I Have Never Seen One Laugh – A Visit to the Carmel Mission in 1786

“Prairie Meadows Burning,”  oil on canvas by George Catlin, 1832

According to popular histories and countless documentary films, the new world of the Americas was an unspoiled and pristine wilderness, prior to the arrival of Columbus in 1492. Supposedly, the Indians left no footprint on the land. It is an arresting image, but it isn’t really true.

For thousands of years, the Indians of North America controlled and managed their environment by setting strategic wildfires, consciously and on a regular basis. This effectively cleared the underbrush and fallen branches, while leaving the mature trees unharmed, creating an environment prolific in game, edible plants, and grasslands.

In 1524, fifteen miles from the beach in Rhode Island, the Florentine explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano walked among trees so widely spaced that the forest “could be penetrated even by a large army.” In 1609, John Smith claimed to have ridden at full gallop, through Virginia forests he described as “manicured.”

Blackfeet Burning Crow Buffalo Range, painting by Charles Marion Russell, 1905

Annual fall burning in present-day Maryland kept forests so open that the Jesuit priest, Andrew White wrote in 1634, “a coach and four horses may travel through it without molestation.”

In 1637, Thomas Morton reported that Indians in present-day New England carried flints used “to set fire to the country in all places where they come.”

In 1641, Adrian Van Der Donck wrote that every fall, the local Indians set fire to “the woods, plains, and meadows,” on Manhattan Island, to “thin out and clear the woods of all dead substances and grass which grow better the ensuing spring.”

The first European settlers in Ohio encountered woodlands that reminded them of parks in England – the trees spaced so widely they could drive their carriages through the forest.

Rivera y Moncada

For more than 13,000 years, hundreds of tribes across California used intentional burns to create habitat for animals, and reduce the risk of larger, more dangerous wild fires.

In 1774, Fernando Javier Rivera y Moncada, who served as the third Spanish governor of Alta California, wrote from Monterey, that he was having great difficulty in breaking the Indians of their “bad habits” of deliberately starting wildfires:

“Having harvested all their seeds, they set fires so that new grasses and herbs will come up; also to catch rabbits which get confused by the smoke.”

This practice was so widespread in Alta California at the time of the American Revolution – so integral to the local Indians’ way of life – some of the first laws passed after European settlement of the area, prohibited the setting of wildfires.

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Jean-François de Galaup, comte de La Pérouse

The French explorer, Jean-François de Galaup, comte de La Pérouse visited the Monterey Peninsula in 1786, two years after the death of Father Junipero Serra. The California missions, though underfunded, were still under construction – the tenth mission, at Santa Barbara, had just been founded at the time of La Pérouse’s arrival.

It’s difficult to appreciate how utterly remote the tiny Spanish outposts in California were two-hundred and fifty years ago ­– or the kind of kerfuffle the arrival a French ship provoked, at that time, on the Pacific Coast.

According to La Pérouse:

“No country is more abundant in fish and game of every description. Hares, rabbits, and deer are extremely common; seals and otters as abundant as in the more northern parts; and in the winter they kill a great number of bears, foxes, wolves, and wild cats … these Indians are extremely skillful with the bow and killed before us the smallest birds. Their patience in approaching them is inexpressible. They conceal themselves and slide in a manner after their game, seldom shooting until within fifteen paces.

“Their industry at hunting larger animals is still more admirable. We saw an Indian with a stag’s head fastened on his own, walking at all fours and pretending to graze. He played this pantomime with such fidelity, that our hunters, when within thirty paces, would have fired at him if they had not been forwarded. In this manner they approach a herd of deer within a short distance, and kill them with their arrows…”

A decade and a half after its founding, La Pérouse paid a formal visit to the Carmel Mission. To his surprise, he found the Spanish priests living in squalor.

The mission buildings and courtyards, as we know them today, had yet to be built. It would be a number of years before the Spanish government would authorize the funds to construct the iconic whitewashed adobe walls and red-tiled roofs.

