The Emerging Truth about Junipero Serra and the California Missions

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A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California's Indians by the Spanish Missions written by Elias Castillo.A Review of A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California’s Indians by the Spanish Missions by Elias Castillo
Craven Street Books, 2015
Reading this book set my third chakra racing while my sense of moral outrage boiled over. Yet it is presented in subdued and sober terms, with fact after fact and story after story, building a sure case against the canonizing of Franciscan Friar Junipero Serra. The author, Elias Castillo, a three-time Pulitzer Prize nominee, tells the truth of the fabled and now postcard-like missions of California, a truth that has often been hidden away in libraries containing correspondence and comments from the days of the mission founding while a myth of benign relationships with the native peoples has been promulgated instead.
In this book Father Junipero Serra, called by some the “Father of California,” is exposed in damning detail as the father of a system, the mission system, that systematically destroyed the culture of the indigenous peoples of California, who had lived at peace with the earth and more or less at peace with themselves over millennia until the Spanish arrived. With Castillo’s new research in hand, it makes all the more scandalous the current effort, supported by two Opus Dei archbishops and the Knights of Columbus, to canonize this sadistic person who is a poster boy for colonization and racism. Why, why, why is Pope Francis going ahead with this canonization? Who profits from it?
There are those who say, “Don’t judge an eighteenth-century person by twenty-first century standards.” Well, when that person is being proposed by the pope himself as a saint and therefore a model for twenty-first century people to emulate, why wouldn’t we have the right and indeed responsibility to judge? For example, should we be imitating Serra’s penchant for beating and scourging himself both in private and in the pulpit as a glorious spiritual exercise? In his own day in fact, one member of his congregation in Mexico was so turned on by Serra’s self-flagellation that when Serra bared his chest and beat himself in the pulpit, the parishioner stormed the lectern and seized the chains out of the zealous friar’s hands and thrashed himself so hard, declaring “I am a sinner,” that he died on the spot! Now there is a saint to be imitated, right?
Furthermore, as is clear from the author’s impeccable research, Serra was out of the loop even in his own time. For example, he preached that the earth was the center of the universe and the sun moved around the earth – 150 years after Copernicus proved otherwise! In addition, Europeans who visited his missions complained in his time that they were shocked by the treatment of the American Indians. Even fellow Franciscans of his time were embarrassed and ashamed of what he was doing. Also, the governor generals contemporary with his time complained of his death camps (otherwise known as “missions”) and often overrode his decisions. Decades after the governor forbade beating American Indians Serra was still insisting on it in his missions.
The whitewashing of Serra has gone on long enough. The facts are now out there, including interviews with descendants of those who were colonized by him. Where are the Franciscans who are standing up to be heard today about this monstrous effort to canonize a colonizer and a man who himself whipped, and ordered whipped, thousands of American Indians, and whose entire theology was about getting people to heaven no matter what the cost? Surely these sons of Saint Francis have a stake in seeking an apology from the native peoples and letting Serra lie in his grave, don’t they? Surely they don’t want to support a lie about Serra’s holiness – do they?
Thanks be to God, our age is waking up to the evils of racism. The Confederate flag is at last being removed from Southern statehouses and government buildings, after the massacre of nine people in a black church by a twenty-one-year-old assassin whose web pages and costumes celebrated that flag. The United States is agreeing that the Confederate flag is a symbol of all that is evil in our national history of slavery, Jim Crow, and racism in its many incarnations right up to 2015.
But the missions are the same to Native Americans of California. They are symbols of slavery and of racism just as is the Confederate flag. Castillo establishes this without a doubt:

  • The thousands of American Indians who were herded into the missions did not come voluntarily but were treated as slaves insofar as they were paid nothing;
  • They were free labor for decades in the building of the missions and their lands and vineyards and cattle raising;
  • They were seldom allowed to return to their villages (if they tried to they were whipped and often tortured, some locked into braces in the hot sun and left without water for days);
  • They were cut off from their religion and culture and families;
  • They were forced to attend daily Mass even though it was in Latin of which they understood not a word and were to kneel for up to four hours during the Mass;
  • The men were separated from the women;
  • They were often starved and close to starving, etc., etc.

