The Indigenous Holocaust in Big Sur – Life and Death at the Carmel Mission

Carmel Mission, 1936

One has to wonder – if traditional life in the pre-contact Indian villages on the Monterey Peninsula was so great, and the game so plentiful, and their spiritual life so satisfying, what in the world possessed these contented Indians to voluntarily, sometimes it seems, even eagerly, enter a Catholic mission in the first place?

In The Natural History of Big Sur, published in 1993, Paul Henson wrote:

“It remains unclear just how the Big Sur natives—members of the Esselen, Ohlone Rumsen, and Salinan tribes—were drawn to the missions. Anthropologist Terry Jones says the Salinan have been repeatedly described as welcoming the padres and that it is unknown whether the Esselen were forced to convert or went to the missions peacefully. Historian Augusta Fink describes how a Rumsen chief from the Carmel Valley willingly presented himself and his four-year-old son to Father Serra for baptism. Many were undoubtedly attracted by the strange and exciting gifts offered by the Spanish: the glass beads, the brightly colored cloth, and the metal knives, pots, and tools. They were also curious about the bizarre animals: the cows, sheep, mules, and horses. It is generally agreed, Jones says, that forced conversion of natives was not mission policy prior to 1800, but after this time, as the natives resisted, the padres at some missions may have turned to more coercive methods.”

It is difficult today to appreciate the alure of the simple, seemingly commonplace items that dazzled Indian sensibilities two-hundred and fifty years ago. For example, there were precious few objects on earth that were bright red in color ­– save the wingtips of a few birds and a few seasonal wildflowers. In the worldly experience of even the oldest, most well-travelled Indian, few had seen any other examples of bright red objects in the natural world.

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

These bearded foreigners, the Spaniards, brought boxes of brightly colored glass beads and cloth – a mere trifle to them – but considered extremely beautiful and desirable by the Indians. Bright red beads were literally money in the Indian villages. The Indigenous people of the Pacific coast responded to the Franciscan priests in much the same way we would, today if some foreigner was handing out hundred-dollar bills.

The first Indian who summoned the courage to enter the strange new mission structure – very likely an impressionable teenage boy – returned to his village with a handful of bright red beads, making him instantly wealthier than his parents or his neighbors. This not only upset the balance of the tribal economy, but it also prompted other tribe members to quickly overcome their own fear of the foreigners and, one by one, hike to the mission to receive the blessing of instant wealth.

But the curious Indians soon found out they were not free to leave the mission at will.

When an Indian family member failed to come home, a concerned parent or spouse went to the mission looking for their loved one, only to discovered that they too, were not permitted to leave. Mothers followed children; husbands followed wives. This disrupted the Indian society, so much so that the loss of manpower soon left many Indians with no choice but to move to the mission. They were forced to accept baptism, wholly unaware that they were entering into a lifelong contract with the church and surrendering their free will and liberty.

It wasn’t long before the missionized Indians could no longer return to their native villages because squatters, settlers, and speculators had staked claims on their ancestral homelands.

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The baptismal font at the Carmel Mission, where thousands of Indians were baptized.

In 1775, Padre Noriega recorded the one-thousandth Indian baptism at the Carmel Mission.

Most of the residents of the Rumsen village of Echilat in Carmel Valley, were under the age of twenty-five. By 1775, almost all of them had accepted baptism and the confinement of missionization. The Rumsen Headman, Chanjay and his wife, were one of the last couples to leave the village. In April of 1775, they were baptized and given the Christian names of Simon Francisco and Magdalena Francisco.

The first documented meeting between a Spaniard and an Esselen, was on Tuesday, May 9, 1775, when Junipero Serra baptized a forty-year-old Excelen chief named Pach-hepas. (The Excelen are the northwestern subgroup of the Esselen). Serra travelled to Pach-hepas’ village, Kasáuan, deep in the Carmel Valley, twenty-five miles southeast of the Carmel Mission, at present-day Cachagua. Pach-hepas was near death, likely from a European disease brought by the Spanish. Father Serra, wanted to baptize him before he died, so his soul could get into heaven.

