The Missions of Lower California

Lower California was the field of the greatest and most patient efforts of the Jesuit missionaries for nearly a century. Their work was very systematic, and more successful than that of other Missions in the Southwest, except in some portions of central Mexico, where greater enlightenment prevailed among the natives.

The country is a waste of mountains, sand plains, canons, gulches, valleys, and broken surfaces, with but few, small, and scanty streams, and rivers oftentimes waterless. One hundred degrees is a common temperature in summer, and much of the time it is higher.

The tribes that peopled this hideous wilderness were as degraded as the reptile-eaters among the wilds of the Amazon. Their religion was a crude necromancy, and they had no rational ideas of a Supreme Being.

In 1683 an expedition consisting of one hundred settlers of the poorer classes, led by three Jesuit priests, sailed for the peninsula. They found fresh water-a rarity-and a safe harbor. The natives, who looked like starved wolves, soon became hostile, and collisions occurred in which several were killed. The colonists deserted the fort and made another settlement sixty miles up the gulf. The natives here gathered daily for instruction, and some five hundred desired to be Christians. But the exploring parties which went into the outer districts found desolation everywhere, and the colony was abandoned. Thus the heroic and loyal Jesuits met their first defeat on the desert peninsula.

About 1688, Spain succeeded in effecting the colonization of the peninsula. Mission work was carried on for nearly a hundred years, under the control of the’ Jesuits, or until their removal by Charles III, in 1767. Mission work continued five years under the Franciscans, but its energies were steadily ebbing away. Thereafter, under the authority of the Dominicans in a brief and troublous period, it ceased to exist.

Under the Jesuits the Missions were a triumph against nature. Father Kuehn was the master spirit that accomplished the result. He was daring to the utmost of his convictions. In zeal, ability, and practical energy he was perhaps without a peer among the missionaries. He wandered alone, or with a few docile Indians, in the wilds of northern Mexico, and mapped out regions never before trodden by the foot of the white man, and that with an accuracy not questioned in modern geography. He only knew that souls there were perishing for the bread of life. To save them was his inspiring motive.

During three generations many Missions were planted, and they prospered beyond measure; then a spirit of unrest came, and culminated in a general war against civilization. The Apaches were raiding everywhere; many Missions were destroyed, and the reclaiming influences of a century were obliterated. Thereafter Father Salvatierra, who was experienced by previous mission work, promptly assumed the responsibility of carrying on the work of the Missions in the peninsula.

Father Kuehn, who had been removed to the opposite side of the gulf, labored unceasingly, became the supreme leader among white men and Indians, translated languages of several tribes, founded villages and churches, and within a few years had converted more than fifty thousand savages and reduced them to orderly life. Even the fierce Apaches esteemed him as their good and trusted friend.

All this time Salvatierra was fruitlessly working to obtain authority and help for his Mission movement. The Superiors were against it; the Government detested it. At last the General of the Order directed the Provincial in Mexico to allow Salvatierra to found the Missions, and after a long and tedious struggle, the Father raised donations from pious individuals, and converted them into a fund for the support of the Missions. This was called the Pious Fund of California, a fund that has been subject to many vicissitudes during two hundred years. It had increased in 1842 to about $ 1,700,000, when it was confiscated for the Mexican Government. Later, when the terms of peace between Mexico and the United States were being adjusted, the former held that the United States had become liable for the fund, and should account for it to the Catholic Church of California. A few years ago the question of liability was submitted to the Hague Tribunal, which decided that payment must be made by the Government of Mexico, and such payment to the Church was accordingly made.

Salvatierra had builded better than he knew with the Pious Fund. The Viceroy and council were prevailed upon to issue the license, and at last the heathen of the peninsula were to know the white man’s God.

In 1697 Salvatierra, with another priest, Father Piccolo, selected a Mission site on a small bay at Carmen, near an island of that name. There was a spring of fresh water here, and quite a growth of vegetation indigenous to the locality. Salvatierra gave his settlement the name of Loretto, in honor of Our Lady of Loretto, whose special blessing he had invoked to aid him in his mission work. By irrigation from the spring he could have a little garden and a fruit orchard. His colony consisted of himself, Piccolo, six men, and three Mission Indians, each of a different race or tribe. Salvatierra supervised everything and joined in all labors but bearing arms for defense.

A big tent was used as a chapel, where Salvatierra said mass. The natives made no demonstrations of friendship or hostility. Salvatierra tried to talk with the Indians, explaining his own language and acquiring theirs. They often made sport of him, which he bore with patience. When the conversation was closed, he would feed them with boiled corn. This was ever the substantial food of the Missions and always in use, like our wheat bread, but was grown on lands across the gulf. The natives, after the meal was over, would steal whatever they could reach, and escape with it. Several hundred natives who attacked the settlement were driven off; and a vessel arrived a few days afterwards with more men and a supply of provisions. This increased the colony to twenty-five men. Some pious citizen gave the Mission a small schooner for permanent use.

