The Rebellion Against the Mission of the Saintly Prince the Archangel, San Gabriel of the Temblors, 1785
In Partnership with the South El Monte Arts Posse
"East of East" are a series of original essays about people, things, and places in South El Monte and El Monte. The material traces the arrival and departures of ethnic groups, the rise and decline of political movements, the creation of youth cultures, and the use and manipulation of the built environment. These essays challenge us to think about the place of SEM/EM in the history of Los Angeles, California, and Mexico.
Standing on the western edge of the city of South El Monte, where the shoe factories and shipping centers, and warehouses of Rush Street dead end at the Whittier Narrows Rec Area, one is roughly midway between the two sites of Mission San Gabriel. To the north is the better-known location on the Camino Real de California, the royal road that is today Highway 101 and more than one city's "Mission Road." The well-preserved stone and adobe mission, its famous capped buttresses and tall, narrow windows evincing the impression Moorish architecture had left in the minds of its architects. To the south, at the intersection of San Gabriel Boulevard and Lincoln Avenue near the Bosque del Rio Hondo, a small stone marker indicates the little known original site of the mission. The friars who established the original mission in 1771 built numerous jacales (huts) of tule and mud, but nearly five years later decided the location was unsuitable, and moved north to the current site. Construction there was steady but slow--a new wall two adobe bricks wide; a simple roof of earth upgraded to one of pine beams, earth, and tule--one or two improvements per year. Only in 1782 did a year finally pass with no new construction; the mission must finally have seemed finished. The new site would be permanent.1
But perhaps this permanence wasn't so clear at the time. On the night of October 25th, 1785, a group of two dozen or more Tongva Indians armed with bows and arrows silently approached the Franciscan mission known as San Gabriel Arcángel under a waning crescent moon, looking for a fight. They planned to kill some of the soldiers inside the mission, and perhaps the friars the soldiers protected. They also expected that Tongva converts living inside the mission would have slain some in their sleep already. Anticipating victory, Tongva from the hundred or so villages in the valley had already stolen and slaughtered a handful of the friars' cattle and sheep.2
In fact it was the Indians and not the Spaniards who were surprised. A corporal of the Spanish guard had been warned of the plot, and the soldiers stood in the shadows, armed and armored, ready to ambush their attackers.
The soldiers and friars overcame and captured at least twenty-one Tongva assailants. Among them were a twenty-four year old woman from the village of Japchavit just northwest of the mission, Toypurina; and a neophyte member of the mission community, a recently baptized Christian Indian whom the friars called Nicolás José. When all was said and done, the king's justice would hold these two responsible for instigating the attack.3
Toypurina seems to have been unarmed when she joined in the assault. One Tongva man the Spanish interrogated claimed she had recruited him, and was the lead conspirator.4 Later Spanish summaries of the case implied that the Indians expected Toypurina to kill the friars and soldiers within the walls just before the attack, though it isn't clear how.
A century and a half later the most influential chronicler of the event in English, Thomas Workman Temple II, repeated Spanish claims she was a witch and a shaman, and made her the doomed heroine of a noble but futile resistance to Spain and Christian civilization.5 Historian Steven Hackel has shown that Temple fabricated many of the details for his version of the story, which remains influential in California's schools and history books.6 But there is no doubt Toypurina's role in the plot was vital. At least as important, however, was the part played by the neophyte Nicolás José. One of the first Tongva to be baptized, Nicolás José held a prominent position within the mission. Hackel argues that he also ran afoul of the friars on more than one occasion, however, and probably had tried once before to organize an uprising. On this occasion he contacted Toypurina, the sister of Japchavit's unbaptized chief, and sought her help in rallying Tongva from six or more villages in the valley. For Tongva of so many villages to come together in one endeavor was uncommon. Speaking a language of the Uto-Aztecan family, the Tongva probably migrated more than a millennium ago from the basins and ranges of what is today Nevada into southern California and the Los Angeles basin, displacing or absorbing Hokan-speaking inhabitants.7
Hunting and gathering, coastal fishing, and subsistence agriculture supported small communities with little social stratification. Different Tongva villages probably cooperated to ensure dietary diversity and ecological stability, but they maintained distinct identities, and competition for resources only intensified with the arrival of the Spanish and construction of San Gabriel. Both Toypurina and Nicolás José would have been old enough to remember the construction of the original, more southerly mission in 1771. By the time of the move to the new site, they were teenagers. Pedro Font, a member of the famous Anza expedition, called the new location "a site of the most beautiful qualities, with plentiful water and very fine lands."8 Near an oak grove the friars watched as baptized Tongva laborers erected the mission buildings, one by one. And the Tongva watched the friars.
