San Francisco History

The Annals of San Francisco

PART FIRST. Chapter V.

THE missions of Upper California were indebted for their beginning and chief success to the subscriptions which, as in the case of the missionary settlements of the lower province, were largely bestowed by the pious to promote so grand a work as turning a great country to the worship of the true God. Such subscriptions continued for a long period, both in Old and New Spain, and were regularly remitted to the City of Mexico, where they were formed into what was called “The Pious Fund of California.” This fund was managed by the convent of San Fernando and other trustees in Mexico, and the proceeds, together with the annual salaries allowed by the Crown to the missionaries were transmitted to California. Meanwhile, the Spanish Court scarcely interfered with the temporal government of the country. It was true that some of the ordinary civil offices and establishments were kept up; but this was only in name, and on too small a scale to be of any practical importance. A commandante-general was appointed by the Crown to command the garrisons of the presidios, but as these were originally established solely to protect the missions from the dreaded violence of hostile Indians, and to lend them, when necessary, the carnal arm of offence, he was not allowed to interfere in the temporal rule of the Fathers. He resided at Monterey, and his annual salary was four thousand dollars.

In every sense of the word, then, these monks were practically the sovereign rulers of California—passing laws affecting not only property, but even life and death—declaring peace and war against their Indian neighbors—regulating, receiving, and spending the finances at discretion—and, in addition, drawing large annual subsidies not only from the pious among the faithful over all Christendom, but even from the Spanish monarchy itself; almost as a tribute to their being a superior state. This surely was the golden age of the missions—a contented, peaceful, believing people, abundant wealth for all their wants, despotic will, and no responsibility but to their own consciences and heaven! Their horn was filled to overflowing; but soon an invisible and merciless hand seized it, and slowly and lingeringly, as if in malicious sport, turned it over, and spilled the nectar of their life upon the wastes of mankind, from whence it can never again be collected. The golden age of another race has now dawned, and with it the real prosperity of the country.

The missions were originally formed on the same general plan, and they were planted at such distances from each other as to allow abundant room for subsequent development. They were either established on the sea-coast, or a few miles inland. Twenty or thirty miles indeed seems all the distance the missionaries had proceeded into the interior; beyond which narrow belt the country was unexplored and unknown. Each mission had a considerable piece of the best land in the neighborhood set aside for its agricultural and pastoral purposes, which was commonly about fifteen miles square. But besides this selected territory, there was generally much more vacant land lying between the boundaries of the missions, and which, as the increase of their stocks required more space for grazing, was gradually occupied by the flocks and herds of the Fathers, nearest to whose mission lay the previously unoccupied district. Over these bounds the Fathers conducted all the operations of a gigantic farm. Their cattle generally numbered from ten thousand to twenty thousand, and their sheep were nearly as numerous—though some missions had upwards of thrice these numbers—which fed over perhaps a hundred thousand acres of fertile land.

Mission of San Carlos.Near the centre of such farms were placed the mission buildings. These consisted of the church—which was either built of stone, if that material could be procured in the vicinity, or of adobes, which are bricks dried in the sun, and was as substantial, large, and richly decorated an erection as the means of the mission would permit, or the skill and strength of their servants could construct. In the interior, pictures and hangings decorated the walls; while the altars were ornamented with marble pillars of various colors, and upon and near them stood various articles of massy gold and silver plate. A profusion of gilding and tawdry sparkling objects caught and pleased the eye of the simple congregations. Around, or beside the church, and often in the form of a square, were grouped the habitations of the Fathers and their household servants, and the various granaries and workshops of the people; while, at the distance of one or two hundred yards, stood the huts of the Indians. The former buildings were constructed of adobes, and covered with brick tiles, frail and miserable materials at the best. The huts of the Indians were occasionally made of the same materials, but more commonly were formed only of a few rough poles, stuck in the ground with the points bending towards the centre like a cone, and were covered with reeds and grass. An adobe wall of considerable height sometimes inclosed the whole village. The direction of the affairs of the settlement was in the hands of one of the Fathers, originally called a president, but afterwards a prefect; and each prefect was independent in his own mission, and practically supreme in all its temporal, and nearly in all its spiritual matters, to any human authority.

Thus the Fathers might be considered to have lived something in the style of the patriarchs of the days of Job and Abraham. They indeed were generally ignorant and unlettered men, knowing little more than the mechanical rites of their church, and what else their manuals of devotion and the treasuries of the lives of the saints taught them; but they seem to have been personally devout, self-denying, and beneficent in their own simple way. They thought they did God service, and perhaps much more the Indians themselves, in catching, taming, and converting them to Christianity. That was their vocation in the world, and they faithfully obeyed its calls of duty. If ever stern necessity, or sometimes a forgetfulness of the value of life to the wild Indians prompted them, or their military guards and executioners, to the slaughter of a tribe, now and then, of the more fierce, thievish, and untractable natives, they were scrupulously careful first of all to baptize the doomed; and, therefore, though the hapless aborigines lost earthly life and the freedom of a savage state, their souls were saved, and they entered into and enjoyed paradise for ever. Towards the converts and actually domesticated servants, they always showed such an affectionate kindness as a father pays to the youngest and most helpless of his family. The herds and flocks of the Fathers roamed undisturbed over numberless hills and valleys. Their servants or slaves were true born children of the house, who labored lightly and pleasantly, and had no sense of freedom nor desire for change. A rude but bounteous hospitality marked the master’s reception of the solitary wayfarer, as he travelled from mission to mission, perhaps bearing some scanty news from the outer world, all the more welcome that the Fathers knew llttle of the subject and could not be affected by the events and dangers of distant societies. All these things have now passed away. The churches have fallen into decay, deserted by the old worshippers, and poverty-stricken—the adobe houses of the Fathers are in ruins—and there is scarcely any trace left of the slightly erected huts of the Indians, who themselves have deserted their old hearths and altars, and are silently though rapidly disappearing from the land. But the memory of the patriarchal times, for they were only as of yesterday, still remains fresh in the minds of the early white settlers.

