The California Mission as Symbol and Myth



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Rawls, James. California History, Vol. 71, No. 3, Indians of California (Fall, 1992), pp. 342-361.
The California Mission as Symbol and Myth
European contact with the California Indians began within a half-century of the epoch- making voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492. Portuguese navigator Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo sailed into San Diego Bay in 1542 and proceeded slowly northward-along the coast of Alta California. The people encountered by Cabrillo evoked expressions of curiosity and wonder. "They were dressed in skins," Cabrillo wrote of the Chumash he observed along the Santa Barbara Channel, "and wore their hair very long and tied up with long strings interwoven with the hair, there being attached to the strings many gewgaws of flint, bone, and wood. Thus was the first recorded encounter between Europeans and the native people of California.

Sustained contact with the California Indians began much later, with the advent of permanent Spanish settlement in the late eighteenth century. The primary instrument of colonization in California, as in scores of earlier frontiers of the Spanish empire, was the mission. The missions of California illustrate well the unique blend of church and crown, of secular and spiritual matters, so characteristic of the Spanish empire. The Spanish missionaries believed that effective Christianization could not be separated from the larger process of acculturation. Their aim was to bring about a rapid and thoroughgoing transformation of the native people. The Indians were to be Hispanicized at the missions not only in religion, but also in social organization, language, dress, work habits, and virtually every other aspect of their lives. The missions of California were reduccion or congregacion missions at which the Indians were "reduced" from their "free, undisciplined" state to become regulated and disciplined members of Spanish colonial society. The missionaries exercised an absolute authority over the converted Indians, or neophytes, in matters both spiritual and temporal.

In addition to transforming the way of life of the California Indians the missions also inadvertently contributed to their destruction. During the mission period, the native population of California declined dramatically. Much of the decline was caused by the introduction of new diseases for which the Indians lacked immunity. The missions themselves ended in the 1830s after California passed from Spanish to Mexican control. Through the process known as secularization, the missionaries were replaced by "secular" clergy, the missions were converted essentially to parish churches, and their control over the Indian population was removed. Many of the former mission Indians were taken over by a new elite of Hispanic landowners, the rancheros, and they continued to work without interruption for their new masters.

In the more than two centuries that have passed since the founding of the California missions, these colonial institutions of Spain have been the subject of a wide variety of interpretations. Although the Franciscan missionaries and their supporters at the time maintained that the missions protected the Indians from the rest of the colonials, visitors to California in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries often portrayed the missions as oppressive institutions in which the Indians were victims of mistreatment and exploitation. A century later, the image of the missions was transformed into an overwhelmingly positive or nostalgic one, in which the Indians were viewed as beneficiaries of a benign institution. By the early twentieth century, this positive image had become an important part of California's regional identity. This essay will examine both how and why this image has changed. To borrow a phrase from Henry Nash Smith, it is a study of the California mission as "symbol and myth."


First Views from the Outside

Beginning with the visit of Jean Francois Galaup de La Perouse in 1786, more than a score of prominent European travelers visited the missions and wrote about them in their journals, reports, and reminiscences. These writings constitute California's earliest literature; and--it is here that we find our first clear image of the missions and their impact on the indigenous people. While many of these early visitors recorded with appreciation acts of hospitality and generosity of individual padres, they often condemned the institution of the mission with powerful expressions of censure and portrayed the Indians as victims of a cruel system of exploitation.

The reports of La Perouse illustrate well this early, hostile view. La Perouse was the leader of a round-the-world voyage of discovery officially sponsored by the French government. In the published accounts of his-voyage, La Perouse likened the California mission Indians to slaves. At Mission San Carlos Borromeo, La Perouse commented, "everything reminded us of a habitation in Saint Domingo, or any other West Indian [slave] colony. The men and women are assembled by the sound of the bell, one of the religious conducts them to their work, to church, and to all other exercises. We mention it with pain, the resemblance [to a slave colony] is so perfect, that we saw men and women loaded with irons, others in the stocks; and at length the noise of the strokes of a whip struck our ears.''

What most disturbed La Perouse about the mission was its authoritarian structure, in which the missionaries possessed absolute temporal and spiritual power over the neophytes. La Perouse, imbued with the natural rights ideology of the Enlightenment and a decidedly anti-clerical bias, viewed the California missions as an institution that violated basic human rights. "I confess," wrote La P4rouse, "that, being more friendly to the 'rights of man' than to theology, I could have wished them to the principle of Christianity to have [added] a legislation, which by degrees, might, have made citizens of these men. whose state at this moment differs scarcely anything-from that of the negroes in slave colonies." La Perouse offered many specific criticisms of the missions. He condemned the missionaries for inflicting on the Indians corporal punishments for actions that in Europe were not considered criminal offenses; and for not allowing the neophytes to renounce their sacred vows and freely return to their native villages. Those who attempted to leave the mission, he noted, were forced to return by squads of soldiers and were then publicly flogged.

