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

Missionary Hardships

California is a country marvelously rich, beautiful, and fertile. It has little in common with her sister peninsula of the same name, unless it is that the sun shines with something of equal warmth and brilliancy in them both. In the newer California nature has been wonderfully prodigal in her gifts. This was particularly true at the time of the Spanish occupation. On the foothills, herds of mountain sheep grazed leisurely, and where pyramids of rock were piled high in naked grandeur, leaped swift-footed antelope or deer. Over the lakes circled immense flocks of wild fowl; the cool mountain streams and rivers were filled with trout and salmon, "of a flavor that takes from Lent half the merit of abstinence," declared an American divine, half a century later. Great fields of wild oats, where the tufted quail made their covert, ripened annually, ungarnered, in the sun. Innumerable berry-bearing bushes and grape-yielding vines furnished food for birds and man. The valleys were carpeted with flowers of gorgeous hue, and long stretches of magnificent live oaks, unobstructed by underbrush, formed natural parks in which to roam.

Yet in this fragrant, sun-kissed land, where winter is as spring, heavy with sweet blossoms, where the overflowing bounties of nature reduce man's struggle for a livelihood to a minimum, lived a people lower, more degraded, than can be found elsewhere in the whole North American continent. Barbarism was not without its grandeur among the Indians of the Atlantic slope. The Delawares, the Iroquois, the Hurons, the Cherokees were valiant, resolute of spirit, proud, nobly proportioned, and possessing an intellect which excited more often our admiration than our contempt. But on the other side of the great mountain ramparts, in the radiant land between the Sierra and the Pacific, the natives were sunk almost to the level of the brute creation. There is little to remind one of the other North American Indians in the character or appearance of the Californian. Some ethnologists even claim that the Californian Indians are descended from a totally different race. It is impossible to reach any definite conclusion regarding their origin. All such conclusions can be based only upon speculation. It would, however, seem unlikely that the Californians differed in their descent from other races living on the continent at the time of its discovery by Columbus. Though there may have been races extinct before the coming of the Indians as we know them, it is not impossible that the present North American Indian is of Asiatic stock. He bears in many respects a striking resemblance to the Chinese. This resemblance, while it is more marked in the tribes nearer the Atlantic coast, can still be traced in the Eskimos and Kamchatkans. That detached families of these peoples later left their bleak, northern home and wandered southward in quest of summer skies, finally reached the warm and fertile land of California and settled there, seems not improbable.

In this winterless climate, where the days were balmy and always young, the dewy nights cool and refreshing, where man's simple wants were supplied by nature's prodigality without the necessity of great exertion, the Indians soon developed a slothfulness of mind and body surpassing that of any other people. One historian claims for them, however, the possession of intellectual faculties capable of considerable development.

Their stupidity was the result rather of mental torpidity caused by idleness and the absence of those kinds of stimulus which in other lands have produced civilization than any absolute limitations of their natural forces.

The Californians were slothful, yet inordinately fond of amusement; good-natured, yet treacherous; in their habits and their persons inexpressibly filthy; fond of bathing, yet delighting after their bath to wallow in the dirt. The men went usually nude, often painting themselves in grotesque stripes of red and black. The women wore an apron-like garment of fringed tule grass; they were tatooed from childhood on the face, breast, and arms, using for this purpose a thorn of the cactus, and a kind of charcoal made from the century plant. The complexion of the Californian was nearer black than brown; his forehead low and, retreating; his mouth large, with thick lips and prominent cheek bones; his nose flat. He wore his long, straight hair twisted into a topknot, or loose and flowing. His dwelling was of the most primitive kind, consisting of an excavation some three or four feet deep and ten to thirty feet wide; around the brink willow poles were sunk and drawn together at the top, thus forming the conical shape of the tepee. Excessive indolence made the men indifferent hunters. Rather than chase the deer and antelope on the mountain slopes, they fed on grasshoppers, frogs, rats, mice, skunks, or larger game if it happened to come their way. On the coast, a stranded whale and fish formed their favorite diet. Their principal sustenance however was obtained from acorns, which they ground into a kind of flour and baked. It was declared by travelers to be not unpalatable.

They showed some ingenuity in their manufacture of baskets, in which they cooked their food. These baskets were made of fine grass, so closely woven as to be completely water-tight. They were frequently ornamented with bright feathers and bits of mother-of-pearl taken from the interior of shells. When the activity of their minds was quickened under the tutelage of the Franciscan Fathers, they wove delicate patterns into their baskets. A particularly pretty design was a butterfly with folded wings. The spotted snake, garter snake, water scorpion, and deer teeth were also skillfully represented. The baskets served them for a variety of purposes, but principally for water vessels, cooking vessels, and drinking cups. When a squaw desired to prepare a meal for her lord, she placed the raw food in a bowl-shaped basket, into which she had previously poured water; she then threw red hot stones into the receptacle in quick succession until its contents were deemed sufficiently boiled.

