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The Old Franciscan Missions Of California

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In the popular mind there is a misapprehension that is as deep-seated as it is ill-founded. It is that the California Missions are the only Missions (except one or two in Arizona and a few in Texas) and that they are the oldest in the country. This is entirely an error. A look at a few dates and historic facts will soon correct this mistake.

Cortés had conquered Mexico; Pizarro was conqueror in Peru; Balboa had discovered the South Sea (the Pacific Ocean) and all Spain was aflame with gold-lust. Narvaez, in great pomp and ceremony, with six hundred soldiers of fortune, many of them of good families and high social station, in his five specially built vessels, sailed to gain fame, fortune and the fountain of perpetual youth in what we now call Florida.

Disaster, destruction, death--I had almost said entire annihilation--followed him and scarce allowed his expedition to land, ere it was swallowed up, so that had it not been for the escape of Cabeza de Vaca, his treasurer, and a few others, there would have been nothing left to suggest that the history of the start of the expedition was any other than a myth. But De Vaca and his companions were saved, only to fall, however, into the hands of the Indians. What an unhappy fate! Was life to end thus? Were all the hopes, ambitions and glorious dreams of De Vaca to terminate in a few years of bondage to degraded savages?

Unthinkable, unbearable, unbelievable. De Vaca was a man of power, a man of thought. He reasoned the matter out. Somewhere on the other side of the great island--for the world then thought of the newly-discovered America as a vast island--his people were to be found. He would work his way to them and freedom. He communicated his hope and his determination to his companions in captivity. Henceforth, regardless of whether they were held as slaves by the Indians, or worshiped as demigods,--makers of great medicine,--either keeping them from their hearts' desire, they never once ceased in their efforts to cross the country and reach the Spanish settlements on the other side. For eight long years the weary march westward continued, until, at length, the Spanish soldiers of the Viceroy of New Spain were startled at seeing men who were almost skeletons, clad in the rudest aboriginal garb, yet speaking the purest Castilian and demanding in the tones of those used to obedience that they be taken to his noble and magnificent Viceroyship. Amazement, incredulity, surprise, gave way to congratulations and rejoicings, when it was found that these were the human drift of the expedition of which not a whisper, not an echo, had been heard for eight long years.

Then curiosity came rushing in like a flood. Had they seen anything on the journey? Were there any cities, any peoples worth conquering; especially did any of them have wealth in gold, silver and precious stones like that harvested so easily by Cortés and Pizarro?

Cabeza didn't know really, but--, and his long pause and brief story of seven cities that he had heard of, one or two days' journey to the north of his track, fired the imagination of the Viceroy and his soldiers of fortune. To be sure, though, they sent out a party of reconnaissance, under the control of a good father of the Church, Fray Marcos de Nizza, a friar of the Orders Minor, commonly known as a Franciscan, with Stephen, a negro, one of the escaped party of Cabeza de Vaca, as a guide, to spy out the land.

Fray Marcos penetrated as far as Zuni, and found there the seven cities, wonderful and strange; though he did not enter them, as the uncurbed amorous demands of Stephen had led to his death, and Marcos feared lest a like fate befall himself, but he returned and gave a fairly accurate account of what he saw. His story was not untruthful, but there are those who think it was misleading in its pauses and in what he did not tell. Those pauses and eloquent silences were construed by the vivid imaginations of his listeners to indicate what the Conquistadores desired, so a grand and glorious expedition was planned, to go forth with great sound of trumpets, in glad acclaim and glowing colors, led by his Superior Excellency and Most Nobly Glorious Potentate, Senyor Don Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, a native of Salamanca, Spain, and now governor of the Mexican province of New Galicia.

It was a gay throng that started on that wonderful expedition from Culiacan early in 1540. Their hopes were high, their expectations keen. Many of them little dreamed of what was before them. Alarcon was sent to sail up the Sea of Cortés (now the Gulf of California) to keep in touch with the land expedition, and Melchior Diaz, of that sea party, forced his way up what is now the Colorado River to the arid sands of the Colorado Desert in Southern California, before death and disaster overtook him.

Coronado himself crossed Arizona to Zuni--the pueblo of the Indians that Fray Marcos had gazed upon from a hill, but had not dared approach--and took it by storm, receiving a wound in the conflict which laid him up for a while and made it necessary to send his lieutenant, the Ensign Pedro de Tobar, to further conquests to the north and west. Hence it was that Tobar, and not Coronado, discovered the pueblos of the Hopi Indians. He also sent his sergeant, Cardenas, to report on the stories told him of a mighty river also to the north, and this explains why Cardenas was the first white man to behold that eloquent abyss since known as the Grand Canyon. And because Cardenas was Tobar's subordinate officer, the high authorities of the Santa Fé Railway--who have yielded to a common-sense suggestion in the Mission architecture of their railway stations, and romantic, historic naming of their hotels--have called their Grand Canyon hotel, El Tovar, their hotel at Las Vegas, Cardenas, and the one at Williams (the junction point of the main line with the Grand Canyon branch), Fray Marcos.