The reception of Jean-Francois de la Perouse at the Carmel Mission in 1786. Illustration by José Cardero, 1791-1792


In honor of his reception, the Indian “neophytes” – mostly local Rumsen and Esselen – were given an extra ration of food and were lined up to see him. According to La Pérouse, the missionized Indians appeared anonymous, lifeless, and devoid of spirit. They were obviously traumatized, exhibiting what today would be recognized as psychotic levels of depression.

La Pérouse wrote that the Indians at the Carmel Mission were:

“[I]n general diminutive and weak, and exhibit none of that love of independence and liberty which characterized the nations to the north, of whom they possess neither the arts nor industry. Their color nearly approaches that of Negroes whose hair is not woolly … and would grow to considerable length but they cut it off at about four or five inches from the root.”

Indigenous people of the San Francisco Bay Area and their headdresses, watercolor by Louis Choris, 1822

The French explorer was probably unaware that many Indigenous tribes in California practiced a mourning custom of singeing their long hair short, to honor recently deceased relatives – of which there were then so many. He wrote that the converted Indians:

“[H]ave preserved all the ancient customs which their new religion does not prohibit. They have the same hats, the same games, and the same clothes. The clothing of the richest consists of a garment of otter skin, which extends from the waist somewhat lower than the groin. The most indolent have simply a piece of cloth, which the mission supplies, to conceal nudity, and a small cloak of rabbit skin, tied under the chin, which covers their shoulders, and ascends to their waist. The rest of their body is absolutely naked, as is their head. Some of them however, have straw hats, which are neatly made.”

He noted the double standard imposed on the local Indian population:

“Corporal punishment inflicted on the Indians of both sexes who neglect exercises of piety, and for many sins, which in Europe are left to Divine justice, are here punished by irons and stocks.”

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Monterey Peninsula Indian illustration by José Cardeo, 1791

La Pérouse likened the Spanish missions to a Caribbean slave colony.

He described “with pain” the regimented lives, frequent imprisonment, and brutal punishments inflicted upon missionized Indian men and women:

“The day consists in general of seven hours labor and two hours prayer, but there are four or five hours of prayer on Sundays and feast days … [The condition of the converted Indians] at present scarcely differs from that of the Negro inhabitants [slaves] of our colonies … We have seen both men and women in irons, and others in the stocks. Lastly, the noise of the whip might have struck our ears…

“Women are never whipped in public, but in an enclosed and somewhat distant place that their cries may not excite a too lively compassion, which might cause the men to revolt. [Men] are exposed to the view of all their fellow citizens, that their punishment may serve as an example…”

Indian children over the age of nine were required to perform the hard labor of an adult at the Carmel Mission. La Pérouse wrote:

“Many children perish in consequence of hernias, which the slightest skill would cure, and our surgeons had the pleasure of relieving a small number, and of showing them how to apply the necessary bandages.”

One wonders what manner of task the padres required the children to perform, that was so overly strenuous as to result in fatal herniations?

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George Vancouver, oil on canvass, artist unknown, circa 1885

La Pérouse’s wasn’t alone in his judgements. Seven years later, in 1793, the British explorer Captain George Vancouver visited the Carmel Mission and wrote of the Indian “neophytes'” robotic existence:

“[A]ll operations and functions of both the body and mind appear to be carried out with a mechanical, lifeless, and careless indifference [and that they lived in] miserable huts”.

In 1816, thirty-years after La Pérouse’s voyage, the Russian explorer, Otto von Kotzebue, visited Mission Dolores, one hundred miles north of Monterey, at the corner of 16th and Dolores Streets in present-day San Francisco. He wrote of the Indians there, “a deep melancholy always clouds their faces, and their eyes are constantly fixed upon the ground.”

Indians who were caught trying to escape from Mission Dolores were frequently bound in shackles, irons, and stocks, and whipped. One mariner wrote in his journal about how the friars at Mission Dolores used a red-hot iron to burn crosses into the foreheads of a group of Indians who had unsuccessfully attempted an escape.

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California mission Indians, watercolor by Louis Choris

One cannot help but wonder, as one may when reading accounts of enslaved Africans in the American south and Caribbean, or enslaved Jews in Nazi death camps: why the Indians confined in the California missions did not simply revolt?

How could eighteen inadequately armed soldiers and a couple of unarmed priests manage to keep several hundred Indian converts in virtual slavery for decades?

