The Two Harvests of Father Serra – Big Sur Before the Spanish Missions

Sebastián Vizcaíno

European explorers got their first glimpses of Big Sur from their ships. In 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo mapped the coast of Alta California and observed the towering Santa Lucia Mountains from the deck of his vessel. He wrote in his journal:

“There are mountains that seem to reach the heavens, and the sea beats on them; sailing along close to land, it appears as though they would fall on the ships.”

In 1603, Sebastián Vizcaíno visited the bays of Monterey and Carmel, with three ships and some two-hundred men, proclaiming both to be excellent harbors. Carmelite Friars in the Vizcaíno expedition named the river El Rio de Carmelo for their patroness, Our Lady of Mount Carmel. But no settlement was established and for the next century and a half.

The Spanish limited their colonization efforts to the more accessible regions to the south, Baja California and mainland Mexico. Vizcaíno described the locals Indians of Carmel as “gentle and peaceable people, docile, generous, and friendly, of good stature, fair complexion, and women possessed of a pleasing countenance.”

King Carlos III of Spain

In the late 1760s, during the aftermath of the Seven Years’ War, King Carlos III was paranoid that some other European power would claim the Pacific Coast territory north of Baja California. Russian and British fur traders had their eyes on the Alta California coast and King Carlos III was anxious to get there first.

In 1767, Carlos III, launched a plan to build presidios, pueblos, and missions along the coast of what is now the state of California. He decreed that the native inhabitants of the territory be educated and Christianized – becoming Spanish subjects of a Spanish colony.

The Governors of the upper Alta California territory, having neither the financial nor military resources required for an undertaking of such magnitude, turned to the wealthy Catholic Church for assistance.

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In September of 1769, Governor Gaspar de Portolá, led an expedition of sixty-four Spaniards and one hundred mules, up the coast from San Diego, in an attempt to locate the Bay of Monterey. They stayed close to the ocean until they came to present-day San Simeon. There, the gentle coastal plain over which they had traveled became steep and impassible. When they reached the sheer vertical mountain wall that rises straight up from the surf, at San Carpoforo Canyon, they were forced to hike inland, “encountering great hardships” as they hacked through the scrub of the rugged Santa Lucia Mountains.

Governor Gaspar de Portolá

The story of the Portolá Expedition is one of desertion, shipwreck, and fatalities, as Governor Portolá led his “small company of skeletons” north. It took them half a year to travel from San Diego to San Francisco, and back.

By the time they reached present-day San Luis Obispo, they’d consumed almost all of their provisions and the men were practically starving. At present-day Los Osos, California, they killed three California grizzly bears ­– the first of this species they’d ever seen – and the fresh meat sustained the expedition on its march north.

When they reached the banks of the Nacimiento River, near the northern boundary of present-day San Luis Obispo County, they camped for the night. They may have been the first Europeans to visit the valley. Governor Portolá observed that there were a lot of Indians living in the area and recommended the place as a favorable site for the construction of Catholic missions.

Earliest illustration of a California grizzly bear, a small female, by Louis Choris San Francisco, October 22, 1816

But the explorers were unfamiliar with the curve of the coastline. They overshot their mark, missing Monterey Bay twice – once on their way up the coast and then again on their way back down. Though they were travelling in the dry months of autumn, they encountered acres of wetlands and swamps, which significantly slowed and impeded their progress.

In The Ohlone Way, published in 1978, Malcolm Margolin wrote:

“Nowadays, especially during the summer months, we consider most of the Bay Area to be a semi-arid country. But from the diaries of the early explorers the picture we get is of a moist, even swampy land … the water table was much closer to the surface, and indeed the first settlers who dug wells here regularly struck clear, freshwater within a few feet. Water was virtually everywhere, especially where the land was flat. The explorers suffered more from mosquitoes, spongy earth, and hard-to-ford rivers than they did from thirst ­– even in the heat of summer. Places that are now dry are described as having springs, brooks, ponds – even fairly large lakes.”