What is important to realize about La Perouse’s views of the missions is that they were typical of those Of many early visitors to California. Throughout the California travel literature, La Perouse’s criticisms were echoed and amplified. In this hostile view, the California missions appeared as a symbol of Spanish exploitation and the Indians as hapless victims of cruel mistreatment. Other examples of this hostile view are not difficult to find. Auguste Bernard Duhaut-Cilly, a captain in the French merchant marine, visited California in the 1820s and described the missions as an "atrocious system" of human slavery that was vainly disguised "under the appearance of humanity and of amelioration in man's lot," but nevertheless wag slavery. Duhaut-Cilly gave us an unforgettable portrait of Pomponio, an escaped Costanoan neophyte from Mission San Francisco de Asis. Pomponio escaped, was placed in irons, and then escaped again. Duhaut-Cilly portrayed this mission fugitive as a man of great courage and strength, desperately seeking to regain his freedom.
When all his watchers are plunged in sleep, he sharpens a knife, cuts off his heel and slips off one of his fetters; thus, without uttering the least sigh, he mutilates himself in a nervous and sensitive part. But imagine what strength of mind he needs to begin again this cruel operation; for he has yet gained only half of his freedom! He hesitates not; he takes off the other heel and flees, without fearing the acute pain which each step adds to his sufferings: it is by his bloody tracks that his escape is discovered the next day.
Pomponio eventually was recaptured and executed, Duhaut-Cilly noted, for having "done nothing but make use of the most natural right"---the right of liberty.

An English sea captain, Frederick Beechey, described the devastating impact of disease and ill-health on the neophyte population he witnessed during his visit to California in the 1820s. He and other English observers speculated that the ultimate result of the missions would not be the "civilization" of the coastal Indians, but rather their decimation. Not all accounts were as hostile as these, but generally the image of the missions in this early literature was of an oppressive, autocratic institution.

Why? How are we to account for this image? In part, the explanation is that the missions of California were indeed authoritarian institutions. Outside observers, bringing with them values shaped by the Enlightenment, judged the missions to be incompatible with their ideals of equality, liberty, and justice. The image also, however, was a clear reflection of the self-interest of the observers. We must keep in mind that these images were produced by the imperial rivals of Spain. Observers from France or England or Russia were often interested

in discrediting Hispanic accomplishments in the New World. Their hostile views of the missions served to show the failure, the inadequacies, the backwardness of Spanish efforts in California.

Such images were, in fact, latter-day manifestations of a long tradition of denigration of Spanish colonialism. Since at least the sixteenth century, rivals of Spain's claims in the New World had been picturing the Spaniards as especially cruel and inhumane in their treatment of Indians. This tradition---known as la leyenda negra or the "Black Legend"---was aimed at proving the Spaniards so cruel or so incompetent that they were unworthy to possess the lands they had claimed, and that they thus should be replaced by a more enlightened and enterprising people. The early European criticisms of the California missions can best be understood when placed in this larger context of the Black Legend. The expeditions initiated by La P6rouse in 1786 demonstrated the continuing international interest in California and the images of the "mission as an oppressive institution" and the "Indian as a victim of exploitation" would prove useful to anyone who wished to discredit the Spanish or Mexican presence in California.
American Perceptions

The first Anglo-Americans to reach California arrived around 1800; by 1846 there were perhaps as many as one thousand in the region. Initially they were occupied with hunting sea otter, trapping beaver, or gathering hides and tallow. Many of them followed in the tradition of their European predecessors, and described the missions in hostile terms.

The most widely read book on California, written by an American before the Gold Rush, was Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast (1840). When Dana visited California in the 1830s, the missions were already undergoing secularization and beginning the long process of decay. Dana did not romanticize their passing, nor did he criticize them as rigorously as La Perouse had done. But what Dana did say of the missions was generally hostile.

Dana believed that the missions had failed to accomplish much in the "civilizing" of the Indians. In the original 1840 edition of his book, he described the neophytes as "slaves" of the priests. At Mission San Diego, Dana was so distressed by the atmosphere there--"the stillness of death reigned," he wrote-- that he fled from the mission to the beach • at full gallop. He also described the injustice faced by the Indians of California, even outside of the missions. He interviewed a condemned Indian, about to be executed for a crime that would not have been a capital offense had it been committed by a Californio. Dana saw the institution of the mission through the eyes of an elite, Anglo-Protestant Yankee. In his view, the Hispanic people of California were unworthy to possess this land. The mission was a symbol for Dana of what was wrong with California under its Hispanic colonizers. It was an institution for the exploitation of the California Indians, revealing both the indolence and the cruelty of the Spanish-speaking Californians.