The padres rarely recorded the Indians birth names in the Indian languages, only the Spanish names the priests assigned them at the time of their baptism.

On June 23, 1776, a four-years-old Indian girl who was still nursing, was baptized at the Carmel Mission and given the name Maria Nicolasa. The mission records indicate that she came “from the rancheria called Sargenta Ruc about seven leagues from this mission toward the south-southeast. She is the first Christian from this populous rancheria.”

The girl’s mother, about twenty-two years old, is described in the mission records as living in “the rancheria Pitchi in the region called Sargenta Ruc,” indicating that both the girl and her mother lived in the northern part of Sargenta Ruc, near present-day-Notley’s Landing, thirteen miles south of Carmel.

In the next three years, thirty-eight more Excelen were baptized, including thirteen children. Then there was a lull and from 1779-1782, as more and more Indian children died, and only seven more Excelen were baptized.

In November of 1782, Father Noriega traveled through the Esselen district of Sargenta Ruc district, where he baptized a dying Indian woman. Two year later, he returned to Sargenta Ruc to baptize another dying woman who was about eighteen years old – baptism number 1038 in the mission records. She was one of the three wives of Chilichon, the Headman of Sargenta Ruc. Although Chilichon, declined to be baptized, his Esselen name was noted in the mission records.

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California mission Indians, watercolor by Louis Choris, 1822

Father Serra reported to his superiors that, in order to make any converts at all, priests had to resort to baptizing children as infants, accepting the fact that they might not see them again for months and sometimes years.

The reason the priests didn’t see those children again was because, under the mission system, most Indigenous children died before their eighth birthday.

James Sandos, a historian of California at the University of Redlands, explains:

“The priests thought they knew what they were doing, but they didn’t. Serra wasn’t a genocidal maniac. They didn’t know what they were unleashing. And the deaths appalled them.”

As in concentration camps, once inside the mission grounds, Indians were forcibly prevented from leaving. Crowded inside the adobe mission walls, Indigenous people were easily infected with a myriad of contagious European diseases, which to them were frequently lethal.

Almost simultaneous with the establishment of the Carmel Mission, there was a staggering increase in Indian death rates from diseases both pandemic and epidemic. While the mortality of Indigenous people skyrocketed, very few Spaniards died of these diseases – a phenomenon that was not wasted on the frightened Indians.

This resulted in a net local Indian population decline of sixty-two percent, per generation, and a mean life expectancy of about seven and a half years. Native people couldn’t help but notice that, in the face of these new diseases, their religions, shamans, and totems were apparently powerless.

Paul Henson wrote in The Natural History of Big Sur:

“The severe change in lifestyle could never have been anticipated by the Indians. Once baptized, they were required to reside at the mission and conscripted as forced laborers. They worked the fields and abandoned their ‘primitive’ ways, no longer to wander the oak groves, stalk deer, or take trips to the shore for abalone and mussels. Instead, they grew wheat and corn, spun wool, and wove cloth. They became blacksmiths, shepherds, and cowboys. They were to pray two hours a day, and after ten years of indoctrination and worship, they would be given land upon which to raise a family. This was the ‘Catholic utopia’ envisioned by the missionaries.”

California Indian “neophytes” (Rumsen, Miwoks and Yokuts) at Mission Dolores in San Francisco. Watercolor by Louis Choris, 1822

Spanish law allowed soldiers and priests to forcibly “relocate” baptized Indians from the villages to Mission compounds. But the converted Indians were forever running away, necessitating, yet again, the dispatchment of armed soldiers to retrieve them.

In 1775, Father Serra wrote to his military commander about disciplining a group of recaptured runaways:

“I am sending them to you so that a period of exile, and two or three whippings which your Lordship may order applied to them on different days, may serve, for them and the rest, for a warning, may be of spiritual benefit to all; and this last is the prime motive of our work. If your Lordship doesn’t have shackles, with your permission, they may be sent from here.”

Indians who tried to leave the mission were often hunted down by soldiers and, in the process, killed. Father Serra wrote to Felipe de Neve y Padilla, Governor of Los Californias, in 1780:

“In the matter of correcting the Indians, when it appeared to us that punishment was deserved, they were flogged, or put into the stocks, according to the gravity of their offense.”

