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


Fray junipero was not long in deciding on the course he would take. Three padres were in the San Diego presidio. These were Fuster, the surviving minister of the ruined mission, the scholarly Lasuen, and one Santa Maria. Both Lasuen and Santa Maria had been detailed for the San Capistrano mission. From these friars Junipero learned that Rivera had ceased his punitive expeditions, that the Indians were tranquil, that the soldiers were lounging in the presidio  with nothing to do, and that in spite of these facts work on the restoration of the ruined mission was not begun or even contemplated by the commandant. Junipero was prepared for exactly these conditions. The moment for vigorous independent action had now arrived. He knew the transport was to remain in port until October. He sought Don Diego Choquet, the commander of the San Antonio, and asked him if he would permit his mariners to help in restoring "the mission of the saint of his own name." The request was cleverly worded and Don Diego was not proof against the old man's diplomacy. His reply was that of a true caballero, for he not only agreed to let his sailors work, but offered his own services as well.

A note was sent to Rivera's quarters, informing him of the offer and requesting a guard to protect the sailors while they worked. Rivera, having no excuse for refusing either the proffered help or the guard, was forced to accept the one and supply the other. Accordingly, to the delight of Fray Junipero, the restoration of the San Diego mission was commenced. Sailors and neophytes labored with a good will under the supervision of the San Antonio's  commander and that of the enthusiastic padre. Stones were gathered, adobe bricks made and foundations dug. The work progressed rapidly. It was confidently expected that before the sailing of the transport, Don Diego's mariners would have the restoration completed.

Two weeks passed. One morning when Junipero was detained at the presidio, Rivera rode out to the mission. He called Choquet aside and told him of a report which had reached him that the savages were planning an attack on the mission and therefore he intended to withdraw the guard. He advised Choquet to take the same precautionary measures with his sailors. The sea captain argued and protested in vain. Rivera was obstinately determined to withdraw the guard, although admitting that he had made no attempt to investigate the truth of the report, and also that a similar rumor had only quite recently been altogether disproved by one of his sergeants. Choquet, thoroughly disgusted, was nevertheless obliged to yield to the commandant's wishes. It appears that Rivera had some compunction about informing Junipero of the orders he had issued, for he begged Choquet to attend to this part of the business for him. Don Diego consented but, at the same time expressed his opinion of the commandant's action in no very flattering terms.

With all the armed force which is here, there is no danger. You would be more respected, if imagining danger, you increased the guard, instead of withdrawing it and bringing shame upon the Spanish arms. [Palou, Vida, p. 193.]

Junipero was almost heart-broken. He had encountered with courage and patience every obstacle placed in his way in the founding of new missions, but to lose one already founded was a blow he with difficulty could bear. The friars appointed to administer the San Diego and San Capistrano missions were discouraged; they requested permission to return to their college in Mexico. If they were not to be allowed to pursue their work of Christianizing and civilizing the Indians they argued, why should they remain in California?

In the midst of these distressing conditions, news reached the little fort that a company of soldiers—twenty-five in number—commanded by a sergeant, was marching northward from Baja California and was already within a few days journey of San Diego. Junipero awaited eagerly the arrival of this company. He was convinced that the soldiers were the guards for the new missions. His enthusiasm, however, was somewhat held in check by Rivera's equally confident belief that the men were sent to augment the presidio  forces. As the days slowly passed Junipero's anxiety became intense. It would appear as if San Diego was destined to be the place where the father of the California missions was to experience his greatest anxieties. Here he had heard Portola announce the abandonment of California; it was here Fages had definitely prohibited the founding of more missions; it was here rumors had reached him of the abolishment of the San Blas naval station; it was here the Indians had revolted; and it was here where he now waited for the coming of the soldiers whose orders would either strengthen or dash his hopes for the future of the conquest. Would the viceroy's instructions uphold Rivera's dilatory defensive policy? Or would they favor Junipero's policy—which was to advance, ever advance, peaceably when possible (and his close study of the California Indian caused him to believe this was always possible), or if not, why then aggressively?

