers, not the Franciscans."

Old Mission Dolores chapel. The ceiling is the original Ohlone design.

Rejecting Church History

Not all California Indians agree. After finishing his research, Castillo met with Valentin Lopez, Chairman of the Amah Mutsun tribal band, whose ancestors occupied the south San Francisco and north Monterey Bay areas before the Spanish arrived. Lopez has written four letters opposing Serra’s canonization, and after hearing about Castillo’s findings, agreed to pen the Foreword to A Cross of Thorns. He's often been cited opposite Galvan in articles about Serra's potential canonization.

“As soon as [Castillo and I] started talking, I realized that a lot of what he was saying was very important, of great interest to us, and something that has been long overdue,” Lopez told us.

For him, the legacy of the mission period is one he and his fellow California Indians continue to reel from today. “It’s the issue of historical trauma,” he said. Among the problems still facing the Indian population, he named low self-esteem and high rates of poverty, incarceration, substance abuse, and suicide.

“You have five, six, seven generations where the Native Americans grew up in slavery,” he explained. “They grew up in brutality, losing their culture, their identity, their self respect and self esteem, losing their knowledge of sacred ceremonies that allowed them to keep balance in their lives, losing the ability to pass on traditional songs and stories. That just tore the Indians down for all those generations, and so our people today are still recovering.”

As part of their process, in 2013 they established the Amah Mutsun Land Trust, an effort to reclaim their traditional Native American stewardship. “We know unequivocally that our ancestors had an obligation to take care of Mother Earth, and that’s what we had been doing for thousands of years,” Lopez said. “When the Spanish, Mexicans, and Americans came, we were unable to fulfill our obligation to our creator. But the creator never rescinded that obligation.”

Lopez said he's contacted Governor Brown and the state legislature about revising school curriculum, but has "gotten no interest." He rejects recent efforts by Catholic and state schools to update their teachings. "They may think those are good enough, but they’re revising the history without the input of California tribes, so their history is always going to be suspect."

The Amah Mutsuns are taking the matter into their own hands. Along with other tribal members, researchers, and specialists, Lopez is helping form the California Indian Historical Society. As a long-term project, they plan to develop a curriculum to offer to schools. “A big part of what we’re going to do is tell the truth about the history in California,” he said.

Despite verbal mea culpas, Lopez thinks the Catholic urch still has a long way to go toward making amends. Responding to the pope’s apology to indigenous people in Bolivia last year, Lopez said, “How are they going to atone and have reparations for the sins and the suffering they caused? That’s what needs to happen. They don’t need to bring tourists in from around the world and say what a loving, beautiful place this is.”

“All 21 missions are places of suffering, of death, and of domination,” he said. “Domination is the main thing that happened at the missions, and it’s a shame that the state tries to build pride, honor, and respect. They should be places like Auschwitz where they have memorials to the atrocities that happened.”

“Our ancestors were human beings, and that’s never talked about,” Lopez said. On at least that point, he, Medina, and Galvan seem to agree. “I think the most important thing anyone can do is recognize our ancestors for their humanity.”

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The lesser told story of the california missions