Friday, May 4, 2007


It seems to me that there never was a more peaceful or happy people on the face of the earth than the Spanish, Mexican, and Indian population of Alta California before the American conquest. We were the pioneers of the Pacific coast, building towns and Missions while General Washington was carrying on the war of the Revolution, and we often talk together of the days when a few hundred large Spanish ranches and Mission tracts occupied the whole country from the Pacific to the San Joaquin. No class of American citizens is more loyal than the Spanish Californians, but we shall always be especially proud of the traditions and memories of the long pastoral age before 1840. Indeed, our social life still tends to keep alive a spirit of love for the simple, homely, outdoor life of our Spanish ancestors on this coast, and we try, as best we may, to honor the founders of our ancient families, and the saints and heroes of our history since the days when Father Junipero [Serra] planted the cross at Monterey. The leading features of old Spanish life at the Missions, and on the large ranches of the last century, have been described in many books of travel, and with many contradictions. I shall confine myself to those details and illustrations of the past that no modern writer can possibly obtain except vaguely, from hearsay, since they exist in no manuscript, but only in the memories of a generation that is fast passing away. My mother has told me much, and I am still more indebted to my illustrious uncle, General Vallejo, of Sonoma, many of whose recollections are incorporated in this article.

When I was a child there were fewer than fifty Spanish families in the region about the bay of San Francisco, and these were closely connected by ties of blood or intermarriage. My father and his brother, the late General Vallejo, saw, and were a part of, the most important events in the history of Spanish California, the revolution and the conquest. My grandfather, Don Ygnacio Vallejo, was equally prominent in his day, in the exploration and settlement of the province. The traditions and records of the family thus cover the entire period of the annals of early California, from San Diego to Sonoma.

What I wish to do is to tell, as plainly and carefully as possible, how the Spanish settlers lived, and what they did in the old days. The story will be partly about the Missions, and partly about the great ranches.

The Jesuit Missions established in Lower California, at Loreto and other places, were followed by Franciscan Missions in Alta California, with presidios for the soldiers, adjacent pueblos, or towns, and the granting of large tracts of land to settlers. By 1782 there were nine flourishing Missions in Alta California — San Francisco, Santa Clara, San Carlos, San Antonio, San Luis Obispo, San Buenaventura, San Gabriel, San Juan, and San Diego. Governor Fajés added Santa Barbara and Purissima, and by 1790 there were more than 7000 Indian converts in the various Missions. By 1800 about forty Franciscan fathers were at work in Alta California, six of whom had been among the pioneers of twenty and twenty-five years before, and they had established seven new Missions — San José, San Miguel, Soledad, San Fernando, Santa Cruz, San Juan Bautista, and San Luis Rey. The statistics of all the Missions, so far as they have been preserved, have been printed in various histories, and the account of their growth, prosperity, and decadence has often been told. All that I wish to point out is that at the beginning of the century the whole system was completely established in Alta California. In 1773 Father Palou had reported that all the Missions, taken together, owned two hundred and four head of cattle and a few sheep, goats, and mules. In 1776 the regular five years’ supplies sent from Mexico to the Missions were as follows: 107 blankets, 480 yards striped sackcloth, 389 yards blue baize, 10 pounds blue maguey cloth, 4 reams paper, 5 bales red pepper, 10 arrobas of tasajo (dried beef), beads, chocolate, lard, lentils, rice, flour, and four barrels of Castilian wine. By 1800 all this was changed: the flocks and herds of cattle of California contained 187,000 animals, of which 153,000 were in the Mission pastures, and large areas of land had been brought under cultivation, so that the Missions supplied the presidios and foreign ships.

No one need suppose that the Spanish pioneers of California suffered many hardships or privations, although it was a new country. They came slowly, and were well prepared to become settlers. All that was necessary for the maintenance and enjoyment of life according to the simple and healthful standards of those days was brought; with them. They had seeds, trees, vines, cattle, household goods, and servants, and in a few years their orchards yielded abundantly and their gardens were full of vegetables. Poultry was raised by the Indians, and sold very cheaply; a fat capon cost only twelve and a half cents. Beef and mutton were to be had for the killing, and wild game was very abundant. At many of the Missions there were large flocks of tame pigeons. At the Mission San José the fathers’ doves consumed a cental of wheat daily, besides what they gathered in the village. The doves were of many colors, and they made a beautiful appearance on the red tiles of the church and the tops of the dark garden walls.

The houses of the Spanish people were built of adobe, and were roofed with red tiles. They were very comfortable, cool in summer and warm in winter. The clay used to make the bricks was dark brown, not white or yellow, as the adobes in the Rio Grande region and in part of Mexico. Cut straw was mixed with the clay, and trodden together by the Indians. When the bricks were laid, they were set in clay as mortar, and sometimes small pebbles from the brooks were mixed with the mortar to make bands across the house. All the timber of the floors, the rafters and crossbeams, the doorways, and the window lintels were “built in” as the house was carried up. After the house was roofed it was usually plastered inside and out to protect it against the weather and make it more comfortable. A great deal of trouble was often taken to obtain stone for the doorsteps, and curious rocks were sometimes brought many miles for this purpose, or for gate- posts in front of the dwelling.