San Gabriel, like the other missions of California, was a Franciscan enterprise. The Spanish crown relied heavily on the Franciscans as the shock troops of the spiritual conquest of Mexico in the sixteenth century. The order's commitment and discipline made it an effective force in the conversion of defeated Nahuatl, Otomí, Purepechá, and Maya speakers in central and southern Mexico to Christianity. The first wave consisted of twelve friars, made famous by their devotion and their millenarian vision for the New World--a tabula rasa untainted by Europe's vice. Christ's return and the new heaven and earth were within striking distance. They had only to preach the gospel to those who had been cut off from it.9
But the Franciscans quickly grew disillusioned. They found that the Indians misunderstood their obedience, their humility, and their poverty. And so reluctantly, they left behind the treasured submissiveness of the Franciscan order in Europe and recast themselves as domineering fathers, in order that the Indians might learn to love obedience as they did. The Indians in turn became miserables, spiritual and legal minors, to be educated as children and disciplined as children. The Franciscan fathers quickly became comfortable with the lash and irons.10
In Yucatán in the 1560s, for example, a Franciscan named Diego de Landa was given authority to proselytize the Maya. But even as Maya communities accepted baptism and adopted elements of Spanish culture, many held tight to the most intimate parts of their own religion, customs, and political economy. When de Landa discovered that baptized Maya were maintaining pre-Christian religious practices in their homes and villages, he arrested and tortured hundreds, and burned all the Maya books. (Just four escaped the flames. Those four disappeared, only to surface centuries later in Dresden, Paris, Madrid, and New York libraries and museums--the honeycomb vaults of intellectual empire.)
Yet the Maya continued to resist Spanish dominance in small ways. Only 130 years later, in 1697, would the last Maya military stronghold fall--the Itza Maya capital of Nojpetén in what today is Guatemala. Another Maya uprising seized control of Yucatán for over a decade in the mid nineteenth century, and wove together native and Catholic practice. Spanish conquest was brutal, but never complete.11
The Franciscans also carried out missions to the Pueblo Indians of distant New Mexico, but in the seventeenth century they were increasingly sidelined by politics in Spain and within the Church. The order gradually was eclipsed by the secular hierarchy of bishops and parish priests on the one hand, and the new, innovative Society of Jesus (Jesuits) on the other. The Jesuits dominated elite education in New Spain, and their missions to the Indians of the Spanish Empire's frontiers were growing large and wealthy. They applied the latest agricultural technology; they carefully recorded profit and loss; and they physically moved converted populations into large new settlements they called "reductions," to serve as a more efficient pool of labor. Both the creole (America-born) elite of New Spain and the crown came to see the wealthy, independent-minded Jesuits as a threat, and so in 1767 the King sent a sealed message to every mission and town in the New World where a Jesuit held a post. At midnight on the first of April, all across the Spanish Empire, the Jesuits unsealed the king's instructions and read that they were to leave immediately for the nearest harbor, whence they would be deported to Europe.