Far from the mythology still reigning, the American Indians and Catholics did not get along well. Why else would over 1,000 neophytes try to escape from fifteen missions between 1769 and 1817 – especially knowing that if they were caught, severe penalties would ensue? The author lists the numbers from each mission in compiling these statistics. In 1832 the Mexican Assembly called for an end to what it called back then “the detestable system of the missions,” and so many American Indians fled from the missions that the “neophytes,” or baptized Christians, plunged in number from 30,000 to 5,000 between 1834 and 1843. This does not sound like happy campers wanting to stick around once they had an option. The fact that the missions were labeled “detestable” in 1832 silences those today who say piously, “but we can’t judge the missions by twenty-first century standards.”
Castillo devotes one chapter to “rebellion” since many native people rose up and resisted their own enslavement. After one such rebellion at the San Diego mission, the military commander asked the conquered rebel American Indians why they rose up. The answer was recorded thus: “They wanted to kill the fathers and soldiers in order to live as they did before.” On receiving news of the uprising and the number of persons killed Serra responded, “Thank God that that ground has now been watered (with blood): Now, certainly we will achieve the conversion of the Dieguenos.” Strange talk indeed for a saint!
The coastal American Indian numbers were estimated at 300,000 when the Spanish arrived in 1769; 120 years later they were 16,624. Is that not genocide? While some of that happened after the gold rush in 1849, it began with the mission system that Serra founded. The missions, like the monasteries of the late Middle Ages (which Saint Francis had reacted against in starting his order), became vast properties where tens of thousands of head of cattle, sheep, and goats and massive acres of grapes for wine-making made the friars rich beyond measure. Yet, “there is no full accounting of the wealth amassed by the missions during their peak period, from the end of the eighteenth century through the early 1800s.”
In August 1833 the Mexican government secularized the missions and all their lands, making them the property of the Mexican government and stripping the Franciscans of their authority over them, though allowing the chapels to continue as places for Mass. At San Gabriel the leading friar “flew into a rage” and ordered the destruction of all the buildings and livestock with the result that tens of thousands of carcasses of cattle, sheep, and goats littered the field. While he tried to destroy the vineyards as well, the American Indians assigned to do it refused.
So decimated was the population of the American Indians in the missions that the head friar from 1815-1819, Mariano Payeras, wrote that history will record that the priests “baptized them, administered the sacraments to them, and buried them,” and he worried about how to shelter the friars “from slander and sarcasm … for all time.” The diet forced on the American Indians in the missions resulted in stunted and much smaller bodies, as indicated by comparing human bones at mission American Indian burial sites to those not so enslaved. It seems that most of the concern of the Franciscan superiors was not about the plight of the American Indians but about the depletion in free labor for the missions and what history would say about the Franciscans. Well, with this book, history has indeed spoken. And it is not pretty.
For any Franciscan today to stand by idly while the pope canonizes Serra is at least as immoral an act as was the work of their sadistic forefathers. Survivors of the missions were interviewed in the late nineteenth century and “all agreed that the friars and mission life was cruel and oppressive.” On July 21, 1797, a group of American Indians who escaped was interviewed by the military commander who captured them on why they escaped. Here are some of their testimonies as recorded by the commander:

  • After his wife and daughter died, on five separate occasions Father Danti ordered a man whipped because he was crying. For these reasons he fled.
  • One fled because his wife and one child had died, no other reason that that.
  • Another’s motive for fleeing was that his brother had died on the other shore, and when he cried for him at the mission they whipped him.
  • Another left because his mother, two brothers and three nephews died all of hunger. So that he would not also die of hunger, he fled.