The Indian houses were never more than one story high, also of adobe, but much smaller and with thinner walls. The inmates covered the earthen floors in part with coarse mats woven of tules, on which they slept. The Missions, as fast as possible, provided them with blankets, which were woven under the fathers’ personal supervision, for home use and for sale. They were also taught to weave a coarse serge for clothing.

It was between 1792 and 1795, as I have heard, that the governor brought a number of artisans from Mexico, and every Mission wanted them, but there were not enough to go around. There were masons, millwrights, tanners, shoemakers, saddlers, potters, a ribbon maker, and several weavers. The blankets and the coarse cloth I have spoken of were first woven in the southern Missions, San Gabriel, San Juan Capistrano, and others. About 1797 cotton cloth was also made in a few cases, and the cotton plant was found to grow very well. Hemp was woven at Monterey. Pottery was made at Mission Dolores, San Francisco. Soap was made in 1798, and afterwards at all the Missions and on many large ranches. The settlers themselves were obliged to learn trades and teach them to their servants, so that an educated young gentlemen was well skilled in many arts and handicrafts. He could ride, of course, as well as the best cow- boy of the Southwest, and with more grace; and he could throw the lasso so expertly that I never heard of any American who was able to equal it. He could also make soap, pottery, and bricks, burn lime, tan hides, cut out and put together a pair of shoes, make candles, roll cigars and do a great number of things that belong to different trades.

The California Indians were full of rude superstitions of every sort when the Franciscan fathers first began to teach them. It is hard to collect old Indian stories in these days, because they have become mixed up with what the fathers taught them. But the wild Indians a hundred years ago told the priests what they believed, and it was difficult to persuade them to give it up. In fact, there was more or less of what the fathers told them was “devil-worship” going on all the time. Rude stone altars were secretly built by the Mission Indians to “Cooksuy,” their dreaded god. They chose a lonely place in the hills and made piles of flat stones, five or six feet high. After that each Indian passing would throw something there, and his act of homage, called “pooish,” continued until the mound was covered with a curious collection of beads, feathers, shells from the coast, and even garments and food, which no Indian dared to touch. The fathers destroyed all such altars that they could discover, and punished the Indians who worshipped there. Sometimes the more ardent followers of Cooksuy had meetings at night, slipping away from the Indian village after the retiring-bell had rung and the alcalde’s rounds had been made. They prepared for the ceremony by fasting for several days; then they went to the chosen place, built a large fire, went through many dances, and called the god by a series of very strange and wild whistles, which always frightened any person who heard them. The old Indians, after being converted, told the priests that before they had seen the Spaniards come Cooksuy made his appearance from the midst of the fire in the form of a large white serpent; afterward the story was changed, and they reported that he sometimes took the form of a bull with fiery eyes.

Indian alcaldes were appointed in the Mission towns to maintain order. Their duty was that of police officers; they were dressed better than the others, and wore shoes and stockings, which newly appointed officers dispensed with as often as possible, choosing to go barefoot, or with stockings only. When a vacancy in the office occurred the Indians themselves were asked which one they preferred of several suggested by the priest.

The Mission San José had about five thousand Indian converts at the time of its greatest prosperity, and a number of Indian alcaldes were needed there. The alcaldes of the Spanish people in the pueblos were more like local judges, and were appointed by the governor.

The Indians who were personal attendants of the fathers were chosen with much care for their obedience and quickness of perception. Some of them seemed to have reached the very perfection of silent careful, unselfish service. They could be trusted with the most important matters, and they were strictly honest. Each father had his own private barber, who enjoyed the honor of a seat at the table with him, and generally accompanied him in journeys to other Missions. When the Missions were secularized, this custom, like many others, was abolished, and one Indian barber, named Telequis, felt the change in his position so much that when he was ordered out to the field with the others he committed suicide by eating the root of a poisonous wild plant, a species of celery.

The Indian vaqueros, who lived much of the time on the more distant cattle ranges, were a wild set of men. I remember one of them, named Martin, who was stationed in Amador Valley and became a leader of the hill vaqueros, who were very different from the vaqueros of the large valley near the Missions. He and his friends killed and ate three or four hundred young heifers belonging to the Mission, but when Easter approached he felt that he must confess his sins, so he went to Father Narciso and told all about it. The father forgave him, but ordered him to come in from the hills to the Mission and attend school until he could read. The rules were very strict; whoever failed twice in a lesson was always whipped. Martin was utterly unable to learn his letters, and he was whipped every day for a month; but he never complained. He was then dismissed, and went back to the hills. I used to question Martin about the affair, and he would tell me with perfect gravity of manner, which was very delightful, how many calves he had consumed and how wisely the good father had punished him. He knew now, he used to say, how very hard it was to live in the town, and he would never steal again lest he might have to go to school until he had learned his letters. It was the custom at all the Missions, during the rules of the Franciscan missionaries, to keep the young unmarried Indians separate. The Young girls and the young widows at the Mission San José occupied a large adobe building, with a yard behind it, inclosed by high adobe walls. In this yard some trees were planed, and a zanja, or ]water-ditch supplied a large bathing-pond. The women were kept busy at various occupations, in the building, under the trees, or on the wide porch; they were taught spinning, knitting, the weaving of Indian baskets from grasses, willow rods and roots, and more especially plain sewing. The treatment and occupation of the unmarried women was similar at the other Missions. When heathen Indian women came in, or were brought by their friends, or by the soldiers, they were put in these houses, and under the charge of older women, who taught them what to do.

