Captain Beechey’s Visit to the California Missions at their Zenith

Monterey harbor by Thomas Oliver Larkin, 1842


In 1821, during the last year of Spanish rule, nine ships visited Alta California. The following year, the number of vessels that visited the territory grew to twenty. Just before Christmas of 1826, after fifty-two days spent exploring and charting the bay of San Francisco, Captain Frederick William Beechey, sailed into the harbor at Monterey under the colors of Great Britain – the last of some forty-four ships to visit Alta California during that calendar year.

The English and the Russians were, at this time, in a brisk competition to harvest all the sea otter pelts on the Pacific Coast. Captain Beechey commanded the Blossom, an imposing British sloop, equipped with sixteen guns and a crew of one hundred men. Beechey’s orders were to discover the fabled Northwest Passage before the Russians found it.

Captain Beechey’s journal of the voyage of the Blossom, entitled Narrative of a Voyage to the Pacific and Beering’s [sic] Strait, was published in London, in 1831. It contains detailed passages about the missions in Alta California during their heyday.

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Captain Frederick William Beechey, oil on canvas, by George Duncan Beechey, circa 1822

In November of 1826, forty years after La Pérouse’s visit, Captain Beechey described the missions on the California Coast as prison camps.

If any Indian expressed “repugnance to conversion,” they were “incarcerated until they declare their readiness to renounce the religion of their forefathers.” At Mission San José (situated at present-day 43300 Mission Boulevard, in suburban Fremont, California) Beechey witnessed:

“[F]orty miserable [Indian] women and children [who had been corralled at gunpoint by soldiers] … [T]he prisoners they had captured were immediately enrolled in the list of the mission, except a nice little boy whose mother was shot while running away with him in her arms, and he was sent to the presidio… The poor little orphan had received a slight wound in his forehead. He wept bitterly at first and refused to eat, but in time became reconciled to his fate.”

According to Beechey, converted Indians at the church were disciplined with:

“[A] long lash with a broad thong at the end of it [and] ­whips, canes, and goads [a sharply-pointed traditional farming implement, used to spur livestock] to preserve silence and maintain order, and, what seemed more difficult than either, to keep the congregation in their kneeling posture. The goads were better adapted to this purpose than the whips, as they would reach a long way and inflict a sharp puncture without making any noise. The end of the church was occupied by a guard of soldiers under arms with fixed bayonets – a precaution which I suppose experience had taught the necessity of observing…

Carmel Mission

Captain Beechey, like most Europeans, shared the popular misconception that Indians experienced a better quality of life at the mission than they had in their pre-contact villages.

“[W]hether the Indians be really dragged from their homes and families by armed parties, as some assert, or not, and forced to exchange their life of freedom and wandering for one of confinement and restraint in the missions … they lead a far better life in the missions than in their forests, where they are in a state of nudity and are frequently obliged to depend solely upon wild acorns for their subsistence.”

Beechey bemoaned the fact that the padres made no effort to learn the languages spoken by their Indian converts, while many the Indians had learned to speak Spanish and could easily communicate with the priests.

He found his hosts, the priests to be “very bigoted men” who “had so long been excluded from the civilized world that their ideas and their politics, like the maps pinned against their walls, bore the date of 1772, as near as I could read it for fly spots. Their geographical knowledge was equally backward…”

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Replica of the brig Pilgrim, built in 1945

When Father Serra travelled from Baja California to San Diego in 1769, he brought cattle with him. Each of the first five missions started out with an inventory of eighteen cattle, four hogs, and some chickens. Over the years, the size of the herd increased until soon, the missions in Alta California collectively possessed hundreds of thousands of cattle. They were valued as much for their meat as for their hides.

Raw cowhides and tallow (rendered animal fat) were Alta California’s primary export in the early 19th-century – the most marketable products produced by the missions. These commodities became the mainstay of the Mexican rancho economy in California, in the 1820s and 30s.

The cowhides were soaked, scraped, rinsed, staked, and dried. After being salted to prevent rot, they were folded in half and stacked for shipping. They were known colloquially as “California Bank Notes” because they were used as currency in transactions between the missions and the trading vessels that sailed along the Alta California coast. In the early 1800s, hides were worth one dollar each, but by 1830 their value had doubled to two dollars apiece. Between 1831 and 1836, more than 300,000 hides were shipped out of Alta California and transported to markets in Lima, Peru and New England.

With their California Bank Notes, the padres purchased items that were scarce in their faraway territory – like irons cooking pots, musical instruments, silk, ribbon, robes, tools, gunpowder, coffee, tea, cocoa, sugar, and molasses.

Richard Henry Dana, Jr.

Richard Henry Dana, Jr., the Massachusetts politician and attorney, attended Harvard University in 1831. As a junior, he contracted measles, which led to a case of ophthalmia (inflammation of the eye). With his vision degrading, he decided to take a sea voyage, but not as a tourist, rather as a merchant seaman. On August 14, 1834, he departed Boston bound for Alta California aboard the brig Pilgrim.

Dana described an 1835 visit to a beach near the San Juan Capistrano mission in southern California, at Dana Cove (which was named for him), where the Pilgrim’s crew tossed dried cowhides, one by one, off the top of the cliffs and into the wind, watching them drift down to the beach below. Unfortunately, some of the hides wafted on the breeze, and got stuck on the cliff face. Dangling precariously above the waves crashing upon the breakers below, Dana had to descend a rope to free them.

It was apparent to Captain Beechey that the mission was a very profitable operation, although the padres “will not admit it and always played poverty.”

