In the summer of 1769, a collision of cultures began to topple the way of life for the indigenous inhabitants surrounding the San Gabriel Mountains. As Tongva communities made their seasonal ascents north into the mountains for supplies, an expedition of haggard soldiers and priests straggled down into the lowlands from the southern rim of the San Gabriel Valley. As these new arrivals staked their claim to the valley floor, the mountains would serve as the last fortress of protection and resistance for the native people.
The Sacred Expedition Meets the Sierra Madre
Entrusted with the daring assignment to take control of Alta California for the Spanish Crown, Don Gaspar de Portolá, a Catalonian soldier of noble rank, commanded what was called the "Sacred Expedition," launching from Baja California in early 1769. In July, after a grueling trek to San Diego in which over half of the expedition of 219 individuals either died or deserted, Portola charged, in his own words, a "small company of persons, or rather say skeletons who had been spared by scurvy, hunger, and thirst" to press north, with eyes peeled for Monterey Bay. Portola's most important escort, Father Junípero Serra -- tapped to establish the sprawling chain of Catholic missions in Alta California -- remained in San Diego.
By the end of the month, the expedition ascended a pass near present-day Brea Canyon in the eastern Puente Hills. From the crest, a plenteous valley guarded by a daunting mountain range swept before them. Company chaplain Juan Crespi recorded the encounter in his diary entry dated July 30:
We then descended to a broad and spacious plain ... After traveling for an hour through the valley we came to an arroyo of water which flows among many green marshes, their banks covered with willows and grapes, blackberries, and innumerable Castilian rosebushes ... It runs along the foot of the mountains, and can be easily used to irrigate the large area of good land ... The valley ... is surrounded by ranges of hills. The one to the north is very high and dark and has many corrugations, and seems to run farther to the west.
The "arroyo of water" of Crespi's diary is the first written description of the San Gabriel River. The Spanish would soon refer to the lush waterway as Río San Miguel Arcángel, and the encompassing valley as Valle de San Miguel, both named after Saint Michael. The "high and dark" hills, the first recorded sighting of the San Gabriel Mountains, would generally be known as Sierra Madre (Mother Mountains), a name applied to the mountain ranges south of Santa Barbara. Father Pedro Font, on a 1776 expedition led by Juan Bautista de Anza from Arizona to Alta California, remarked on the "Sierra to the north" when passing through the San Gabriel Valley, where it appeared "that here ends the snow but not the sierra, which is the same Sierra Madre de California." La Sierra de San Gabriel was also used as early as 1776, absorbing the name of the adjacent Mission San Gabriel Arcángel. It is the closest association to the official title of today's range.
Indian Conversion and Resistance
Juan Crespi's account of the fertile valley illustrated an ideal site for founding a mission, particularly the promise of irrigated farming and abundant timber in the higher elevations. After the original location was deemed unfit, the Mission San Gabriel Arcángel -- the fourth mission to be established by Father Junípero Serra -- was moved closer to the mountains in 1775, downstream of San Gabriel Canyon and Tongva foothill villages. Using the aid of indigenous people, pine was harvested from the canyon and the north slopes of Mt. Wilson to support the tile roofs of mission buildings.
Using a combination of military and religious enforcement, the mission practiced a colonial system of territorial administration known as reducción; its purpose, according to William McCawley's "The First Angelinos," being "to 'reduce,' or consolidate, the Indians from the countryside into one central community." At first Franciscans attracted the indigenous people by bestowing gifts to convince them to live on mission grounds and accept Christian acculturation. Although the choice to convert was voluntary, once the decision was made it was irrevocable. The converts became legal wards, known as neophytes, of the Franciscans. On his visit to the mission in 1776, Father Pedro Font observed the rules of conversion:
Since the Indians are accustomed to live in the fields and the hills like beasts, the fathers require that if they wish to be Christians they shall no longer go to the forest, but must live in the mission; and if they leave ... they will go to seek them and punish them.
Fleeing the captivity of the mission was common. According to James A. Sandos' "Converting California: Indians and Franciscans in the Missions," reasons for fleeing were numerous and alluring: "freedom from abuse by Indian alcaldes (overseers), freedom from priestly ordered punishment, freedom from forced social change, from new ritual, from Europeanized ideas of work." Since nearby villages of gentiles (unbaptized Indians) were often visited by a mission police force, called auxiliares, most fugitives took refuge in the hidden recesses of the mountains -- an imposing terrain that the Spanish knew little about.
The San Gabriels were not only a haven for runaways, but also a harbor of resistance. Today a symbol of California's indigenous women's resistance to the missions, Toypurina was a twenty-five year-old gentile woman from a backcountry mountain village called Japchivit. Spurred by the threat that relocated Tongva "and other Indians at the expanding mission posed to the native subsistence economy and political order," as Steven W. Hackel explains in his "Sources of Rebellion: Indian Testimony and the Mission San Gabriel Uprising of 1785," Toypurina joined dismayed mission neophyte Nicolás José's plot against the San Gabriel Mission. Considered wise by her peers, Toypurina convinced other village captains to join the rebellion. The strike on the October night of 1785 was ultimately foiled, and Toypurina was banished by the Spanish court to the most distant Alta California mission for her role in the uprising.
By the time the Mexican government repossessed the missions through the Secularization Act of 1833, European diseases had afflicted the indigenous population and resulted in a catastrophic decline of lives: from 65,000 in the mission zone in 1770, to only 17,000 by 1830 -- a loss of 74 percent. In the foothills, the devastation of entire native settlements facilitated the approaching era of rapacious land grant ranchos that would consume the paling communities of the San Gabriels.