Dana's views were echoed by other early Anglo Americans in California. Thomas Jefferson Farnham visited the missions at Monterey and Santa Barbara in the 1830s. In his book Life and Adventures in California (1846), Farnham included some ghastly scenes of the missions. Like Dana, he was repelled by the evidence of death at the missions. The Santa Barbara mission cemetery had become so filled with dead Indians, he noted, that their bones had to be exhumed periodically to make way for new bodies. Farnham described what he saw in the mission courtyard: "Three or four cart-loads of skulls, ribs, spines, leg-bones, arm-bones, &c., lay in one corner. Beside them stood two hand-hearses with a small cross attached to each. About the walls hung the mould of death!”
Just as La Perouse had done a half-century earlier, Farnham described the missions as being like slave plantations. Not only were the Indians driven to work by the lash, he noted, but also "every Indian, male and female is obliged to attend the worship; and if they lag behind, a large leathern thong, at the end of a heavy whip-staff, is applied to their naked backs." Even in the church Farnham described a remarkable display of force:
In church, the males and females occupy different sides, with a broad aisle between them. In this aisle are stationed men with whips and goads to enforce order and silence, and keep them in a kneeling posture. By this arrangement, the untamed and vicious are generally made willing to comply with the forms of the service. In addition to these restraints, a guard of soldiers with fixed bayonets occupies one end of the church, who may suppress by their more powerful weapons any strong demonstrations against this comfortable mode of- worshipping God.
Similar scenes appear throughout early American accounts of California. Robert Forbes, captain of a New England trading vessel, alleged that the "Christianizing Padres... 'converted' the Indians by sending the gauchos.., into the field to catch them with the lasso, and mark them with the cross!" These branding operations were ordered, Forbes wrote, by "licentious priests" who compounded their cruelty by living in sin with "their [Indian] nieces at the head of their households.''

Sentiments such as these could be multiplied endlessly. The twin images of the "mission as an oppressive institution" and the "Indian as a victim of exploitation" emerged from the unbridled American nationalism of the mid-nineteenth century and the anti-Catholic tendencies of militant American Protestantism. Such images were part of a larger pattern of denigration of Spanish and Mexican civilization in California. Europeans---and now Anglo-Americans---who visited California and who lusted after the land described the present colonizers of the area as grossly unfit. Invariably the glowing descriptions of the California landscape with its salubrious climate, fertile soils, capacious harbors, and breath-taking natural beauty--were set against remarks on the unworthiness of its Spanish speaking inhabitants. Dana expressed this view most fully. "In the hands of an enterprising people," he wrote, "what a country this might be!''

There developed, in a sense, a regional variation of American's expansionist rationale of the 1840s, Manifest Destiny. This regional variation might be styled the "California Imperative," a belief that the superior land of California demanded or required a superior people to develop it. The California Indians were clearly not up to the task; neither were the Spanish-speaking Californians with their backward, oppressive institution of the mission. Images of oppressive missions and exploited Indians served as symbols of Hispanic incompetence and cruelty, as important elements in the superior claim to the soil by California's Anglo-American interlopers.
Decay and Neglect

In the mid-1840s, the United States acted forcefully on its desire to possess California. Through the Mexican War and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), California passed from the hands of Mexico and into those of the United States. What happened to the image of the missions and their Indian wards in the period after the American conquest? At first---in the decades of the 1850s, '60s, and '70s---the missions were all but forgotten. Interest in the status of the former mission Indians practically disappeared. Americans and other newcomers in California were powerfully distracted by the events of the Gold Rush. The focus of attention in California shifted far to the north and east of the old coastal missions.

During these early years of American settlement, the surviving mission buildings fell into their worst decay. If they were fortunate, the buildings were converted into saloons, dance halls, or private residences. If they were unlucky, they were used as sheep sheds or silos, their tiles removed and the adobe walls allowed to melt into rain-soaked piles of mud. Decay was in evidence at all of the missions, but perhaps the most poignant destruction occurred at Mission San Carlos Borromeo at Carmel, which Junipero Serra had established in 1770 as the headquarters of the mission network. There the entire quadrangle was destroyed. All that was left were the stone walls of the old mission church.

The roof beams rotted and fell in; they were burned for firewood by picnickers among the ruins. Vandals rode in on horseback and filled the walls with lead from their pistols and rifles. Cattle freely roamed about. On the floor there accumulated a heavy layer of garbage, manure, and earth. Beneath all of this-unmarked and un-mourned--was the grave of the founder of the California missions, Father Serra.