Jean-François de Galaup, comte de La Pérouse

Portolá’s soldiers could hardly believe the abundance of animal life they encountered on their march through the California territory. Reading the old journals and diaries of the earliest visitors to Alta California, one finds the same observation made by each commentator. In The Ohlone Way, Malcolm Margolin explained:

“The animals of today do not behave the same way they did two centuries ago; for when the Europeans first arrived, they found, much do their amazement, that the animals are the Bay Area were relatively unafraid of people.

“Foxes, which are now very secretive, were virtually underfoot. Mountain lions and bobcats were prominent and visible. See otters, which now spend almost their entire lives in the water, were then readily captured on land. The coyote, according to one visitor, ‘was so daring and dexterous that it makes no scruple of entering human habitation in the night, and rarely fails to appropriate whatever happens to suit it.’”

On Thursday, September 14, 1786, French navigator Jean-François de Galaup, comte de La Pérouse, dropped anchor in the bay of Monterey. La Pérouse wrote in his journal:

California Quail painted by José Cardero, 1791

“It is impossible to describe either the number of whales with which we were surrounded, or their familiarity. They spouted every half minute within half a pistol shot of our frigates, and caused the most annoying stench … The sea was covered with pelicans.”

Captain Beechey’s journal of the voyage of the Blossom, titled Narrative of a Voyage to the Pacific and Beering’s Strait, was published in London, in 1831. Beechey visited the Monterey Peninsula in 1826. Captain Beechey wrote:

“Animals seem to have lost their fear and become familiar with man. Quail were so tame that they would often not start from a stone directed at them.”

The Spaniards heard rumors that the Russians were expanding their territory south along the coast of Alaska. In an effort to obtain squatter’s rights, Spain hurried to build a series of Catholic missions along the coast of what is now the state of California.

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The Esselen, one of the smallest tribes in the United States, consisted of between some 750 and 1,300 individuals, and lived along the coast.

Their neighbors, the Rumsen (also called the Ohlone – or Southern Costanoan, from the Spanish costeño meaning ‘coast dweller’) lived to the north on the Monterey Peninsula.

The Salinan, about 2,300 – 3,000 in number, lived in the southern Salinas Valley and the eastern Santa Lucia Mountains.

At the time of the arrival of the Spaniards, in 1769, there existed a district of Esselen Indian communities called Sargenta-Ruc, which extended along the Big Sur coast from somewhere south of the mouth of the Big Sur River to somewhere north of Palo Colorado Canyon. (Ruc means “houses.”)

The names of the two most prominent communities in Sargenta-Ruc were recorded by the padres in the mission records. Pitchi (or Pixchi, or Pis) was located near present-day Notley’s Landing, thirteen miles south of Carmel. The other, situated near the mouth of the Big Sur River, twenty five miles south of Carmel, was Jojopan (or Ojaba).

The communities in Sargenta-Ruc weren’t really villages – permanent, year-round settlements, in the European sense. They were hunter-gatherers. They lived on a diet of berries, nuts, plants, and roots, fishing the seas, collecting shellfish on the coast, and hunting deer, bear, bobcat, and fox, sea lion, whale, otter, and a variety of birds (for both their meat and feather). Meat was preserved by drying and smoking. They were a Stone Age people. They’d never seen a horse or a cow, let alone a sword or a rifle.

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Illustration of an Indian native of the Monterey, California area, circa 1791 by José Cardero.

Building a mission in a remote and distant place like California, two hundred and fifty years ago, was a logistical feat of epic proportions ­– like establishing a colony on the moon, today.

A couple of monks and eighteen soldiers were sent off to this remote corner of the world, without a carpenter, farmer, fisherman, or engineer among them. And they were supposed to “civilize” several hundred Indians (from different tribes – tribes who were often hostile toward one another) many of whom spoke different languages, and teach them to live by Spanish codes, morals, and taboos.

More than a dozen autonomous political entities – Indian “tribes” or “tribelets” – lived with thirty miles of Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo – the Carmel Mission in present-day Carmel, California.

The Franciscan missionaries expected the Indians to reject everything they knew about life and the world. They presumed the Indians would easily adapt, overnight, to the artificial and highly restrictive European institution known as a Monastery – which, even at the height of its popularity, was a way of life that very, very few European citizens ever chose voluntarily.

