Junipero Serra—the Man and his Work - A. H. Fitch

Anxious Days

It was a hot August day when Junipero set out on foot from his mission, San Carlos, to travel to San Diego. With him were Fages, an escort of soldiers, and Padre Cavalier, the last named going in the capacity of minister to the fifth mission, San Luis Obispo, to the establishment of which Fages had now consented. It was the first time Junipero had taken the overland journey. He was enraptured with everything he saw, the groves of gigantic cypresses, the long forest stretches of noble live oaks, intermingled with fragrant firs and cedars, the brilliancy of innumerable wild flowers, the shining valleys, the high, shadowy hills, and all that picturesque scenery which nature has given to the land of California.

The first days of their journey they followed the coast, then struck off into the mountains, till they came within sight of the famous Caņado de los Osos. Overlooking a lovely valley and half a league from the caņado, Junipero selected the site for the new mission. It was on a pleasant hill, near a crystal stream, and three leagues from the sea. The business of founding a mission was usually a sufficiently simple one. It was enough that a padre should consecrate some sort of a shelter for a church, that he should be furnished with two or three sacred vessels and a small stock of provisions for himself and the soldiers who remained with him. Spiritual work was then at once begun. He and his guard made their home in the meanwhile in the greenwood, sleeping under starry skies or stormy until their first rude houses were erected.

In this manner was founded, September 1, 1772 San Luis Obispo. So inadequate was the allowance of food which could be spared Padre Cavaller it was necessary to leave an extra supply of coarse brown sugar with which he could purchase seeds from the Indians, who, retaining a grateful remembrance of Fages' bear-hunting expedition, were disposed to friendliness. The following day Junipero and Fages continued their march southward promising to forward fresh supplies to the mission when they reached San Diego. Cavalier, says Junipero, was "full of hope and confidence," which he also shared with him, though he adds:

Let us leave time to tell the story of the progress which I hope Christianity will make among the Indians here, in spite of the enemy who already began to lash his tail by means of a bad soldier . . . which greatly grieved the poor padre.

San Luis Obispo became in later years one of the wealthiest missions in the country. Mountain streams watered the rich lands in which were grown olives, apples, pears, figs, grapes, peaches, and other fruits, and cotton in large quantities. The first tiles in use in California were manufactured in this mission.

[Illustration] from Junipero Serra by A. H. Fitch


Descending to the coast again, Junipero and his party entered the beautiful region of the Santa Barbara channel, which long ago had been chosen as a desirable place for the establishment of San Buenaventura. Junipero determined to found this mission on his return journey. He seems to have entertained a particularly ardent wish to establish San Buenaventura, partly because his powerful friend and supporter, the Visitador General, Jose de Galvez, had chosen to give it his special patronage. Strangely enough, in spite of Junipero's repeated efforts, he did not succeed in founding the mission till shortly before his death in 1782. Instead of being among the first of the Alta California, establishments, San Buenaventura was, owing to certain concatenation of circumstances the last mission founded by the aged friar.

The situation of the Santa Barbara Channel country—midway between Monterey and San Diego—and its dense population rendered its acquisition, from a temporal point of view, an extremely important one to the conquerors. Junipero realized this fully. He cherished, as we have seen, the plan of forming a cordon of missions, which, starting from the extreme south of California, was to extend up the coast to San Francisco, the distance between the missions to be but a fait day's journey. It was an ambitious scheme and a noble one, and eventually was realized. The beautiful camino real  of later days was the footpath of the padres and their Indians as they traveled to and from their missions.

Ten days after leaving Padre Cavaller and his small-guard to erect the buildings at leisure, the travelers arrived at San Gabriel. It was Fray Junipero's first visit to the mission. As he let his gaze wander over the rich undulating country, he could see far off towards the east, towering above surrounding peaks, the great San Bernardino Mountain aglow with the splendor of the morning sun; to the north the lofty Sierras; while south and eastward stretched a plain, fertile, beautiful, and broad. Conditions in the San Gabriel mission had greatly improved, owing to the unremitting efforts of its ministers, and Junipero heard with delight, that a fair prospect existed of obtaining numerous converts. San Gabriel became in a short time the most important establishment in California. It served as a base for operations in the interior and enabled the government to carry out projects of a military and colonizing character, which would otherwise have been, if not impossible, at least impracticable.

The energetic Fray remained in this mission only long enough to receive the padres' reports and to thank them for their good work. Then he journeyed on, refusing to admit that he felt the strain of fatigue upon him. One of the padres from San Gabriel accompanied him to the southern port, to take charge of the supplies for his mission. Four days later they reached San Diego, Junipero foot-sore and very weary. His first act on arriving, before he rested, was to hasten to the harbor, where the two transports rode at anchor. The captain of the San Antonio  was as we know, a Majorcan. It was he Junipero sought. It was apparent that the captains of the transports, discouraged by their previous failure to reach Monterey, had no intention of attempting to make the northern port till the following spring. Perez was full of excuses. The season was late, he urged, and the autumn winds on the coast were violent. But Junipero refused to give these arguments weight. His Indians were near to starving, friars and soldiers were suffering from the scarcity of food. He finally wrung a promise from Perez to sail northward with his cargo of provisions immediately. Satisfied with the success of this effort the weary friar then superintended the packing of the mule train which was to carry needed supplies to San Luis.

