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The History of California
© 2005 Rickie Lazzerini

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The Missions and the Treatment of Native Americans

The missions grew to become the largest and most productive of the Spanish communities in Alta California. Unlike the restored missions you see today, the original missions were small buildings composed of sticks, mud, and thatch. Between 1769 and 1784, Father Serra founded the first nine missions, located every fifty to seventy miles between San Diego and San Francisco. Father Serra's successor, Fermin de Lasuen, created nine more missions between 1785 and 1803. Fermin also improved agriculture by implementing irrigation techniques and crop diversification. By 1800, the Neophyte (converted Native American) population had reached 20,000.

Not all of the Native Americans accepted missionization. The process disrupted their way of life, violated territories, broke up family dynamics, upset the balance of power between tribes, destructed natural resources, and introduced devastating European diseases. Disease ravaged the native population ruthlessly. Between 1769 and 1846, the native California population dropped from over 300,000 to approximately 100,000, primarily due to disease. Harsh treatment of Native Americans was not uncommon at the missions. When Indians refused to cooperate or renounce their traditions, they were punished. Lashings, jail, extra labor, and shortened rations were punishments for misbehavior at the missions. Runaways were sometimes tied to rocks or logs and forced to drag them during their work.

Native Americans showed resistance in a number of ways. Some showed their defiance by engaging in hunger strikes or by stealing livestock. There were also successful Indian resurrections during the mission period, one near the Colorado River and another in San Diego. In 1775, escaped Neophytes and members of the Tipai and Ipai tribes decided to eject the Spanish and return to their old way of life. Nearly 800 Native Americans attacked the presidio, burned the mission, and killed three colonels. The Spanish did not regain control of the mission until a year later. In 1781, the Purisima Concepcion Mission and the San Pedro Mission also faced an Indian resurrection. The Yuma attacked both missions, killed Lieutenant Governor Fernando Rivera, the mission Father, three Franciscans, and thirty soldiers and civilians. The Spanish were unable to defeat the Yuma, and the tribe remained in control of the land for the following seventy years. The event, known as the Yuma Massacre, closed the Anza Trail, crippling the overland population growth of the colony.

Mexican California

The Mexican War for Independence (1810-1821) did not have much effect on the colonists in Alta California because they were far removed from the revolution. Due to their isolation, the people in California were not involved in the revolution and adhered to the new Mexican government peacefully.

Under Mexican control, hierarchical feudal societies developed around the ranchos. After the secularization of the missions, a process that lasted from the 1830s to the 1850s, huge tracts of land became available. As the lands were acquired, the ranchero population grew larger and more powerful. The rancheros' wealth and claim of direct Spanish decent distinguished them from the rest of the population and put them at the top of the caste. A small group of mission fathers and the civil and military officials joined the rancheros in the elite class. Below the elite were the mestizo ranchers, the former soldiers, colonists, and others who held smaller tracts of land. The largest group in Mexican California at this time was the pobladores who made up 60-80% of the population. The Native Americans occupied the bottom rung of the social ladder.

The Mexican government had a difficult time governing California because of the sectional strife within the state. Trouble started with the instatement of the third governor, Manuel Victoria. Victoria lost the support of the population because of his harsh rule. In 1831, a group of southern Californians planned a revolt and demanded the re-instatement of former Governor Echeandia. The revolutionaries got their way and Victoria stepped down, but the sectional rivalries did not end. In 1844, another revolution broke out, led by Pio Pico in the south, and by Governor Micheltorena in the north. A compromise was met in 1845; Pio Pico became governor and Jose Castro became comandante general. The constant struggle for power and continuous Native American attacks left the Mexican government vulnerable to American encroachment and led to the decline and end of Mexican control.

Foreign Penetration in California

A number of foreigners came to Alta California during the Hispanic period, including Russian traders and American businessmen and frontiersmen. This encroachment eventually led to the final breakdown of the Mexican government in Alta California and the acquisition of California by the United States.

Russian fur traders were the first to penetrate Alta California when they built a shipping post, Fort Ross, near San Francisco in 1812. The fort served as their base for shipping food north to the Russian fur trading posts in Alaska. Russians at Fort Ross also hunted seals and sea otters. The Russian colony did not have much success because they found the weather unsuitable and had difficulty growing wheat, resulting in their failure to produce goods for their counterparts in Alaska. The government blocked their attempts at eastern expansion, and the decline of the sea otter population hurt trade. The fort was no longer needed when the Mexicans opened Alta California to foreign trade, so the Russians sold the fort to John Sutter in 1841.

During the Spanish period, only about twenty foreigners lived in Alta California, and they were all assimilated. After the Mexicans took control, they opened California trade to foreigners, which increased the foreign population. Beginning with the arrival of William Hartnell and William Gale in 1822, about 15-20 foreigners came to California each year during the Hispanic period. Many of these men assimilated into the local elite. Hartnell is a good example of this; he became a naturalized citizen, converted to Catholicism, and married. He bought Rancho Patrocino del Alisal, about twenty miles from Monterey, and became one of the most respected foreigners in California. Another man to follow the assimilation model was John Gilroy. Gilroy was a Scottish sailor who was left in Monterey because of an illness. He also became naturalized, acquired a rancho, and married. The present town of Gilroy is named after him.

Not all foreigners who came to California did so legally. A group of American frontiersmen, called mountain men, began to cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the 1820s. One of the most famous of these men is Jedediah Smith. In 1826, Smith took control of William H. Ashley's fur trading company in the Rockies. He decided to lead an expedition into California through the Great Basin in order to find new beaver territory. When Smith and his party reached southern California, the local mission fathers welcomed him, but governor Echeandia felt threatened by Smith and detained him in San Diego for six weeks. The governor told Smith to leave California the same way he came in. Smith did not do what the governor said; instead he crossed the Tehachapi Mountains and hunted in the San Joaquin Valley. He stationed a party on the Stanislaus River and left the state. His next expedition into California was far less successful; he was arrested and jailed in Monterey, and after leaving California the second time, he was killed by Comanche Indians on the Santa Fe Trail in 1831.

Other mountain men entered the state as well. James Ohio Pattie and his father, Sylvester, traveled to Baja California, but were jailed by Governor Echeandia. Another explorer, Joseph Reddeford Walker, opened a central trail through California in 1833. These early American frontiersmen were important because they blazed the trails that opened California to the east and eventually led to America's acquisition of the land.

In addition to the mountain men, a number of entrepreneurs entered California during the Mexican period. John Sutter and John Marsh are perhaps the most influential of these men in California history. Marsh became a doctor in the Los Angeles area, despite the fact that he did not have a medical degree. In 1837 he bought a rancho on Mt. Diablo, near San Francisco. He publicized California through a series of letters and articles that were circulated in the east. His publicity stimulated significant interest and movement to California. John A. Sutter, the more famous of the two, made a huge impact on California during the Gold Rush period. Sutter was a Swiss immigrant who left his family in Europe to seek fortune in America. He obtained land in the Sacramento Valley and bought out the Russians at Fort Ross. He developed a cattle and sheep business, grew crops, and developed a gristmill. He employed Hawaiians, Native Americans, and Californians, and became known for employing people without discrimination. He encouraged the immigration of Americans, sent supplies to migrants in trouble, and helped them get settled once they arrived. By 1840, the American population in California had grown to 380. Migration via the Oregon Trail increased, and in 1846, over 1,500 people crossed the Sierras.

By Rickie Lazzerini

BA History
University of California, Santa Barbara

Index of Historical Reviews

2006 Rickie Lazzerini, All Rights Reserved
This page may be freely linked to but may not be reproduced
in any form without prior written consent from the author.

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