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In our time, California is known for its wealth of natural resources. But in the 18th century, the remote and distant territory offered no gold, glory, or grail.

In the 1770s, the Franciscan missionaries strategically erected three missions in a triangular formation, around the Santa Lucia Mountain range: Mission Carmel, Mission Soledad, and San Antonio Mission de Padue, near the town of Jolon, sixty miles east of Big Sur.

Father Junipero Serra

The Franciscan priest in charge of building the first nine of an eventual twenty-one Catholic missions established in western Alta California, was Father Junipero Serra.

The son of a Spanish farmer, Junipero Serra just over five feet in height, with “sharp features.” He was a former professor of theology in his native Majorca. Driven and dominant, Serra was often in great pain from an ulcerated and inflamed leg. Like many chief executive officers, he didn’t sleep well or digest his food easily (in Serra’s case, very likely due to intestinal parasites).

Father Serra welcomed the pains and sufferings of missionary life, to the point of masochism – even the possibility of martyrdom. He was known to wear hair shirts, to whip himself unmercifully, and to beat upon his chest with heavy stones. He’d actually hold burning candles to his skin to “humiliate the flesh,” punishing himself for his “unworthiness.”

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Father Serra’s spiritual objective in Alta California was to save as many Indian souls as possible ­by keeping the Indians free from “sin.” And his definition of “sin” included many aspects of normal, everyday, garden-variety human life.

It would have been challenging enough if the objective had been to replicate an 18th-century Spanish peasant community. But the Franciscan padres’ expectations of the native people of California far exceed those imposed on any Spanish citizen.

The priests demanded chastity among the unmarried, hours of compulsory prayer, complete subjugation of free will, total obedience to superiors, and virtual enslavement as forced laborers. It was an unheard of and unprecedented level of restriction and penalty. No Spanish citizen outside of a prison, was ever subjected to such stringent conditions.

Father Serra was not so concerned with the Indian’s quality of life in this world (or at the missions), but rather in the next world. When baptized Indians died at the missions (as so very many would) Serra celebrated their souls ascending to heaven, fulfilling the mission’s objective.

The saving of souls – belonging to the living or the dead – is a very nice concept. However, the mission system in California wasn’t about saving souls. It was, in fact, designed to satisfy the Spanish crowns’ hunger for cheap labor, and the Spanish padres expected the Indigenous community to provide the work force.

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View of Monterey painted by John Sykes, 1792

The Franciscan priests believed that they could turn the local Indians, overnight, into farmers. In their zealous effort to convert the “gentile” Indians, they employed instruments of cruelty and brutality, including the stocks, the whip, and the cat-of-nine-tails.

But the priests had an even more powerful concealed weapon of which they, themselves were not even aware.

In 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, Charles C. Mann explained:

“The viruses that cause smallpox, influenza, hepatitis, measles, encephalitis, and viral pneumonia; the bacteria that cause tuberculosis, diphtheria, cholera, typhus, scarlet fever, and bacterial meningitis—by a quirk of evolutionary history, all were unknown in the Western Hemisphere.”

The Indigenous people of North America had never been exposed to any of these lethal European diseases which had arrived with the first Spanish explorers travelling the trade routes in the late 1500s. Consequently, American Indians had no developed immunities against them. Additionally, smallpox plagued Indian and Spaniard alike, until the Russians from the north finally taught the Franciscan priests about vaccination.

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Archbishop Carlos Borromero

The Mission San Carlos Borromeo, the second of the twenty-one missions constructed, was named for the Archbishop of Milan, Italy. It was first established near the presidio in Monterey, on June 3, 1770, close to the pre-contact Indian village of Tamo.

Shortly after his arrival in Monterey in the summer of 1770, Father Serra was greeted by inhabitants of the Rumsen village of Achasta, which was walking distance from the future site of the Carmel Mission. Achasta was so close, in fact, that some modern scholars suggest the village was founded after the mission was built, however Rumsen oral tradition disagrees.

The villagers had never seen anything like it – the Spanish soldiers and priests might as well have been extra-terrestrials, with their enormous beasts of burden, pale skin, bushy beards, and elaborate wardrobe.

