Carlos and his Kumeyaay warriors attacked both the mission and the presidio in an uprising that threatened the future of Alta California.
Some 600 Kumeyaay warriors converged on the fledgling Spanish settlement of San Diego in the early morning of November 5, 1775, determined to kill every Spaniard and burn the outpost to the ground. This was no ordinary raid but a mass uprising of Indians from more than 40 villages who had united to expel the newly arrived foreigners from their land. The plan of attack was simple, calling for half the Kumeyaays to hit the mission and the other half to go for the nearby presidio. The sky was soon aglow as fire rapidly consumed what was once Mission San Diego de Alcalá. Awakened by the crackling of the flames, the handful of settlers assembled to confront what appeared an unstoppable onslaught.
Four soldiers, two blacksmiths, a carpenter, two youths and two Franciscan missionaries were the only defenders, and two of them already lay dead. Those who survived the initial attack ran from one defensive position to another as arrows, stones, firebrands and adobe bricks rained down on them. They eventually found shelter in an adobe cookhouse, but the battle continued to rage at a frightening pace. The soldiers’ muskets rattled steadily but to little effect. From their vantage in the cookhouse the defenders could see just how hopelessly they were outnumbered. Surely it would be only a matter of time before they were overrun, despite Father Vicente Fuster’s prayers for divine intervention. While waiting for the fighting to end one way or another, the priest bemoaned that this night “seemed to us as long as the pains of purgatory.”
San Diego, founded a half-dozen years earlier, formed a vital link between Mexico and the young colony of Alta California. Before Captain Juan Bautista de Anza had blazed a trail from Tubac in 1774, the only land-based line of communication was a single route linking San Diego to the mission chain in Baja California. The new colony remained largely dependent on resupply by sea from the state of Nayarit port of San Blas, an arrangement that worked only part of the time. With insufficient resources of their own, the Alta California missions faced chronic shortages and starvation during the early days of colonization. By 1775 just 170 settlers inhabited the colony, spread out among four missions and two presidios (San Diego and Monterey). None was selfsufficient, and hostile Indians openly harassed some of them. Under such circumstances, the attack against San Diego posed a serious threat.
The Spaniards’ first contact with the Kumeyaays, or Diegueños, came in 1769 and was encouraging. Upon meeting the natives, Father Junípero Serra, padre presidente (“father president”) of the California mission chain, remarked, “They displayed the fullest confidence and assurance, just as if we had been lifelong friends.” But this positive first impression of the Indians faded the more the Spaniards interacted with them. The Kumeyaays were hardly sincere about friendship with the newcomers. Tribe members arrived daily at the mission to scrounge trinkets and other gifts from Serra and his fellow Franciscans. The Indians were careful observers, and they noted the increasing number of Spanish graves as scurvy and other diseases plagued the expedition. Emboldened by this decline in Spanish strength, the Kumeyaays became increasingly hostile and sometimes withheld the sardines, starfish and mussels the ailing Spaniards depended on to recover from scurvy. The Indians also grew dissatisfied with mere trinkets; they wanted cloth and rope, too. On at least two occasions the Spaniards caught Indians trespassing on the ship San Carlos, one time cutting away sail and the other time trying to steal rope. The Indians even slipped into the mission hospital to steal sheets from the beds of the sick. Firing muskets in the air failed to intimidate the increasingly aggressive Kumeyaays, who mocked both the Spaniards and their weapons.
In 1769 the first wave of hostilities erupted in San Diego, beginning on August 12 and culminating with the main Indian offensive three days later after most of the soldiers left the presidio to escort Father Fernando Parrón from San Carlos. This time the warriors meant to destroy the settlement. Thirty Kumeyaays battled with the remaining seven Spaniards for half an hour, after which they retreated with their dead and wounded, having learned the effects of firearms. The Spaniards suffered just one casualty, Serra’s loyal servant, José Maria Vergerano. To avoid further emboldening the attackers, the Spaniards kept Vergerano’s death secret and buried his body during the night. Several days later the Kumeyaays reappeared at the mission, suing for peace. After receiving medical treatment for their wounded, the Indians were less hostile and began to appear at the mission unarmed.
But the Kumeyaays remained standoffish. Since his arrival in California, Serra had been eager to save souls and convert the Indians to the Catholic faith. Not long after the attack, it appeared he would administer his first baptism on Californian soil when a large Indian contingent arrived at the mission carrying a small child apparently for that purpose. Serra was delighted, but halfway through the baptismal ceremony the parents suddenly pulled the child away and ran from the chapel, followed by their jeering and laughing companions. Viewing this as a deliberate insult, soldiers wanted to pursue the party, but Serra restrained them, advising that such an action would only make matters worse.