There was force and character in the president's chosen course. He did not shun responsibility, he was not valiant in words and weak in deeds, but was energetic, efficient, even audacious, where audacity was necessary to his purpose.

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


Rivera, on the contrary, was more weak than wise, more cautious than vigorous, more domineering than discriminating. Between the two men there was mutual and courtly distrust. Both had written to the viceroy after the San Diego disaster; both had strongly expressed their opinions as to the best course to pursue, and both were now waiting for replies to their letters, the one feverishly, excited and anxious, every fiber in his small over-worked, delicate body tingling with a nervousness ill-concealed; the other, taciturn, gloomy, but confident that his judgment would be the one accepted. The viceroy's decision would be momentous to the Spaniard's progress in California, both in its immediate and more remote results. They had not long to wait. Dust-covered, grimy with heat and perspiration, the soldiers arrived in the fort and their sergeant delivered the viceroy's dispatches to Rivera and Junipero. It will be remembered that in the president's letter to the viceroy he had begged his intercession in behalf of the Indian's culprits, and also had asked that the ruined San Diego mission be restored and San Juan Capistrano founded.

Viceroy Bucareli apparently had little difficulty in making up his mind as to the justice and wisdom of these requests. In his letters he expressed him-self as being in sympathy with Fray Junipero's "prudent and Christian "policy of kindness towards the Indian culprits, and he believed with His Reverence that such a policy would be more efficacious in pacifying and subduing the savages, than punitive measures would be. He had written to this effect to the Commandant D. Fernando Rivera y Moncada and had instructed him to act accordingly. He had also reminded that officer that the most important business now was building anew the San Diego mission and establishing San Juan Capistrano. He finally assured His Reverence that he, El Baylio Frey D. Antonio Bucareli y Ursua, was disposed to grant him all possible aid in furthering his pious work.

Junipero was almost beside himself with joy One was always conscious of the deep emotional feeling of the man; whatever he thought and felt, he expressed openly. It was as if he turned himself inside out for the gaze of others. But we may add that few men could afford so well to expose their inner selves to public comment and inspection, as Fray Junipero Serra. He now had the church bells rung and chanted a Te Deum  in thanksgiving. Rivera, in the meanwhile, had little cause for rejoicing; he found himself in the awkward position of being compelled to countermand his own order. The Indians he had captured, who were still in durance pending their disposition to San Blas, whither Rivera intended sending them, were liberated. Work on the mission was resumed; preparations were made for the founding of San Juan Capistrano.

Nor was this all. In the viceroy's letter to Rivera which was written before Anza's report reached the capital, he had commented on the San Francisco presidio  and mission as if both had long since been established. This caused the commandant to consider it expedient to hurry north and attend to that long-delayed matter. Junipero remained in San Diego to see work on the ruined mission well under way and to replace, as far as possible, the lost registers containing the lists of baptisms, marriages, and deaths. He added to these entries a detailed account of the happenings at San Diego during his sojourn there. These duties accomplished, he set forth, late in October, for San Juan Capistrano, accompanied by a brother friar, a guard, and several pack mules carrying the usual accessories necessary to establishing a mission. It was on a soft November day—the first of the month—when the buried bells were dug up and set a-pealing, and Junipero, "tremulous with joy," said mass among the fragrance of belated summer flowers and the purple fruit of wild-grape vines. So was founded San Juan Capistrano, the seventh mission in Alta California, the seventh link in that long chain Junipero toiled with such infinite patience and perseverance and fervor to forge.

San Juan Capistrano is situated in one of the most romantic spots in California. "The country here for several miles is high table-land, running boldly to shore and breaking off in a steep hill, at the foot of which the waters of the Pacific are constantly dashing."