Although the reaction of the local Indians to the presence of the Spanish strangers was not recorded, “Aboriginies” – the Indigenous people of Australia – thought the first European explorers they encountered two hundred years ago “smelled like death.” This is likely factual, considering the hygiene of the Europeans in the late 18th-century, who almost never bathed or washed their clothing.

California Indian, watercolor on paper, by Louis Choris, 1816

After he learned about the strangers, Chanjay, the Headman from the Rumsen village of Echilat convinced the tribal Chiefs from the nearby Rumsen villages, Achasta, Tucutnut, Soccorronda, and Ichxenta, to delegate tribal members to volunteer to assist Father Serra party in the construction of the mission. The village of Echilat was about a dozen miles south of Carmel, halfway between the ocean and the Carmel River.

According to the website of the Costanoan Rumsen Carmel Tribe:

“Chief Chanjay’s role as a Rumsen Headman was to pass on the culture by his teachings, stories, songs, and dances, organizing gatherings and by conducting ceremonies. He led his tribal members who were mostly young men to the best hunting ground and coastal fishing areas. Chanjay sanctioned marriages and oversaw disputes among tribal members and other Rumsen villages. The village of Echilat was in constant conflict with Esselens over crops and hunting grounds. Chanjay was always able to out-maneuver the Esselens … As a consequence of this constant conflict with the Esselens, most of the inhabitants of Echilat were always very young most were under twenty-five years of age.”

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Father Juan Amorós, a priest at the Carmel Mission wrote:

“Seven tribes live at this mission, they are the Exclen, the Egeac, Rumson, Sargenta Ruc, Sarconeõs, Guachiron and Calenda Ruc. The first two are from the interior and have the same language or speech which is totally different from the other five. The latter also speak the same language.”

In their multi-lingual culture, there was no political organization based on language of origin. Residents of the Sargenta Ruc district (in present-day Big Sur) were likely bilingual speakers of Rumsen and Esselen. Likewise, the people of Kigilit (in the mountains northeast of present-day Lucia) were probably bilingual speakers of Salinan and Esselen. Similarly, the mountain and coastal people of Ekheahan (near present-day Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park) would have spoken both Salinan and Rumsen.

Tucunut, the largest Rumsen district is believed to have been three miles upstream from the mouth of the Carmel River, in the Carmel Valley. It had five villages: Echilat, Ichxenta at San Jose Creek, near present-day Point Lobos State Reserve, Achasta near the Carmel Mission site, and Soccorronda on the Carmel River near Carmel Valley Village.

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Father Serra soon learned that having the Indian converts living in such close proximity to the Monterey Presidio proved problematic. Almost immediately, some of the Spanish soldiers raped some of the Indian women at the mission.

A week later, on June 12, 1770, Father Serra, informed Juan Andres, his superior in Mexico City:

“[I]t may be necessary to leave the presidio here [in Monterey] and move the mission with a few soldiers to the banks of the Carmel [River], two short leagues [six miles] to the south. It is a truly delightful spot, which, thanks to the plentiful supply of both land and water, gives promise of abundant harvests.”

The following summer, with a crew of sixteen soldiers and sailors, the mission was moved to soil near the mouth of the Carmel River, that (they thought) was better for farming. The name of the mission was modified to Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo. The new mission location was about ten miles north of the Esselen Indian village, Excelen, as well as a number of Rumsen villages.

On June 21, 1771, Father Serra wrote to Father Francisco Palou, telling him that:

“[I]n the way of raising crops, came to nothing. We made a little garden nearby and enclosed it; the Indians doing all the digging … Everything came out fine but nothing grew to maturity. We are all greatly puzzled. Later we found out that the ground, while showing no signs of it, at times is washed over by the salt water of the bay and so is fit for nothing but nettles and reeds.”

By the end of 1771, there were twenty-two baptized Indians living at the Carmel Mission.

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18th-century Indian-made hand farming tools at Santa Barbara Mission, photo by Frank Adams, 1944

There is very little evidence in the mythology, the archaeological record, the reports of early visitors, or in the oral tradition of the Indigenous people, that hunger was ever a problem for Indigenous people in Monterey County, prior to the arrival of the Spanish. In fact, all reports affirm that there was an abundance game, fish, and foods available on the coast of California at that time. Descriptions are common in the earliest reports of European visitors, of Indians bringing gifts of deer, antelope, elk, and rabbit meat to the Spaniards.

