San Francisco History

The Beginnings of San Francisco


The purpose for which the missions were created has been shown in the preceding pages. That the missionary establishments were to be retired when their work was done has also been made clear. There was no misunderstanding of the government's intentions in this respect, least of all on the part of the missionary priests, yet in many instances they allowed the impression to prevail that they were cruelly wronged. The secularization of the missions has been denounced in unmeasured terms. It has been represented as an outrage against the thirty thousand Christianized Indians who enjoyed the beneficence and created the wealth of the missions of California, against the good and devoted men who with such wisdom, sagacity, and self-sacrifice reared those wonderful institutions in the wilderness; against the church, and against the peace and welfare of the province. The Franciscan monks were generally driven out, says De Mofras, but the parish priests did not arrive, so that the neophytes were generally left without teachers or protectors, and the services for the most part ceased. The mayor-domos appointed to take charge of the missions were often brutal and illiterate persons—sometimes those who had been menial servants; so that frequently the missionary was at the mercy of one of his former herdsmen. The few missionaries who remained were insulted, thwarted, stinted in their allowance, and, in some instances, died of starvation while ministering at the altar. [1] Wilkes, who found little to commend in California, said that with the change of rulers anarchy and confusion began to reign, that the want of authority was everywhere felt, that some of the missions were deserted, the property dissipated and the Indians turned out to seek their native wilds. Secularization had brought ruin to the missions and that the property that was still left became a prey to the rapacity of the governor, the needy officers, and the administrador. [2] The Indians complained of the fact that they had endured outrages from the whites who had deprived them of the cattle which had been given them, and pastured their own flocks upon the small patches of ground which had been assigned to them for cultivation and that the civil authorities themselves had pillaged them. They returned therefore to their native tribes among the tulares whence they issued in raids upon the missions and settlements sweeping off herds of cattle and horses, and sometimes carrying into captivity the wives and daughters of the whites. These latter retaliated by excursions into the Indian country, in which whole villages were devoted to slaughter, rapine, and burning, by the wild and indiscriminate fury of revenge. [3] Edwin Bryant says: "The administrators have made themselves and those by whom they were appointed, rich upon the spoils of the missions." [4] Alfred Robinson too, who, whatever may have been his training in his New England home, was a faithful friend of the church in California, loses no opportunity to score the government and the administrators of the missions.

Let us consider for a moment how much of this censure is deserved. Bryant was here for a few months only, long after the secularization of the missions was accomplished. De Mofras' observation was superficial, and while he wrote copiously of the secularization his information was largely hearsay. Wilkes was here in the same year, 1841, and his information on this point was from the same source as that of De Mofras. [Note 25] Alfred Robinson was in California throughout most of the period of secularization and his opportunities for observation were excellent, but his statements are so general that little can be done with them by way of analysis.

Most of the writers of the period following the secularization assume that the missions, with their great holdings of real and personal property, belonged to the church or that the property belonged to the missionary establishments as corporations. Such however was not the case. The missions belonged to the government and were established under its direction. The missions of Lower California established by the Jesuits were, in 1768, taken from them by order of the king and placed in the custody of the Franciscans. Later, when the establishment of a chain of missions in Alta California was determined, the Franciscans relinquished the missions of Lower California to the Dominicans, who felt that their order had not received proper consideration, and confined themselves to the new establishments of Alta California. Moreover, the government control and direction of the missions is seen in all the orders and regulations concerning them. It was the duty of the governor to choose their sites, direct the construction and arrangement of their edifices, and to lay out their streets regularly, as, the viceroy advised, a mission may become a pueblo and the pueblo grow into a great city. Not only this, but the governor had a right to reduce their possessions by grants of land to Indians and to settlers (pobladores) within their so-called boundaries, and could change a mission into a pueblo and subject it to the same laws that governed other pueblos. Bucaréli , [Note 26] viceroy of New Spain, in his letter of instructions to the comandante of the new establishments of San Diego and Monterey, dated August 17, 1773, said: "When it becomes expedient to change any mission into a pueblo, the comandante will proceed to reduce it to the civil and economical government, which, according to the laws, is observed in the other pueblos of this kingdom, giving it a name, and declaring for its patron the saint under whose auspices and venerable protection the mission was founded." [5] Thus at the very foundation of these California establishments did Spain announce the end and complete fulfilment of all missions.