Beechey noted that, in 1826 mission San José alone possessed 15,000 head of cattle, cured “2,000 hides annually, and as many botas [500 lbs.] of tallow.” Beechey noted the great number of sheep in the San Francisco Bay area and that Mission San José alone, had a herd of some 3,000 sheep – “yet there is no export of wool, in consequence of the consumption of that article in the manufacture of cloth for the mission.”

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The padres were not without their indulgences; Beechey noted that a few of the missions – especially Santa Barbara – produced a wine “resembling claret, but not nearly so palatable, and they also distill an ardent spirit resembling arack [and Asian liquor like rum].”

Indian children in California, published in 1860

Beechey described a peculiar ritual involving small Indian children serving as domestic servants for one of the priests who:

“[A]mused himself by throwing pancakes to the muchachos, a number of little Indian domestics who stood gaping ‘round the table. For this purpose, he had every day two piles of pancakes made of Indian corn; and as soon as the olla was removed, he would fix his eyes upon one of the boys, who immediately opened his mouth and the padre, rolling up a cake, would say something ludicrous in allusion to the boy’s appetite or to the size of his mouth and pitch the cake at him, which the imp would catch between his teeth and devour with incredible rapidity…”

Conquering armies have long employed the practice of separating children from their parents, eroding the ties that bind – psychologically indoctrinating youngsters into the culture of their captors. This was not wasted on Captain Beechey who wrote:

“The children and adults of both sexes, in all the missions, are carefully locked up every night in separate apartments, and the keys are delivered into the possession of the padre, and as, in the daytime, their occupations lead to distinct places, unless they form a matrimonial alliance, they enjoy very little of each other’s society.”

Indians plowing at the mission, Illustration by A.B. Dodge, 1920

Captain Beechey could hardly believe how little was actually accomplished by the hundreds of Indian farmersat the mission:

“Husbandry is still in a very backward state, and it is fortunate that the soil is so fertile and that there are abundant laborers to perform the work … It will be scarcely credited by agriculturalists in other countries that there were seventy plows and 200 oxen at work upon a piece of ground of [only] ten acres.”

Beechey thought “their teachers had an arduous task” converting the Indians to Christianity until one of the padres explained to him that, “they had never found any difficulty, that the Indians were accustomed to changing their own gods, and that their conversion was in a measure habitual to them.”

Carmel Mission

According to Beechey, certain aspects of Catholicism had genuine appeal for the Indian “neophytes:”

“Above them there was a choir consisting of several Indian musicians, who performed very well indeed and sang the ‘Te Deum’ in a very passable manner. The congregation was very attentive, but the gratification they appeared to derive from the music furnished another proof of the strong hold this portion of the ceremonies of the Romish church takes upon uninformed minds…

“Having become good Christians, [the Indians] are put to trades, or if they have good voices, they are taught music and form part of the choir of the church. Thus there are in almost every mission weavers, tanners, shoemakers, bricklayers, carpenters, blacksmiths, and other artificers. Others are taught husbandry, to rear cattle and horses, and some to cook for the mission; while the females card, clean, and spin wool, weave and sew, and those who are married attend to their domestic concerns…

“In requital of these benefits, the services of the Indian, for life, belong to the mission, and if any neophyte should repent of his apostacy from the religion of his ancestors and desert, and armed force is sent to pursue of him and drag him back to punishment apportioned to the degree of aggravation attached to his crime.”

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Perhaps by design, the mission system permanently divided the Indigenous community, creating a social “Catch 22” that made Indians strangers in their native villages, and foreigners in the land of their ancestors.

Captain Beechy explained:

“It does not often happen that a voluntary convert succeeds in his attempt to escape, as the wild Indians have a great contempt and dislike for those that have entered the missions, and they will frequently not only refuse to readmit them to the tribe, but will sometimes even discover their retreat to their pursuers.”

During the winter months, “neophytes” were “permitted to return to their former Indian villages.” The Spanish soldiers used this an opportunity to forcibly capture unconverted Indians – men, women, and children – against their will, and imprison them in the local mission:

Beechey reported:

“All are anxious to go on such occasions, some to visit their friends, some to procure the manufactures of their barbarous countrymen (which, by the by, are often better than their own,) and some with the secret determination never to return.

“[The priests encouraged the converted Indians to] induce as many of their unconverted brethren as possible to accompany them back to the mission, of course – implying that this is to be done only by persuasion – but the boat being furnished with a canon and musketry, and in every respect equipped for war, it too often happens with the neophytes and the gente de razon [literally “people of reason,” meaning Spaniards] … Women and children are generally the first objects of capture, as their husbands and parents sometimes voluntarily follow them into captivity. These misunderstandings and captivities keep up a perpetual enmity among the tribes, whose thirst for revenge is almost insatiable.”

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It was evident to Captain Beechey that the Indians at the missions had no expectation of ever escaping from a life of enslavement:

“Formerly the missions had small villages attached to them, in which the Indians lived in a very filthy state. These have all disappeared since Vancouver’s visit [twenty-five years earlier] and the converts are [now] disposed of in huts … and it is only when sickness prevails to a great extent that it is necessary to erect these habitations, in order to separate the sick from those who are in health. Sickness in general prevails to an incredible extent in all the missions, and on comparing the census of the years 1786 and 1813, the proportion of deaths appears to be increasing. At the former period there had been only 7,701 Indians baptized, out of which 2,388 had died; but in 1813 there had been 37,437 deaths to only 57,328 baptisms.”

This meant that, by 1813, for every three Indians baptized, two Indians died.

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Categories: California History.