So it was that the conversion of Alta California fell, once again, to the Franciscan order. The chief agent of the missionary expedition is too famous to need introduction here. Fray Junipero Serra revived and embodied the earlier Franciscans' millenarian utopianism. After taking orders in his native Mallorca, he left for Mexico where he taught philosophy at the Colegio de San Fernando in Mexico City. He gradually migrated north to Queretaro, then to San Blas (now in Nayarit), and finally to San Diego, where he established the first of the missions. In 1771 he charged fathers Pedro Benito Cambón and Angel Somera with the founding of San Gabriel Arcángel.12
Along with their utopianism, Serra also revived the earlier Franciscans' pious determination to discipline and punish. Marriage and sex were his special preoccupation. Tongva family structures and sexual relations were carefully scrutinized and corrected. Gender roles were normalized as binary, oppositional, and patriarchal. As Antonia Castañeda writes, "In the confessional, priests queried both men and women about their sexual lives and activities and meted out punishments." While all non-procreative sex was forbidden, abortion and infanticide were considered women's crimes; native women were watched carefully for suspected infractions, and punished harshly. An early nineteenth-century visitor recorded that the San Gabriel fathers attributed all miscarriages to infanticide, and punished the women by "shaving the head, flogging for fifteen subsequent days, [wearing] iron on the feet for three months, and having to appear every Sunday in church, on the steps up the altar, with a hideous painted wooden child [a monigote] in her arms."13
Regulating and exploiting labor also was central to the Franciscans' mission. While the Tongva readily incorporated European livestock and agriculture into their village economies, they also continued to hunt and gather--practices the friars discouraged, as they believed (incorrectly) these required no planning, and thus no discipline. For this reason they considered such an economy improper to civilized Christian life. (Although the Spanish openly admired the Indians' strong, beautiful basketry, for example, they failed to recognize or acknowledge the careful neglect of the "wilderness"--selectively burning and pruning but not uprooting native shrubs, in order to encourage and preserve the longest, straightest possible shoots--that made the baskets possible.14 In fact they actually condemned the Indians' practice of burning vegetation, going so far in 1793 as to outlaw brushfires throughout the Californias, without ever understanding the brushfires' importance to the Tongva subsistence economy). Likewise, they never acknowledged the careful ecological balance the Tongva had developed and maintained through seasonal variety, reciprocal exchange, rationing, and storage.15
The Franciscans insisted on settled farming because they associated it with civilization and Christian virtue, but also because only intensive agriculture could support the burgeoning population of the mission communities. The San Gabriel mission grew quickly in the decade after its founding. By 1780 there were about 450 baptized Indians living in the community, and by 1785--the year of the rebellion--nearly 850.16
Ironically, the friars' insistence on settled life and disciplined labor steadily accelerated regional migration, as the mission's growing economy drew more and more Tongva into its orbit and out of their communities. Hackel points out that in the six years prior to the 1785 rebellion, nearly six hundred Indians had come to live at the mission, including an increasing number from the far-off coastal villages.17 Increasingly dense human population in the valley was accompanied by an enormous increase in livestock. (Mission San Gabriel boasted the largest livestock population of any of the California missions, including thousands of sheep.) In small numbers sheep, pigs, and cattle were a welcome addition to the Tongva subsistence economy, but they threatened to destroy that same economy as their populations exploded.
The confluence of migrating peoples, animals, and European diseases took a heavy toll. Sherburne Cook estimated that toward the end of the eighteenth century, the ratio of Indian deaths to births was 2 to 1.18 "By 1785," Hackel writes, "one third of the adults from Nicolás José's village and one half of the Sibapet children baptized at Mission San Gabriel were dead."19 Within the mission, Nicolás José himself lost his son and his wife to disease. When he remarried, his second wife likewise succumbed within a year.
Thus when the rebellion broke out the night of October 25th, it was an expression of both steadily growing structural tensions, and sharp, deeply felt personal grievances and fears. Perhaps that is true of every rebellion.
Large popular uprisings were rare in the Spanish Empire: the centuries-long resistance of the Maya; the Pueblo Revolt in New Mexico; the neo-Inca Great Rebellion of 1780. Smaller, more focused riots and rebellions were more common. Nevertheless, the colonial era in Spanish America was, by and large, remarkably tranquil. In the ubiquitous and continuous legal challenges Indians brought against each other and against Spanish elites, the crown often took up an intermediary position that looked, at least superficially, like protection. It was as definer and defender of justice that the Spanish crown legitimated itself and defended its conquests.The first phase of Spain's imperial justice began almost immediately.