Serra remained at San Diego until April 17, 1770, when he embarked on the ship San Antonio to establish Mission San Carlos Borroméo de Carmelo at Monterey, eventual capital of both Californias. San Diego was left in the care of Fathers Fernando Parrón and Francisco Gómez. Neither missionary lasted long at his post, and Father Luís Jayme arrived in the summer of 1771 to assume their duties. Joining him in August 1773 was Father Vicente Fuster.
On his arrival at the mission, Jayme quickly sought to win the goodwill of the Indians. But by then the relationship between the Spaniards and Kumeyaays had again deteriorated due to violently abusive behavior on the part of several soldiers, who raped several Indian women in vicinity of the mission and while traveling from one outpost to another. Jayme wrote of the soldiers, “Some of them are good exemplars and deserve to be treated accordingly, but very many of them deserve to be hanged on account of the continuous outrages which they are committing in seizing and raping the women.” These violations not only harmed the work of the Franciscans but also stirred up more hatred for the Spaniards. On more than one occasion, Jayme recorded, “[The natives] have been on the point of coming here to kill us all, and the reason for this is that some soldiers went there and raped their women.”
Jayme did what he could to protect the Kumeyaays. On September 11, 1772, three soldiers and a sailor visited the nearby village of El Corral. The sailor, seeing an ugly situation developing, parted company with the soldiers, who then raped two women. José Antonio, an Indian from the mission, witnessed the assault. Recognizing Antonio, the soldiers threatened to punish him if he informed Jayme. One of the soldiers then gave Antonio two tortillas in return for his silence. Meanwhile, the two women ran to tell the missionary what had happened. Antonio ignored the soldiers’ threats and confirmed the women’s accounts. On learning the Indian had defied them, the soldiers seized Antonio and placed him in the presidio stocks. When news of Antonio’s plight reached Jayme, the missionary defied the corporal of the guard and released the prisoner from the stocks himself.
Even as Jayme opposed the soldiers at San Diego, missionaries elsewhere reported similar outrages to Serra at his headquarters in Monterey. Despite receiving numerous protests, Governor Don Pedro Fages did nothing to punish the soldiers or prevent the abuses. Serra decided the only way to stop the mistreatment of the Indians was for him to travel to Mexico City and appeal in person for help from Viceroy Don Antonio María de Bucareli y Ursúa. In October 1772 Serra, 60 and suffering from failing health, set out on his perilous journey to Mexico. Twice during the trip it appeared he might die before reaching his destination.
On his arrival in the capital city Serra laid all his grievances and concerns before the viceroy, who asked they be put in writing for presentation to the court. The 32-point legal brief, known as the Representación, was effectively the first legislation passed with regard to California. In it Serra asked that soldiers “who give bad example, especially in the matter of incontinence,” be recalled to the presidio and replaced by others “not known as immoral or scandalous.” He also asked that “no chastisement or ill-treatment should be inflicted on any of [the Indians], whether by the officer or by any soldier, without the missionary father’s passing upon it.” Clearly this was to prevent incidents such as the one Jayme had confronted. The viceroy granted all Serra asked. Spanish authorities would enforce the Indians’ rights, and soldiers could no longer do as they pleased in California. But the policy shift came too late.
Back at Mission San Diego, a pair of Kumeyaay chiefs who had recently converted began plotting against the Spaniards. Known simply as Carlos and Francisco, both had left the mission on October 2, 1775, with the permission of Fathers Jayme and Fuster, to visit the outlying village of Las Choyas. En route Carlos and Francisco robbed a group of elderly women of their seeds and fish. Rather than wait for the priests to punish them, the pair decided to flee the mission for good, accompanied by five other prominent mission Indians. In the following days Carlos and his band traveled from village to village, seeking support for a massive uprising against the Spaniards. They received significant reinforcements after one particular incident at El Corral: On learning that Indians from the mission had taken part in a pagan dance held at that village, Fuster had them promptly whipped on their return and threatened to burn the village if it was not relocated. His actions only infuriated the Kumeyaays, and numerous warriors rallied to Carlos’ cause. By early November some 40 villages were prepared for war.
As Carlos rallied his forces, several Indians warned the friars of the plans being made against the mission. Jayme, however, refused to believe them. After all, he had done everything he could to protect the Kumeyaays, even defying the soldiers to release the unfortunate Antonio from the stocks. When one of the informants persisted, Jayme reprimanded him, saying that if he continued to tell such tales, he would be punished. Jayme then returned to his duties, believing that he and Mission San Diego were wholly safe from harm.