The Indians of the California coast had coexisted among their neighbors for centuries. They were hunter-gatherers. Since they never stockpiled large quantities of stored grain, they never experienced the kind of power struggles, wars, and inequalities of wealth that are inherent in societies that empower a given individual, or group, to control a collective commodity in a volume far greater than any single individual could ever amass.

They had no war chiefs. Their non-authoritarian form of government involved decisions reached through long and often indirect discussions, prolonged negotiations, and hard-won consensus. So, although they were organized, tribe members lacked the kind of military discipline required for such a revolt. Furthermore, the missionized Indians were from different tribes, some of whom were traditional enemies, and spoke different languages, making it all the harder to execute a coordinated uprising.

Spanish Grenadier of Cartagena de Indias

The Spanish soldiers had rifles, bullets, swords, horses, and military training – all very intimidating threat to California Indians – a Stone Age people with no metal weapons of any kind, who had never seen a cow or a horse, let alone a rifle.

Additionally, the Spaniards had the psychological advantage that has served many conquering armies throughout history: the priests and soldiers considered the Indians to be subhuman. They genuinely despised and devalued the Indians’ way of life and religious beliefs.

The Indians were wary of the magic possessed by the Spaniards – not just the awesome power of their firearms and steel, but the power they apparently derived directly from their Gods. The padres could be seen constantly conversing with their Gods and it seemed (to the Indians) that Gods were answering them.

So, if the Indians were going to take on the padres, they would have to be prepared to take on the padres’ Gods, as well – a formidable opponent.

In his journal, La Pérouse explained:

“[T]he moment that an Indian is baptized, the effect is the same as if he had pronounced a vow for life. If he escapes to reside with his relations in the independent villages, he is summoned three times to return; if he refuses, the missionaries … sends soldiers to see him in the midst of his family and conduct him to the mission, where he is condemned to receive a certain number of lashes by the whip. As these people are at war with their neighbors, they can never escape to a distance greater than 20 or 30 leagues. They have so little courage that they never make any resistance to the three or four soldiers who so evidently violate the rights of men in their persons.”

The padres’ overbearing efforts to force Indians to conform to their restrictive and vindictive moral code resulted in unrelenting tragedy for the Indigenous population.

Demoralized and despondent, they were too consumed with misery to rebel. Their old way of life dismantled, they could no longer return to their former homelands. Gradually, missionized Indians sank into extreme clinical depression and many simply lost their will to live.

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Father Serra cell at the Carmel Mission

The overwhelming number of dead Indians presented a logistical problem for the padres ­– they were rapidly losing the workforce required to keep the missions’ farms, dairies, and ranches operating. Having no budget for laborers, the padres had to search even greater distances for unbaptized Indians to replace their workers, who were dropping like flies.

Ultimately, the mission itself came to symbolize death for the Indigenous population – not just physical death, but also spiritual and cultural death, as well. Over time, almost imperceptibly, this psychological condition proved toxic, even to the Franciscan priests.

Daily, the priests combatted the unceasing passive resistance of their despondent “neophyte” charges. Month after month, year after year, the padres struggled without success, to save their dying Indian converts from the incurable European diseases, which the Spanish had brought to Alta California, and to which Indigenous people had no natural inherited immunity.

Painter and illustrator Louis Choris

But what ultimately undermined the attitudes of the zealous Franciscan priests was the gradually dawning self-awareness of their own miserable failures. Despite their best intentions, they had effectively destroyed the culture, the morale, and the health of their Indian charges.

Existence at the missions became increasingly unbearable for the Spaniards, as it had long been for the Indians. The hopelessness that infected the “neophytes” soon permeated the hearts and souls of their Franciscan overseers. As a result, the padres lost their capacity for empathy. Depressed and angry, some of the priests became increasingly self-indulgent, punitive, and sadistic.

This depression was so all-encompassing, it hung over the missions like a dense fog. La Pérouse wasn’t the only one who noticed.

The aritst, Louis Choris, wrote about the Indians of Mission Dolores in San Francisco, whom he visited with Kotzebue’s expedition, in 1816:

“I have never seen one laugh … They look as though they were interested in nothing.”

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Categories: California History.