Mission Creep

In pursuing the notion that the local presence of erodium pre-dates the arrival of the Franciscans, I was curious to discover the chronology of the establishment of the missions in both Baja and Alta California.

The Spanish made their initial landfall at La Paz in 1683 and in 1697 the Jesuits established the Misión Nuestra Senora de Loreto Conchó. It went on to become the religious and administrative capital of Baja California where eighteen missions along the initial segment of El Camino Real were founded over the next seventy years.

These were outposts of an empire - never truly self-sustaining, they relied on supplies ferried across the Sea of Cortez. In turn, El Camino Real became the supply line to the incipient settlements in Alta California as the missions were expanded northward.

The Spanish colonization of California began with the Portola Expedition of 1769, and I have used that date to mark the onslaught of european species (erodium excepted!) on our native chaparral, but the first mission was not established in our area until 1772, when Mission San Luis Obispo was founded.

The Spanish presence edged closer to Ojai in 1782 when the Presidio Santa Barbara and Mission San Buenaventura were founded, followed by Mission Santa Barbara in 1786. The final missions built in Chumash territory were La Purisima Concepcion in 1787 and Mission Santa Inez, in 1804.

From these five missions the colonial impact radiated out to engulf all of the Chumash peoples: they died, in situ or within the missions, in the ensuing decades, by the tens of thousands and survivors were reduced to a humiliating slavery-like condition. The Chumash fled to these epicenters of disease, mistreatment, appalling sanitary conditions and starvation rations largely as a result of the severe effects of Spanish livestock grazing on the acorns, seeds, and other plant foods that made up a large part of their diet - they were denied their traditional means of subsistence. Missionization was never an attractive alternative - it was the only one given the devastation wreaked on their forage lands.

In the classic, Southern California: An Island on the Land, Carey McWilliams (New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1946) the author notes,

"The padres built where the Indians were established in greatest numbers. Most of the cities of the coastal region are built squarely upon Indian village sites. The reason is a simple one: the Indians chose the most favored spot with a sure knowledge born of long experience in the region."

The neophytes were thus initially drawn from just those Indian village sites, but as the attrition became evident, the net was cast wider and wider. Births of mission indians in the period 1769-1833 were less than half of recorded deaths, but baptisms, which included the newly missionized, handily outnumbered deaths for the same period. The indian villages of Ojai would not long have escaped the maw of what Williams calls "the chain of Missions along the coast ... best ...described as a series of picturesque charnel houses".

Thus the introduction of alien species and the destruction of the native American subsistence life-style went hand in hand. The dead hand of the missions touched the indigenous human, animal and plant populations.

This was a continuation of the experience in Baja where by 1767 epidemics of smallpox, plague, typhus, measles and venereal diseases had decimated the Indigenous population. Out of an initial population of about 48,000 it is estimated that only 8,000 still remained. The colonial impact on the local flora and fauna can only be imagined, although the greater degree of desertification in Baja may have served as some protection of the native ecology.

On the trek north from Baja the Franciscans must have viewed the edenic grasslands of Alta California as divine providence: too bad they carried the seeds of its eventual destruction.