The most serious obstacle to prosperous Mission labor was the nature and poverty of this wild country. Practically, the support of these Missions came from the Mexican provinces east of the gulf. At all times the supplies were scanty, and when the Pious Fund was not sufficient to meet emergencies, dependence was solely upon donations. Yet the Fund accumulated in the course of years; it was so carefully managed by the Jesuit commission that, with occasional gifts, it supplied Palou, the Franciscan, to the extent of fifteen thousand dollars yearly. But the Missions were crippled for means of support and extension.

The daily experience at Loretto was somewhat monotonous. The Indians came there to be taught. Piccolo took care of the children for instruction within the walls, for he seemed most adapted to this work, being gentle and affectionate toward the little ones; while Salvatierra discoursed outside with the adult natives about the doctrine of Christ and the customs of civilized life. Mass was recited on certain days, and every one could take part in an orderly way. After the exercises were over, boiled corn was given to the natives, and the hungry creatures probably relished this more than they did the services; but in time they appeared interested and desired to be accepted as converts.

Religious progress was slow. When early summer came cactus berries were ripe; this was the most exuberant and delicious crop in those vast fields of desolation. No inducement could withhold the natives from the harvest. They were heedless of the salvation of their souls, and even of boiled corn, until they had feasted to repletion upon the food of their gods. When this happy season was ended, they would turn their attention to the missionaries and listen to instruction, and the mission work again advanced.

Loretto had become the spiritual luminary, and the only one in that benighted wilderness, but it could not enlighten the entire peninsula. Distant territory was therefore explored with a view to the founding of other Missions. Water was discovered about forty miles from Loretto sufficient to irrigate- several acres, and it was utilized at once. Salvatierra had a house built for the priests’ home, and a chapel. He likewise opened a road from the locality to Loretto. Father Piccolo took possession and began work among the natives. In 1700, Father Ugarte, who had been a prominent factor in Jesuit life in the City of Mexico, joined the Loretto Mission, and to his energy was attributed largely the creation of the Pious Fund. He was, like every member of his Order who was intended for important service, a finished scholar. Of gigantic build and incredible strength and daring, he was a terror to unruly natives; yet kind of heart and of gentle manners. It is said that, unable to find the Mission vessel after wandering on the coast for several hundred miles on foot, he procured a castaway boat, repaired it, and made the trip across the gulf to Loretto Bay, amid adverse currents, diverse winds, and perilous waters.

Loretto was but a humble village at the time, with a storehouse and barracks, cottages for the workmen, and an adobe house for the priest. A few cattle and sheep from Sonora fed upon natural herbage near the springs and coast; but the land would yield to tillage. Such was the condition of these Missions at the close of the third year of their existence. When Ugarte arrived at the new Mission with soldiers and men, the natives fled to the hills. They were afraid, for they deserved punishment, and kept away until Ugarte quieted their fears and feasted them with boiled corn. He soon learned their language by the assistance of the children, who were ever ready to help him. Then he began to instruct them in his doctrines in a plain manner, and how to form good habits, finishing each discourse with the toothsome boiled corn. Indeed, this was about the only food he had for his own use. He dug ditches for irrigation with his own hands, and taught the natives how to use the tools. This was fun to them for a time; and thus several acres were watered and cultivated. He bore their caprices with patience, treating them as wayward children.

The founding of San Jose de Comondu, about sixty miles from Loretto, took place at this time. Water was available here; and Father Mayorga, who was in control, cleared land, made a farm with a vineyard, and built schools and a hospital. He established other settlements in the region, and visited them twice a week, with great benefit to the natives. After nearly thirty years of faithful work he died and was buried here among his Christian converts.

About this time the old Mission hero, Father Kuehn, passed away. He is said to have converted, more ‘ than fifty thousand Indians, traveled over twenty-five thousand miles in the wilderness of the Southwest, generally on foot, often alone, at all times shelter less but for the heavens above him.

The schools at Loretto educated natives for the work of teaching, because there were not enough priests for the duty.

The tribes of the North were most inclined to Christian instruction; those of the extreme South were disposed to be hostile. Through illness, Salvatierra could not visit these tribes, and while on his sick-bed he was called to Mexico by the Viceroy for consultation and full information of California. The brave old man, at seventy-two years of age, rose from his bed and started for the capital of Mexico, more than a thousand miles away. He made the journey on horseback and in a litter until he arrived at Guadalajara, but could go no farther. He sent Father Bravo to the Viceroy with full instructions in regard to his Missions, and then his spirit departed to God, who had inspired him with devotion to His cause in California for twenty years. This was in 1718.