In 1782, Governor de Neve, in a rare admission of culpability, informed his successor:

“The repeated patrols that have been sent out to importune [the runaway Indians] to come back have resulted in deaths among the non-Christian natives, due to the poor supervision of the officers in charge … It was as much a danger to the little parties which the Presidios were able to send into the mountains where the natives took refuge. There was little that our troops could do in that rugged, rocky country, which obliged the soldiers to dismount and enter villages on foot. The non-Christian natives are coming to understand our small number and weakness faster and more frequently.”

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Penon Peak, Carmel Valley, California

Before missionization, Indian life followed a ritual calendar that encompassed the cycle of traditional dances and ceremonies, the timing of the salmon runs, the ripening of the acorns and the berries, and the migrations of the birds. After missionization, their calendar was replaced by the seven-day-week European liturgical calendar centered on key to events in the lives of long-dead, white European saints.

Although grain cultivated at the missions was a very marketable commodity, little, if any, was sold because most of it was consumed feeding the multitude of enslaved Indians.

In 1779, four years after the first Esselen baptism, the Indian forced laborers at the Carmel Mission harvested 1,660 bushels of wheat, 700 bushels of barley, 165 bushels of beans, and 85 bushels of maize. In 1797, grain harvests totaled 7,400 bushels. By 1800, the Carmel Mission reported to their supervisors in Mexico that they had so great a slave labor force, their stockyards contained 2,180 horses and cattle, and 4,160 smaller livestock, including sheep.

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Father Junipero Serra

For hundreds – perhaps thousands of years, women in pre-contact Indigenous California culture practiced family planning and used birth control. Traditional tribal guidelines detailed the time and timing of sexual conduct pertaining to such activities as conception, hunting, menstruation, childbearing, and nursing. At the time of the arrival of Father Serra and his constituents, the rate of intermarriage between different Monterey Peninsula tribes is estimated to have been about 15%.

The priests forcibly took control of the interpersonal lives of Indigenous people. Marriage was mandatory. Priests pressured Indian teenagers to marry young – and the younger the better. Once married, the newlyweds were pressured to have as many children as possible, as quickly as possible. Like the children of enslaved African Americans on plantations in the Caribbean and the American south, every Indian child born at the mission was another laborer, condemned to a lifetime of unpaid toil and slavery.

Frequently, priests acted as matchmakers, arbitrarily marrying Indian men and women who otherwise would not have chosen each other as partners. Couples who did not conceive – for whatever reason – were subject to punishment. Indigenous men and women found engaging in extra-marital sex, were either flogged, starved, or locked up in solitary confinement, or in the stocks.

Indian women were disproportionately subjected to gender specific violence. Some neophyte women were raped and some of the rapists were priests. Some neophyte women voluntarily traded sexual favors with priests (and other European men in positions of power) in exchange for food, shelter, and special consideration. Some of the priests fathered children with Indian women and others lived openly with their “neophyte” concubines.

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Deborah A. Miranda

Poet and literary critique Deborah A. Miranda, a member of the Ohlone/Costanoan-Esselen Nation, explained in her article published in summer 2016 issue of Biography magazine, “They Were Tough, Those Old Women Before Us: The Power of Gossip in Isabel Meadow’s Narratives:”

“Sexuality is without doubt the Indian trait that the padres fear and obsess over the most, and try hardest to stamp out. Precontact California Indian women of the Carmel and Monterey area have autonomy in choosing sexual partners, and privilege in maintaining custody of children in the event of a dissolved partnership…

