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
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
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
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
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
© 2006 Rickie Lazzerini,
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University of California, Santa Barbara
of Historical Reviews
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