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

San Diego and Sailor Sorrows

Before continuing the narrative of Fray Junipero's arrival in Alta California, we will cast a glance over the events that occurred there a couple of months previous to his coming.

More than one hundred fifty years had elapsed since the blue waters of San Diego Bay had felt the keel of a foreign ship, or their shores had echoed to the masterful tread of the conquering white man. Since the autumn of 1603, when Sebastian Vizcaino, with his two hundred men, landed from the Tres Reyes  and for ten days startled out of their indolent lethargy the San Diegueno Indians, no European had disturbed the aboriginal solitude of these shores. The solitude was at last broken by the good ship San Antonio, when she dropped anchor in San Diego Bay in the month of April, 1769. The San Antonio, the reader may remember, had left the peninsula more than a month after her capitana, the San Carlos, had sailed northward, yet she was the first to arrive at San Diego. The natives beheld with admiration, mingled with awe, the swiftly advancing ship, tossing the billows from her bows with calm indifference, like some mighty monster of the sea. They did, indeed, mistake her for a Gigantic whale; then, as she swept into the harbor with snowy pinions, and proudly rode at anchor near their shores, they trembled with fear. She was, they thought, the supernatural agency of portentous happenings to themselves, for simultaneous with here arrival occurred an eclipse of the sun and an earthquake. To be sure, these phenomena were not remarked by the Spaniards, yet when the Indians later told the tale, it was given credence and Fray Junipero firmly believed that the padres' teachings were in this manner heralded by heaven to the savages.

The San Antonio  was, as we know, commanded by the Majorcan pilot, Juan Perez, the most skillful pilot who in those days saw service on the California coast. He was amazed to discover at San Diego no signs of the flagship, nor any indication that the first land expedition was near. He would have liked to continue the exploration up the coast, pending the arrival of the San Carlos. But Galvez's instructions had been explicit in this regard. Whichever vessel arrived first in port was ordered to wait for her companion vessel twenty days, after which lapse of time, she was to proceed up the coast and search for the harbor of Monterey. It was a tedious period of quiescence for those on board the San Antonio. They could make no attempt to land and explore the country for the temper of the natives was not known, and the San Antonio  carried no soldiers. Moreover, Galvez had expressly commanded that all unnecessary risks should be avoided. Finally, when eighteen dull, uneventful days had passed, and Perez had begun preparations for leaving port, the San Carlos  hove in sight.

The vessel had been one hundred ten days reaching her destination. She dropped anchor, but did not lower a boat. An ominous silence seemed to reign over the ship. That something was amiss was apparent. Perez rowed over to the vessel, on which the cheerful tumult of a late arrival in port was so conspicuously absent. His investigation soon revealed the fact that the captain and all on board were half dead with the scurvy. His own men went promptly to work, putting up sail tents on the beach and removing the sick from the stricken ship. The friars, assisted by all who were able and by Doctor Pratt, who, though himself smitten with the disease, continued to perform his duties, worked day and night caring for the sick. But their ceaseless efforts were futile. The pale phantom, Death, made his abode in the camp and summoned victim after victim to join his grim ranks. Perez's men now took the infection. Soon the canvas settlement on the beach was converted by the corruption of death into a charnel house. Soldiers, sailors, mechanics, succumbed with fearful rapidity to the dread enemy. Of the San Carlos'  crew scarcely one remained. For two wretched weeks those who were able to crawl about dug pits in the sand in which to bury the dead, and from this gloomy task returned only to resume their feeble care of the dying. Such was the grim situation that confronted Captain Rivera y Moncada when he reached San Diego with the first land expedition. He was greeted by a few hollow-eyed, anxious men, the pitiful remnant of the sturdy company, who daring, eager, and full of hope had sailed away from La Paz to conquer souls for heaven and land for the Spanish king.

Rivera's arrival brought relief to the survivors. He immediately set about to remove this plague-stricken canvas settlement among the sand dunes by the sea. At the foot of a hill a few miles to the north he selected a site for a new camp. Here, inside a hastily constructed fort, he had huts built for the men and corrals for the animals. Within three days after his arrival, the sick were transported from the desolate pest place on the beach to the clean, fresh camp. Whatever failings and weaknesses Rivera may have manifested later, on this occasion, at least, he proved himself a man of sound sense, of prompt action, and energy. For the next six weeks friars, officers, and soldiers were busily occupied in nursing the sick and in unloading the San Antonio. At the end of that time Governor Portola and Fray Junipero arrived with the second land expedition. The welcome accorded them was, as we have seen, a joyful one and indicated a vastly improved condition of affairs.