Just after midnight on November 5, all seemed peaceful at the mission and presidio. The mission guards were comfortably asleep in their quarters, and at the presidio a lone sentry stood watch as his comrades slumbered. Only 11 Spaniards occupied the mission: Fathers Jayme and Fuster, mission blacksmiths José Manuel Arroyo and Felipe Romero, mission carpenter José Urselino, youths Leonardo Verdugo and Ignacio Ortega, and soldiers Alejo Antonio Gonzalez, Juan Alvarez and Joaquín de Armenta, all under the command of Corporal Juan Estévan Rocha. Ten more soldiers manned the presidio, but only four were fit for duty, as four were sick and two were imprisoned in the stocks. This small group was under the command of Corporal Mariano de la Luz Verdugo.
Around 1 o’clock in the morning 600 warriors under Carlos’ command converged on the settlement. Half the force advanced on the mission and surrounded the adjacent village, threatening to kill anyone who sounded the alarm. They quickly encircled the mission and then entered to rob the church. Nothing was spared; they even carried off the altar statues as plunder. The attackers sent their accompanying women away from the scene with the stolen goods, then set fire to the church, the guardhouse and the living quarters of the priests. The group that was to surprise the presidio was alarmed when they noticed the flames coming from the mission. That threw off the plan of attack, as they were to have set fire to the presidio first. Fearing the soldiers had also noticed the blaze, they abandoned their plan to capture the garrison and instead joined the forces at the mission. This was fortunate for the Spaniards, as the sentry on duty that night was careless, later claiming he thought it was the light of the moon, not fire, he had seen.
As flames engulfed the mission, Jayme awoke amid the commotion. Firmly believing the Kumeyaays would not harm him, he thought to intervene and stop the attack. Jayme boldly walked out of his burning room and greeted the first group of Indians he encountered in his usual manner, “Amar á Dios, hijos” (“Love God, my children”). But the frenzied warriors chose to pour out their hatred on the priest. They seized Jayme, dragged him to a nearby arroyo, stripped him and shot 18 arrows into his body. As the priest’s life slipped away, his attackers stabbed him repeatedly and beat him with clubs and stones, battering his face beyond recognition.
Meanwhile, the sound of gunfire had roused Fuster. Opening the door of the storehouse that served as his room, he came face to face with a group of angry warriors. Unlike Jayme, Fuster immediately dashed toward the mission guardhouse. When the warriors unleashed a volley of arrows at him, he flattened himself against the wall of the building and used his cloak as a shield. He then rushed inside, joining the soldiers, the carpenter and the two youths who had sought shelter there.
As the attack escalated, flames tore at the building, threatening to bring the roof down on everyone. Fuster suggested they make a run for the storehouse and resume the fight from there. The soldiers concurred, and everyone dashed into the courtyard, the soldiers firing their muskets as they ran. On reaching a room adjoining the storehouse, the soldiers took up new positions and fired at the attackers from its windows. Fuster went into the storehouse and began praying with the two boys. Suddenly, his thoughts turned to Jayme, filling him with unease, so he raced out of the storehouse and made his way toward his fellow missionary’s quarters. The building was in flames, but Fuster ran inside to search. Finding no one, he dashed out just before the roof collapsed.
Arriving safely back at the storehouse, Fuster saw that it, too, was on fire. He asked the soldiers to extinguish the flames, but they were too busy firing their muskets. With the help of young Verdugo and Ortega, Fuster pulled three packing cases out of the storehouse to use as a barricade. About that time one of the soldiers came looking for the mission’s gunpowder, as their supplies were running low. At great risk, Fuster ran back into the burning building to recover the powder. As he emerged, Felipe Romero ran up with news that the Indians had killed his fellow blacksmith José Arroyo. Romero asked that the priest say something on Arroyo’s behalf, but there wasn’t time. Flames were rapidly consuming the storehouse and the adjacent building from which the soldiers were firing. The Spaniards needed a new defensive position.
The only building yet unscathed was the mission’s unfinished cookhouse, which still lacked one of its adobe walls. The defenders headed there, carrying the three packing cases Fuster had saved. En route the Indians badly wounded two of the soldiers, leaving just two to continue the fight. As the Spaniards reached the cookhouse, the Kumeyaays mounted an intense attack, not only shooting arrows but also hurling stones, firebrands and even adobe bricks. Fuster shielded the two young boys behind him and used a pillow to protect his face. While most of the arrows flew past, one did strike the pillow. At Corporal Rocha’s request, Fuster also draped his robe over the bag of gunpowder to keep off any sparks and avoid a deadly explosion. The priest in turn requested that his fellow defenders ask for help from above: “Friends, our plight is a bitter one—our enemies are many, we are few. Let us turn to God and to Mary Most Holy. Let us offer our prayers to Our Heavenly Queen and ask her to look with a favorable eye upon us, to slacken the fury of our enemies and give us victory over them. With this intention, for my own part, I propose to fast nine Saturdays and offer up my Mass in her honor nine times.” The others readily agreed that if they survived, they would do the same.