Father Ugarte was left as Superior. He built a brig at Mulege, which lasted many years and was the best and safest on the gulf. This made it practicable to found a Mission at La Paz, one hundred miles south of Loretto. Father Bravo was placed in charge. He converted over one thousand there in a few years, until he was called to Loretto to relieve Father Piccolo.

Another Mission was founded at this time on the Pacific coast, west of Mulege one hundred miles,-San Purisima Concepcion. Father Tamaral presided over its fortunes. He opened a road between these Missions, and the natives responded from every adjoining rancheria and from long distances into the north to their influence. In truth, Christianity seemed be in the atmosphere everywhere, and the Missions prospered greatly for many years. Like Ugarte, Tamaral laid out farms and made the old desert fruitful.

At Huasiuipi Everard Heleu settled and, with his men, built a church and house. This became the Mission of San Guadalupe. The Governor (former Ensign Lorenzo) left five soldiers for protection because of the wildness and remoteness of the country where it was located. During the eight years Father Heleu labored he converted many hundred natives.

At that time Father Guilen founded a Mission settlement between Malabat and La Paz and named it Dolores. The Indians were hostile, but Governor Lorenzo subdued them by burning their canoes. Many years afterwards almost every native had been converted, and defended Father Guilen and the Mission loyally in the war against the Pericus.

Father Napoli was directed to found the Mission Santa Rosa at the Bay of Palms among the Pericus. They were belligerent, and against the new faith. They were likewise polygamists, though polygamy was not general on the peninsula. The Father had entered a sterile field for souls, and in several years converted less than a hundred Pericus.

New Missions were now formed by the Marquis de Villa and the Mexican Luyando, who joined the Society of Jesus and devoted his life to the Mission his family had endowed. Ugarte removed his headquarters two hundred miles to the north and founded the Mission of San Ignacio, near Kada Kaaman. This became the Mission of Father Luyando. He was received in joy by hundreds of the natives, and some partook of the sacrament. There were, however, some who practiced necromancy, and were in deadly enmity with the Missions, which they told the Indians would destroy the faith of their fathers and had already made the country accursed by driving away the game. The Jesuits in time rooted these superstitions from the minds of the natives in a great degree.

Water in abundance was found here and the soil was cultivated broadly; wheat, fruits, flocks, and herds blessed the Mission and gave food to the converts in plenty. There were several stations connected with the Mission, and fair roads led out to them. The Indians built adobe houses for their families and learned to clothe themselves.

One more great soul departed to his reward. In 1730, Ugarte, worn out, died at Loretto in his seventy-first year. The heroic triumvirate, Kuehn, Salvatierra, and Ugarte, founders of the Missions of Lower California, rested from their labors at about the same age. They were of different races, but the warmest friends, very much alike in temperament, in leading traits of character, and united in the single purpose of redeeming California.

Some months after Ugarte’s death, Father Eechevarri, in charge of the Missions as Visitor, began a Mission at Cape St. Lucas, which he called San Jose del Cabo; this was among the Pericus, the most warlike and degraded of all the tribes. Father Tamarac conducted the Mission. During many years he accumulated facts upon which the most complete history of the peninsula was long afterwards written.

About this time Father Guilen was appointed Superior of the Missions in succession to Ugarte. The Pericus gathered in hundreds and destroyed the Santa Rosa Mission, the Santiago, the La Paz, and the Del Cabo, and the whole south coast region was involved in turmoil and peril from petty wars that ensued. But as evidence that Indian nature was not entirely depraved, the first assurance of better days came from the heathen themselves. Converts and those friendly to mission work arrived, at Loretto in great numbers, informing the priests that they were still loyal, and loved the cause of Christ. Only a trifling punishment was awarded the hostiles.

At the time of Ugarte’s death there were fifteen Missions on the peninsula, some prosperous and the others in fair condition, with several thousand natives directly or indirectly under their influence. To push the system north and into Alta California was the aim of the Jesuit priesthood, but the war and the expulsion of the Jesuits hopelessly defeated it. It was the happy fortune of the Franciscan Order to enter the Golden State and make the memory of their lives and labors immortal. The indomitable Jesuits toiled on until 1767, when the order of the King expelled them. It came suddenly, like the lightning’s stroke.