The American generation growing up among the ruins produced little verbal description of the missions or the mission Indians. What was written about them was often characterized by a tone of complete disinterest and contempt. Gertrude Atherton, later one of the most successful writers of her generation, expressed well the disinterest typical of the middle decades of the nineteenth century. She had spent part of her youth on a ranch near the decaying Mission San Antonio de Padua. In an early article entitled "A Native on the California Missions" she wrote:
Looked at with the cold eye of one indifferent to material, it is doubtful if there is any structure on earth colder, barer, Uglier, dirtier, less picturesque, less romantic than a California mission; so cheap are they, so tawdry, so indescribably common, so suggestive of mules harbored within, and chattering unshorn priests, and dirty Mexicans, with their unspeakable young. There is none of the mellowness, nor any of the beautiful stains of age on their glaring adobe walls; nothing but whitewash, blistered, or peeling, off in patches, which makes them look as if afflicted with a species of architectural leprosy.
How are we to account for this "malign neglect" of the mid-nineteenth century? Why were the missions allowed to fall apart? Why was the image of the "mission as ruin" so satisfying to the Anglo Americans in the decades after the conquest? Perhaps the image filled an important ideological or psychological need of the conquerors: it relieved them of any misgivings or guilt they may have felt over the forceful acquisition of California and its peoples. The "mission as ruin" demonstrated beyond a doubt the superiority of the new order in California. It became a symbol of the righteousness of the American action in seizing California, a sign of the fulfillment of the California Imperative and a validation of the nation's Manifest Destiny. The star of American California---with all its trade, its transcontinental railroad, its accumulated wealth, its agricultural and mineral product, on---shone ever more brightly when contrasted with the black hole of Hispanic California, as represented by those rotting piles of adobe, once known as the missions. In the face of such a contrast, who could doubt the wisdom or the morality of the American seizure of California?

In the midst of all this self-congratulatory celebration, we should also ask why concern for the status of the former mission Indians was so conspicuously absent during these middle decades of the nineteenth century. The answer is not hard to find, when we recall that these were also the years of intense and violent conflict between Anglo-Americans and California Indians. The state’s Indian population suffered its greatest decline in the decades of the 1850s, ‘60s, and ‘70s---a decline far greater than during the years of Spanish and Mexican rule. Gripped by fear and convinced of their own racial superiority, whites on the northern California frontier banded together to exterminate Indians. Units loosely organized as "state militia" went on Indian-hunting expeditions and in the process thousands of Indians were killed in brutal massacres. Thousands of others were held in virtual slavery on the ranches and farms of the new California. With such developments dominating the public consciousness, it would have strained the conscience of even the most hypocritical of Anglo-Americans to argue that the Indians had benefited by the change in ownership of California. The logical corollary to the image of the "mission as ruin" would have been the image of the "liberated Indian." But since such a corollary was so patently absurd, the status of the former mission Indians was conveniently forgotten.


The Romantic Revival

Following these middle decades of neglect and conspicuous decay, something curious happened. Beginning in the 1880s the missions came roaring back to public attention as part of a new, beautiful legend about "Spanish California." The missions emerged in the eighties totally transformed, their image the opposite of what it had been in the early European and American travel literature. The missions came to be portrayed as havens of happiness and contentment, in which the missionaries were gentle patriarchs and the Indians their simple and adoring children. This transformed image became a powerful icon in the regional identity of California and came to be styled simply the "Mission Myth.'" James D. Hart has commented on this remarkable change: "Men from the midwest and eastern United States, and a few proudly called native sons, aggrandized and exploited a loving legendry about a Spanish California that never would have been tolerated by the Americans of the 1840’s who were dedicated to the conquest of all that their descendants and successors so enthusiastically celebrated.

The emergence of the Mission Myth, as a symbol of California’s golden age, can be traced in large part to the publication in 1884 of Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel Ramona. Jackson was born and reared in Amherst, Massachusetts, and became a great champion of the American Indian. Her best known work, A Century of Dishonor (1881), documented the United States government's mistreatment of the native people. Following its publication, Jackson toured California and prepared a report on the needs of the former mission Indians of southern California, one of the first such expressions of concern since the pre-conquest days. Her report was largely ignored, although Jackson's writings were a major influence on creation of the federal Mission Indian Commission, which set aside some lands in trust for southern California Indians. Next, she decided to write a romantic novel, one that she hoped would rouse the conscience of the nation over the plight of the California Indians. In the novel, Ramona (1884), she contrasted the rapacity, greed, and cruelty of her fellow Anglo-Americans to what she imagined was the spirituality and lovingkindness of the old Spanish padres in the missions. She intended the novel to be the Uncle Tom's Cabin of Indian reform--but, ironically, it was her heavily sentimental image of the "good old Spanish days" that moved her readers, not the images of contemporary mistreatment of the Indians.

The book became enormously popular and widely celebrated in southern California, selling perhaps a million copies, but Jackson regarded it as a failure. Rather than stimulating a movement to aid the Indians, it inspired a regional tourist trade. The novel created a new "mission consciousness," especially in southern California. Picture postcards by the tens of thousands were published showing" "the place where Ramona [a fictional character!] was married." Tours were organized, carrying tourists along the Mission Trail and through the heart of "Ramona" Country."

Jackson's view of mission neophytes set a pattern of perception and description that would be repeated for generations. The Indians, she believed, had been happy and well-protected innocents who flourished under the benevolent care of the Spanish missionaries. As historian Kevin Starr has so aptly summarized, "in Helen Hunt Jackson's version of it all (and by the 1890s it was official myth), grateful Indians, happy as peasants in an Italian opera, knelt dutifully before the Franciscans to receive the baptism of a superior culture, while in the background the angelus tolled from a swallow-guarded campanile and a choir of friars intoned the Te Deum.''