The Californians were divided into innumerable petty tribes, each one of which spoke a mutually unintelligible language, and this even when living within fifteen or twenty miles of each other. Their general characteristics varied but slightly. Polygamy prevailed in most of the tribes. It was not uncommon for a man to wed an entire family of sisters and even the mother if she chanced to be a widow. In this particular the Dieguenos and their near neighbors showed a slight improvement over the more northern tribes, for their chiefs only were permitted a plurality of women; though others of the community were privileged to change their wives as often as they desired. There is a belief among some writers on California that her people were cowardly, easily intimidated, and as easily subjugated. The Californian was not a coward. His understanding may have been naturally feeble, his disposition, naturally treacherous, but he was a brave fighter, though his extraordinary slothfulness not infrequently kept him from engaging in conflicts. The training a Dieguenos youth received before he was adjudged worthy to become a warrior was more than Spartan in its severity. He was whipped until he became unconscious; he was then placed upon a nest of virulent ants, which were roused to anger by constant stirring with sticks. The ants, infuriated by this treatment, swarmed from their nest and crawled over every portion of the youth's body, even into his eyes, ears, nose, and mouth, causing the most excruciating suffering. If this ordeal was unflinchingly endured, the youth was pronounced worthy of becoming a warrior. His weapon, besides the invariable bow and arrow, was a javelin four or five feet in length, made of wood and sharply flint-tipped. The men displayed considerable skill in their manner of hurling this weapon. The arrows were sometimes poisoned with the venom of serpents or the juice of a poisonous plant. The custom of scalping was not universal, though a habit of amputating for trophies the hands, feet, or head of a fallen enemy prevailed. The French explorer, La Perouse, tells of another custom still more revolting.

When they had vanquished and killed on the battle field a chief or any warrior, renowned for his bravery, they would eat some portion of him, not from hatred or revenge, but rather as a homage which they rendered his courage and in the belief that such a nutrition would augment their own valor.

The manner of dealing with their own wounded or sick was sufficiently simple. In cases of fever or similar ailments, cold water or an emetic was used, or sometimes . . .

. . . the sufferer was placed naked upon dry sand or ashes with a fire close to his feet and a bowl of water or gruel at his head and then left for nature to take its course, while his friends and relatives sit around and howl him into life or into eternity.

Their medicine men were commonly sorcerers who held intercourse with supernatural beings and chanted incantations. They frequently extorted a kind of blackmail from their victims by threatening them with evil. They were, however, familiar with the benefits of certain herbs, which they crushed and applied as poultices to wounds, and they also understood the uses of the sweat bath. The Californians had no domestic animals. They had never seen a horse, mule, or cow until the Spaniards entered their country; even dogs, cats, and the ordinary barnyard fowl were unknown to them. In regard to their religion they can scarcely be said to have formulated a system or anything approaching to one. The majority of the tribes venerated the coyote. An unroofed enclosure was their place of worship. Here they placed an image of the god "Chinigchinich "made from the skin of a coyote and stuffed to resemble the living animal. "Chinigchinich "came down from the stars to instruct them in many things, but principally how to dance and, having accomplished this, returned again to his home in the skies. This heaven was not the North American Indian's "happy hunting ground "but a place where people would live forever "eating, drinking and dancing and having wives in abundance." Father Boscana says "such was the delight with which they took part in their festivities that they often continued dancing day and night and sometimes entire weeks."

This then was the object of their existence, to eat, to drink, to dance, to have wives in abundance. Such briefly were the savages, for whose sake Fray Junipero Serra had painfully journeyed long stretches of desert country. A great wave of compassion for these wretched, depraved creatures swept over him. He came amongst them prepared, nay longing, to lay down his life to secure their salvation. If there was a touch of pious selfishness in his fervent desire for a crown of martyrdom, he was none the less animated by a magnificent pity, a wonderful love and sympathy toward these children of the wilderness.

The Dieguenos were not a shy folk. They flocked daily in large numbers to the little settlement and watched with augmenting curiosity the movements of the Spaniards. They did not confine themselves however, to this harmless occupation; being expert thieves and apparently enamored of all kinds of cloth, they succeeded in abstracting such quantities that the Spaniards bade fair to retain nothing but the clothes on their backs. It is strange that dress, the most cumbersome paraphernalia imposed on man by the artificial forms of civilization, should be the object of the greatest envy of unburdened savages.