It is now a pretty little village nestling in a hollow and surrounded by smooth, low, conical hills, While in the not-far distance the waters of the Pacific roll restlessly against its shores. The mission lies on a slight elevation at the head of the village, and from its shaded, arched corridors one can watch the sleepy life of the little street. Until its destruction in the earthquake of 1812, San Juan Capistrano had the handsomest mission building in California and even now its ruins speak eloquently of former grandeur. Under the tiled roof, of the long stone corridors, where massive pillars give support to rose and honeysuckle vines—whose pink and yellow flowers exhale a delicate fragrance—swallows have built their nests in undisturbed and twittering peace. Orange trees, palms, and brilliant berried pepper trees throw a pleasant shade in the grass-grown courtyard, deserted now by all its former silver-tongued Spanish occupants. The buzzing of tiny winged things, the song of the mocking bird, the frightened flutter of a great white owl, as it flies out from its retreat in the ruined sacristy where some curious stranger has disturbed its slumbers, are the only sounds heard today in the San Juan Capistrano mission, once so prosperous in converts and teeming with busy life.

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


In order to hasten the construction of the buildings, Junipero trudged to San Gabriel, many miles to the north, to procure neophytes to assist in the work, and to bring back additional provisions and some cattle for the new mission. On his return the energetic old friar found the gait of the pack mules and animals too slow, and in spite of his lameness he pushed on in advance, accompanied only by a San Gabriel neophyte and one of the soldiers who had charge of the cattle.

When within ten leagues of San Capistrano, he heard wild war cries, and saw rushing towards him a horde of armed and painted savages. He stood still, the strange exaltation of the religious enthusiast who has longed for martyrdom upon him. But the ready wit of the neophyte saved his life. He shouted a quick warning to the savages not to kill the old man, as soldiers were approaching who would revenge in a terrible manner the death of their padre. On hearing their own language, the savages, impelled by curiosity, stopped to listen. Junipero then fearlessly approached them. With gifts of colored glass beads he soon caused them to forget their hostile intentions in a childish delight in their new ornaments. After urging them to come to the mission and learn the true faith, Junipero with the soldier and their loyal guide continued unmolested on their way.

Junipero remained at Capistrano to see the buildings successfully commenced, then he again resumed his northward journey. Before leaving he addressed—with the aid of an interpreter—the throng of savages who, incited by curiosity, ridicule, and defiance, surrounded the new mission. His eloquence, all made of love, pity, and pious zeal, if more than partially lost through the dull medium of an uninspired neophyte, must still have roused in the wondering natives a certain desire to test the truth of his promises, for San Capistrano soon became rich in converts.

Junipero stopped on his way north at the intervening missions, encouraging the padres, advising, praising, admonishing, as he deemed expedient. With his entrance into a mission there came a breath of new strength, of new hope to those within. He preached, baptized, and taught during even his shortest sojourn. There was no toil which he spared himself. He worked with all his energy; his hours were long; his interest unceasing. He examined every detail connected with the establishment. Nothing was considered too trivial to merit his attention. He marked the condition of the neophytes, the progress the friars had made in Christianizing them, the number of new converts as compared with those of other missions. He examined the vegetable gardens, the fields which had been newly planted, the crops which had been recently harvested. He noted the increase of live stock, the quantity of fruit trees and how they thrived; the new roof of tiles on the church, the new set of shelves for the padres' books; and every-where he pointed out practical ways and means of attaining desired results. His visits left the friars, with fresh ardor for their spiritual labors and with wise suggestions for the betterment of their mission. This combination of profoundly spiritual life and executive ability, of religious fanaticism and practical common sense, leaves one amazed. Junipero was in truth not only the master-spirit of the conquest, but the inspiration and guiding genius of every missionary in the province.

During the remainder of his lifetime he made periodical visits to the missions and always on foot. Forcible contrasts have been drawn by several writers between the strength and endurance of the men of the present and that of the hardy pioneers whose memorable journeys of hundreds—nay thousands—of miles were all performed on horseback. But if those riders of the past command our admiration, what can we say of the man whose indomitable spirit and untiring energy enabled him to cover the immense distances of the Californian coast on foot? Lame, footsore and immensely weary, he traversed the wilderness, buoyed not by the glory of discovery or the lust for gold, but by love and pity for his fellowmen.