It was a picturesque assemblage that had gathered on the fair shores of San Diego Bay, that July day in the year of our Lord 1769. There were the military and naval officers of the expedition, their brilliant uniforms somewhat torn and tarnished from the rough usage on the journey; the five Franciscan friars, their long brown gowns tucked up under hempen girdles, their shaven heads ruthlessly exposed to the rays of the summer sun; there was the sorry remnant of Lieut. Fages' Catalan Volunteers, and Captain Rivera's soldatos de cuera  (leather jacket soldiers) in their sleeveless cuirasses, or jackets, made of half a dozen layers of deerskins which offered an almost impenetrable barrier to the arrows of the Indians. Suspended on the left arm of each soldier was a shield made of several thicknesses of oxhide. When mounted he had also

. . . a leather apron fastened to the pommel of his saddle and falling on both sides so as to cover his thighs and protect his legs as well against arrows as against thorns and branches in passing through thick underbrush and chaparral. His offensive arms were the lance, the broadsword and sabre and the carbine or short musket which when not in actual use were generally carried in a leather case.

Here also were the few Baja California neophytes who had not deserted the expedition en route; the crew of the San Antonio  and the sole survivors of the San Carlos  crew, namely, the cook and one seaman. To these we must add the weary animals bunched together in the corrals. This constituted the entire number of those who came to conquer California for Castile and Christianity in the year 1769.

Let us pause a moment and consider more closely the leaders of these early California pilgrims. The chief in command was, as we know, Don Caspar de Portola, captain of dragoons and governor of California. He was kind-hearted, affable, careful of the health of his subordinates, slow to quarrel, a man to like and admire for the qualities of his heart rather than for the brilliancy of his intellect, which was, indeed, of a somewhat mediocre order. Next in command came the young Lieutenant of the Catalan Volunteers, Don Pedro Fages. He was gifted with some wit and no tact, was blustering, high-tempered, unimpeachably brave, and heartily disliked by his soldiers. Though he was second in command, there was with the expedition another officer, his superior in point of rank and years. This was Don Fernando Rivera y Moncada, senor captain and former commandant of the royal presidio  at Loreto, an elderly man of trustful countenance, full of resentment at being supplanted from his rightful position. He was distinguished by a certain slowness of intellect, but as brave and honest, withal, as any officer to be found in his Majesty's service. Last of the military officials was the non-commissioned officer, Sergeant Jose Ortega. He was well liked by the friars, possessed a certain practical good sense, and could be relied upon to perform his duty to the best of his ability, which was, if not of a conspicuously high order, far from being despicable. The first in authority to represent the church in Alta California was Fray Junipero Serra. He was at this time about fifty-seven years old. We have but to look at the picture of his sensitive, delicate face to note the strong will, the sweet temper, and the intelligence therein. Of the four friars with Fray Junipero the best known is his friend, Fray Juan Crespi. His humility and piety earned for him in his college days in Palma the sobriquet, El Beato. He was a simple-hearted man, who found his happiness in following in the footsteps of a pious leader, blessed in that his leader was his lifelong friend.

The first Sunday in Alta California, which fell on the day following Junipero's arrival, was celebrated with all possible pomp. An altar was erected, and in the open air amid the scenic setting of beautiful hills and bay, the first pilgrims of Alta California, chanted a solemn thanksgiving mass. Their music was the thunder of exploding gun-powder, its smoke their incense offering to their patron saint, San Jose. Of the two hundred nineteen men who had left the peninsula, but one hundred twenty-six remained to take part in the celebration. We can readily imagine the emotion of these men—the memory of their dead comrades, so recently buried, still with them, the future with its unknown dangers vividly before them and the sustaining enthusiasm of the adventure, for most of them, already wholly gone., A conference was held after mass by the leaders of the expedition to deliberate on a new plan of action, as it was manifestly impossible to adhere to the original program. The scurvy had decimated their forces, destroyed their crew, thus rendering futile any attempt to explore by sea the port of Monterey. It was decided to send the San Antonio  manned by a few convalescent sailors back to San Blas, to recruit a fresh crew for herself and for the San Carlos. She was also to bring back additional supplies. Fray Junipero with the sick, a small guard, and Doctor Pratt, was to remain at San Diego while the main part of the expedition, with all the officers, pushed on to Monterey. These plans being formulated, preparations to carry them into effect were immediately begun. All this Junipero, three days after his arrival, wrote to Palou, giving at the same time the concatenation of causes which rendered so disastrous the voyage of the San Carlos.

