Tag Archives: california

“Junipero Serra” by Steven W. Hackel


Junipero Serra, a native Mallorcan, had a comfortable existence as a religious teacher and scholar at the Llullian University in Palma. In his mid-thirties, around the mid-1700’s, he felt the call and volunteered for service in New Spain. He spent the rest of his life in Mexico, and later what would become California. Just from that, you know we’re talking about someone with courage, faith, and determination. An adventurer into the unknown.

One thing that Serra and other Franciscans reveled in was personal physical suffering, since it helped them become one with Christ. Self-flagellation, tight bands embedded with spikes around arms and legs, hitting one’s chest with a rock, and wearing shirts made from hair (because they were itchy, I guess?) were all part of the game. Serra also suffered a leg injury early in his time in Mexico for which he refused treatment — the pain and inconvenience it caused him throughout the remainder of his life were great pluses in his mind.

Some Franciscans at the time believed the prophecies of a Spanish nun who “bilocated” periodically to California and proclaimed that the natives would fall to their knees and become converted merely upon seeing a Franciscan. Turns out this was not the case, but it was a worthy carrot for Serra and others to pursue.

As missions were established (starting with San Diego in 1769, shortly followed by Serra’s HQ of San Carlos, near Monterrey the following year), Serra struggled more and more with the local Spanish authorities for control of the converts and the mission economy. Some in the government wanted the missionaries to solely concern themselves with preparing Sunday services, but Franciscans saw their role as much more overarching and paternalistic than that.

The modus operandi seemed to be to entice the natives with free food and gifts, teaching and baptizing when they could. Once a convert, each Indian was expected to take up Spanish-style agriculture and live at the mission, and follow all Catholic strictures. Whipping was the standard penalty for desertion or disobedience.  According to Hackel, corporal punishment, common in Europe, was unknown among the California tribes.  Some modern-day critics have called the arrangements more concentration camp than religious center, but ya always gotta judge to the local/temporal standards…

One thing that dovetailed into recent reading of 1491 was the remark that the natives were punished for burning the landscape.  As we know from that other book however, this was a key component of native subsistence agriculture, which they were now punished for practicing.

In Serra’s time, native convert populations at missions slowly grew. Success (a utopia of Catholic natives?) seemed to be at hand … but shortly after Serra’s death, the missions were repeatedly struck by disease. California’s native population went from about 300,000 in 1769 to 50,000 during the Gold Rush, less than 100 years later.


“California Saints” by Richard O. Cowan and William E. Homer

I thought I should learn some more about my newly adopted state.

Mormons were key players in the early history of California (the history of U.S. California, that is), primarily via the Mormon Battalion and the immigrants from the ship Brooklyn.  During the 1850’s however, official activities all but ceased until the twentieth century.  The lack of emphasis on California settlement was partly due to the Gold Rush.  There was a lot of interest in California and thousands were flocking to the state; the Mormons could never be a majority and control their own destiny like they could in Utah.  Another reason was the fallout due to polygamy, announced in 1852, and the subsequent Utah War – the Church had more pressing concerns at the time than trying to encourage California growth.  Indeed, the official policy everywhere, up until around the turn of the century, was that of gathering – missionaries went out into the world, but always encouraged their converts to emigrate to Utah.

With all that in mind, it is no wonder that Brigham Young didn’t think too highly of California.  (Although, interestingly, he did call several on “gold missions” early in the Gold Rush to get money for the struggling Church.)  When Sam Brannan excitedly told Brigham Young about the wonders of California in 1847, Brigham said, “Let us go to California, and we cannot stay there over five years; but let us stay in the mountains, and we can raise our potatoes and eat them; and I calculate to stay here.”  Even though the climate and terrain was tougher, there wasn’t competition in Utah from other immigrants.  The Church had found its place of refuge.  I get the impression that Brannan probably never understood why Brigham wanted to stay in Utah.  But then again Brannan seems to have had other motives at heart than furthering the success of the Church.  He’s an interesting character.

Some more from Brigham: “Our feelings are in favor of that Policy <encouraging settlement in “Western California” (vs “Eastern California” = Utah) >unless, all the offscouring of Hell has been let loose upon that dejected land, in which case we would advise you to gather up all that is worth saving and come hither with all speed.” (after beginning of Gold Rush and the unsavory characters it drew to California)

“…hell reigns there, and that it is just as much as any ‘Mormon’ can do to live there, and that it is about time for him and every true Saint to leave that land.” (1857)

I haven’t written much yet about the twentieth century history that this book covers…  “The church in California grew and grew.”  There we go.  Really, there is just too much going on to coherently follow anything in the ~100 pages of this book devoted to the time period.  Some interesting snippets, but I didn’t get any impressions beyond growth.

“The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck

Here’s a coincidence for you – I just finished reading The Grapes of Wrath a few days ago, and then today on NPR I heard that it was published 70 years ago today!  Surprisingly, I never had to read this in high school — this was my first time reading the book.  And I really enjoyed it!  The story of the Joad family is tragic, but they somehow always maintain hope.

The book in a nutshell: it’s the Depression, and the Joads (along with many other farmers) are forced off their land in Oklahoma by the banks.  Small family farms just can’t turn a profit anymore – they are bought up and plowed by tractor in what I suppose is the beginning of industrialized agriculture.  The farmers hear about the promised land of California – where sun-drenched oranges are just waiting to be picked off the trees by anyone who wants one.  The Joads buy a run-down jalopy, load up their stuff and the family, and set out on Route 66.  Grandpa and Grandma die along the way – symbolic of moving from old to the new?  (Similarly, as the Joads look down on California’s Central Valley for the first time, Tom Joad says that the ones who are really seeing it are Ruthie and Winfield – the two youngest Joads.)

When they finally arrive, there are definitely oranges (and a lot of other agricultural wonders) ripe on the trees, but figuratively there is a man with a shotgun in the orchard who will shoot anyone who picks one for himself.  There are thousands of “Okies” and not enough work to go around.  The big land owners have in effect tricked people into coming to California with their stories and flyers (“Why would they print up flyers about there being jobs if they didn’t have jobs?  Those flyers is expensive!”) and now that they have a large, desperate labor pool they can save big bucks on labor costs.  The Joads travel around from job to job, eating and living from day to day.

The main theme that keeps creeping up is capitalism vs. communism/socialism.  The banks forcing Oklahoma farmers off their land and the landowners in California paying pitiful wages do what they do because they can, and because if they didn’t they would go out of business.  The farmers/workers on the other hand, realize that if they united against the bosses they would have the real power, but when they try to strike they are arrested and repressed.

This book made me glad for the time I live in today – not-so-pure capitalism with elements of social programs and the right to unionize.  Also, for all the talk of the modern financial crisis…we ain’t seen nothing compared to the trials of the Joads.