In the intervals of these journeys Junipero wrote frequent and long letters of instructions, advice, and encouragement to the padres. His letters were copious; one is inclined to add, relentlessly copious. There was no detail beneath his interest. Now and then a little touch of quiet humor crept into these serious epistles, as when he urged a discouraged missionary to reconsider his request to return to Mexico and reminded him of the friar, who asked permission to retire to his cell instead of attending matins because he did not feel in a good humor, to whom the superior replied, that if such an excuse were admitted "every friar would retire, and I among the first."

Junipero had not been present at the founding of all the California establishments, yet their existence was directly due to his constant supplication to the viceroy, his efficiency in obtaining ways an means, his insistent soliciting of the authorities both by word of mouth and by writing. Every few weeks soldier couriers carried the mail from Monterey or San Diego to Baja California, where it was forwarded to its destination. On these occasions Junipero never failed to send long letters to the viceroy, to the guardian of San Fernando, even to Jose de Galvez in Spain, to everyone, in fact, who could further his projects of increasing the number of missions. In these letters he advanced arguments, made pleas, cited facts to prove the necessity of additional establishments in the province. Ever summer or autumn, when the yearly transport entered the harbor, he was ready with another batch of bulky letters to the same personages, pleading the same old story. He gave the authorities no peace in the matter and by sheer persistence always managed to gain his point, although his continued iterations invoked the groans of his well-wishers in Mexico. To not a few high officials in Mexico the worthy friar had appeared importunate and wearisome with his ceaseless pleadings for new missions,

"This Father Junipero," they said, "is a saintly man, but in the matter of asking to found missions he is a troublesome saint."

It was January when Junipero reached Monterey, the front door, so to speak, of his own mission San Carlos. Monterey was at this time merely a collection of huts enclosed by a wooden fence called a palisade, the whole dignified by the name of presidio.

It was garrisoned by about twenty soldiers.

In the main, life in the presidio  was a dull one. In Fray Junipero's time, no foreigner visited California. The arrival of the yearly transports was the only pleasurable excitement which came to this small Spanish world. When the sentinels at Monterey, during their monotonous beats, descried on the far horizon the gleam of white sails, the good news spread like wildfire through the fort, which forthwith took on an air of bustle and activity. And later, when the ship, with furled sails, rode at anchor in her usual mooring place, soldiers and peons who had been running back and forth between corrals and pasture fields, driving in the presidio  mules, might now be seen riding with reckless speed down the hill to the beach, where a stout wharf had been built for the landing of the ships' cargoes. Here amid shouts of gay laughter, quick exchanges of lively jests, and greetings of old acquaintances, began the busy work of unloading. The supplies were then packed upon the backs of mules and carried up the hill to the presidio, the heavily laden animals urged on to greater speed by the muleteers' sharp cries and forcible ejaculations. All day long and the next and again the next, this constant procession of mule trains went back and forth between presidio  and embarcado. From the near-by missions, friars accompanied by trusty neophytes, hurried to Monterey to take their portion of supplies, to hear the latest news and receive the mail. From neighboring heights, dark-skinned savages watched with keen interest this periodical commotion among the strangers in their land. The ship's arrival was, in fact, a time of general rejoicing, arousing something of the same feeling of delight which travelers experience when they come upon an oasis in the desert. When, finally, the cargo was all unloaded and the ship, one fine morning hoisted her boats, hoved anchor, and made sail, every man on the shore strained his eyes to take a last look at her graceful form as she sped swiftly out to sea.

Then began again the dull monotony of presidio  life, a monotony which never varied from month to month except on the occasion of feast days, when double rations were apportioned to the men, and Fray Junipero or Padre Crespi came over from San Carlos mission to say mass; or when reports of Indian troubles in the southern establishment caused a ripple of excitement, or a storm of apprehension, according to the nature of the news received. The Indians in the neighborhood of Monterey gave little trouble. Occasionally an outbreak was feared, but in the main peace prevailed. Civilization here did not come "riding on a powder-wagon."