The quiet beauty and peacefulness of such a life make a delightful subject of contemplation to the wearied spirits who labor through the turmoils, anxieties, and vexations of the great world. But the Indian neophytes had no such contrasts to show them the inherent charm of their contented life. They grew and flourished as the cabbage on the rich soil of their own land; but they also were as dull and earthly as the same cabbage. It may be very true, the more knowledge, the more sorrow; yet we cannot avoid thinking that the more sources of intellectual enjoyment a man has, the keener and more numerous also his moments of pleasure. Even in many of the natural anxieties of civilized society, there is a sense of power and heroic endurance which softens the blow. The mere memory of past pains has almost always something cheerful in it; while the remembrance of intellectual and refined enjoyments gilds the last and setting hour of our existence. On the other hand, the hopes of the intelligent being are infinitely more agreeable and ennobling than those of the untutored, brutal savage. Therefore it may be concluded that, apart from sickly sentimentalism and Rousseau-like theories, the sooner the aborigines of California are altogether quietly weeded away, the better for humanity. Yet the Fathers would retain them: then sweep away the Fathers too.

Like the missions, the presidios were established on one general plan. They were originally formed, as we have seen, to give military protection and the aid of the carnal arm to the Fathers in their conquest and civilization of the country, and in capturing and taming the wild Indians. These presidios were four in number, viz.: those of San Diego, Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San Francisco. They were built in the form of a square of about three hundred feet on each side, surrounded by a wall twelve feet high, made of adobes, and most of them are now little better than a confused heap of dried mud, rapidly crumbling into dust. Within these bounds were included the commandante’s house, barracks for the troops, a church, store-houses, and various other buildings. At some distance from the presidio was the castillo, or fort, which might be sufficient to overawe the simple Indians, but was too defenceless a structure to prevent a superior force of white men taking easy possession of it. A few guns of small calibre were mounted on the ramparts, which, however, seemed more for show than use, since they were never attended to. Soon, therefore, from the ravages of time and the weather, their carriages fell to pieces, and the guns themselves became honey-combed by rust and rot.

The soldiers assigned to each presidio were cavalry, and seem always to have been of the worst kind of troops. As soldiers, they were of little account; as men and settlers, absolutely worthless. There were supposed to be two hundred and fifty attached to each presidio, but their complement was never complete, and generally they were ridiculously short of that number. Undisciplined, wretchedly clothed, and irregularly paid, they were indolent, riotous, and good for nothing but to hunt, and shoot, or capture for new converts and servants, the wild Indians, and to act as policemen over the converts already made. Yet even in these capacities, they generally gave more trouble to the meek Fathers to manage and keep in decent order, than the wild or disobedient natives themselves. These were the soldiers of California in the days of the Spanish monarchy, and they were no better under the Mexican republic. They are represented to have been commonly the refuse of the Mexican army, and were generally either deserters, mutineers, or men guilty of military offences, who were sent to California as to a place of penal banishment. To these presidios also the convicted felons of Mexico were often transported. Such was a considerable portion of the white population of California. We have already seen of what nature the Indian inhabitants were.

Mission Rancho.Occasionally, the old soldiers of the presidios, upon their retirement, after a certain number of years, from active service, received grants of land from the Fathers, upon which they settled, married, and left descendants. These formed the nuclei of a few free towns (pueblos), which were not under the control of the missions, but under the immediate government, first of the Spanish and afterwards of the Mexican authorities. As they were established in the most fertile places of the country, they began gradually to attract other white settlers to their neighborhood, and soon exceeded in population and importance most of the original mission villages themselves. These pueblos, however, were only three in number, viz.: that of Nuestra Señora de los Angeles (the principal one, and indeed the chief town in California), and those of San José, near the mission of Santa Clara, and Branciforte, close to the mission of Santa Cruz.

Besides the missions, presidios, castillos, and pueblos, it may be remarked that there were certain public farms, called ranchos, set apart for the use of the soldiers. They were generally four or five leagues distant from the presidios, and were under the control of the different commandantes. Little use, however, seems to have been made of these farms, and they commonly were left in a state of nature, or afforded only grazing to the few cattle and horses belonging to the presidios.

Source: Frank Soulé, John H. Gihon, M.D., and James Nisbet. The Annals of San Francisco. 1855: San Francisco.

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