Padre Junipero Serra notes early on that, ‘common Indian sexual behavior amounted to serious sins that merited … solemn condemnation’ according to Catholic doctrine. Spaniards are outraged by the practicing of premarital sex, polygamy for higher-status men, serial monogamy for everyone else, the taking of lovers while married to someone else (which had its own cultural risks and costs, but was not forbidden), the restrictions preventing sexual relations for up to two years after childbirth or a day or two before hunting, acceptance of masturbation, education of young girls about birth control, and so on. Under missionization, the sexual lives of women converts were scrutinized in multiple ways: through the confessional, where padres relentlessly ask specific and graphic questions about sexual experiences; through the imprisonment (often during the day and always at night) of all unmarried females over the age of seven, in the monjerio: a crowded, foul, airless, disease-incubating room; and through enforced marriages of young people as well as arranged remarriages for widows and widowers who were not quick enough to find a new mate when theirs have died. Control of sexual misbehaviors include the use of corporeal punishment (flogging with whips or cat-o’-nine-tails), imprisonment, public shaming. The Spaniards used stocks for both men and women, but also developed a kind of specialized device called a corma that is aimed at “loose” women: two boards, with cut-outs for ankles fit around a woman’s legs, and were locked together. This allows the woman to remain productive – still able to cook, weave, make baskets, and participate in food preparation – while literally keeping her legs together.”

The monjerio – a dormitory for the teenage “neophyte” girls, at La Purisma Mission in Lompoc, California. Photo by by Nancy Ingersoll

Unchaperoned and separated from their Indian families, their daughters were locked up each night in the monjerio, where some were molested or raped, and exposed to sexually transmitted diseases. The monjerio was usually equipped with just one or two “toilet buckets,” for nearly one-hundred girls, ensuring the spread of any transmissible disease.

It was all about cheap labor.

The priests demanded that Indigenous women remain in a virtually constant state of pregnancy. They regularly interrogated Indian women as to the frequency of their sexual intercourse with their husbands. The Spanish priests even went so far as to inspect a woman’s genitals if they judged too much time had elapsed between marriage and pregnancy, or between serial pregnancies.

Consequently, missionized Indian women gave birth to many more kids than they would have had in pre-mission times. By 1800, fewer than ten percent of married Indian women lived to see their fiftieth birthday. In fact, so many Indians were sick and dying, the mission had to established Rancho del Convaleciente, an outpost for sick and dying parishioners in the Los Laureles area of Carmel Valley.

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The cost of maintaining the Catholic missions in Spanish Alta California was extraordinary. To keep the tiny and unprofitable outposts supplied, the Spanish had to build, at terrific expense, a port, a shipyard, a warehouse, and a garrison on the Pacific coast of Mexico, at San Blas, 2,000 miles south of Monterey Bay.

This proved problematic as stored food awaiting shipment rotted in the sweltering temperatures and constant humidity of the tropics. Additionally, the harbor kept filling up with silt, causing ships to run aground. Supplying the missions in California was so costly, Spanish officials would tack on a freight charge of 150% of the costs of the goods. Consequently, an item worth 100 pesos would cost 250 pesos when it was sold in California.

Through the 1780s, the supply ship sent from San Blas never arrived on schedule, taking three or four months to reach Monterey if it ran into headwinds, and often arriving with many crew members dead or incapacitated by scurvy.

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The ruins of Mission San Antonio, Jolon, California, 1890

During the California Gold Rush, the town of Jolon, twenty miles south of King City, California, supported two hotels, a blacksmith, livery stable, Chinese laundry, and several saloons.

But back in in 1771, when Fathers Serra, Sitjar, and Pieras came down from Monterey to build Mission San Antonio – the third mission – Jolon was an ancient Indian settlement on the old mission trail, the original El Camino Real. Throughout the early years of missionization, the huts and campfires of the Indian settlement of Jolon, five miles from the mission, could be seen along Jolon Creek, where tules grew in the marshes. Three decades later, the Spanish priests declared that there wasn’t a single unbaptized Indian within seventy-five miles of Jolon.

The Cave Rock shelter in the Sant Lucia Mountains The Caves rock shelter (Mnt 44), which has been occupied for at least 3,400 years, and 250 images of human hands that cover its wall

One report from Mission San Antonio in Jolon, sixty miles east of Big Sur, stated that, at this time, there were three Indian deaths for every two baptisms. So many of the converted died of disease, despair, or culture shock, that soon, there weren’t enough Indians left to tend to the fields or the animals, or to bury the corpses.

