Spanish Days

The dominant people of California have been successively aborigines, conquistadores, monks, the dreamy, romantic, unenergetic peoples of Spain, the roaring melange of Forty-nine, and finally the modern citizens, who are so distinctive that they bid fair to become a subspecies of their own. This modern society has, in its evolution, something unique. To be sure, other countries also have passed through these same phases. But while the processes have consumed a leisurely five hundred years or so elsewhere, here they have been subjected to forced growth.

The tourist traveler is inclined to look upon the crumbling yet beautiful remains of the old missions, those venerable relics in a bustling modern land, as he looks upon the enduring remains of old Rome. Yet there are today many unconsidered New England farmhouses older than the oldest western mission, and there are men now living who witnessed the passing of Spanish California.

Though the existence of California had been known for centuries, and the dates of her first visitors are many hundreds of years old, nevertheless Spain attempted no actual occupation until she was forced to it by political necessity. Until that time she had little use for the country. After early investigations had exploded her dream of more treasure cities similar to those looted by Cortes and Pizarro, her interest promptly died.

But in the latter part of the eighteenth century Spain began to awake to the importance of action. Fortunately ready to her hand was a tried and tempered weapon. Just as the modern statesmen turn to commercial penetration, so Spain turned, as always, to religious occupation. She made use of the missionary spirit and she sent forth her expeditions ostensibly for the purpose of converting the heathen. The result was the so-called Sacred Expedition under the leadership of Junipero Serra and Portola. In the face of incredible hardships and discouragements, these devoted, if narrow and simple, men succeeded in establishing a string of missions from San Diego to Sonoma. The energy, self-sacrifice, and persistence of the members of this expedition furnish inspiring reading today and show clearly of what the Spanish character at its best is capable.

For the next thirty years after the founding of the first mission in 1769, the grasp of Spain on California was assured. Men who could do, suffer, and endure occupied the land. They made their mistakes in judgment and in methods, but the strong fiber of the pioneer was there. The original padres were almost without exception zealous, devoted to poverty, uplifted by a fanatic desire to further their cause. The original Spanish temporal leaders were in general able, energetic, courageous, and not afraid of work or fearful of disaster.

At the end of that period, however, things began to suffer a change. The time of pioneering came to an end, and the new age of material prosperity began. Evils of various sorts crept in. The pioneer priests were in some instances replaced by men who thought more of the flesh-pot than of the altar, and whose treatment of the Indians left very much to be desired. Squabbles arose between the civil and the religious powers. Envy of the missions’ immense holdings undoubtedly had its influence. The final result of the struggle could not be avoided, and in the end the complete secularization of the missions took place, and with this inevitable change the real influence of these religious outposts came to an end.

Thus before the advent in California of the American as an American, and not as a traveler or a naturalized citizen, the mission had disappeared from the land, and the land was inhabited by a race calling itself the gente de razon, in presumed contradistinction to human beasts with no reasoning powers. Of this period the lay reader finds such conflicting accounts that he either is bewildered or else boldly indulges his prejudices. According to one school of writers–mainly those of modern fiction–California before the advent of the gringo was a sort of Arcadian paradise, populated by a people who were polite, generous, pleasure-loving, high-minded, chivalrous, aristocratic, and above all things romantic. Only with the coming of the loosely sordid, commercial, and despicable American did this Arcadia fade to the strains of dying and pathetic music. According to another school of writers–mainly authors of personal reminiscences at a time when growing antagonism was accentuating the difference in ideals–the “greaser” was a dirty, idle, shiftless, treacherous, tawdry vagabond, dwelling in a disgracefully primitive house, and backward in every aspect of civilization.

The truth, of course, lies somewhere between the two extremes, but its exact location is difficult though not impossible to determine. The influence of environment is sometimes strong, but human nature does not differ much from age to age. Racial characteristics remain approximately the same. The Californians were of several distinct classes. The upper class, which consisted of a very few families, generally included those who had held office, and whose pride led them to intermarry. Pure blood was exceedingly rare. Of even the best the majority had Indian blood; but the slightest mixture of Spanish was a sufficient claim to gentility. Outside of these “first families,” the bulk of the population came from three sources: the original military adjuncts to the missions, those brought in as settlers, and convicts imported to support one side or another in the innumerable political squabbles. These diverse elements shared one sentiment only–an aversion to work. The feeling had grown up that in order to maintain the prestige of the soldier in the eyes of the natives it was highly improper that he should ever do any labor. The settlers, of whom there were few, had themselves been induced to immigrate by rather extravagant promises of an easy life. The convicts were only what was to be expected.

If limitations of space and subject permitted, it would be pleasant to portray the romantic life of those pastoral days. Arcadian conditions were then more nearly attained than perhaps at any other time in the world’s history. The picturesque, easy, idle, pleasant, fiery, aristocratic life has been elsewhere so well depicted that it has taken on the quality of rosy legend. Nobody did any more work than it pleased him to do; everybody was well-fed and happy; the women were beautiful and chaste; the men were bold, fiery, spirited, gracefully idle; life was a succession of picturesque merrymakings, lovemakings, intrigues, visits, lavish hospitalities, harmless politics, and revolutions. To be sure, there were but few signs of progressive spirit. People traveled on horseback because roads did not exist. They wore silks and diamonds, lace and satin, but their houses were crude, and conveniences were simple or entirely lacking. Their very vehicles, with wooden axles and wheels made of the cross-section of a tree, were such as an East African savage would be ashamed of. But who cared? And since no one wished improvements, why worry about them?