One of the first visible results of the renewed interest in the missions was the emergence of a movement for mission preservation and restoration. A key figure in' the movement---and central to the evolving Mission Myth---was Massachusetts native Charles F. Lummis. Lummis arrived in Los Angeles in the 1880s and soon became publisher of a regional promotional and literary magazine, Land of Sunshine, filled with romantic legend and lore of the old mission days. He portrayed the mission Indians as humble recipients of the blessings of civilization and Christianization, an aboriginally benighted people who had been uplifted by heroic Spanish missionaries. Lummis also founded the Association for the Preservation of the Missions, dedicated to preserving and rebuilding the mission buildings. Lummis’s sentiments can be gauged from this early appeal for funds for mission restoration: “Staunchest survivors of the old regime of restfulness and romance, are the venerable mission churches; and even they are fast crumbling above the dust of a forgotten people. Noble monuments they are to the noblest of missionaries---those heroic Franciscans who pierced the deserts of an unknown world, subdued its savage tribes; and conquered the wilderness for Spain and the church.


An early accomplishment of the mission preservation movement was the erection in 1884 of a new shingle roof over the exposed mission ruin at Carmel. No longer would Serra’s church be attacked by vandals or erosion. Plans were also launched to build a highway once again linking all of the missions, along the route of the old El Camino Real. The Association for the Preservation of the Missions eventually became the Landmarks Club, and with backing from William Randolph Hearst and the Native Sons of the Golden West, it expanded its mission restoration campaign.

Another early reflection of the Mission Myth was the popularity of the Mission Revival architecture. Beginning in the 1880s, and continuing through the early twentieth century, the stucco, tiles, gables, and towers of the missions were copied in thousands of houses, hotels, office buildings, schools, and train stations around the state. Extravagant mission-style pavilions represented California in national fairs and expositions; they formed the basis for countless real-estate promotions. Mission Revival architecture seemed to offer something for everyone. It was endorsed as the ideal design for schools, on the grounds that it would impart high moral standards to students; it was used for train stations because such buildings echoed the supposed function of the missions as way stations. California architects who employed the style included Willis Polk, A. Page Brown, A. C. Schweinfurth, and Bertram Goodhue. Julia Morgan was also influenced by the revival; her eclectic design for the lavish Hearst estate at San Simeon contained many mission motifs. One of the most elaborate of the Mission Revival structures was Frank Miller's fabulous Mission Inn at Riverside.

The Mission Myth also inspired dozens of local pageants, plays, and celebrations. In 1905 the Ramona Play was first staged in Los Angeles, transformed in 1921 into the Ramona Pageant and performed annually under the auspices of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. Pennsylvania born lawyer and writer John Steven McGroarty produced the most successful of the mission pageants, The Mission Play, replete with kind-hearted missionaries and pious Indians. It premiered at San Gabriel in 1912, and subsequently was seen by an estimated 2.5 million playgoers. Soon communities throughout the state were staging their own local versions of the same story.

The image of the California Indians in such pageants and plays followed very closely the pattern set by Jackson and Lummis. The Indians were invariably depicted as a simple, innocent, and exceedingly primitive people, protected and uplifted by the Spanish priests. Typical of the local pageants was Rose of Carmelo, subtitled A Romantic ldyl of the Mission San Carlos, produced annually at Carmel in the early twentieth century. The program notes for the pageant described confidently the beneficent impact of the missions on the Indians: "The naked savage, grubbing for roots, nuts, and herbs, has become a first class farmer, an excellent weaver, a skilled artisan, or a musician." The Indians in the missions were taught to lead "regular and industrious lives, secure from the famines, diseases, and wars inevitable in a savage existence." When threatened by an onrushing horde of cruel soldiers, it was the missionaries who offered protection to the Indians: "The Padre places himself between the forces and cries out, 'They are our friends.'''

The popular literature celebrating the missions became a genre unto itself. The mission was the focus of whole generation of California local colorists. One of the most successful, and most interesting, was the defrocked Methodist minister George Wharton James, whose works include Old Missions and Mission Indians of California (1895), In and Out of California's Missions (1905); and Through Ramona Country (1908). Later examples are Charles Francis Saunders, The California Padres and their Missions (1915), Nellie Van de Grift Sanchez, Spanish Arcadia (1929), and Cora Older, California Missions and their Romances (1938).