Alta California's governor, Pedro Fages, made the short journey to San Gabriel to deal with the troublemakers. Before the month of October was out he and the friars had overseen fifteen lashes each for twelve of the captured Indians, and sent them home. Five more Indians suspected of helping plan the rebellion received twenty-five lashes each, before they too were sent home.20 This was punishment, not judicial torture; the rebels were not interrogated. Four Indians, including the suspected "seducers and principal heads," Toypurina and Nicolás José, were held longer. José María Francisco, a "sufficiently Spanish" soldier who "knew well the tongue of the natives," drew up a list of ten questions for the accused, and Fages signed it.21The second phase of the judicial proceeding began only months later, in January 1786, in the Presidio (fortified garrison) of Santa Barbara. Soldiers brought each of the four defendants before the governor, one at a time. In all likelihood the room contained little more than two tables and a handful of chairs. Besides the governor and the defendant there was a scribe and a soldier who served as translator. Ignacio Olivera, sergeant of the garrison at the Presidio fortress of Santa Bárbara, administered the proceedings for the governor.22
Reading the record of the proceedings, one can barely, if at all, make out the voices of the defendants. The record amounts to just six manuscript pages--less than three pages typed, double-spaced. There is no way to tell in what order the defendants were interrogated. Their answers are not recorded verbatim, but paraphrased by the scribe, the translator, or both, and there is no way to tell how well the translator understood their answers, which are terse--never more than one sentence. Many questions were answered with one word. "Do you know...?" "She doesn't know." "Do you know...?" "No."23
Nevertheless, the testimony makes two things clear. First, Nicolás José probably played at least as central a role as Toypurina in organizing the attack. This is important, because it shows that the dominant narrative in English--Thomas Workman Temple II's Toypurina the Witch--inaccurately and sensationally cast her as the principal planner, a romantic, doomed, and noble savage, playing to Americans' tawdry, soap opera misogyny by conferring on her the favored Spanish epithets for unruly women.
Second, the two co-conspirators had distinct, if overlapping, reasons for the attack. Despite the third-person narration of the scribe, the judicial record makes it clear that Nicolás José urgently wanted to return to his Tongva community--probably only temporarily--in order to carry out religious rituals or duties. The governor asked the baptized Christian and neophyte, so grievously affected by the steady, terrible wave of Indian mortality, what had moved the Indians to attack, "knowing that it was impossible to kill the soldiers, since if they had fired them the cannon would have killed many of [the Indians]." Nicolás José replied that it was "because he was angry with the fathers and the corporal because they did not permit him to do his dances and gentile abuses."24 Nicolás José felt there were urgent, neglected religious obligations to attend to.
Asked the same question, according to the court record, Toypurina answered only that she had been persuaded by Nicolás José, who offered her beads in exchange for her help stirring up Tongva outside the mission to come and fight. But the fourth question brought a different, more heartfelt response, that resonates in spite of the imperial sanitation. What injury had Toypurina been done, if any, that could have made her wish to kill the fathers, or the Christians? The scribe recorded: "That they hadn't done any harm more than that she didn't understand why they should live here." She was "angry with the fathers of the Mission of San Gabriel because they are living here in her land."25 Hackel finds her testimony suggests that she was angry not only at the Franciscan friars, but at the coastal communities that had begun recently to migrate into the San Gabriel Valley from farther and farther away, disrupting the valley's subsistence economy.26 Toypurina was taking her stand against demographic and ecological compression; the steady undermining of community integrity and stability; and the disruption of a subsistence way of life by a nascent, and growing, commercial political economy.
While their specific complaints differed, both held important commitments in common. Both wanted land to live on, and the freedom to move within it; both wanted the freedom to become Christian or continue to dance, or both; both wanted to be able to decide when and if they would cross back and forth from one world to the other, and to what extent those worlds could be one. Governor Fages found Toypurina and Nicolás José guilty of leading the rebellion against Spanish and Christian authority.
The final stage of Spanish justice took well over two years to come to fruition. The proceedings were forwarded to Mexico City for review, and when at long last official word returned to California in 1788, the sentences were confirmed. Both Nicolás José and Toypurina were to be deported: she to "the most distant mission," and he to "the most distant presidio" in California. Later records show Toypurina was sent to San Carlos Borromeo, near Monterey, and Nicolás José to San Francisco de Asis, known as Misión Dolores.27
The San Gabriel Mission has endured now for centuries. But in its first years it may not have seemed so fixed, so permanent, or so necessary. The full name given the mission at its founding was Mission of the Saintly Prince the Archangel, San Gabriel of the Temblors. The earthquakes for which the friars named the mission, endemic to the Los Angeles basin, are evidence of fitful movement in what seems timeless. The San Gabriel Valley and its eponymous mission may seem old; remote from contemporary concerns. But the story of the rebellion of 1785 reveals that the only constant in the valley is change. When the Tongva migrated into the valley, they displaced and absorbed Hokan-speakers. When Junipero Serra decided to establish a mission in the valley, he was on his way north, barely slowing down before moving on. When the Spanish friars arrived, they set in motion a structural shift that propelled the indigenous peoples toward the mission, and brought coastal villagers inland toward the valley. Toypurina, Nicolás José, and those who fought with them, alone amongst so many transients, sought to stay where they were while holding tight to their identities and freedom of movement; and were forcibly relocated for their trouble. The governor and the governor's justice visited, then repaired to Santa Barbara. The 250 year-old mission is a monument to impermanence. Who is to say who controls the valley's future? Who will stay, and who will go?