Certainly, judged by the standards of a truly progressive race, the Spanish occupation had many shortcomings. Agriculture was so little known that at times the country nearly starved. Contemporary travelers mention this fact with wonder. “There is,” says Ryan, “very little land under cultivation in the vicinity of Monterey. That which strikes the foreigner most is the utter neglect in which the soil is left and the indifference with which the most charming sites are regarded. In the hands of the English and Americans, Monterey would be a beautiful town adorned with gardens and orchards and surrounded with picturesque walks and drives. The natives are, unfortunately, too ignorant to appreciate and too indolent even to attempt such improvement.” And Captain Charles Wilkes asserts that “notwithstanding the immense number of domestic animals in the country, the Californians were too lazy to make butter or cheese, and even milk was rare. If there was a little good soap and leather occasionally found, the people were too indolent to make them in any quantity. The earth was simply scratched a few inches by a mean and ill-contrived plow. When the ground had been turned up by repeated scratching, it was hoed down and the clods broken by dragging over it huge branches of trees. Threshing was performed by spreading the cut grain on a spot of hard ground, treading it with cattle, and after taking off the straw throwing the remainder up in the breeze, much was lost and what was saved was foul.”

General shiftlessness and inertia extended also to those branches wherein the Californian was supposed to excel. Even in the matter of cattle and sheep, the stock was very inferior to that brought into the country by the Americans, and such a thing as crossing stock or improving the breed of either cattle or horses was never thought of. The cattle were long-horned, rough-skinned animals, and the beef was tough and coarse. The sheep, while of Spanish stock, were very far from being Spanish merino. Their wool was of the poorest quality, entirely unfit for exportation, and their meat was not a favorite food.

There were practically no manufactures on the whole coast. The inhabitants depended for all luxuries and necessities on foreign trade, and in exchange gave hide and tallow from the semi-wild cattle that roamed the hills. Even this trade was discouraged by heavy import duties which amounted at times to one hundred per cent of the value. Such conditions naturally led to extensive smuggling which was connived at by most officials, high and low, and even by the monks of the missions themselves.

Although the chief reason for Spanish occupancy was to hold the country, the provisions for defense were not only inadequate but careless. Thomes says, in Land and Sea, that the fort at Monterey was “armed with four long brass nine-pounders, the handsomest guns that I ever saw all covered with scroll work and figures. They were mounted on ruined and decayed carriages. Two of them were pointed toward the planet Venus, and the other two were depressed so that had they been loaded or fired the balls would have startled the people on the other side of the hemisphere.” This condition was typical of those throughout the so-called armed forts of California.

The picture thus presented is unjustly shaded, of course, for Spanish California had its ideal, noble, and romantic side. In a final estimate no one could say where the balance would be struck; but our purpose is not to strike a final balance. We are here endeavoring to analyze the reasons why the task of the American conquerors was so easy, and to explain the facility with which the original population was thrust aside.

It is a sometimes rather annoying anomaly of human nature that the races and individuals about whom are woven the most indestructible mantles of romance are generally those who, from the standpoint of economic stability or solid moral quality, are the most variable. We staid and sober citizens are inclined to throw an aura of picturesqueness about such creatures as the Stuarts, the dissipated Virginian cavaliers, the happy-go-lucky barren artists of the Latin Quarter, the fiery touchiness of that so-called chivalry which was one of the least important features of Southern life, and so on. We staid and sober citizens generally object strenuously to living in actual contact with the unpunctuality, unreliability, unreasonableness, shiftlessness, and general irresponsibility that are the invariable concomitants of this picturesqueness. At a safe distance we prove less critical. We even go so far as to regard this unfamiliar life as a mental anodyne or antidote to the rigid responsibility of our own everyday existence. We use these historical accounts for moral relaxation, much as some financiers or statisticians are said to read cheap detective stories for complete mental relaxation.

But, the Californian’s undoubtedly admirable qualities of generosity, kindheartedness (whenever narrow prejudice or very lofty pride was not touched), hospitality, and all the rest, proved, in the eyes of a practical people confronted with a large and practical job, of little value in view of his predominantly negative qualities. A man with all the time in the world rarely gets on with a man who has no time at all. The newcomer had his house to put in order; and it was a very big house. The American wanted to get things done at once; the Californian could see no especial reason for doing them at all. Even when his short-lived enthusiasm happened to be aroused, it was for action tomorrow rather than today.

For all his amiable qualities, the mainspring of the Californian’s conduct was at bottom the impression he could make upon others. The magnificence of his apparel and his accoutrement indicated no feeling for luxury but rather a fondness for display. His pride and quick-tempered honor were rooted in a desire to stand well in the eyes of his equals, not in a desire to stand well with himself. In consequence he had not the builder’s fundamental instinct. He made no effort to supply himself with anything that did not satisfy this amiable desire. The contradictions of his conduct, therefore, become comprehensible. We begin to see why he wore silks and satins and why he neglected what to us are necessities. We see why he could display such admirable carriage in rough-riding and lassoing grizzlies, and yet seemed to possess such feeble military efficiency. We comprehend his generous hospitality coupled with his often narrow and suspicious cruelty. In fact, all the contrasts of his character and action begin to be clear. His displacement was natural when confronted by a people who, whatever their serious faults, had wants and desires that came from within, who possessed the instinct to create and to hold the things that would gratify those desires, and who, in the final analysis, began to care for other men’s opinions only after they had satisfied their own needs and desires.

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