The Mission Myth also had a powerful, and as yet unstudied, impact on public education in California. Early in the twentieth century the missions came to occupy a central place in the elementary social studies curriculum. The image of the missions in the state's instructional materials was overwhelmingly positive; the Indians were consistently portrayed as abysmally ignorant and primitive in their native state, and after 1769 contented beneficiaries of the missionaries' good will. Lola B. Hoffman's California Beginnings (1933, rev. 1948), published by the California State Department of Education, was devoted to "the romantic period in the history of the state which began at the founding of the first mission at San Diego." According to Hoffman, this was a golden age tor both Indians and missionaries when "everyone was happy and busy.'' In the 1940s Stanford University Press published a series of readers, one for each mission, written at the fourth-grade reading level. Helen M. Roberts's Clemente's Christmas: A Tale of Mission Soledad (1948) described the resident missionary as a man who gave the Indians "the best possible care and devotion." In return, the Indians "adored the gentle, good-natured padre.'' The volume in the Stanford series on Mission Santa Clara told "the story of a captive Indian girl who found happiness in her new Mission home," while the volume on Mission San Juan Capistrano described "the struggle of a young Indian against the terrifying superstitions of his people. One of the most popular of the Department of Education's curricular materials was Helen Bauer's California Mission Days (1951, rev. 1957). Here too are images of loving-kindness, contentment, and uplift: Father Serra's dream was to go to California "with gifts in his hands and }tore m his heart. He wanted to help the Indians of California." Bauer acknowledged that conflict sometimes broke the peace between Indians and missionaries, but such aberrations were caused by "warlike Indians" from the interior.


Profits and Values

Why the Myth of the Missions? How are we to account for the romantic revival of the missions, a revival that began in the 1880s and continued for decades? The most cynical explanation is profit. Romanticizing the missions was good business for many Californians. According to Carey McWilliams, the Mission Myth was simply the product of a conspiracy of California land developers, chambers of commerce, and the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe railroads. They promoted the myth for reasons of clear economic self-interest, to boost tourism and to sell real estate. As McWilliams argued in an article for Westways magazine in 1939, "the deeply rooted attachment to the word 'mission' with all its connotations, is largely traceable to the diligence with which early Los Angeles realtors propagated romantic notions concerning the historical background of Southern" California.'' McWilliams’s point is an important one, for certainly a great deal of money was invested by business interests in promoting the missions, and those interests expected a return on their investment. An article in The Grizzly Bear, the official organ of the Native Sons of the Golden West, reasoned in 1925 that the preservation of the missions was "not only an evidence of intelligent patriotism, but [is also] an evidence of good hard business sense. Historic spots have an economic value, wholly aside from their ethical or aesthetic worth, as the wise old nations of Europe long ago recognized. Picture what France or Italy would be if their places of historic interest were wiped out. Would tourists continue to flood them?''

The profit-motive may partially account for the rise of the Mission Myth, yet profit alone is ultimately an unsatisfactory and incomplete explanation. Promotion of the missions by civic boosters could not have been successful unless the missions met some basic needs of their clients or customers. What values did the missions come to represent? What was it about the missions that resonated so profoundly with the people of California?
To answer this question it is essential to realize that the Mission Myth emerged at a particular time, in a particular place, and among a particular population. Its terminus a quo was the 1880s, in southern California, largely among newly-arrived immigrants from the East Coast and the Midwest. The two leading figures m the movement---Helen Hunt Jackson arid Charles F. Lummis---both came from the East and arrived in the region in the 1880s. The eighties, of course, were a boom time for southern California. It was in this decade that the second transcontinental railroad, the Southern Pacific, was completed between Los Angeles and points East. When the third transcontinental, the Santa Fe, reached California, a rate war with the Southern Pacific brought the price of a ticket from Kansas City to Los Angeles down (briefly) to one dollar. The ensuing boom peaked in 1887, when over $200 million worth of real estate was sold m Los Angeles County alone.

The population of southern California in the 1880s thus a new and uprooted one. California was a continent away from the nation's traditional cultural centers of Boston and New York, not to mention Toledo and Des Moines. The Golden State was thought to be only newly-emerged from the crudity, violence, and chaos of its gold-rush beginnings. The missions, however, seemed to prove otherwise. They became symbols o fan ancient arid heroic past for California, a beginning of European civilization that antedated the Gold Rush. The missions provided a means for asserting a kind of superiority to, or at least a parity with, the traditional cultural centers of the East. The missions, viewed now as a part of the history of the United States, became California's Plymouth Rock and Jamestown. Although California might appear to have only recently emerged from a raw, frontier stage, the missions proved that California had an epic antiquity all its own. So it was that the primarily Anglo-Protestant population of California incongruously grafted itself onto the Latin-Catholic roots of the missions. The image of the missions came to fulfill a wholly new need for Californians, the need for antiquity and stability in a new land.

This appropriation of the missions by Anglo-Americans necessitated a change in the way the mission Indians were depicted. No longer was it appropriate to portray them as victims of mistreatment and exploitation. Such images had been useful to the pioneers a generation earlier, but now they impeded the wholesale adoption of the missions as a part of American history. California's mission past must be sanitized---its pain removed---before it could be embraced. Thus, the mission Indians were cast in their new role as a humble and contented people, well protected and cared for by benevolent mission fathers. Portrayed as such, the mission Indians could also take their place in that romantic vision of “the days of the padres [that] shimmered in a golden haze of mingled myth and memory, free of fanaticism and injustice, their cruelty and pain forgotten.''