Poor Coronado, disappointed as to the finding and gaining of great stores of wealth at Zuni, pushed on even to the eastern boundaries of Kansas, but found nothing more valuable than great herds of buffalo and many people, and returned crestfallen, broken-hearted and almost disgraced by his own sense of failure, to Mexico. And there he drops out of the story. But others followed him, and in due time this northern portion of the country was annexed to Spanish possessions and became known as New Mexico.

In the meantime the missionaries of the Church were active beyond the conception of our modern minds in the newly conquered Mexican countries.

The various orders of the Roman Catholic Church were indefatigable in their determination to found cathedrals, churches, missions, convents and schools. Jesuits, Franciscans and Dominicans vied with each other in the fervor of their efforts, and Mexico was soon dotted over with magnificent structures of their erection. Many of the churches of Mexico are architectural gems of the first water that compare favorably with the noted cathedrals of Europe, and he who forgets this overlooks one of the most important factors in Mexican history and civilization.

The period of expansion and enlargement of their political and ecclesiastical borders continued until, in 1697, Fathers Kino and Salviaterra, of the Jesuits, with indomitable energy and unquenchable zeal, started the conversion of the Indians of the peninsula of Lower California.

In those early days, the name California was not applied, practically speaking, to the country we know as California. The explorers of Cortés had discovered what they imagined was an island, but afterwards learned was a peninsula, and this was soon known as California. In this California there were many Indians, and it was to missionize these that the God-fearing, humanity-loving, self-sacrificing Jesuits just named--not Franciscans--gave of their life, energy and love. The names of Padres Kino and Salviaterra will long live in the annals of Mission history for their devotion to the spiritual welfare of the Indians of Lower California.

The results of their labors were soon seen in that within a few years fourteen Missions were established, beginning with San Juan Londa in 1697, and the more famous Loreto in 1698.

When the Jesuits were expelled, in 1768, the Franciscans took charge of the Lower California Missions and established one other, that of San Fernando de Velicatá, besides building a stone chapel in the mining camp of San Antonio Real, situated near Ventana Bay.

The Dominicans now followed, and the Missions of El Rosario, Santo Domingo, Descanso, San Vicenti Ferrer, San Miguel Fronteriza, Santo Tomás de Aquino, San Pedro Mártir de Verona, El Mision Fronteriza de Guadalupe, and finally, Santa Catarina de los Yumas were founded. This last Mission was established in 1797, and this closed the active epoch of Mission building in the peninsula, showing twenty-three fairly flourishing establishments in all.

It is not my purpose here to speak of these Missions of Lower California, except in-so-far as their history connects them with the founding of the Alta California Missions. A later chapter will show the relationship of the two.

The Mission activity that led to the founding of Missions in Lower California had already long been in exercise in New Mexico. The reports of Marcos de Nizza had fired the hearts of the zealous priests as vigorously as they had excited the cupidity of the Conquistadores. Four Franciscan priests, Marcos de Nizza, Antonio Victoria, Juan de Padilla and Juan de la Cruz, together with a lay brother, Luis de Escalona, accompanied Coronado on his expedition. On the third day out Fray Antonio Victoria broke his leg, hence was compelled to return, and Fray Marcos speedily left the expedition when Zuni was reached and nothing was found to satisfy the cupidity of the Spaniards. He was finally permitted to retire to Mexico, and there died, March 25, 1558.

For a time Mission activity in New Mexico remained dormant, not only on account of intense preoccupation in other fields, but because the political leaders seemed to see no purpose in attempting the further subjugation of the country to the north (now New Mexico and Arizona). But about forty years after Coronado, another explorer was filled with adventurous zeal, and he applied for a charter or royal permission to enter the country, conquer and colonize it for the honor and glory of the king and his own financial reward and honorable renown. This leader was Juan de Oñate, who, in 1597, set out for New Mexico accompanied by ten missionary padres, and in September of that year established the second church in what is now United States territory. Juan de Oñate was the real colonizer of this new country. It was in 1595 that he made a contract with the Viceroy of New Spain to colonize it at his own expense. He was delayed, however, and could not set out until early in 1597, when he started with four hundred colonists, including two hundred soldiers, women and children, and great herds of cattle and flocks of sheep. In due time he reached what is now the village of Chamita, calling it San Gabriel de los Españoles, a few miles north of Santa Fé, and there established, in September, 1598, the first town of New Mexico, and the second of the United States (St. Augustine, in Florida, having been the first, established in 1560 by Aviles de Menendez).

The work of Oñate and the epoch it represents is graphically, sympathetically and understandingly treated, from the Indian's standpoint, by Marah Ellis Ryan, in her fascinating and illuminating novel, The Flute of the Gods, which every student of the Missions of New Mexico and Arizona (as also of California) will do well to read.

New Mexico has seen some of the most devoted missionaries of the world, one of these, Fray Geronimo de Zarate Salmeron, having left a most interesting, instructive account of "the things that have been seen and known in New Mexico, as well by sea as by land, from the year 1538 till that of 1626."