The change by which the monastic monopoly was to be broken up involved no wrong to the church, the Franciscan order, or to the Indians. Figueroa' s regulations by which the policy and the law were to be carried out were wise and humane, but it cannot be denied that sixty-five years of tutelage had left the Indian no more fitted to assume the responsibilities of citizenship than it found him. Colonization was obliged to wait upon secularization, and there could be no political organization where there was no population. The missions occupied all California, and while all the land was not needed, and ought not to be distributed among the Indians, the government could not undertake to make grants of national lands until the requirements of the Indians were ascertained and provided for. Secularization would accomplish this and the property of the government and that of the Indians would be separated when the missions became pueblos.

The great wealth of the missions could not fail to excite the avarice of those whose official position gave opportunity for plunder. Already the looting had begun and in some instances a decline in the prosperity of the missions had been noticed before the process of secularization was under way. Under the influence of Echeandía, governor from 1825 to 1831, assisted by his inspector-general, José María Padrés, a spirit of revolt had been incited among the neophytes and a general feeling of unrest prevailed. In 1833 a scheme for the colonization of California was organized in the city of Mexico which received the aid and support of the Federal government. So far as the planting of a colony in California was concerned the scheme was apparently legitimate. But the fact that its chief promoter was José María Padrés, the person mainly responsible for the revolt of the neophytes, caused a feeling of uneasiness among the missions. Associated with Padrés was José María Híjar, a man of wealth and position. Híjar was appointed governor of California and director of colonization, and Figueroa was directed to deliver to him the missions. With two hundred and fifty colonists Híjar and Padrés, who had been appointed sub-director, sailed from San Blas in August, 1834, in two ships, and after a rough voyage landed, one at San Diego and the other at Monterey. Meanwhile a change of administration in Mexico had retired the friends of the scheme from office; the appointment of Híjar was revoked and a special courier was sent express to Governor Figueroa forbidding him to deliver the missions to Híjar and his associates. These instructions reached Monterey in advance of Híjar and confronted him when he presented his orders to the governor. He tried to bribe Figueroa to deliver him the missions but in this he failed, and charges of conspiracy being preferred against him and his associates, they were returned to Mexico to answer. The unfortunate colonists, deprived of the support of their leaders, were after a period of distress merged in the settlers of the northern missions. Among them all there was not one of the class California stood most in need of, agriculturists.

Some of the missionary fathers regarded secularization as an outrage upon themselves and their neophytes and, when convinced that it could not be averted, ceased to care for the buildings, vineyards, and gardens, as in former times, and attempted to realize in ready money as large an amount as possible. Information concerning the Híjar-Padrés company was circulated throughout the missions and the priests resolved to defeat the scheme if possible. At many of the establishments orders were given for the immediate slaughter of their cattle, and contracts were made with individuals to kill them and divide the proceeds with the missions. Thousands of cattle were slain for their hides only, while their carcases remained to rot on the plains, and in this way a vast amount of tallow and beef was entirely lost. The rascally contractors who were enriching themselves so easily, were not satisfied with their legitimate profit, but secretly appropriated to themselves two hides for one given to the missions. A wanton spirit of destruction seemed to possess them, co-equal with their desire for plunder, and they continued to ravage and lay waste. In like manner other interests of the establishments were neglected by the missionaries and the missions gradually fell to decay. [6]

The curates that were to be appointed to the newly created parishes never came, and the friars remained to serve as curates, being relieved of temporal management but coöperating with the mayor-domos in supervising the labors and conduct of the Indians. Many of the friars accepted the situation and did the best they could, striving to reconcile discordant elements and retain their influence over the neophytes; others, soured and disappointed, retired sullenly to the habitations assigned them by law and mechanically performed the duties of parish priests when applied to; others were belligerent, quarreled with everybody, and protested against everything on every possible occasion. [7]