The missions also became reassuring symbols of harmony and hierarchy for Californians who were witnessing the transforming forces of modernization. California in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, like the nation as a whole, was experiencing thoroughgoing social and economic change. This was a time of rapid industrialization, urbanization, and increasing stratification. For many Americans, these changes were disconcerting, even frightening. The image of the mission was invoked as a kind of mediator, connecting the brave new world of modern, industrial California with the golden age that went before. In an early twentieth-century advertisement for the Perflex Radio lies evidence of what historian Roland Marchand has called tile "therapeutic role" of advertising. The advertisement recognized "consumer discontent" with certain aspects of modernity, and it tried Io allay that discontent by connecting its product 1o the purity and spirituality of the old California missions:


As the Mission Bell rung by the Padre of Old called the Indians to the Sanctity of their place of worship, so the modern clear tone of the PERFLEX RADIO RECEIVER calls the family to the sanctity of the Home---and again the contrast of the pure tones of PERFLEX RADIO to the harshness of some receivers is as the comparison of the mellowness of the Mission bell to the blast of the automobile horn.
The Mission Myth, embodying the values of harmony and hierarchy, provided reassurance at a time when many Americans were experiencing profound fears and anxieties about social disharmony. There was ample evidence in the Golden State of industrial upheaval and class antagonism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Especially disturbing to many Americans was the influx of new immigrants from Asia and southern and eastern Europe. Ethnic and racial tensions increased, as nativists blamed the so-called “new immigrants” for unsettled conditions. The Mission Myth, with its docile Indian laborers working under the direction of benevolent mission fathers, suggested an ideal model of economic organization.

Whatever its origins, it is clear that by the 1920s the positive image of the mission was in nearly complete ascendancy. An advertisement for Don Lee Cadillac appeared in 1925 Touring Topics, in which the façade of the Santa Barbara Mission was used as backdrop for a convertible coupe. The positive values associated with the missions---antiquity, stability, harmony, and hierarchy---were to be transferred in the mind of the consumer from the mission to the automobile. The ad-writers knew that it was deadly to implant even the smallest grain of disagreement in the mind of the consumer. If La Perouse’s images of enslaved neophytes or Farnham’s vision of cartloads of Indian bones were still in any way current in the 1920s, we can be sure that the advertiser would not have positioned his product in front of a California mission.


The Contemporary Scene

Where are we today? What has been the image of the mission in recent decades? The popular image of the mission remains generally---if unthinkingly---romantic. The enthusiasm for California's Hispanic past is no longer what it was earlier in the century, but there is still much evidence of a generally sentimental, romantic view of the missions.

This sentimentality is most easily recognized in what might be called "mission schlock" or "mission kitsch." Hundreds of businesses and institutions still incorporate the words "mission," "mission bell," "padres," or "Junipero Serra" in their names, from potato chip manufacturers to motels; from baseball teams to freeways. The assumption remains that in all such christenings, the positive associations of the missions will be transferred to the potato chip or freeway in question.

Meanwhile, generally out of the public eye, there has ranged in the twentieth century a scholarly debate over the merits of the mission system. Three generations of scholars have argued that the missions were a beneficent institution. Among the most active in the field were Father Zephyrin Engelhardt and Professor Herbert Eugene Bolton in the 1910s, '20s, and "30s, Father Maynard Geiger in the 1950s and '60s, and Father Francis Guest in the 1970s and '80s. Professor Bolton credited the missionaries of California with "converting the natives, and training them in the ways of civilized, peoples." Junipero Serra, in Bolton's view, was "the greatest of all [in the] galaxy of Apostles to the heathen in North America.” The Indians of California were often portrayed in such accounts as a people greatly in need of uplift and progress. Franciscan historian Marion A. Habig's biography of Junipero Serra (1964) described the native people as "wretched aborigines" and "lower nomads who lived more like beasts than human beings.''

Positive images of the missions also continued to dominate the public school curriculum. Mabel Young Williams's California: A History, published by the California State Department of Education in 1965, portrayed the California Indians in their familiar role as beneficiaries of the "civilizing" efforts of the missionaries. According to Williams, the Indians in" the missions "had better food and clothing than they had ever had. They were more comfortable than they had ever been. Life in California was getting easier with each year that passed."

Scholarly critics of the missions have also been active in recent decades, stimulated in part by the emerging campaign for racial equality and the movement to overcome the legacy of past discrimination. The most devastating critique of the missions appeared in Professor Sherburne F. Cook’s four-volume study, The Conflict Between the California Indian and White Civilization (1943) Cook's views were strikingly reminiscent of the negative images that had appeared more than a century before in the earliest European and American travel literature. Cook asserted that the greatest single effect of the missions was to reduce the number of California Indians through the introduction of alien diseases, a suboptimum diet, and the disruption of native society. The missions were oppressive institutions, Cook argued, because they denied the Indians liberty, subjected them to cruel punishments, and established a system of forced labor.