The battle raged on. Fuster struggled to keep the firebrands away from the powder bag, while Rocha shouted commands to make it seem he had more men than he did. Blacksmith Romero and soldier Gonzales reloaded the muskets for Rocha to continue a steady fire. It was then Fuster compared their long night to purgatory. But the defenders did not waste their time. In preparation for a dawn attack they loaded every available gun and reinforced the walls of the cookhouse with pots and pans and the stones the Indians had hurled at them.
As the sun rose over what was left of the mission, the warriors unleashed a storm of arrows. The soldiers fired back with their muskets as quickly as they could. It was then that Indians from the villages of San Francisco and Nuestra Señora de la Soledad, who had encamped at the mission to hear Sunday Mass, opened fire on the attackers with their bows and arrows. Having been threatened the night before by the Kumeyaays, these loyal mission Indians were now eager to assist the Spaniards. This unexpected volley was too much for the assailants, who gave up the attack and fled. The battle for Mission San Diego was finally over.
In the end the clash cost the Spaniards only three lives. But the loss of Father Jayme was a tremendous blow to the settlement. He had not only done his best to be a good missionary but also taken the time to learn the Kumeyaay language. When a detail returned Jayme’s body to the mission, Fuster fainted at the sight; its only recognizable features were the whiteness of the skin, the tonsure atop the head and the reliquary of St. Didacus (San Diego) that hung around its neck. The next day, November 6, the Spaniards buried Jayme and Arroyo in the presidio chapel. Five days later Urselino succumbed to his wounds, and the Spaniards also buried him in the chapel; in his will the carpenter left his considerable savings to the Indians who had killed him. It is not known how many casualties the Kumeyaays incurred, as the surviving warriors carried off most of their dead and their wounded.
Soon after the attack California Governor Don Fernando Javier Rivera y Moncada rushed from Monterey to San Diego to begin the manhunt for those responsible for the rebellion. On the night of March 27, 1776, tired of running from Spanish authorities, Carlos sneaked inside the presidio and hid behind the warehouse that now served as its chapel. The next morning when Fuster arrived to say Mass, he was startled to discover the troublemaker who had killed Jayme and who would have undoubtedly killed him, too. Fuster, however, forgave Carlos and granted him sanctuary in the chapel. Rivera was less forgiving. Learning of Carlos’ whereabouts, he ordered his soldiers to surround the chapel, forced Fuster and the other friars out of his way, entered the building himself and seized Carlos, who was then dragged away. The missionaries demanded Carlos be released to them, or they would excommunicate Rivera and the soldiers who had helped him. Rivera scoffed at their threat, then was later horrified to learn the priests had carried it out. The missionaries lifted the censure once Rivera released Carlos to them and promised a fair trial. Carlos was, in fact, pardoned, but he continued to cause problems at San Diego. As for the others who had taken part in the rebellion, Serra asked a general pardon be granted all the Indians, and Viceroy Bucareli agreed. With clemency granted, reprisals withheld and the mission rebuilt, peace reigned in San Diego through the mission era’s end in 1833.
The Kumeyaay uprising of 1775 might have turned out much worse if not for some heroic defenders—and perhaps answered prayers. In a letter to Serra soon after the November battle, Fuster remarked: “It is something to be grateful for to Almighty God that one of the fathers can give you an account of what happened. That certainly was not the intention of those wicked men. They meant to exterminate the entire white population and the fathers in particular. But why was such a fate not to be mine? The answer must be left to the inscrutable decrees of God.”
Had the Kumeyaays succeeded in their plans and destroyed San Diego, the Spaniards may have abandoned that key outpost and perhaps the entire colony. The Spaniards did abandon other such settlements—including Mission Santa Cruz de la San Sabá in Texas and Missions San Pedro y San Pablo de Bucuñer and Puerto de Pur- ísima Concepción on the Colorado River—after Indian parties destroyed their structures and slaughtered their inhabitants. During the attack against the Colorado River missions, the Indians killed many soldiers and missionaries, sparing only the women and children, who were taken prisoner. That attack also succeeded in closing the trail Anza had blazed through the area. When the Kumeyaays attacked San Diego, only 170 Spaniards were on hand to defend the entire colony, so a Spanish defeat there would have been a devastating blow. Had the Kumeyaays succeeded in their plans, other angry tribes, such as the Yumas, Gabrieliños and Chumashes, might have joined them in a general revolt. The Spanish victory thwarted such a scenario, deterred any future uprisings and ensured the missions would remain. For the humble Franciscans, who would ultimately establish 21 missions, victory also meant their work in California was far from over.
George Yagi Jr. is an adjunct professor at the University of the Pacific Center for Professional and Continuing Education, in Stockton, Calif. Suggested for further reading: The Life and Times of Fray Junípero Serra, O.F.M., by Maynard J. Geiger, and Palóu’s Life of Fray Junípero Serra, by Francisco Palóu.
Originally published in the August 2011 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.