California and its Early Inhabitants

California, the land of golden sunshine and skies of ineffable blue, starlit at night by a glittering host; of most genial climate, tempered alike to the old and the young, the delicate and the vigorous, a climate equaled nowhere on earth but along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea; the garden of the olive, the myrtle, the orange, and the vine; the primitive home of the most stupendous trees, trees that lift their heads among the clouds, and reach maturity only when thousands of years have passed since their sprouting from the soil; the home of the stately redwood and the pine, the oak, the sycamore, the pepper, the manzanita, and almost every species of arboreal growth in all the realms of nature; California was in 1767 selected by the Catholic Church as a most promising vineyard for the gathering of souls to its bosom from among the wild heathen that inhabited the lands in the southern half of Alta California.

This chosen land, so wonderfully endowed by Nature, made possible the spiritual and civilizing purposes of the Church by the very configuration of its surface, the fertility of its soil, its temperate and subtropical climates, and its abundant waters, which were stored in natural reservoirs and available for lowland cultivation by the process of irrigation, and by rivers, creeks, and streams running to the sea and to inland lakes from every point of the compass.

In California there are very many kinds of local climate, and all within the limits of the temperate zone. A contour map most strikingly illustrates the causes of the variation in temperature in different localities. Heat, moisture, and soil give vitality to every germ within the bosom of the earth; and the direction of the sun’s rays determines the degree of heat. The general trend of the principal mountain ranges is from northwest to southeast, enclosing several great valleys. The lesser ranges and their spurs, with foothills, cañons, and arroyos, penetrate the country everywhere, twisting and turning in endless confusion. These ranges enclose innumerable pocket like depressions of various dimensions, and valleys, where the rays of the sun enter at different angles; and thus the heat is increased or diminished to a degree that is equivalent to a change in the general climate. This natural adaptation of the surface for modifying the solar heat is accountable for the exuberance and the great variety of the products of the earth, which gave joy to the hearts of the old padres as they wrought out in these primeval wilds a paradise for the Indians and themselves.

The conquest of Mexico in the dawn of the sixteenth century by Hernando Cortes opened to the Spanish Empire, the Church, and the people a vast vision of boundless possessions along the coast of the Pacific from the Arctic Circle to the Straits of Magellan. All were eager to gather the fabulous wealth of the American continents, and to reap a great harvest of the souls of heathen tribes abiding there. The Missions were a logical consequence of the conquest. The Californias were adjacent to Mexico. They were intimate, soil, and mineral riches the gems of the coast lands most accessible. The Indians of the valleys and plains bordering the ocean were separated into small tribes, with limited territory, usually bounded by creeks that ran from the mountains to the sea. They were gentle and peaceable, and easily converted to the Catholic faith. The food of those near the coast was fish, seals, and sea-otters, and these were in great abundance and variety; but there was a scarcity of native products of the soil. The great and luxuriant production of fruits, vegetables, and cereals now grown there is due mainly to the labors and creature tastes of the old padres. Animal food was a rarity among the Indians, owing to their inability to hunt their game with effective weapons. Their powers of invention were feebly developed in that direction, yet the forests furnished deer and bear, and the open country the bison in limited quantities. The Indians of the plains had crude methods of tilling the soil, and they domesticated the bison, which they herded and reared upon their pasture lands. Using only natural irrigation, their farming was restricted to a few products and small areas. They were skilful in building canoes of pine, with many oars. These boats were remarkably seaworthy and resembled somewhat the ancient galleys. Their skill in working in wood was also apparent in their domestic and fishing utensils.

They were of good stature and fair complexion. The women were small, of pleasant countenance and disposition. The clothing of these coast Indians was mostly made from the skin of the sea-wolf, rudely tanned. Their habits and morals were better than those of many tribes of mountain Indians, living more remote from the ocean. They were not warlike, and usually escaped in their canoes to the coast islands when their lands were invaded by the mountain tribes. There is an oval mound at Santa Barbara near the sea, of about fifty feet in altitude, and three acres in extent; it was formed in the course of ages by the collection of fish bones deposited by Indians after the banquets which they held at gatherings of the coast tribes in council. A Portuguese admiral who navigated the coast in 1540 tarried here for several months, and finally died and was buried on the Island of Santa Rosa. He named this locality the City of Fleets, by reason of the great number of canoes that met him at his anchorage, the natives having rowed to the spot to give him a warm welcome. They seemed to be natural sailors, made so by the necessities of life, as their principal means of subsistence came from the waters. The next navigator in these regions, Vizcaino, who appeared in 1602, explored the coast of California and Mexico for more than eight hundred leagues. He investigated the history of the coast and inland tribes, and in his reports to the Spanish Government, furnishes the most reliable information in regard to the country and its inhabitants. It was upon his statements and his experience that the home authorities, civil and ecclesiastical, based their plans for the possession of the lands and the regeneration of the natives. For these purposes they provided for the founding of a series of presidios guarded by soldiers, and of Missions from San Diego to Monterey-the former to hold and protect, and the latter to do the work of developing and civilizing, the country and the aborigines. The old padres found by experience that Vizcaino had painted too vividly, but without doubt for a good purpose; yet the Missions atoned in results for all the errors of judgment.

If the mountain and more inland tribes had been of the pacific nature of the coast tribes, the work of the Missions would have been much less perilous and more effective. One of the few murders, that of Padre Jayme, committed by the mountain tribes, and the burning of the Mission building at San Diego on the third of October, 1775, indicate to some extent the difference in character and habits between the cruel and warlike tribes of the interior and mountain regions, and those of the coast and the pastoral tribes of the valleys and plains. It is doubtless the fact that the Mission labors were largely confined to these latter tribes, in consequence of their more docile nature and habits, which made them readily respond to religious influence, and far less dangerous than the bloodthirsty natives of the interior.

Locality, food, climate, and other forms of environment in the course of time make a radical difference in the characteristics, manners, habits, and disposition of mankind, so that traces of connection with the generic stock may be entirely lost, except in the language, which preserves the roots of the mother tongue. Hence the variety in the life records, as found in the actual history of these native races. It is impossible to know much about them, comparatively nothing of their past. We know of them only what we are taught by those who discovered them about four centuries ago, and by contact with them in more recent times. When we found them, we called them all heathen, though they manifested various grades of morals and intelligence, from the low degree of the Digger Indian to the greater development exemplified by the most enlightened tribes.

The origin and settlement of the aborigines of the Pacific coast wilds are veiled in the mists of forgotten ages, which are impenetrable to the eye of historic research. The subject may interest the speculative mind, with its instinctive longing to learn the unknown in the past and the future; but such knowledge is not necessary to this sketch of a unique civilization, and it must remain concealed until the lifting of the curtain which shall reveal the work and the plans of the Creator.

Return to: The Missions of California and the Old Southwest

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