In the 1930s, Isabel Meadows, the last Rumsen speaker, told linguist and anthropologist John Peabody Harrington of the Bureau of American Ethnology, “In Indian times, there was no such thing as a bad year.”

The Spanish priests were not experienced farmers, and consequently, it would be a number of years before Mission San Carlos in Carmel had a successful crop. During the summer of 1773, the supply ship from Mexico failed to arrive. A few months later, after yet another crop failure, the padres were experiencing real food insecurity. They had not had so much as a crust of bread or a tortilla for over a month, were subsisting, three meals a day, on a soup made of milk and ground peas. In desperation, the hungry converted Indians (called “neophytes”) were sent away from their missionized captivity to forage for game and fish in their native homelands. The Indians, who were quite knowledgeable about the seasons and availability of shellfish and seafood, wound up feeding the padres.

Milk, butter, and cheese production from the mission’s dairy helped save the soldiers and priests from starvation. But likely unknown to the Franciscan priests at the time, most California Indians are lactose intolerant, so the milk the padres fed the Indians just made them sicker and many babies died.

When Fernando Rivera y Moncada, the new Governor, arrived at the Presidio in Monterey, in 1774, he was appalled to find his soldiers, more than two-hundred and fifty in number, so poorly supplied. They had very few weapons, almost no ammunition, and precious little to eat.

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Californie Indian, date unknown. engraving by L. Massard Choubard

The following year, Father Serra wrote to Father Francisco Palou, on July 24, 1775:

“Our new Christians [baptized Indians] here are content and well fed. Besides the daily atole and pozole they are now busy catching sardines which, for a week now, have been coming in schools to the beach. I don’t know if it will be like last year at this time, when it lasted 20 days. We also had our season for fresh salmon and it was excellent.

The padres knew little about diet and nutrition.

For breakfast, the Indians were fed atole, a soup made of roasted, ground barley. For lunch, they were served pozole, a soup thicker than atole, made from wheat, Indian maize, peas, and beans. The words atole and pozole are from the Nahuatl (Aztec) language and were brought north to California by the Spaniards. This diet of ground grain was such a drastic change from the traditional diet enjoyed before missionization – one of fresh fish, fresh meat, acorns, and fresh herbs and plants – that many Indians simply couldn’t digest it, and those that did suffered from malnutrition. Archeologists have found forensic evidence that “wild” Indian bones were “fine and robust,” while the bones of those who perished at the missions were “considerably stunted and far smaller.”

In those early years, before the construction of the complex of adobe buildings around the center courtyard ­– before the acres of grain and the expansive cattle ranch – the Carmel Mission didn’t have enough resources to feed all of the missionized Indians. So, when food stores ran low, “neophytes” were told to return to their traditional homelands to seek out wild food sources like acorns, fruit, seeds, game, fish, and shellfish. Consequently, Indian families ate better diets in those early days of missionization, than they did a generation later when the mission grew tens of thousands of acres of grain.

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On July 24, 1775, Serra wrote a letter to Friar Francisco Pangua, his Franciscan superior at the Colegio de San Fernando, in Mexico City:

“In the midst of all our little troubles, the spiritual side of the mission is developing most happily. In [Mission] San Antonio [in present-day Jolon], there are simultaneously two harvests, at one time, one for wheat, and of a plague among the children, who are dying.”

This letter is instructive as it offers evidence of Serra’s state of mind, psychopathic though it may be. As epidemic European diseases were sweeping through the mission and Indian children were dying in droves, Serra likens this genocidal tragedy to the harvest of a crop of grain. He tells himself that God is reaping the souls of the Indian children – choked to death by malnutrition, diphtheria, and a dozen other European diseases – and transporting them to heaven.

One wonders what the missionized Indians, who undoubtedly dug the graves and built the coffins for their dead children, thought of Father Serra’s chilling “two harvests” analogy.

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Categories: California History.