I’ve taken a few jabs, in the past, at the Catholic missionaries who settled California. That’s because we all know they held natives prisoner in their missions. And they treated them like slaves and made them work the fields, weave baskets, and shine their shoes. And they forced them under penalty of torture to adopt Christianity.
Ahhhnnnkkk! Wrong answer, according to Catholics.
Catholics have a way of painting halos over the heads of the old missionaries. They point the finger at the conquistadors. It was the fault of the Spanish soldiers, they say. They’re supposedly the ones who exploited the natives and so badly mistreated them.
The priests were actually saints and heros, according to the Catholic Church. They were always intervening, pressuring the soldiers to back off and leave the innocent natives alone.
And there’s some truth to this. It was hard to recruit soldiers for mission-protecting work. As a result, many of the recruits had tainted pasts, and some were even recruited straight out of prisons. The Spanish government often had to scrape the bottom of the barrel to find volunteers for such remote frontier work.
These low-life soldiers resented the priests and all their rules, while the priests kept a wary eye on the soldiers. The tension between these two groups could have been sliced with a sword.
And yet the two depended on each other. Four or five soldiers were stationed at every mission. Their job was to drink, wassail, gamble, fornicate, and occasionally defend the mission whenever the natives became hostile. They were scorned by the priests for their debauchery. And in return the soldiers despised the goody two shoes priests, whom they were entrusted to defend.
This dysfunctional relationship existed at every mission, including Mission Santa Ines.
Mission Santa Ines was established in 1804, in the middle of Chumash country, about 10 miles northwest of Mission Santa Barbara. The Chumash tribe was every priest’s dream come true. They were friendly, industrious, and welcoming to the missionaries. And they were always eager to help out these strangers from a foreign land, whom they thought they were hosting.
The Chumash were like Li’l Abner’s shmoos. They happily went to work building the mission, an aqueduct system, and agricultural enterprise. Their sacrifices made the mission a rocking success. And so the mission thrived, raising bumper crops, and growing vast herds of livestock.
And that attracted other tribes. Soon the Tulare tribe joined the mission activities. These folks were tough hombres, always making war and causing trouble. But at Mission Santa Ines everyone lived together in peace. It was kum ba yah time.
The priests felt righteous and satisfied. The soldiers were spoiled with abundance, belching, farting, and wallowing about like fat hogs. And the natives learned new ways to support themselves, living off the land.
Perhaps the good harmony continued because the natives were unable to decipher and translate a book one of the priests had sitting around, entitled, “How to Serve Man.” That’s what I suspect, anyway.
But in 1821 the good times went off the rails and tumbled down a rocky arroyo. Mexico won its independence from Spain. And the new Mexican government wasn’t as much into religion as the Spanish Royal Court. They said, “screw the goddamned Catholics,” and cut off support to the California missions.
Now the soldiers were left unchecked by the priests, and unpaychecked by the new government. They had to make a living somehow, so at Mission Santa Ines they began forcing the natives to work long, hard hours without pay, against the wishes of the missionaries. And no one came to their rescue. Not even Zorro.
One day in 1824, a soldier beat a Chumash woman. Or rather, he tried to “encourage” her to work harder. This cowardly act was the last straw. It felt revolting to the natives. And so the Chumash and Tulare tribes did just that. They revolted, and confirmed the soldiers’ beliefs that the natives were, indeed, revolting.
These indigenes were soon joined by Chumash and Tulare natives at nearby Mission Santa Barbara and Mission La Purisima Concepcion. And it became the largest organized uprising during the Spanish and Mexican periods in California. The day of reconciliation had arrived.
Buildings were burned to the ground, and those that weren’t, were occupied by angry tribe members. They evicted the soldiers, priests, and their family members, forcing them to flee.
But surprisingly, few lives were lost during this revolt. This may be due, in part, to a little native girl named Pasquala.
Pasquala belonged to the Tulare tribe. This young girl got sick one day, from food poisoning. That’s right, even Native Americans occasionally eat the wrong berry or mushroom. She was brought by her loving parents to Mission Santa Ines, and the missionaries kindly helped her recover.
The Tulare tribe didn’t like this. Not one bit. They were already getting tired of the padres, and they wanted to break off the tribe’s friendship. And maybe they were missing all the great fun that comes from making war and causing problems. So they decided to force Pasquala’s parents to return to the tribe.
One day they attacked the mission and killed Pasquala’s father while he was working in the vineyards. Then they kidnapped Pasquala and her mother and hauled them back to the Tulare village some miles away. They must have been rough on the little girl’s mother during all this action, because soon after, she died.
This was at the same time, in 1824, that the great revolt against the missions was fomenting. Pasquala was a nosy little girl, and she overheard her people discussing plans for a much larger attack on Mission Santa Ines.
She’d had enough. They’d killed her parents. And now they were going to kill the very people who saved her life. So as soon as she could, she slipped away from the village and ran back to the mission to warn the padres.
The Padres happened to be playing against the Dodgers at the time, but when Pasquala arrived, looking frantic and disheveled, they dropped their bats and balls and gave her their complete attention.
She cried out, “Padre! Padre! War! War!” She breathlessly warned them about the imminent attack, then collapsed and died from exhaustion.
This was too bad for Pasquala, but just peachy for everyone at the mission. Her warning came just in the nick of time. The padres and soldiers quickly prepared for battle and were able to repel the attack. Had it not been for Pasquala’s warning, the whole mission would have been completely destroyed and everyone inside massacred.
Mission Santa Ines declined rapidly after the revolt of 1824. Most of the natives said, “ah, to hell with it.” They lost their enthusiasm for helping the mission, and few remained to keep it maintained. It soon fell into ruins and became a fixer-upper for the real estate market.
But let’s be fair. And I’ll even eat part of my hat. This was not due to the Catholic priests. It was the fault of the soldiers who mistreated the natives and who sparked the revolt.
Okay, I’ll admit it. Perhaps the Catholic Church has been unfairly maligned in the portrayal of their treatment of Native Americans. Perhaps even by me, although it’s not my fault. I must have been drinking at the time I wrote all those mean posts.
It’s a controversial issue, and maybe there’s been hyperbole on both sides. But one thing is certain. At least some of the natives were very impressed with the padres, and treated them with a love and hospitality that was reciprocated. There’s evidence of this. And some of the evidence can be found in the life of a young girl.
A little Tulare child who ran her heart out, named Pasquala.