Sitting Ducks

The Mission Period in California has achieved a remarkably benign reputation considering the church's crushing failure to achieve its objectives and its disastrous impact on the resident Native American populations it encountered on its colonial progress through California; even the iconic buildings failed catastrophically more often than not (Faulty Missions).

This Spanish project, which, as elsewhere in the Americas combined the ambitions of church and state, begun in earnest in 1769, aimed to create in Alta California a Christian, feudal dependency. For this to be achieved, however, not only the human capital of the Franciscan Friars and the soldiers who were to protect them would be required. It was also necessary to create a population of peasants who would till the land, tend the animals and provide other manual labor necessary to support the entire enterprise. Unfortunately, the indigenous populations of Southern California, although largely sedentary, had absolutely no agrarian background and proved entirely ill-suited to the Iberian agenda.

It is only with heavy irony that I note that these populations were never consulted as to their willingness to participate in this susbstantially medieval society of which the Spanish dreamt. In California, it remained a dream unrealized. Peonage, serfdom, or to put it plainly, slavery, ill-suits humans in general and particularly those well-fed and at ease with their way of life, as were the native populations before the Mission era.

While the Spanish initially presumed that bowls of steaming boiled barley would provide a sufficient lure to entrap these sitting ducks - their proto-peasantry - they quickly learned that the native peoples had little trouble feeding themselves and preferred the bounty of ocean and chaparral to the weevilly, over-cooked European mash. Thus it was that the Colonial oppressors turned to the lash to encourage the locals to sign up, by way of a perfunctory baptism, as neophytes in the mission system; but once enrolled they proved, from the Spanish perspective, more trouble than they were worth.

As the missions, built of an adobe composed of mud, straw and oxblood, fell about them - shaken to the ground, time and again, by seismic irruptions - the Franciscans also saw their socio-religious-economic agenda quickly fall apart, victim of that old problem of too many Friars and not enough Indians. For while the Spanish ultimately had some success in corralling women and children into the mission pens (for the arrival of new technologies, gods and voracious herbivores, such as cattle, sheep and horses, soon weakened the social, economic and spiritual foundations of native cultures), once there they died with a truly horrific rapidity. Many of the men meekly followed their families into captivity and premature death. While we can debate the extent to which its impacts were understood as they unfolded, missionization of native populations effectively resulted in their systematic extermination.

By the time the Spanish arrived in Southern California they had had over two and a half centuries of colonial experience in the Americas and were successful in extracting huge amounts of wealth from the New World. Their goals for California were comparatively modest - to establish a presence in the region as a discouragement to the other lurking European colonial powers, England and Russia, from further encroachments - and to do so at a cost that was not burdensome to the Spanish treasury (Blowback).

They had every reason to feel confident: as Robert H. Jackson and Edward Castillo point out in their Indians, Franciscans and Spanish colonization: the impact of the mission system on California Indians, University of New Mexico Press, 1995, "The fundamental success of the Spanish colonial system was the ability to exploit sedentary Indian populations.... the mission, a center of religious indoctrination and acculturation, was the instrument used to forge the new colonial society". The California mission system was not an experiment, it was an extension of a hitherto successful program of wealth extraction. In the event, the Chumash had the misfortune to be at the epicenter when this modest colonial expansion all went horribly wrong.

The Chumash were the most heavily colonized Californian indigenous people. Between 1772 and 1804 a fort (The Santa Barbara Presidio), five missions (San Luis Obispo, San Buenaventura, Santa Barbara, La Purisima, Santa Ynez) and finally, in 1831, the Asistencia de Santa Margarita were built in their territories. As an almost direct corollary, this loose confederation of tribes, known since their naming in 1891 by John Wesley Powell, as Chumash (after the name used by coastal people for their relatives on Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz Islands), had the highest death rate amongst Alta California's native peoples.

The causes of missionized Chumash death were varied, but foremost was a range of European diseases against which they had no immunity. Additionally, a force-fed diet of high carbohydrate grains with few vegetables or animal fat proved ruinously unhealthy to people used to a lean but highly nutritious diet. Sanitation was atrocious and conditions were compounded by the number of the dead and dying. An eye-witness, Thomas Jefferson Farnham, writing in his, Life, Adventures and Travels in California, 1849, was repelled by the charnal house he found at Santa Barbara Mission, where the graveyard was regularly exhumed to make way for newly dead Indians. In the mission courtyard he saw,

"....three or four cart-loads of skulls, ribs, spines, leg-bones, arm-bones, etc., laying in one corner. Beside them stood two hand-hearses with a small cross attached to each. About the walls hung the mould of death!"

The high mortality rates in these communities resulted in the almost continuous recruitment of unacculturated Indians into the mission houses where, on the one hand they strengthened the survival of a relict Indian culture thus fatally impacting the Franciscan goal of indoctrination and on the other they provided highly vulnerable recruits to a system heavy with the stench of death. The Indian populations in the missions were never viable, they did not grow through natural reproduction. Children born in missions rarely survived beyond their second birthday dying, most often, of syphylis, consumption (TB) and dysentary. Survivors were lucky to make it to twenty five years of age.

The Chumash culture, the pinnacle achievement, in terms of complexity and sophistication, of California's indigenous, stone-age peoples proved enormously fragile in the face of this European invasion of new technology, domestic animals, disease and spiritual blandishments. It quickly withered in the missions where its people were serfs in the fields, slaves in the workshops and captives in their fetid quarters. In a little over half a century Chumash culture was effectively destroyed leaving a small, dispossessed Indian population thrown first into the Rancho system of large land holdings where they fared ill as impoverished agricultural workers then worse, into the maw of the aggressive capitalism as practiced in the new American State.

Junipero Serra, the Franciscan priest who was the driving force in the Spanish conquest and colonization of this culture (and many others), is remembered and revered; his figure is replicated in statues throughout the state (locally, in front of Ventura City hall). For the Chumash, its people gone, the remnants finally lost to the great American melting pot, their name lives on, now appended, in mis-remembrance, to Casino, Highway and some pan-Indian syncretic bastardization that is the public perception of the local native American heritage (Shadowland).