These duties accomplished, Junipero, the burden of fatigue great upon him, sought rest in the mission. Yet even now he was permitted but a brief period of repose. Other matters equally, if not more, important were awaiting his attention. News had been received that Galvez, the powerful friend and coadjuster of the Californian conquest, had returned to Spain. Also the viceroy, the Marquis de Croix, who had always extended to Junipero's measures firm support and approbation, had left. Mexico and accepted the post of captain general in Valencia. Whether the new viceroy, Bucareli, would continue the broad, friendly policy of his predecessor in California affairs, was not known. The conquest was in that critical stage when the firm support of a liberal-minded viceroy was necessary to the continuance of its existence. Rumors reached Junipero that the naval station at San Blas, from which point the transports for California were equipped and sent out, was for economical reasons to be abandoned, and the supplies forwarded overland. The adoption of such a plan would, from its utter infeasibility, cause the ultimate abandonment of the new settlements. Still another source of uneasiness to the friar was the formal demand made by the Dominicans to assist in an equal degree with the Franciscans in the spiritual conquest and management of missions in California.

If the new viceroy should give his sanction to this demand, Junipero foresaw the endless complications and disagreements which such a division of authority would entail. Nor were these all the anxieties which confronted the president. There had existed for some time considerable friction between himself and Fages. Junipero's patience had been sorely tried by the quarrelsome young officer. That the latter's weakness was known to the viceroy is apparent from a letter he wrote Fages dated December, 1772, in which he charged him sternly to cease quarreling with the friars, to forget his personal prejudices, to promote mission work in every way, to treat converts well, and to labor more worthily for the service of God and his king. His unfortunate temper, his shortsightedness, his mediocre ability combined to render the lieutenant unfit to govern a country as wild and remote as California.

The severest trial Junipero had to encounter with Fages was the opposition he displayed to the founding of new missions. In the case of San Buenaventura this opposition finally resulted in an open rupture between the two. The supplies for the mission, the ministers, the sacred vessels, the agricultural implements were all in readiness at San Diego, nothing was lacking for the establishment but the soldiers necessary to form the guard. Yet when Junipero applied to Fages for this guard, he found to his bitter disappointment, as Palou tells us,

. . . the door dosed upon him and the commandant in such a mood that instead of founding new missions, the plans he contemplated were disastrous to the prosperity of those which already existed and which had cost so much labor to establish. [Palou, Vida, p. 146]

To change these projects Junipero employed all his prudence, patience, and skill, but without avail. Fages not only refused to reconsider his plans, but even went to the trouble of copying with elaborate care certain instructions of the viceroy's in which he cautioned the president and padres to furnish a good example to everyone in the province by obedience to the commandant. To this communication Junipero contented himself with replying that neither he or his subordinates had failed, or ever would fail to respect the commandant's orders.

In his intercourse with Fages, Junipero was always courteous. He appears like the founder of his order, to have seen in courtesy one of the qualities of God. Yet he met from the young Catalan little more than a succession of harsh rebuffs. With such a man at the helm, it is not surprising that Junipero had a hard struggle to prevent the entire conquest from becoming a failure. The troubles arising from Fages' attitude combined with the unknown policy of the new viceroy, the departure from Mexico of California's most powerful friend, Galvez, and the abolishment of the San Blas naval station made the situation appear to Junipero a very grave one.

He discussed the critical points in detail with the three missionaries who were in San Diego. All agreed that it was imperative for one of their number to journey forthwith to Mexico, interview the new viceroy, arouse his interest, if possible his enthusiasm, in the California cause, and win from him concessions which would insure the existence of their missions. It is not surprising that the friars with whom Junipero consulted should unanimously declare that he and he alone was competent to accomplish this task. He was the most eloquent, the most energetic, and mentally the best equipped of all their fraternity; therefore the least likely to encounter failure in this vital undertaking. If Junipero hesitated, feeling his sixty years weighing heavily upon him, and because of his lameness and the two hundred leagues of foot journey confronting him to add to the fatigue of the long journey he so recently had completed, it was but for a short time. He agreed to go. And so this master-spirit of the California conquest roused his tired body once more to action and prepared for the long, and to him, perilous journey to the capital of New Spain.

From the day he first stepped on California soil and looked down on the blue bay of San Diego, to that August morning in beautiful Carmel when he uttered his last prayer and his great tired heart ceased beating, he served the land of his adoption without faltering. It may be said of him that he walked the earth with bleeding feet and breathed out his life for California and her children. To have high hopes and noble aims in the morning of life is—common to most men; to cleave to those hopes and keep pure those aims amid the trials and distractions of later days is achieved by some; but to follow to life's end the lodestar of the soul, subordinating all else, to know the flood tide of spiritual life, and not be strangle: in the ebb, this is given only to the few who have been among the noble of the world.