This does not strike me as twenty-first century values foisted onto eighteenth-century reality. In fact, visitors to the missions in their own time were shocked by what they saw – even Friar Antonio de la Conception Horra who was assigned to head Mission San Miguel in 1798 was shocked and complained that the missions failed to teach American Indians the Spanish language. He wrote the viceroy of Mexico: “The manner in which the Indians are treated is by far more cruel than anything I have ever read about. For any reason however insignificant it may be, they are severely and cruelly whipped, placed in shackles, or put in stocks for days on end without receiving even a drop of water.” Another friar in 1797 reported why American Indians were fleeing the Mission San Francisco: “It is due to the terrible suffering they experienced from punishments and work,” he wrote the governor. An investigating presidio commander wrote: “Generally the treatment given the Indians is very harsh. At San Francisco, it even reached the point of cruelty.”
Diseases, starvation, filthy and crowded living conditions, cruelty and torture – but also depression killed the Mission Indians. “Some may have simply willed themselves to die, unable to stand the terrible stress…. Nearly half of the [missions’] populations died each year,” and to make up for such losses the friars hunted further and further to find tribes from which they could seek a new and free labor force for their plantations. As Castillo puts it: “Much of California including land that was far from the coast, would be turned into a huge and profitable farming area – the legacy of the missions, albeit at a tragic cost to California’s Indians…. Newly-arrived settlers were faced with twenty-one missions that were in actuality giant agribusinesses that controlled the best lands with a large pool of free manpower.”
French Naval Captain Jean-Francois de Galaup, Comte de Laperouse, sailed into Monterey Bay on September 14, 1786. He was the first outsider to visit the missions, arriving seventeen years after the first founding. He was “appalled at the treatment of the Indians by the Franciscan friars.” And he made explicit the slave-like conditions of the American Indians, comparing the missions to slave plantations he had witnessed. Their “state at present scarcely differs from that of the Negro inhabitants of our colonies.” In addition, “The color of these Indians, which is that of the negroes; the house of the Missionaries … the cattle, the horses – everything in short – brought to our recollection a plantation at Santo Domingo or any other West Indian island” – as well as “the noise of the whip.” The alcaldeswere neophytes the friars choose to carry out the priests’ commands, and de Galaup observed that they “are like the overseers of a slave plantation: passive beings, blind performers of the will of their superiors (friars)” whose main job is to “maintain order and the appearance of attention” during church services. They also beat any American Indian, no matter what age or sex, who violated mission rules. The floggings ranged from ten lashes up to fifty, which could prove fatal. Women were not whipped in public but were taken away to be whipped so their cries would not arouse the men to rebellion. When American Indians killed a priest who was especially cruel in his whipping they were caught and sentenced to fifty daily lashes each for nine days and to life sentences of hard labor. Thus we see that the linking of the Confederate flag and its racist intentions to the missions is not anachronistic – it was observed way back in the eighteenth century.
Serra established nine missions before he died and the American Indians “were little more than forced labor. This permitted the missions to thrive economically, and allowed the friars to profit personally for the sale of tallow, hides, horns, wine and brandy,” which they sold to foreign merchants arriving by ship. “For the Indians it signified the beginning of brutal suffering and cultural genocide. Most died within two years, with their faith, customs, and way of life torn from them.”
The Spanish visitor general wrote to Serra’s close friend Friar Palou that they should “not teach the Indians how to write; for I have enough experiences that such major instruction perverts and hastens their ruination.” This too followed the methods of the slavery plantations where reading and writing were forbidden. Castillo comments that this policy endorsed by Serra “proved catastrophic for the Indians when they began abandoning the missions in the 1830s.” One Scottish visitor, Hugo Reid, was so appalled at the widespread ignorance of Spanish among the Mission Indians that he remarked: “Not one word of Spanish did they understand. They had no more idea that they were worshiping God than an unborn child has of astronomy.”
We thus see that “Saint” Serra set up a sadomasochistic series of death camps, perhaps echoing his own masochistic spirituality. He was anti-intellectual, anti-science, ignorant of Indian culture and history and languages, paternalistic, zealously sadistic, racist, and a white supremacist. In addition, Serra was an inquisitor before he ever came to the California area, having been employed as an inquisitor in the mountain villages of Mexico at his own urging.
Nothing explains Pope Francis’s willingness to canonize Serra. In his recent encyclical the pope laments that “the disappearance of a culture can be just as serious, or even more serious, than the disappearance of a species of plant or animal…. It is essential to show special care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions…. When they remain on their land, they themselves care for it best.” He calls for a “preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters.” Then why, pray tell, is he so hell-bent on canonizing Junipero Serra and crucifying the natives of California still another time? Why doesn’t he sit down with the American Indians whom he calls one’s “principal dialogue partners” and learn the real history of the California missions and the price the Native Americans are paying to this day in terms of soul wounds, depression, alcoholism, and addictions for the sins of the fathers foisted upon them 200 years ago by Serra and his brother friars?
And why doesn’t Pope Francis apologize once and for all for the “Discovery Doctrine” papal bulls of the fifteenth-century popes who laid the legal groundwork for the slavery and mission attacks on the indigenous peoples of Africa and the Americas? In the “Requerimiento” document of 1513, derived from those papal bulls and read to indigenous people under the Spanish Empire and in the California missions (but in Spanish which they did not understand), all are instructed that the pope is appointed by God to “govern the world” and that Saint Peter was acknowledged in his time as “Lord and King, and the superior of the universe” who was appointed to be “in charge of the human race” and that such recognition “will continue until the end of the world.” Imperial theology – isn’t such nonsense ready for the scrap heap?
Elias Castillo offers us a different reading of history and Spanish imperialism and the religious sins that accompanied it. Sins of the church that haunt the souls of native peoples to this day – and sins that ought to cry out to us all for healing. How can the healing happen without the truth? How can anyone even think of canonizing Serra after these revelations?

Matthew Fox is a theologian and Episcopal priest who was a Dominican friar for 34 years. He was expelled from the order by Cardinal Ratzinger for, among other things, “working too closely with Native Americans” and supporting women’s, gay, and indigenous rights. His 32 books have been translated into 58 languages and include Letters to Pope Francis, Original Blessing, A Spirituality Named Compassion, The Reinvention of Work, The Pope’s War and most recently Meister Eckhart: A Mystic-Warrior For Our Time. Connect with him at his website, Facebook page, and Twitter feed.