San Francisco History

The Annals of San Francisco


THE state of things described under the missions continued without alteration until the overthrow of the Spanish power in Mexico in 1822, and the establishment of a republican constitution in 1824. At that time, as population formed the basis of the Federal States, New California was only admitted into the Union as a territory, it not having the necessary population to constitute a State. Under this character, it had a representative in the Mexican Congress, who sat in the assembly and shared in debates, but who was not entitled to vote on any question. The republic was represented in the territory, as the Spanish monarchy had previously been, by a commandante-general, who was nominal governor of the country. However, the practical legislative powers and virtual government remained in the hands of the missons as before. The commandante-general indeed had a kind of advising or privy council given him by law, called a deputation, and which was chosen by the people; but their functions, although appearing to take the form of a local and free government, were very limited, and their meetings accordingly seldom took place.

In 1826, the federal government first began to tamper with the ancient state of affairs. In that year, the Mexican authorities proclaimed the manumission of the Indians, and sent instructions to California that all those should be liberated “who had good characters, and were supposed able to maintain themselves from having been taught the art of agriculture or some trade.” Certain portions of land were allotted to them, and the whole country was divided into parishes, under tbe superintendence of curates. The old salary of the missionaries (four hundred dollars per annum) out of the national exchequer was also suspended, as the country was expected to maintain its own local establishments.

This plan, however, was quickly found to be unworkable. The simple Indians were quite incapable of standing alone, and rapidly gambled away, or otherwise squandered the little property assigned to them. Beggary or plunder was only left them to subsist upon. Such a state of things soon restored the Fathers to their former position. The most respectable white settlers entreated them to receive the beastly Indians back into the old fold; and this, in the following year, the Fathers did. But they first took occasion to make the circumstances the ground of petition and complaint to Congress, who subsequently, and in consequence of their remonstrances, ordered not only the old salaries to be continued, but the arrears then due to be paid in full. Thus the reign of the Fathers was prolonged for a few years.

Meanwhile, the old Pious Fund of California was become only a name. After the separation of the Mexican provinces from Spain, the ancient subscribers got lukewarm in their payments, and new ones were not easily to be had. In the disturbed state of the country, and in the change of ideas arising from political circumstances, there were more tempting channels for the application of loose money than in riveting the chains of Christianity on poor heathens, or securing the Fathers in their comfortable domicils. But, to compensate for the loss of these subscriptions, the real and personal estate of the missions was rapidly rising in value. Traders had come on the coast, who purchased the hides and tallow of their cattle, and the produce of their fields. The Fathers were becoming excellent men of business, and began to drive a thriving trade. They were now independent, in the fullest sense of the word; so much so, that, whereas formerly they were indebted to foreign contributions and royal or republican assistance to support their missions, they now not only could manage to subsist without these aids, but were enabled, and in truth obliged, to support the Mexican forces and civil establishments in their territory at a vast annual expense.

Portrait of one of the Fathers, Antonio Peyri (aged 67 years), Missionary at San Luis Rey, from 1799 to 1832.Up to this time, and so late as 1833, the Mexican government had not sought, or rather was unable, to interfere materially with the management of the Fathers. In that year indeed a body of eleven Franciscan friars was ordered by Congress to be sent to the missions to strengthen their establishments. At this time, General Don José Figueroa was appointed military governor, or commandante-general. Some time later, in the same year, the democratic party being then in power, the Mexican Congress passed a law for entirely removing the missionaries, and dividing the lands among the Indians and settlers, and appropriating the funds of the Fathers in Mexico to state purposes. Commissioners were appointed to see this act carried into effect, and free emigrants were engaged to proceed from Mexico to settle in the country. This was the most serious blow the missions had ever received, and would have been a deadly one, but for one of those revolutions or party triumphs which so frequently occur in Mexico. Santa Anna, who was opposed to the democratic party, happened to come into power before the provisions of the act could be carried into execution. He immediately overturned all that had been arranged on the subject, and forwarded, by express, counteracting instructions to California. When subsequently the emigrants from Mexico arrived in the country, General Figueroa received them so coldly, and gave them so little encouragement, that soon the greater number of them returned to Mexico. The missions therefore continued as before; and so ended this attempt on the part of the Mexican Government to secularize the property of the Fathers, and augment the population and resources of the country.