The author gratefully acknowledges the archival research assistance of Alexandra María Rodríguez.
1Maynard Geiger, "The Building of Mission San Gabriel: 1771-1828." The Historical Society of Southern California 50 (1968): 33-36.
2Steven W. Hackel, "Sources of Rebellion: Indian Testimony and the Mission San Gabriel Uprising of 1785." Ethnohistory 50, no. 4 (2003), 649.
4"Juicio a los indios rebeldes de San Gabriel de los Temblores," Archivo General de la Nación, Provincias Internas, vol. 120, exp. 2.
5Thomas Workman Temple II, "Toypurina the Witch and the Indian Uprising at San Gabriel," Masterkey 32, no. 5 (1958).
6Hackel, "Sources of Rebellion."
7Victor Golla, "Linguistic Prehistory" in California Preshistory: Colonization, Culture, and Complexity, ed. Terry L. Jones and Kathryn Klar (Lanham, Maryland: AltaMira Press, 2007): 74-75.
8Quoted in Geiger, "Building," 34.
9John Leddy Phelan, The Millennial Kingdom of the Franciscans in the New World 2d ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970).
10Inga Clendinnen, "Disciplining the Indians: Franciscan Ideology and Missionary Violence in Sixteenth-Century Yucatán" Past & Present 94 (1982): 27-48.
11Matthew Restall, Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).
12Steven W. Hackel, Junípero Serra: California's Founding Father (New York: Hill and Wang, 2013); Geiger, Building.
13Antonia Castañeda, "Engendering the History of Alta California, 1769-1848: Gender, Sexuality, and the Family," California History 76, no. 2/3 (1997): 234-35.
14M. Kat Anderson, Michael G. Barbour, and Valerie Whitworth, "A World of Balance and Plenty: Land, Plants, Animals, and Humans in a Pre-European California," in Contested Eden: California before the Gold Rush, ed. Ramón A. Gutiérrez and Richard J. Orsi (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998):17.
15William Preston, "Serpent in the Garden: Environmental Change in Colonial California," in Contested Eden, ed. Gutiérrez and Orsi, 293.
16J.N. Bowman, "The Resident Neophytes (Existentes) of the California Missions 1769-1834," The Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly 40, no. 2 (1958): 145.
17Hackel, "Sources of Rebellion," 656. Perhaps the most striking piece on display in the recent exhibition at the Huntington Library, "Junipero Serra and the Legacies of the California Missions," was a computer animation of the concentration of Tongva peoples at the Mission San Gabriel site over the course of the half-century after its founding. Based principally on Church baptismal and funerary records, the animation showed each and every identifiable Tongva individual as he or she either moved to the mission or died of introduced European diseases. The flow toward the mission and the disappearance from disease accelerated rapidly; one by one, all the tiny pixels representing villagers either disappeared into oblivion or moved to the mission. Within moments, the entire surviving population of the Los Angeles basin lived within a few miles of the mission. No independent village remained. The Spanish legal terms for the process of bringing Indians from their villages to the missions was either "concentración" or "reducción"--concentration and reduction. Never before has the process been as vivid.
18Sherburne F. Cook, The Conflict between the California Indian and White Civilization (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976): 421.
19Hackel, "Sources of Rebellion," 653.
22Ibid.; Charles R. Cutter, The Legal Culture of Northern New Spain, 1700-1810 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995).
26Hackel, "Sources of Rebellion," 656.
This piece was originally published on Tropics of Meta in February 2014.