Unlike other regions of the West, California during its Spanish and Mexican periods–beginning with the establishment in 1769 at San Diego of the first of 21 missions under the often oppressive rule of the Franciscan padres–produced few well-known Indian rebels or warriors. In fact, the best known and most lethal resistance by California Indians to their subjugation and exploitation occurred during the American period under the leadership of the Modoc chief, Kientepoos, better known as Captain Jack in 1872-73.
Certainly there were many reasons for the California mission Indians to revolt. Despite his well-meaning efforts to protect neophytes (Indians who converted to Christianity) from being corrupted by Spanish soldiers from the presidios, Father Junipero Serra and his successors institutionalized a system of Spanish acculturation, Christian conversion, forced labor, confinement and punishment that helped to weaken and decimate much of California’s once-dense Indian population. Anthropologist Sherburne Cook asserts that disease and very high mortality combined with low birth rates caused rapid decline among those Indians who came voluntarily or by coercion to the missions. He adds that the slow recovery of the neophyte population during the Spanish and Mexican eras (1769-1846) was achieved by recruiting new converts to the missions. However, the overall mission Indian experience was one of disease, death and depopulation. Secularization, which began in 1835, turned the missions into parish churches and stripped the Franciscans of their power, land and labor; yet the Indians’ plight continued.
Despite sporadic Indian attacks on various missions in 1778, 1785 and especially in 1824 when the Chumash at Mission Santa Barbara burned the mission to the ground and fled to the hills, no clearly recognizable Indian warrior against missionization emerged until 1829. His name was Estanislao.
Although a major Indian resistance leader, little personal information is known about him. He was most likely born among the Yokuts in Califonria’s San Joaquin Valley in about 1800. Sometime thereafter, he was brought to Mission San Jose in the present San Francisco Bay area. Father Narcisco Duran, who was known for harsh discipline and flogging neophytes who disobeyed him, named Estanislao after a Polish saint and took a personal interest in him. The new convert to Catholicism adapted readily to mission life and demonstrated leadership qualities. He was selected for the position of alcade, the highest-ranking Indian official in the power structure of Mission San Jose. Much like a slave overseer on a Southern plantation, he exercised limited authority over Indian work and life routines. However, even since Governor Felipe de Neve created the office in the 1770s, Indian alcades had often used their position to forment resistance movemnts against mission captivity.
The specific incidents that led to Estanislao’s rebellion are unclear. Possibly, since his position demanded that he dispense punishment to recalcitrant mission Indians, catch and return runaways and chastise rebellious tribes in the interior, Estanislao may have become enraged at how the mission system mistreated the original Californians. Also, he undoubtedly learned of neophyte conspiracies and resistance, the high death rate at other missions and that the mission system was rumored to be in a stage of political decline. Although Estanislao’s goals and motives remain obscure, the basic conditions leading to his rebellion are generally clear. They include widespread dissatisfaction with mission life, unstable civil and military authority in Mexican colonial California (1822-46), previous conflicts between the San Francisco-area colonists and the San Joaquin Valley Indians, and increasing Indian access to horses, that bolstered the confidence and mobility of the interior tribes.
In 1827 or 1828, Estanislao fled from Mission San Jose to the interior. Discontented and now given a courageous leader, by 1828, San Jose’s Indians were ready for rebellion. In that year, while visiting relatives in the inland valley, several hundred led by Estanisalo stayed at the villages along the Stanislaus River, east of its confluence with the San Joaquin River, thereby failing to return to the mission as required. Indicating that a broad conspiracy was brewing, several hundred more fugitives from other missions joined Estanislao’s rebel forces. He boasted that the Indians did not fear the presidio soldiers because, as Father Duran himself had claimed, they ‘are few in number, are very young and do not shoot well.’
In late 1828, the commandant of the San Francisco presidio, Ygnacio Martinez, dispatched Antonio Soto, an experienced Indian fighter, to bring in the fugitives for punishment. Taking only a small expedition, Soto and his men were goaded by Indian insults into a thicket. Taking full advantage of their treacherous hiding place and thick underbrush, the invisible Indian warriors killed several soldiers and seriously wounded others, including Soto, who was shot in the eye and died a few days later after retreating to San Jose. Antonio Maria Osio, who fought against Estanislao and much later recorded his experience in his Historia de California, recalled that the jubilant Indians celebrated their triumph with dances and by ‘putting on exhibit the corpses of the soldiers who had been killed so that the neighboring tribes, who had been invited, might admire their great valor and bravery.’
As news of the Indian victory spread, more Yokuts and perhaps some Miwoks from the Sierra Nevada foothills joined the rebels. By early 1829, Estanislao had assembled at his fortress an army of 500 to 1000 neophytes and gentile (unconverted) warriors, certainly one of the largest Indian forces ever to fight against whites in California. As members of a dozen tribes and more Christian fugitives joined his ranks, Estanislao intensified his raids on the livestock of Bay area missions and ranches.
Despite poor discipline, unreliable weapons and troops prone to mutiny and conflicts with soldiers from other presidios, Mexican Californios primarily from the San Francisco presidio were sent under the command of Jose A. Sanchez to crush the rebel forces. However, Sanchez’s party, which included 70 Indian auxiliaries as guides and soldiers, was also too small and unequal to the task. Sanchez tried to negotiate with his adversaries rather than militarily engage them at the outset. However, according to Sanchez’s later report, Estanislao and followers would rather fight than return to the missions, The rebel leader shouted that he ‘had to defend himself and he would not hesitate to die in the underbrush.’
After a fierce battle of about three hours, Sanchez had lost enough soldiers to order a retreat to Mission San Jose. In his memoirs, Juan Bojorges, who had participated in the battle, recalled that as the soldiers withdrew, Estanislao emerged from his fortified thicket fired a parting gunshot and hurled insults in Spanish at the ill-fated expedition.
This article was written by Richard Patterson and originally appeared in the December 2000 issue of Wild West.
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