For nearly a century the Jesuit had toiled and suffered without hope of earthly reward, to establish Missions for the benefit of the savages in Lower California. Fifteen of these had been founded before the native war. Four of them were destroyed at that time, but afterwards restored. Salvatierra had founded six, and Ugarte seven, in twenty years. Two more were added to the list after the death of these padres, by Eechevarri, the Visitor.

St. Ignacio was at this time the most northerly Mission; but a priest was sent north from San Ignacio to found the Mission of Santa Gertrude. Father Retz was in charge there, and in a few years it became very prosperous; in fact it excelled in converts-had about twelve hundred-and produced from the soil more wealth than any other Mission. Water was abundant and the land fertile.

Five years after this Fathers Cousaq and Retz, who were the energetic explorers of that day in the cactus districts, discovered a hot Sulphur spring at Adac, and chose it as the site of a Mission; but Cousaq died immediately afterwards. He had been nearly thirty years on the peninsula. Three years later the Mission was founded at Adac and endowed in 1762 by the munificence of the Countess of Granada, and was dedicated in respect to the pious memory of St. Francis Borgia. It was about one hundred miles north of Santa Gertrude, in the Cocopah desert. Father Link was conductor of this Mission. He found a large flowing spring some distance away and cultivated a number of acres, raising all food products and fruits incident to sub-tropical climate and soil. It grew into an important Mission, with some two thousand Christian converts, clothed and fed from its resources.

The last Mission north the Santa Maria-was founded in 1767, on the thirty-first parallel of latitude, twenty-five miles west of the gulf. Father Arnes was the resident priest here, but his services soon closed, for the order of expulsion was issued that year. Captain Portola, afterwards Governor of Alta California, went there with the Franciscans, with a company of soldiers from Spain, and carried out the decree.

The Franciscans were ordered by the King to take control of these Missions. Junipero Serra, as Superior, with sixteen priests from the College of San Ferdinand, in the City of Mexico, arrived at Loretto in the Spring of 1768. Father Palou, the boyhood friend of Serra, was assistant. The priests were at once sent to their Missions, traveling on foot, the custom of these men.

Immediately trouble began. The soldiers insisted on the right to control the property, but would permit the priests to possess the churches and homes built for them, and to manage spiritual matters. This was against the orders of the King, who gave the priests absolute control of the Missions. Serra was left practically without rights, except to instruct the natives and conduct religious services. Irrigation and cultivation ceased, the provisions were wasted, the flocks recklessly slaughtered; the Indians, being ill treated and poorly fed, fled to the mountains. The Missions were on the way to swift dissolution. At this perilous hour Don Jose Galvez, the ruling official above the Viceroy, arrived. He investigated affairs, turned the soldiers out of power, and ordered the Missions under the control of Serra. But matters did not prosper.

Galvez, with the best of motives, interfered with the Missions. He suppressed the San Luis and Dolores Missions. He likewise changed the Mission of Santiago to a parish under a secular priest, thus deranging the entire Mission system by introducing two forms of government, in their nature antagonistic. He sought to average the populations at the Missions by removing hundreds from their old homes to new ones and distant Missions, to begin life over again. The consequences were that many were made destitute, and epidemics dotted the land with new-made graves. He applied the Pious Fund to other purposes than the support of Mission life: Had he listened to the advice of Serra and Palou, who had been trained in the Cerro Gordo Missions in the dark mountains of Mexico, the intelligent convictions thus formed would have led to beneficial results. But in Alta California he redeemed all the mistakes he had made in the peninsula, and became the organizing and practical power that made possible the great success of the Franciscans there.

An expedition was ordered and prepared by Galvez to enter the Bay of San Diego in the Spring f 1769, to take possession of Alta California. Junipero Serra was appointed President of the Missions to be founded there, and Padre Palou was left as President in the peninsula.

Father Palou found serious difficulty in conducting the Missions that had been so disorganized. An epidemic occurred in the South, and a hundred died at Dolores and San Luis Gonzago Missions; a hundred more escaped to the mountains. The following year the crops were devoured by locusts, and the next year by drought. Many of the flocks and herds were, by the order of Galvez, driven to Alta California.

In 1771 Sergeant Barri was made Governor of the peninsula, and claimed control of the Missions. He was so violent and obstructive that Father Palou decided that it was useless for the Franciscans to remain in the peninsula; accordingly, it was arranged that the Order of Dominicans should assume charge of the Missions on the peninsula. They were transferred in 1772, but they could not restore energy to the decaying Missions. Constant interference by Governor Barri and his successors baffled the priests, and so discouraged the natives that they left the Missions to return to their wild life. In 1825 Mission life had almost disappeared from the peninsula. In 186o the buildings had fallen into ruins, and the cultivated lands had become barren wastes.

Return to: The Missions of California and the Old Southwest

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