The Spaniards soon found the situation harassing. The number of sick was constantly increasing. The few who remained well were unable to adequately guard the missions and care for their stricken companions. Fortunately the savages shunned the food of the Spaniards, attributing to it the cause of the disease which had so decimated their ranks. If a morsel of sweetmeat or dried fruit was placed in an Indian's mouth, he promptly spat it out again, as if it had been poison. While the Dieguenos refused the material food of the Spaniards, they showed equal persistency in declining the spiritual fare Junipero was so anxious to bestow on them. Day and night they haunted the mission, yet not one among them evinced the smallest inclination to become a convert. They continued their thieving in the most audacious manner. In vain the Spaniards tried persuasion, threats, and the noise of firearms. The Indians only laughed and scoffed at them and grew bolder in their depredations.

One night in their balsas  (crafts constructed of tule, the most primitive means of navigation found among any people), they paddled out to the San Carlos  and cut away portions of the sail. This raid made it necessary to detach two of the soldiers from the mission and place them on board the vessel, thus diminishing the small guard on shore. The Indians laughed at this precaution. They determined on a grand plundering raid in which every ranchero in the neighborhood was to join. It was a hot day in the middle of August. Because it was a feast day in the church, Padre Parron went out to the ship to say mass, while Fray Junipero assisted by Padre Vizcaino celebrated mass in the mission.

The services were concluded and Junipero had withdrawn to his hut when the savages with fierce yells swarmed into the mission. They were armed with bows and arrows, flint-headed javelins, and two-edged wooden swords that cut like steel. They seized everything they could lay their hands upon; even the coverings of the sick and dying did not escape their greed. The force which had to meet this formidable horde of thieves consisted of four soldiers, a blacksmith, a carpenter, and a boy servant. The savages let fly a volley of arrows. The little handful of Spaniards fought bravely. The blacksmith in particular, we are told, was extraordinarily valiant, which was afterwards piously attributed to his having come from mass where he had received communion. Without stopping to put on his leather cuirass he rushed out, shouting as he fired, "Live the faith of Jesus Christ and may these dogs His enemies die!"

Junipero and Vizcaino remained in their hut while the fight was in progress, fervently praying that no lives be lost among either Spaniards or Gentiles. Junipero was not a fighting priest. That he was not wanting in personal courage, in intrepid daring, his life in California conclusively proves. It was characteristic of him that he would die rather than send an unconverted Indian into eternity and the jaws of hell, for that such would be the fate of every unbaptized savage was his profound conviction.

While the fierce conflict was raging outside Vizcaino cautiously raised the blanket which did duty for a door and peered out. He received an arrow wound in his hand. He had scarcely retreated from this dangerous point of observation when the boy servant, Joseph Maria, staggered into the hut. He threw himself, bleeding and panting, at Junipero's feet.

"Padre," he gasped, with his dying breath, "absolve me, for the Indians have killed me."

The savages were finally put to flight. Their loss, though not great, was sufficient to inspire them with a wholesome respect for their opponents. They were not again inclined to test the supremacy of firearms over flint-headed arrows and javelins. The Spaniards' loss consisted of one killed and three wounded, among the latter being the valiant blacksmith. A stockade was now thrown around the mission, a precautionary measure which hitherto had been strangely neglected. The Indians did not remain long absent. They returned, bearing their wounded comrades, with the firm belief that the healing capacity of the Spaniards' medicine was in direct ratio to the destructive power of their firearms, which they called "creatures of thunder." They were received kindly and the surgeon bound up their wounds. Junipero, by means of gifts, induced a boy of fifteen to remain in the mission to learn Spanish. The youth proved himself an apt scholar. The Dieguenos spoke a language soft, harmonious, and containing all the sounds of the Latin alphabet. This similarity made it possible for the savage to adjust his tongue to the Spanish language with comparative facility and accuracy.

The Lord's Prayer in the Dieguenos language is as follows:

Nagua anall amai tacaguach naguanetunxp mamamulpo cayuca am amaibo mamatam meyayam canaao amat amaibo quexuic echasan naguagui Rana chonnaquin nipil meneque pachis echeyuchapo nagua quexuic naguaich facaguaihpo namechamel anipuch uch guelich cuaipo Nacuiuch-pambo-cuchlich-cuiatpo-Ramat, Napuija.

When the boy understood what was said to him Junipero urged him to go among his tribal friends and seek a parent willing to bring his infant son to the mission for baptism. The friar promised that the child should be given a dress, such as the Spaniards wore, and thereafter be considered their kinsman. The youth departed on his errand and soon returned accompanied by a man bearing an infant in his arms. Behind them came a horde of curious savages. No sooner did Fray Junipero see the procession than with great joy he summoned the few able-bodied soldiers in the mission to assist at this first baptism in Alta California. He took the child in his arms, covered it with a piece of cloth, and began the ceremonies. When he was about to sprinkle holy water over the little one's head, the Indian snatched the infant from his arms and fled. Fray Junipero, aghast at such sacrilege, stood like a statue, still holding the shell in his outstretched hand.

