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Mission Creep

Mission Santa Barbara

California has given birth to many beautiful myths. Unfortunately, they frequently have little bearing on the actual history of the Golden State. For instance, the twenty-one Franciscan missions founded by Father Junipero Serra—who has been canonized a saint by Pope Francis in 2015—are among the most peaceful places I have ever visited. Yet they were little more than rural concentration camps in which thousands of Californian Indians found their way to early graves.

If you look at a map of the mission location, you will find that they are all strung out like so many pearls along the Camino Réal closely following the coastline. Indians who dwelt close to the coast were rounded up and assigned as peons to the various missions, where they were worked to death. During the heyday of the missions from 1769 to 1834, some 53,600 adult Indians were baptized, and 37,000 were buried.

The Graveyard of the Santa Barbara Mission

Visiting the Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez missions, I was stunned to find that the postage-stamp-sized cemeteries adjoining the missions held 3,936 and 1,227 bodies respectively. Why is this? The Indians attached to the missions (they were not allowed to leave) were essentially overworked and underfed. When they lived in the missions, the Indians lived in permanent adobe structures that were infested with fleas. Young Indian maidens were treated as nuns and confined to barracks in which the rooms were 50 feet long by 21 feet wide with bunks ranged around the walls. A single high window provided the only ventilation, while the center of the room was an improvised sewer or latrine.

According to Carey McWilliams in Southern California Country: An Island on the Land:

To understand what conversion meant to the Indian, it should be remembered that the process of Missionization necessitated a sudden transition from the settled, customary existence of the Indian in a small rancheria or village to the almost urban conditions that prevailed in the larger Mission establishments. The change … must have come as a deep mental shock to the Indian.

As much as I respect much of Catholic teaching from my long education in religious elementary and high schools, I cannot condone many practices of the past, such as the Inquisition and the treatment of native peoples in the missions.

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