In 1835, the party at whose head was Santa Anna determined to remodel the Mexican republic, and centralize the goveminent, thereby destroying, in a great measure, the federal constitution of 1824. But no time was allowed him to make the necessary changes and their exact nature therefore was never known; for, in the following year, 1836, by one of the usual coups d’état, and while he himself had been defeated and taken prisoner by the Texans, another party opposed to his general views of policy came into power. This party, however, agreed with the previous administration on the necessity or propriety of remodelling the federal system. The old constitution was therefore abolished, and a new one adopted. By this change, the separate states were deprived of many of their former prerogatives, and nearly the whole rights and duties of government were confined to the general Congress and executive. This sweeping alteration of the federal constitution was opposed in many parts of the republic, and in no quarter more vigorously than in California. The people of Monterey rose en masse, and at once declared themselves independent until the federal constitution was re-adopted, and passed formal resolutions to that effect. Their example was quickly followed by the inhabitants of the other towns and villages. But while the people of the southern parts of the country were inclined to adhere to Mexico, upon certain conditions, those of the northern districts were determined henceforward, and for ever, to sever the connection with the other States, and to stand alone, free and independent of Mexican domination.

Mexico, meanwhile, was not exactly idle, for it answered the Californian proclamations, addresses, and long inflammatory speeches, by epistles and speeches of a similar nature on the opposite side. California and Mexico—the local and general governments—each party appealed to the patriotism of the people in support of their cause. Señor Don Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, whose name will again occur in our pages, was appointed commandante-general on the part of the Californians, and forthwith the whole train of congressional officials was forcibly expelled from office and the government troops disbanded, and before long transported to the Mexican territories. The Mexicans threatened an expedition to chastise the rebels, and recall them to repentance and duty; while the Californians defied their menaces, and resolved to abide the consequences of their first steps to freedom. However, General Urrea, who had been charged by the Mexican Government with the conduct of this expedition, soon afterwards joined the federalist party, and wilfully delayed the execution of his orders. At the same time, as the rebels were so far away, and the opposite factions in Mexico had so many more pressing matters to settle among themselves at home, somehow all about California appeared to be forgotten, and it was left, for a time, to any constitution, or none at all, and anarchy, just as its people pleased. About the end of July, 1837, the excitement among the Californians had subsided so far, that they then quietly accepted the new Mexican constitution without a murmur, and voluntarily swore allegiance to it.

It is probably unnecessary to dwell upon the successive and rapid changes of administration in Mexico, each of them differing widely from each other in their general views of home and foreign policy. In one thing indeed they pretty cordially agreed, and that was the destruction of the missions as a ruling body in California, and the secularization of their property for state and other purposes. Accordingly, administration after administration adopted the extreme democratic views on this matter, and soon the Fathers were legally, if not equitably, stripped of their possessions, and of all their former dignity and influence.

Foreseeing and dreading the results of the long threatened proceedings, the Fathers lost courage, and neglected the missions. If they themselves were not to enjoy their great estates nobody else should. Their cattle, therefore, were recklessly slaughtered, their fields and crops were neglected, and their property was granted away or sold for trifling sums. Long before their final fall, most of the missions had become but a wreck of what they had been but a few years before. Perhaps the period of their greatest prosperity was immediately previous to 1824, when the Mexican constitution was declared. After that time they all gradually fell into decay. In successive years from the date mentioned, and particularly from 1834 downwards, specially marking the disastrous years 1840 and 1845, various acts were passed in the Mexican Congress, which completely denuded the Fathers of both power and property.

This, however, was a work of considerable time, and occasionally, as rival administrations, differing in this matter a slight shade from each other, came into office, a gleam of their setting and cloud-shrouded sun would appear to cheer the hearts of the Fathers. But that sun finally sunk in 1845, never again to rise in California. In the year named, a considerable number of the missions were sold by public auction. The Indian converts attached to certain others, and who now were wandering idle and wretched over the country, were ordered to return to and cultivate the portions of land, which had been assigned them by government. If that return and cultivation were delayed more than a month, then these portions of land and the missions to which they were attached would also be sold; and this was subsequently done. The remaining missions were to be rented. The price and rents of all these missions were then divided into three parts: one was bestowed upon the missionaries themselves, and another upon the converted Indians, for their respective maintenance, while the last was converted into a new Pious Fund of California, for the support and extension of education and general charitable purposes.

Before closing this account of the former state of the missions, we may mention what was the cost of the country to the Mexican Government, independent of the salaries allowed to the Fathers, which, however, seldom seem to have been paid. Take the year 1831:—In that year, the expense of the presidial companies, according to the estimates, was $91,000. To this must be added the pay of the commandante-general and sub-inspector, the expense of maintaining auxiliary troops and convicts, and various other charges, $40,000. Together, these sums make $131,000. But, as the net amount of the public revenue, which was principally derived from exorbitant and often prohibitory tariff duties, which necessarily encouraged smuggling, was only $32,000, a short-coming of $109,000 was left to be provided by the general government. Other years showed an equally unprofitable state of public affairs. However, as the general government wanted the means, and perhaps the credit, elsewhere, they borrowed the deficiency from their nominal subjects, the wealthy Fathers; and, accordingly, we find that the Mexican Congress, in 1831, owed the missions the large sum of $450,000. This circumstance, it might be thought, should have held back the destroying hand; but perhaps it only nerved it to greater and more speedy destruction. The ungrateful are always the most cruel.

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

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