America, A Nation Blessed by God? Part Seven

Statue of Father Junipero Serra
Statue of Father Junipero Serra | Source

Struggle For the West

Three hundred thousand Indians lived in California. Many California nations had evolved into highly structured societies. The Chumash lived on the coast near Santa Barbara. They were basket and canoe makers. They also made the flat-shelled beads that were the currency of the region. The Chumash were at the center of the California economy. In the late 18th century this would all be changed forever.

In 1769 Spanish missionaries, led by Father Junipero Serra arrived in what is now present-day San Diego with the purpose of presenting the gospel to the natives.

While there was nothing wrong with the priests presenting the gospel to the Indians if they were willing to listen, the methods used were not sound and they set out to convert them to Christianity by whatever means necessary.

One Kamia Indian by the name of Janitin has described being chased down by two men on horseback and being taken to the San Miguel mission. There he was lashed regularly for not finishing chores. On one occasion he managed to escape but was lassoed and brought back to the mission, being tortured on the way back.

There are other accounts of conversions to Catholicism that didn’t paint such a grim picture but they appear to be the exception rather than the rule.

Once a family was taken in to the mission, the family was separated and the children taken from their parents. Children of age six were locked up in barracks. They would work and be taught religion all day long. Indians were put to work tanning, blacksmithing and caring for the mission herds. They also made shoes, saddles and soap. Labor was strictly enforced under the discipline of the lash.

For over fifty years the mission system, backed by Spanish arms, exerted control over the California coast. Inside the mission disease and harsh living conditions contributed to a genocidal death rate. Adults would only live about twelve years, children six years, and so there was a constant need for laborers. Contrary to popular belief, the padres didn’t build the missions, the laborers did.

At the Santa Barbara mission alone over four thousand names fill the burial registry, their bodies in large pits near the church.

In 1821 control of California transferred to Mexico after it gained its independence from Spain. The Mexican government secularized the mission and the Indians were free to leave. But fifty years had transformed their world. Old villages were gone, replaced by large Mexican estates. The mission lands they had worked on became parts of large ranches. Being homeless, the Indians were forced to become peasant workers on the ranches. Many ranches had 20-60 servants.

As bad as those conditions were, they were only to get worse. In 1848, after the Mexican-American War, California passed to American hands. Gold was discovered in the north, bringing a rush of miners to the interior nations that had been out of the reach of missionaries and ranchers. Miners came into Indian communities looking for women. Vigilante parties opened fire on men, women and children, wiping out entire villages. It was open season on Indian people, derisively referred to as diggers. The Humboldt Times carried more typical headlines: “Good Haul of Diggers, 39 Bucks Killed, 40 Squaws &Children Taken, Band Exterminated.”

In the 1850s, while the nation was on the verge of civil war over the issue of slavery, demand for agricultural labor in California was so high that the State legislature passed an act legalizing Indian slavery. Only 30,000 native Californians survived the gold rush, 10 percent of the original numbers.

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