Digital History
California Missions
Digital History ID 529

Author:   Junípero Serra

Annotation: Junípero Serra, a legendary figure in California's early history and under consideration for sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church, founded and headed California's mission system. After arriving in San Diego in 1768, he led a group of Franciscan friars who established a 600-mile chain of twenty-one religious missions that stretched from San Diego to Sonoma, north of San Francisco. Many of California's most important cities later grew up around the missions. Serra is called the father of California because he was the first to envision it as a whole. No candidate for sainthood has aroused more controversy than Fray Serra.

Serra's defenders say that he risked his own health and safety to ensure the salvation of California's Indians and toiled at their side. In their view, he represents a model of perseverance and self-sacrifice, abandoning a comfortable position of college professor on the island of Majorca to bring Catholicism to Mexico's northern frontier. His supporters claim that he opposed lengthy imprisonment and capital punishment for Indians and sought to protect converts from Spanish soldiers.

Serra's detractors, who include many American Indian scholars and activists, revile him as an emissary of Spanish colonial rule, the architect of a system of forced labor and confinement, that regarded Indian cultures as inferior and sought to eradicate them. They argue that California Indians were forced against their will to live at Serra's missions, where they were subject to slave-like labor and whipped if they disputed Church teachings or tried to escape. As part of the missions' civilizing project, Indians were denied traditional sources of food and were required to eat only cultivated products. Even during his lifetime, Serra was criticized for mistreating Indian converts and using whips, chains, and stocks to enforce religious obedience.

Serra's defenders say that it is unfair to judge an eighteenth-century missionary by present-day standards. They ask that Fray Serra be judged in the context of the eighteenth century, when many European colonizers assumed a paternalistic superiority over native populations, when corporal punishment was widespread, and when many missionaries felt a divine imperative to Christianize and civilize non-western people. Vatican researchers argued that Serra was more a champion of the Indians than he was their oppressor and that there is no evidence that he ever personally beat Indians. Pope John Paul II acknowledged in 1987 that the Indian encounter with Spanish culture was "a harsh and painful reality" that entailed "cultural oppression" and injustices." But he went on to praise Serra who, he said, "had frequent clashes with the civil authorities over the treatment of Indians" and that Fray Serra "admonish[ed] the powerful not to abuse and exploit the poor and weak."

These selections reveal Junípero Serro's ideas about California's missions.

Document: It is of the utmost importance that the missions be provided with laborers, to till the land, and so raise the crops for their maintenance and progress. We would already have made a start in so doing, were it not for the opposition of the Officer at the presidio....

Along with the sailors aboard ship, there should be a number of young men from the vicinity of San Blas [a Spanish naval depot near present-day Puerto Vallarta, Mexico]. I should think that it would not be hard to find among them day laborers, cowboys and mule drivers....

It is of no less importance that, when the livestock arrives, which Your Excellency, in virtue of your decree, orders to be forwarded from California for the equipment of the Monterey missions, some Indian families from the said California should come, of their own free will, with the expedition, and that they should receive every consideration from the officials. They should be distributed, at least two or three being placed in each mission. By taking such measures two purposes will be accomplished. The first will be that there will be an additional two or three Indians for work. The second, and the one I have most in mind, is that the Indians may realize that, till now, they have been much mistaken when they saw all men, and no women, among us; that there are marriages, also, among Christians. Last year, when one of the San Diego Fathers went to California to get provisions, which had run short in that mission, he brought back with him, along with the rest of his company, two of the said families. At his arrival, there was quite a commotion among the new Christians, and even among the gentiles; they did not know what to make of these families, so great was their delight. Just to see these families was a lesson as useful to them as was their happiness at their arrival. So if families other than Indian come from there, it will serve the same purpose very well--that is, if we can provide for them....

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