Hail Jesus, Mary and Joseph—Rev. Father Reader and President Fr. Francisco Palou:

I hope your reverence is in good health and is working with much consolation and success in the establishment of the new mission of Loreto and of the others, and that soon the reinforcement of new ministers will arrive, that all the missions may remain in good order for the consolation of every one. I, thank God, arrived the day before yesterday, the first of the month, at this port of San Diego, truly a beautiful one and with reason famous. Here I found those who had set off before me both by sea and land, except those who died. The brethren, Fray Crespi, Vizcaino, Parron, Gomez, are here, and with myself all well, thank God, Here also are the two vessels, but the San Carlos  without sailors, all having died of scurvy except one and the cook. The' San Antonio, alias el Principe (whose captain is D Juan Perez, our countryman from the river Palma), arrived here twenty days before the other, although she sailed a month and a half later. When she was about to leave for Monterey the San Carlos  appeared, and in nursing her crew her own became infected with the scourge and eight died. The result is that it has been decided that the San Antonio  shall return to San Blas to fetch sailors for herself and for the San Carlos. Let us see how the San Joseph  arrives, and if she comes in good condition, then the last will be the first to so arrive. [The San Joseph  was never heard from; it was supposed she was lost at sea.]

The delay of the San Carlos  was due to two causes. The first was the lack of water owing to the leaking of the water tanks; of the four tanks, not one contained any, this together with the bad water obtained on the coast, occasioned sickness among the crew. The second was the error which all were in, respecting the situation of this port. It was supposed by everyone, even by his Excellency (Galvez) that it was in 33 or 34 degrees of north latitude, some authors saying the one and some the other. Strict orders were given, to Captain Vila—and to the other—to keep out in the open sea till they should arrive in 34 degrees and then make shore and search for the port. As, however, in rei veritate  the port is no higher than 32 34', according to the observations which these gentlemen have now made, they went far beyond it, and when they searched for it could not find it. For these reasons the voyage was much longer than was necessary. As the sickness of the people became daily worse from cold and bad water, they must all have perished had they not soon discovered the port, for they were quite unable to launch the boat to procure more water or to do anything whatever for their preservation. The Father Fernando did everything in his power to assist the sick, and although he arrived much reduced in flesh, he had not the disease and is now well. . . .

As for myself the journey here has been a truly happy one, and without any special hardship to my health. I left the frontier infirm in foot and leg, but by God's help with each day I improved and continued my daily march as far as such injuries would permit. Now the foot is all well like the other; only from) the ankle to the middle of the leg it is as it was before, one sore, but without swelling, or more pain than it has always given me from time to time—in fine there is no cause for anxiety.

The remainder of Junipero's letter is given to a description of the country through which they traveled and the character and appearance of the Indians they encountered. He concludes with the assurance that the brethren with him are well and contented, and with sending cordial greetings to all his friends.

I pray God may preserve your life and health many years. From this port and intended mission of San Diego in California Septentrional, July 3rd, 1769. B. L. M. de V. R. (I kiss the hands of your reverence.) Your affectionate Brother and Servant Fr. Junipero Serra.

This letter was sent by the San Antonio, which sailed southward with her crew of convalescent mariners a few days later. Nine of the crew died at sea before the ship reached San Blas. Soon after the San Antonio  sailed, Portola with sixty-four men, including all of the officers, together with the friars, Crespi and Gomez, started overland to search for the port of Monterey. Only eight soldiers appear to have been left to guard the San Diego camp, where Fray Junipero, two friars, and Doctor Pratt watched over the convalescent. Captain Vila of the crewless San Carlos, remained to guard his ship. Junipero determined to lose no further time in founding the first mission in the new land. Where now stands the old town of San Diego, he raised the cross, blessed it, and dedicated the mission to the honored Franciscan, San Diego de Alcala.

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


It was the sixteenth day of July, the day of the "Triumph of the Holy Cross "celebrated by the Spanish church as the anniversary of the great victory won by the Christians over the Moors in 1212. Junipero felt that this was a good omen. He hoped, said Palou with artless piety, "to put to flight all the hosts of Hell and subject to the mild yoke of our holy faith the barbarity of the Gentile Dieguenos." So was formally founded not only the first mission, but the first settlement of civilized persons in the state of California. Little did the naked, curious savages realize as they watched with half-amused, half-scornful interest each movement of the white-faced strangers, and listened full of wonder to the pealing of the great, burnished bells, that the first blow had been struck depriving them forever of their land and their liberty.