The secularization proceeded. Lands were assigned to the neophytes who also received a portion of the mission property consisting of cattle, horses, sheep, grain, implements, etc. It was forbidden to buy from them, but this precaution amounted to nothing, and in about a year the Indians had either sold or gambled away what they had not eaten or drunk. After a while some died and the rest dispersed, abandoning their lands which eventually fell into the hands of rancheros under grants from the government. [8]

In the midst of the work the honest and humane Figueroa died, mind and body worn out by the repeated attacks of the missionaries, the representations of the Indians, and the disordered state of the country. He was mourned by the people and proclaimed by the most excellent diputacion "Bienhechor del territorio de la Alta California" (Benefactor of the territory of Alta California). Then followed a period of revolution, the reign of four governors of California, and the proclamation of the diputacion of November 7, 1836, declaring that Alta California was independent of Mexico and a free and governing state, under the governorship of Juan Bautista Alvarado, with Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, raised from the rank of lieutenant to colonel of cavalry, comandante-general, and José Castro, president of the diputacion.

The evils that befell the missions in the process of secularization have been largely attributed to the administration of Alvarado, but a careful study of the evidence will not justify the censure he has received. It must be remembered that the period of his administration, 1836-1842, was one of revolution, strife, and political unrest. The north was divided against the south; the province was filled with warring factions, and among them, engaged first with one party then with another, were bands of armed foreigners, chiefly Americans. In spite of the condition of the country Alvarado made earnest efforts to supervise the work of secularization and check the spoliation of the missions. He appointed William E. P. Hartnell, an Englishman of high standing and intelligence, fifteen years a resident of California, inspector and visitador of the missions. Hartnell visited each mission and made a most conscientious examination of its affairs, and on his report the governor made a number of changes in the administration looking to a betterment of the service.

If Alvarado had had an intelligent and industrious body of neophytes to organize into self-governing pueblos, the hearty coöperation of the missionaries, and a community free from sectional strife, the story might have been different. There is no evidence that he profited personally through the secularization and he passed the later years of his life in modest retirement on the rancho his wife inherited from her father.

The secularization of the missions opened up California to settlement. In 1830 there were in the entire province not more than fifty ranchos in private possession. In 1846, above seven hundred land grants had been made by the authorities. Many of these, it is true, had been distributed among the friends of the administration, and Alvarado also loaned mission stock to rancheros to be returned in kind later, though it does not appear what proportion, if any, of this property was returned to the government. The policy of the government towards foreigners was liberal and many of them obtained valuable tracts of land.

Altogether the secularization of the missions was of the greatest benefit to California, notwithstanding the evils which accompanied it. Alfred Robinson, true friend of the church as he was, says: "To secure lands for farming purposes, it was, in former years, necessary to get the written consent of the missionaries under whose control they were, ere the government could give legitimate possession, therefore their acquisition depended entirely upon the good will of the friars. It may be justly supposed that by this restriction the advancement of California was rather retarded. So it was, for the immigrant was placed at the mercy of a prejudiced missionary who might be averse to anything like secular improvement; for although these religionists were generally possessed of generous feelings, still, many of them were extremely jealous of an infringement upon the interests of their institutions. * * * At first the change (secularization) was considered disastrous to the prosperity of California, and the wanton destruction of property which followed seemed to warrant the conclusion; but the result, however, proved quite the contrary. Individual enterprise which succeeded has placed the country in a more flourishing condition, and the wealth instead of being confined to the monastic institutions as before, has been distributed among the people.” [9]

The era of the missions was closed, and the rancheros with their flocks and herds rivaled the patriarchs.

1. De Mofras: Exploration i, pp. 273, 303, 342, 380-390, 421. [back]
2. Wilkes: Exploring Expedition v, 162, 168. [back]
3. De Mofras i, 347, 414: Wilkes, Exp. Expedition v, 173, 174. [back]
4. Bryant; What I saw in California, 444. [back]
5. H. R. Ex. Doc. No. 17, 31st Cong., 1st Session 1850, p. 133-4. [back]
6. Robinson: Life in California, 168-9. [back]
7. Bancroft: Hist. Cal. iv, 42, 51. [back]
8. Id. iv, 230. [back]
9. Robinson: Life in California, 224-5. [back]
Source: Eldredge, Zoeth Skinner. The Beginnings of San Francisco. 1912: San Francisco.


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