Around San Juan Capistrano, San Gabriel and San Luis Obispo the savages were not so amicably inclined. Especially was this true at the last-named place where they had made frequent assaults on the mission, shooting burning arrows upon the tule roofs and attempting to destroy the buildings. These attempts caused the energetic padres to experiment with the making of tiles for their roofs. They were so successful that soon every mission was supplied with bright, picturesque but durable tiles.

Spanish California at this period seldom came in touch with the great history making events of its own times. Friars, soldiers, settlers, heard of the American Revolution only long after it was over. For the first sixteen years of Spanish occupation no foreigner put foot on California's soil. The only ships that entered the harbors were the transports from San Blas, the only news they brought was the election of a new official to some government post, the last year's health of the king in Spain, of the pope in Rome, the latest rulings of the viceroy, the latest quarrels of the Dominicans in the Baja California missions. Or sometimes the news would be of a more thrilling nature, as when they heard of the earthquake shocks which in the spring of 1776 shook the City of Mexico during twenty days, and so alarmed the worthy archbishop that he fled to Guadalupe, while the wealthiest citizens abandoned their homes to sleep in their coaches outside the city, the brave Bucareli alone refusing to join in the flight, and remaining bivouaced in his garden, ready to extend assistance wherever it was needed. On one occasion a little ripple of excitement was caused in Monterey by the arrival of a royal order to keep a sharp outlook for the appearance of strange vessels off the coast and to prevent their navigators from entering any California port. This order applied particularly to a "certain Englishman named Captain Cook," who was bound on a voyage of discovery in the South Seas.

Carlos III. took every precaution to keep his operations on the Pacific coast secret from the European powers. He was so successful in this effort that the Spanish settlement in California remained for many years practically unknown to the powers with the probable exception of Russia, who, for reasons of her own, kept her knowledge secret.

It was not till 1786 that the first foreigner visited Monterey. He was a French explorer, the gallant Sieur de La Perouse. We read in his journal:

The English have lately found means of procuring a copy of the diary of a pilot of the name of Maurelle which they have published, or we should not even have known that missions existed at Monterey. [La Perouse, Voyage Round the World, p. 296]

or, indeed, anywhere else in Alta California. This means that full seventeen years after the occupation of the country, when it contained eleven missions, six presidios  and several pueblos, the Existence of these settlements was totally unknown to the world. The knowledge was derived from the reports Perouse sent home to his government. But even he was not fully informed concerning the extent of Spanish occupation in the new province. The French explorer came to Monterey provided with credentials from the minister of Spain, and the Californian authorities were instructed to accord him a cordial welcome. This was done, and while his eager quest for information about the country, her inhabitants, the number of missions and presidios, etc. were frankly satisfied, care was taken to keep him in ignorance of the colonization of the pueblos. We find in one of his letters to the French government the following statement:

New California, notwithstanding its fertility, does not yet possess a single European inhabitant. A few soldiers, who have married Indian women, and either live in the forts, or are scattered in small parties on the public service, and the different missions constitute at present the whole of the Spanish nation in this part of America. [La Perouse, Voyage Round the World, p. 209]

In this connection it is also interesting to read what Monsieur Mommeron, who was with the French expedition, has to say concerning the probable future importance of California.

On Board the Boussole,

Dec. 24—1786.

. . . A century or two will in all probability elapse before the Spanish settlements to the north of the peninsula of California will engage the attention of the great maritime powers of Europe; and it will be long even before the nation, in whose possession they are at present, will be able to found colonies there capable of making any considerable progress. Its zeal, however, for the propagation of the faith, has already induced it to establish several missions; but there is a reason to believe that even privateers, of so little importance is the country, will hardly think it worth their while to interrupt the pious exercises of the ecclesiastics. [La Perouse, Voyage Round the World, p. 296]

This was written of a land whose beauty and fertility soon drew men from the four quarters of the globe; whose salubrious climate made it the Mecca of the many, the land that became the El Dorado of 1849, the land that boasts the great port of San Francisco where East and West meet in commercial rivalry. When we remember all this one is forced to reflect on the futility of most human prophecy.