The women, thus separated from the men, could only be courted from without through the upper windows facing on the narrow village street. These windows were about two feet square, crossed by iron bars, and perhaps three feet deep, as the adobe walls were very thick. The rules were not more strict, however, than still prevail in some of the Spanish- American countries in much higher classes, socially, than these uneducated Indians belonged to; in fact the rules were adopted by the fathers from Mexican models. After an Indian, in his hours of freedom from toil, had declared his affection by a sufficiently long attendance upon a certain window, it was the duty of the woman to tell the father missionary and to declare her decision. If this was favorable, the young man was asked if he was willing to contract marriage with the young woman who had confessed her preference. Sometimes there were several rival suitors, but it was never known that any trouble occurred. After marriage the couple were conducted to their home, a hut built for them among the other Indian houses in the village near the Mission.

The Indian mothers were frequently told about the proper care of children, and cleanliness of the person was strongly inculcated. In fact, the Mission Indians, large and small, were wonderfully clean, their faces and hair fairly shining with soap and water. In several cases where an Indian woman was so slovenly and neglectful of her infant that it died she was punished by being compelled to carry in her arms in church, and at all meals and public assemblies, a log of wood about the size of a nine-months’-old child. This was a very effectual punishment, for the Indian women are naturally most affectionate creatures, and in every case they soon began to suffer greatly, and others with them, so that once a whole Indian village begged the father in charge to forgive the poor woman.

The padres always had a school for the Indian boys. My mother has a novena, or “nine-days’ devotion book” copied for her by one of the Indian pupils at the Mission San José early in the [nineteenth] century. The handwriting is very neat and plain, and would be a credit to any one. Many young Indians had good voices, and these were selected with great care to be trained in singing for the church choir. It was thought such an honor to sing in church that, the Indian families were all very anxious to be represented. Some were taught to play on the violin and other stringed instruments. When Father Narciso Duran, who was the president of the Franciscans in California, was at the Mission San José, he had a church choir of about thirty well-trained boys to sing the mass. He was himself a cultivated musician, having studied under some of the best masters in Spain, and so sensitive was his ear that if one string was out of tune he could not continue his service, but would at once turn to the choir, call the name of the player, and the string that was out of order, and wait until the matter was corrected. As there were often more than a dozen players on instruments. Every prominent Mission had fathers who paid great attention to training the Indians in music.

A Spanish lady of high social standing tells the following story, which will illustrate the honor in which the Mission fathers were held:

Father Majin Catala, one of the missionaries early in the century, was held to possess prophetic gifts, and many of the Spanish settlers, the Castros, Peraltas, Estudillos, and others, have reason to remember his gift. When any priest issued from the sacristy to celebrate mass all hearts were stirred, but with this holy father the feeling became one of absolute awe. On more than one occasion before his sermon he asked the congregation to join him in prayers for the soul of one about to die, naming the hour. In every case this was fulfilled to the very letter, and that in cases where the one who died could not have known of the father’s words. This saint spent his days in labor among the people, and he was loved as well as feared. But on one occasion, in later life, when the Mission rule was broken, he offended an Indian chief, and shortly after several Indians called at his home in the night to ask him to go and see a dying woman. The father rose and dressed, but his chamber door remained fast, so that he could not open it, and he was on the point of ordering them to break it open from without, when he felt a warning, to the effect that they were going to murder him. Then he said, “To-morrow I will visit your sick; you are forgiven; go in peace.” Then they fled in dismay, knowing that his person was protected by an especial providence, and soon after confessed their plans to the father.

He was one of the most genial and kindly men of the missionaries, and he surprised all those who had thought that every one of the fathers was severe. He saw no harm in walking out among the young people, and saying friendly things to them all. He was often known to go with young men on moonlight rides, lassoing grizzly bears, or chasing deer on the plain. His own horse, one of the best ever seen in the valley, was richly caparisoned, and the father wore a scarlet silk sash around his waist under the Franciscan habit. When older and graver priests reproached him, he used to say with a smile that he was only a Mexican Franciscan, and that he was brought up in a saddle. He was certainly a superb rider.

It is said of Father Amoros of San Rafael that his noon meal consisted of an ear of dry corn, roasted over the coals. This he carried in his sleeve and partook of at his leisure while overseeing the Indian laborers. Some persons who were in the habit of reaching a priest’s house at noontime, so as to be asked to dinner, once called on the father, and were told that he had gone to the field with his corn in his manguilla, but they rode away without seeing him, which was considered a breach of good manners.

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