Some Indians fled into the steep Santa Lucia Mountains. Some were pursued and returned to the mission. Others were never captured. Only a small fraction of the Indigenous population survived the California Indian holocaust and lived to see the secularization of the Spanish missions after the Mexican Revolution ended, in the early 1820s.

Of course, by then, the damage was already done.

Evidence of Esselen habitation sites in the Santa Lucia mountains are so remote that they’re hard to even locate in the 21st-century. For two-hundred and fifty years, the Esselen were virtually a landless tribe. During their generations in hiding, they escaped into the most uncharted regions of the mountains, ostensibly disappearing completely.

That said, there is some evidence of their presence there. For example, archaeologists located the grave of an Indian girl in the Isabel Meadows Cave, in the Church Creek area, northwest of present-day Tassajara Hot Springs. She was about six years old when her parents buried her there, around 1825.

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Junipero Serra died of tuberculosis, at the age of seventy, at the Carmel Mission, in August of 1784, and was interred beneath the chapel floor. But the system of forced, unpaid Indian labor that he’d created lived on, producing all of the Spanish colony’s cattle, grain, and luxury goods for trade with Mexico.

Serra was the first Catholic saint canonized in the United States. In September 2015, at a press conference during Serra’s canonization, Pope Francis declared :

“[Serra] learned how to bring to birth and nurture God’s life in the faces of everyone he met; he made them his brothers and sisters. Junipero sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it.”

The Pope’s statement rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.

On September 27, 2015, the Carmel Mission was vandalized. The statue of Father Serra was toppled and splattered with paint. The message, “Saint of Genocide,” was painted in the mission courtyard.

Elias Castillo, author of A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of the California Indians by the Spanish Missions, published in 2015, called Junipero Serra “a madman” who, blinded by his goal of saving souls, oversaw the enslavement and deaths of thousands of California Indians.

Castillo say that the Pope’s words “couldn’t be further from the truth.” According to Castillo, the missions were little more than concentration camps where California Indians were beaten, whipped, maimed, burned, tortured, and virtually exterminated by the friars.

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Monterey Peninsula natives, illustration by José Cardero, 1791

The pre-contact Indian population of what is now the state of California is estimated to have been about one million inhabitants.

According to Dr. Philip Blair Laverty, by the end of the Mexican period, in the late 1840s, it had dropped to 150,000 – 15% of the pre-contact population.

By 1870, thirty years later, it had diminished to 30,000 Indians.

By 1900, it had dwindled to fewer than 15,000 Indians – about 1.5% of the pre-contact population.

Some California Indians survived this holocaust, but not many. Like the children of the survivors of the 20th-century Nazi concentration camps, the descendants of the Indigenous people of California are frequently burdened with ongoing and unresolved intergenerational trauma that haunts and hurts the great-grandchildren of the Esselen, Rumsen, and Salinan – and all the other Indigenous tribes.

Reflecting upon the holocaust that befell the Jews of 20th-century Europe, Elie Wiesel wrote in his book Night, first published in 1956:

“For the survivor who chooses to testify, it is clear: his duty is to bear witness for the dead and for the living. He has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory. To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”

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Ruins of the Carmel Mission, 1880

After the Civil War, homesteaders began settling on the coast south of Carmel. The decaying mission, with its overgrown gardens and crumbling adobe walls, and outlines of stately arcades, made a compelling landmark. To folks freshly arrived from the eastern United States, the ruins were evocative of a romantic and glorified bygone era.

An all-absolving nostalgia surrounds the Carmel Mission. The city of Carmel literally grew up around the it – it’s the oldest structure in town.

In pre-pandemic times, some 200,000 tourists visited the Carmel Mission’s historic church and courtyard, each year. But few who visited came away with an understanding of what actually took place there: the punishment, sickness, and hopelessness, the disease and death that flourished in the Franciscan concentration camps.

“All twenty-one missions are places of suffering, of death, and of domination,” declared Valentin Lopez, Chairman of the Amah Mutsan tribal band, whose ancestors lived in the region north of present-day Salinas, California.

“They should be places like Auschwitz, where they have memorials to the atrocities that happened.”

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Categories: California History.