This account was written in 1626 to induce other missionaries to enter the field in which he was so earnest a laborer. For eight years he worked in New Mexico, more than 280 years ago. In 1618 he was parish priest at Jemez, mastered the Indian language and baptized 6566 Indians, not counting those of Cia and Santa Ana. "He also, single-handed and alone, pacified and converted the lofty pueblo of Acoma, then hostile to the Spanish. He built churches and monasteries, bore the fearful hardships and dangers of a missionary's life then in that wilderness, and has left us a most valuable chronicle." This was translated by Mr. Lummis and appeared in The Land of Sunshine.

The missionaries who accompanied Juan de Oñate in 1597 built a chapel at San Gabriel, but no fragment of it remains, though in 1680 its ruins were referred to. The second church in New Mexico was built about 1606 in Santa Fé, the new city founded the year before by Oñate. This church, however, did not last long, for it was soon outgrown, and in 1622, Fray Alonzo de Benavides, the Franciscan historian of New Mexico, laid the foundation of the parish church, which was completed in 1627. When, in 1870, it was decided to build the stone cathedral in Santa Fé, this old church was demolished, except two large chapels and the old sanctuary. It had been described in the official records shortly prior to its demolition as follows: "An adobe building 54 yards long by 9-1/2 in width, with two small towers not provided with crosses, one containing two bells and the other empty; the church being covered with the Crucero (the place where a church takes the form of a cross by the side chapels), there are two large separate chapels, the one on the north side dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary, called also 'La Conquistadorea;' and on the south side the other dedicated to St. Joseph."

Sometime shortly after 1636 the old church of San Miguel was built in Santa Fé, and its original walls still form a part of the church that stands to-day. It was partially demolished in the rebellion of 1680, but was restored in 1710.

In 1617, nearly three hundred years ago, there were eleven churches in New Mexico, the ruins of one of which, that of Pecos, can still be seen a few miles above Glorieta on the Santa Fé main line. This pueblo was once the largest in New Mexico, but it was deserted in 1840, and now its great house, supposed to have been much larger than the many-storied house of Zuni, is entirely in ruins.

It would form a fascinating chapter could I here tell of the stirring history of some of the Missions established in New Mexico. There were martyrs by the score, escapes miraculous and wonderful. Among the Hopis one whole village was completely destroyed and in the neighborhood of seven hundred of its men--all of them--slain by their fellow-Hopis of other towns, simply because of their complaisance towards the hated, foreign long-gowns (as the Franciscan priests were called). Suffice it to say that Missions were established and churches built at practically all of the Indian pueblos, and also at the Spanish settlements of San Gabriel and Santa Cruz de la Canyada, many of which exist to this day. In Texas, also, Missions had been established, the ruins of the chief of which may be visited in one day from the city of San Antonio.


Rightly to understand the history of the Missions of the California of the United States, it is imperative that the connection or relationship that exists between their history and that of the Missions of Lower California (Mexico) be clearly understood.

As I have already shown, the Jesuit padres founded fourteen Missions in Lower California, which they conducted with greater or less success until 1767, when the infamous Order of Expulsion of Carlos III of Spain drove them into exile.

It had always been the intention of Spain to colonize and missionize Alta California, even as far back as the days of Cabrillo in 1542, and when Vizcaino, sixty years later, went over the same region, the original intention was renewed. But intentions do not always fructify and bring forth, so it was not until a hundred and sixty years after Vizcaino that the work was actually begun. The reasons were diverse and equally urgent. The King of Spain and his advisers were growing more and more uneasy about the aggressions of the Russians and the English on the California or rather the Pacific Coast. Russia was pushing down from the north; England also had her establishments there, and with her insular arrogance England boldly stated that she had the right to California, or New Albion, as she called it, because of Sir Francis Drake's landing and taking possession in the name of "Good Queen Bess." Spain not only resented this, but began to realize another need. Her galleons from the Philippines found it a long, weary, tedious and disease-provoking voyage around the coast of South America to Spain, and besides, too many hostile and piratical vessels roamed over the Pacific Sea to allow Spanish captains to sleep easy o' nights. Hence it was decided that if ports of call were established on the California coast, fresh meats and vegetables and pure water could be supplied to the galleons, and in addition, with presidios to defend them, they might escape the plundering pirates by whom they were beset. Accordingly plans were being formulated for the colonization and missionization of California when, by authority of his own sweet will, ruling a people who fully believed in the divine right of kings to do as they pleased, King Carlos the Third issued the proclamation already referred to, totally and completely banishing the Jesuits from all parts of his dominions, under penalty of imprisonment and death.

I doubt whether many people of to-day, even though they be of the Catholic Church, can realize what obedience to that order meant to these devoted priests. Naturally they must obey it--monstrous though it was--but the one thought that tore their hearts with anguish was: Who would care for their Indian charges?

For these ignorant and benighted savages they had left their homes and given up all that life ordinarily means and offers. Were they to be allowed to drift back into their dark heathendom...?