In his reminiscences, written in Rome in the 1830s, Pablo Tac, a former Luiseño Indian and devoted Catholic, expressed his affection for the bygone mission life of Spanish Alta California. At Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, Tac’s former home, Indians partook in such religious aspects of daily life as the choir, enjoyed the protection of soldiers (“so that nobody does injury to Spaniard or to Indian”) and were cared for by Franciscan fathers who “[know] the customs of the neophytes well.” In a letter to Alta California Governor José Figueroa written around the same time, Narciso Durán, father-president of the missions, contrasted the “far more wretched and oppressed” existence of Indians living outside their walls. “All in reality,” he wrote, “are slaves, or servants, of white men.”
Overlooking such advocacy of the mission system, Mexican government officials moved to secularize (i.e., nationalize) all California missions in the 1830s, transferring the lands once owned by the Franciscan order of the Catholic Church to the state. Under the Secularization Act of 1833 and a subsequent gubernatorial order, the former mission lands were confiscated and then made available for private ownership, ostensibly enabling Indians to purchase property. However, the stark reality for most “emancipated” Mission Indians was a slide into destitution. Dispossessed of their mission holdings, few became private landowners.
When founded in the late 17th century, the missions formed part of a tripartite settlement arrangement in Spanish California comprising presidios (military outposts) pueblos (adjacent villages) and misións (centers of religious worship and instruction usually within proximity of the former two). Mission de Nuestra Señora de Loreto Conchó (aka Mission Loreto), founded in 1697 by Jesuit priest Juan María de Salvatierra, was the first successful mission of 20 the Jesuit order established in Baja (Lower) California. In 1767 distrust of the wealthy and powerful Jesuits by King Charles III prompted him to expel them from Spain and its colonies, particularly from distant California. He turned over the 14 operating missions in Baja California to the Franciscan order, which ultimately established 21 new ones in Alta (Upper) California. Father Junípero Serra founded the first of the latter in San Diego in 1769.
Incentivized to live on mission settlements by the protection afforded from marauders and the prevalence of food, local Indians became a captive audience of potential neophytes (converts). The Franciscans adopted the practices of reducción and congregación in their administration of the missions, instilling in their wards Western culture and values in hopes of “reducing” Indians from their comparatively undisciplined ways, while “congregating” them together for the purpose of instruction. Baptized neophytes were expected to adopt the worship practices, marital customs and other behaviors promoted by the Franciscans. Those yet to be converted were referred to as gentiles.
Though Indians were not compelled to reside at the mission, once one had converted and adopted it as home, he had to remain a resident for 10 years, after which time the land he’d farmed would revert to his ownership. Rarely could neophytes or gentiles come and go as they pleased. To enforce the rules and maintain discipline the Franciscans sometimes resorted to draconian measures. In 1831 Frederick William Beechey, an English ship’s captain, recalled having witnessed reprisals against runaway Indians. “Armed force is sent in pursuit,” he wrote, “and drags him back to punishment apportioned to the degree of aggravation attached to his crime.” Beechey questioned the Franciscans’ commitment to Indian autonomy. “Having served 10 years in the mission, an Indian may claim his liberty.…A piece of ground is then allotted for his support, but he is never wholly free from the establishment, as part of his earnings must still be given to them [the Franciscans].” Disaffected Indians sometimes staged revolts, including uprisings at Mission San Diego in 1775 and Mission Santa Inés, in central California, in 1824.
In theory, under both Spanish and Mexican rule, each mission was to operate only 10 years. The expectation was that the Franciscans would have converted and instructed an ample Indian populace within that time, after which the mission lands were to be distributed among them. Nonenforcement of that decree in California in part prompted secularization. Justly concerned the entire scheme was a pretext to diminish the influence of the Catholic Church, one Franciscan challenged Mexican officials to step up. “Let the latter begin to work, to found establishments and schools, and to practice arts and industries,” he wrote. “Then will be time to lead the Indians to follow a good example.” The process called for the missions to become pueblos, allowing for Indian landownership. Yet only one, Mission San Juan Capistrano, did so. All others transferred to ranchos owned by wealthy Californios (descendants of Spanish colonists). By one estimate the ranchos swallowed up some 90 percent of former mission lands.
A few Indians received sizable allotments. In 1838 Governor Juan Bautista Alvarado granted Ignacio Pastor of Mission San Antonio de Padua a whopping 43,000 acres. Widow Cristina Salgado, who’d been emancipated with her husband from Mission Carmel prior to secularization, gained title to 3,200 acres near the Salinas River, making her perhaps the only female Indian awarded a grant. However, most Indians—notably the Chumash of Mission Santa Barbara—received little more than small plots on which to raise vegetables. Adding insult to injury, the government officials who administered secularization, like commissioner José Antonio Romero of San Carlos, challenged the very right of Indians to own land.
In the wake of the 1848 signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican War and ceded California to the United States, land disputes between Californios and the federal government routinely bypassed any concerns about Indian landownership in the new territory. By then, in an echo of Father Durán’s observation of non–Mission Indians decades earlier, most California Indians lived in a state of destitution.