The soldiers were furious. They regarded the flight as an insult to their religion and their priest. There appears to have been more indignation felt by the Spaniards at this act of the Indians, than at their numerous pilfering raids and the recent attack on their lives. The soldiers clamored for revenge; it was with difficulty Junipero prevented them from going in pursuit of the fleeing savages. This incident was a bitter disappointment to Junipero. Even years afterwards he could not speak of the babe who had so nearly become a "child of God " without tears starting to his eyes. Although the Indians continued to come fearlessly to the mission, they obstinately refused to fall into "the apostolic and evangelic net," so temptingly spread out before them by the indefatigable friar.

In the meanwhile the sickness among the Spaniards continued to spread. Many died, eight of the Catalan Volunteers among the number. Junipero himself was smitten by the scourge, but it does not appear that he was long disabled. Vizcaino suffered more and more from the wound in his hand received on the day of the fight. In the hastily constructed huts and canvas-covered sheds that shielded them from the intense heat of the sun lay a score or more wretched soldiers and sailors dying of the scurvy. Before many months had passed, the little graveyard beyond the palisades was filled with half the number of those who had been left by Portola in San Diego.

The strength of the absent explorers had also been severely tried. They had suffered many hardships. Sixteen of their number had lost the use of their limbs from scurvy. They had to be fastened to wooden frames and strapped to the backs of mules. Portola and Rivera had not escaped the sickness. To these physical trials had been added the discouragement of failure. They had journeyed far in search of Sebastian Vizcaino's famoso Puerto  and had not found it. As a matter of fact, they had more than once gazed down disconsolately on the very harbor they were seeking and, failing to recognize it, had continued their; northward march. Twice they had encamped in the shadow of the Santa Lucia Mountain on the shores of the beautiful Carmel Bay, less than five miles from the port of Monterey. To be sure, their failure to recognize the port led to the discovery of the great bay of San Francisco, upon whose waters hitherto no European eyes had ever rested. Palou considered the finding of the magnificent harbor in the light of a miracle. He relates that when discussing with Galvez the names of the prospective missions of Alta California, Fray Junipero had said, "And for our Father Saint Francis is there no mission? "And the visitador  had replied: "If Saint Francis wants a mission let him cause his port to be found and it will be put there."

The saint apparently readily accepted the challenge, for, selecting the finest port in the country as his own, he promptly led the explorers to it. After this discovery Portola's party retraced their steps to the bay of Carmel, upon the shores of which they encamped two weeks, diligently searching the surrounding country for the port of Monterey. The provisions were almost exhausted. They were reduced to eating gulls, even a mule was killed to supply them with food, though of this latter fare only a few Catalan Volunteers and the Baja Californian neophytes availed themselves.

Finally Portola, after a consultation with his officers, decided to abandon the search and return to San Diego. He caused a large wooden cross to be erected on a knoll near the beach, bearing the inscription: "Dig at the foot and thou wilt find writing." The cross could be seen far out at sea, and was intended to attract the attention of the San Jose, or any ship that might sail up the coast searching for the port of Monterey. The buried letter contained an account of the expedition, also a request that the commander of the vessel sail down the coast and attempt to communicate with the land party and bring it succor. Another cross, bearing the same inscription was set up on the shores of the very harbor they were seeking. This accomplished, Portola began his return march to San Diego. As they drew near their destination, the explorer speculated much concerning the fate of the comrades from whom they had parted six months before. Would they find them alive? Would the transports be in the harbor? Or would they find the San Diego settlement abandoned?

Each one of us [wrote Fray Juan Crespi in his journal] rambled on according to his disposition and mood, and in truth all concurred in the belief that if those we left had endured the cruelty of sickness and death there would be nothing left of the settlement but a wilderness. Again there was much fear from the perverse character of the Dieguenos, whose greed in robbery is unparalleled and we feared lest they might be too forward in any disaster against the mission and its small guard.' The only information we were able to acquire from the Indians along the coast, notwithstanding the efforts that they made in this respect, gave some grounds to fear that in San Diego we might find ourselves in the same straits in which we now were. [Palou's Noticias, Vol II., p. 243]

If there had lingered in any of the men a taste for seeking adventure in a new country, they had enough of it and something more than enough. They had had in the wilderness six months of almost continuous marching over mountains, plains, and valleys and during that time, from sunrise to sunset, little more exciting occupation than that of quieting the teasing of their hungry stomachs with promises of future fare.

Finally on January 24, 1770, still anxiously speculating, they reached San Diego. When Junipero saw the little cavalcade advancing with slow, halting steps, with distressed and weary men, he sadly realized that the sufferings of the past months had not been confined to those who had remained in the mission.