Should We Celebrate the Legacy of Junípero Serra, California's Founding Father?

Lithograph depicting Junipero Serra surrounded by a congregation of Indians. Photo courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries

Elections and mortality usually ensure turnover among California's representatives in Congress, but one figure has been representing the state since 1931: the bronze statue of Junípero Serra, one of California's two permanent delegates in the Capitol's Statuary Hall.

Regarded as the founding father of California's mission system, Serra has long been admired within the state. John Steven McGroarty painted him as a saintly figure in "The Mission Play," and in 1988 Pope John Paul II beatified Serra, bringing the Franciscan father one step away from actual sainthood. But while Serra is celebrated for converting both Indians into Christians and California into a European possession, scholarship--informed by a fresh look at administrative records, correspondence, and other archived documents from California's colonial era--over the past few decades has come to view Serra's mission-building project as a disaster for the state's native inhabitants.

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Southern California's native Tongva people are among them. The missions destroyed their original culture as European agriculture and state-based governance upended a millennia-old political ecology based on hunting-and-gathering and lineage-based social organization. Tongva that joined the missions worked under forced-labor conditions and often suffered privation, disease, and death, while those who remained in the countryside saw their numbers dwindle and their hunting grounds transformed into ranchos.

Junípero Serra was born in 1713 on the Spanish Mediterranean island of Majorca. In 1730 he joined the Franciscan order, and in 1749 he became a missionary and sailed to New Spain, where he spent almost two decades preaching to the people of Mexico's Sierra Gorda region. In 1768, the Viceroy of New Spain chose Serra to oversee the Spanish missionary expansion into Alta California, the linchpin of Spain's plan to colonize the region and block Russia's and Britain's territorial ambitions. In July 1769, Serra founded Mission San Diego, and before his death in 1784 he would establish eight of California's other 20 Franciscan missions. A rival to Alta California's military governors as an authority figure, Serra ruled the string of missionary outposts from his headquarters in Carmel.

R.D. McLean (right) portrays Serra in 'The Mission Play.' Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection.

In this scene from 'The Mission Play,' Serra (white hair) and other mission fathers protect an Indian from a Spanish soldier. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection.

Spain's successful reconquest of the Iberian peninsula from Moorish control served as a model for its missionary efforts in California and its other New World holdings. Known as reducción, the strategy sought to reduce or consolidate the territory's native population into concentrated settlements.

In coastal Southern California, the strategy worked. The region's aboriginal Tongva (Gabrieleño) people had lived since at least 700 C.E. in villages scattered across the coastal Los Angeles Basin and the inland San Fernando, San Gabriel, and San Bernardino valleys. (Little is known outside the archaeological record about the region's earlier Hokan-speaking inhabitants.) Prior to contact with Europeans, there may have been as many as 5,000 Tongvas living in some 100 settlements. But the 1773 founding of Mission San Gabriel Arcangel and the 1797 establishment of Mission San Fernando Rey disrupted the Tongva people's traditional settlement patterns. Through gifts and kindness, the Franciscans persuaded thousands of Tongvas to leave their countryside villages and settle near the mission. Infectious disease--though an unintended consequence--ravaged the newly baptized "neophytes" as well as the gentiles remaining in the countryside. Between 1781 and 1831, Mission San Gabriel's Indian population suffered a mean population decline of 51 people per 1,000. Life expectancy at birth was a meager 6.4 years. In California as a whole, the total native population declined from 133,500 in 1770 to 98,000 in 1832.

Circa 1910 postcard of Mission San Gabriel. Courtesy of the Werner Von Boltenstern Postcard Collection, Department of Archives and Special Collections, Loyola Marymount University Library.

Circa 1925 postcard of Mission San Fernando. Courtesy of the Werner Von Boltenstern Postcard Collection, Department of Archives and Special Collections, Loyola Marymount University Library.

Life at the mission was unpleasant even for those who escaped disease and early death. The missions were enormously profitable, and while the fathers theoretically held the mission lands in trust for their charges, little of the wealth made its way to the Indian laborers. "Despite innumerable lamentations, apologies, and justifications, there can be no serious denial that the mission system, in its economics, was built upon forced labor," historian Sherburne F. Cook wrote in his influential 1943 article, "The Indian versus the Spanish Mission." Tongva tribal council member Mark Acuña was even more blunt in a KCET Departures interview, describing Mission San Gabriel as "a slave society."

The mission fathers routinely meted out corporal punishment to their charges; not only were criminal offenders flogged or locked in stocks, but so were apostates and captured fugitives. Once baptized, Indians were not permitted to leave the mission and resume their previous way of life. Sleeping arrangements were tight: Cook estimated that each woman had about 14 square feet of space to herself in a typical communal sleeping quarter. Even clothing regulations spelled discomfort for the Indians. Under the administration of Father Jose Maria de Zalvidea, Indians were forbidden to wear anything but a course tunic made from a blend of cotton and wooden cloth, which, according the Scotch-American chronicler Hugo Reid, "kept the poor wretches all the time diseased with the itch."

Policies such as these--condoned by Serra during his lifetime--plunged many Indians into depression, according to Reid. "At first surprise and astonishment filled their minds; a strange lethargy and inaction predominated afterwards," Reid wrote. "All they did was to hide themselves as best they could from the oppressor." Some escaped: roughly one in 24 Indians successfully escaped Mission San Gabriel. Others rebelled. A 25-year-old shaman named Toypurina plotted a rebellion in 1785, but she and her warriors were captured after the corporal of the mission's military guard overheard talk of the revolt. The Tongva staged other rebellions in 1773, 1779, and 1810, with limited success.

Serra's mission project resulted in more than individual suffering; it also effected a kind of cultural erasure. The missions upended Tongva social organization and discarded traditional Tongva religion and lifestyle. "The Spanish mission was insensitive and antagonistic to the cultural traditions of the California Indians," writes William McCawley in "The First Angelinos." "Although some priests may have cared deeply about the welfare of the Indians, cultural conflict was implicit in the goals of missionization...acculturation was seen as flowing in one direction only, that is, from the missionaries to the Indians."

Californians have elected countless senators and representatives since Junípero Serra's statue first arrived at the U.S. Capitol in 1931. While controversy has forced many from office, Serra remains, his right hand holding a cross and his left cradling a model of a mission, his devout gaze frozen in bronze.

Statue of Junipero Serra in the U.S. Capitol's Statuary Hall. Photo by Flickr user afagen. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Many of the archives who contributed the above images are members of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, personal collections, and other institutions. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region. Our posts here provide a view into the archives of individuals and cultural institutions whose collections inform the great narrative—in all its complex facets—of Southern California.

About the Author

A writer specializing in Los Angeles history, Nathan Masters serves as manager of academic events and programming communications for the USC Libraries, the host institution for L.A. as Subject.
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