Debunking the Mission “Myth”

121214_castillo_inpost_01Former San Jose Mercury News reporter and alumnus Elias Castillo’s forthcoming book, A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California’s Indians by the Spanish Missions (Craven Street Books),“shatters the image of California’s historic missions as idyllic sites where Franciscan friars and Indians lived in harmony,” reported the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

According to Castillo’s research of letters, mission documents and scholarly works, during their 65-year existence, California’s missions were death camps where more than 60,000 enslaved Indians died and their culture was decimated.

Castillo, ’63 BA Reporting and Editing, ’97 MS Mass Communications/Environmental Studies, has discussed his findings at talks hosted by the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band of Costanoan/Ohlone Indians and the State Indian Museum in Sacramento and is scheduled to speak at the San Francisco Commonwealth Club on February 9 and the Saratoga Historical Foundation on March 12. 

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Six years after founding the first California Mission in San Diego, Friar Junípero Serra wrote a letter requesting that four Indians who had dared flee from Mission Carmel be severely whipped two or three times.

That little known request was made to Spanish military commander Fernando de Rivera y Moncada on July 31, 1775. In the letter, Serra cavalierly describes the search party that recaptured the runaways as going to the mountains “to search for my lost sheep.” The request that Rivera flog the Indians is a chilling contrast to the image of Serra as a gentle and kind priest who never mistreated the mission Indians. In reality, Serra, a respected theologian who considered Indians subhuman, had hurled a cloak over the entirety of California’s coast enveloping it in a darkness filled with death and suffering. Not only does Serra ask Rivera to lash the Indians but he then also asks if the commander needs shackles to punish them further: “ . . .If your Lordship does not have shackles, with your permission they may be sent from here. . . .”[1]

That single revelatory sentence leaves no doubt of the horrors that befell the Indians that Serra and his fellow Franciscans had enticed into those first missions. What were shackles and chains doing in a mission where friars and Indians supposedly worked together in a loving atmosphere? Additionally, what authorization was given to Serra and the friars to enslave not only the Indians but also their children and their children’s offspring and impose forced labor on them? The Franciscan friar’s mandate from the Spanish king was to educate the Indians then release them. Instead, he took it upon himself to imprison them for life and use the Native Americans as forced labor.

 An excerpt from A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California’s Indians by the Spanish Missions.

[1] Serra, Junípero. Writings of Junípero Serra Vol. IV. Letter to Gov. Fernando Rivera y Moncada, dated July, 31, 1775. Edited by Antoine Tibesar. Baltimore: Furst, 1966. p. 425.


Jody Ulate

Jody Ulate, '05 MA English, is editor of the Washington Square blog and printed alumni magazine.

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