Cook's views soon were popularized and exaggerated by journalist Carey McWilliams in Southern California Country (1946): "'With the best theological intentions in the world, the Franciscan padres eliminated the Indians with the effectiveness of Nazis operating concentration camps.''49 Forceful criticisms of the missions also appeared in the works of historians and anthropologists such as professors Jack D. Forbes, Robert F. Heizer, Edward D. Castillo, and George H. Phillips. School textbooks eventually began to reflect this more critical view. Houghton-Mifflin’s Oh, California (1991), the only fourth-grade text adopted by the State Department of Education in 1990, devoted an entire section to "Problems at the Missions." The text acknowledged the destructive impact of the missions on the Indian population and the mission Indians' resistance to enforced acculturation. The words of a Gabrielino woman, who had participated in a mission revolt in 1785, were quoted as evidence of Indian discontent: "I hate the padres and all of you, for living here on my native soil, for trespassing upon the land of my forefathers.''

Conflicting views of the missions and their impact on the Indians became a matter of widespread interest in the 1980s, as the movement accelerated to canonize Father Junipero Serra. The canonization process had begun in 1934 on the 150th anniversary of Serra's death. Thousands of documents on Serra and the missions were assembled by church historians, and in 1985 Pope John Paul II declared Serra to be "Venerable," the first step toward sainthood. Just three years later, the pope moved Serra to the second step by declaring him “Beatific.” Supporters of the Serra cause rejoiced that the church at last “recognized the extraordinary holiness of this man who was the founder of civilization in California.” Critics of the missions, particularly among Native American groups, denounced the move. Some described Serra as a "sadist" and a "fanatic," while one critic of the mission system complained that the canonization of Serra "would be another insensitive reminder of past oppression and maltreatment.''

To defend the missions and Father Serra against their critics, the bishop of Monterey, Father Thaddeus Shubsda, issued The Serra Report in 1986. The report was based on interviews with eight scholars, each of whom presented a favorable assessment of the impact of the missions on the Indians. As historian James A. Sandos recently observed, the scholars interviewed for the report occasionally "resorted to historical stereotypes of pre-contact aboriginal culture to exalt Serra's accomplishments.'' Thus the California Indians were generally portrayed in The Serra Report as a people deficient in concepts of property, family, medicine, and morality. The defensive tone of the report was set by Bishop Shubsda: "[Serra's detractors] are making historically unsound, unfounded allegations that reflect a lack of research and that neglect the facts…To the detractors we say: If there is proof, let us see it." The response to this challenge was soon forthcoming: from Cahuilla tribal chairman Rubert Costo and his wife Jeannette Henry Costo, founders of the American Indian Historical Society. The Costos compiled a collection of essays and documents, including Indian testimonies and personal recollections, that countered the conclusions of The Serra Report. Published as The Missions of California: A Legacy of Genocide (1987), the compilation offered an indictment of the mission system's destructive effects on the native peoples and a stinging rebuke to those who would make the founder of the California missions a saint.

Press coverage of these developments reflected the deep division in contemporary opinion on the issue of the missions and their impact on the California Indians. An article in The Sacramento Bee in February 1987 was headlined simply "Serra: Saint or Sinner?” When a similar article appeared m the San Jose Mercury News five months later, the question was slightly more extreme: "Serra's Mission: Saint or Sadist?'' Meanwhile the Contra Costa Times puzzled its readers the following year with the query: "Serra: Saint or Enslaver?'' Perhaps the ultimate in journalistic summation of this complex issue appeared in The Seattle Times story on "Father Serra: Franciscan Hitler?''


As these headlines suggest, the image of the missions and their impact on the California Indians has gone through a remarkable evolution during the past two hundred years. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the missions were often viewed by the imperial rivals of Spain, and later by the continental rivals of Mexico, as oppressive institutions, symbols of the failure of Hispanic colonization. The Indians in the missions were portrayed as long-suffering victims of exploitation. In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, following the American conquest of California, the missions were allowed to fall into ruin and were viewed as confirming evidence of the righteousness of American action. The plight of the mission Indians was all but forgotten. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries witnessed a romantic revival, in which the missions were appropriated as a part of American history. The missions were portrayed as havens of happiness and the Indians as beneficiaries of a superior civilization. The Mission Myth embodied values desperately needed by Californians in an age of rapid social and economic change, values of stability and antiquity, harmony and hierarchy.

In recent years, a scholarly debate has taken up both of the earlier traditions. Critics of the missions, reflecting a heightened sensitivity to past injustices, have attacked anew the missions and their record of treatment of the California Indians. Defenders of the missions, intent on preserving a positive view of Father Serra and his work, have restated the argument that the missions were benign institutions that brought lasting benefits to the California Indians. These disparate images of the missions are evidence of what historian William McNeill has called "mythistory," the attempt to make sense of objective reality through symbol and myth. The missions of California may be locked in time and space, but their image continues to roam freely through the imagination of each succeeding generation of Californians.



James J. Rawls is instructor of history at Diablo Valley College, Pleasant Hill, California. A graduate of Stanford University, he received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1975.



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