Junipero Serra—the Man and his Work - A. H. Fitch

Experiences With the Indians

If Portola had felt exasperated at Junipero's obstinacy because of a natural apprehension of a catastrophe overtaking the priest and thereby retarding the expedition, he had too generous a disposition not to be pleased at his quick recovery.

But though everyone was now in readiness for an early start, the order to set forth was not given.

"The morning dawned raining and with the horizon very loaded, reason for which the march was deferred till the next day," which was Sunday. Junipero celebrated mass, then he made

. . . a brief exhortation concerning the good conduct we ought all to observe on a road whose principal end was the greater honor and glory of God. And in the name of God, Triune and One, our march was ordered and begun. We sallied from the place headed toward the west, but after a little stretch the turn of the high mountain which we had on our right forced us to the north. [Serra's Diary]

They traveled over toilsome, sandy dry ravines, then took to the sierra, in the direction of Contra Costa, climbing mountains, difficult of ascent and more difficult of descent, seeking at night the exiguous comforts of their hastily constructed camps. "All these nights," writes Junipero, "a lion has been roaring at us from round about. God deliver us from him as he has done thus far."

They halted wherever water could be found for beast and man, though such places were only too frequently mud-holes and the supply of water obtained but scant. When they came upon green grass, a few palms, or some ragged cottonwoods, Junipero comments upon the fact with a keen pleasure. He describes the first tree they saw in this bare, brown land.

It was very tall and leafy, a thing we had not seen till now outside the missions. And coming up to it, I saw it was an alamo [cottonwood] which gave me still greater cause to admire it; and we called the place Alamo Solo [Lone Cottonwood].[Serra's Diary]

Hereafter the country became "more smiling and gladsome with trees tall and tufted—and various little flowers, and in fine appeared a new country." They saw no Indians the first part of their journey, though they frequently passed small rancherias, which apparently had been hastily abandoned at the approach of the Spaniards. On one occasion, on a distant hillock, two savages were descried. Neophytes were promptly dispatched to invite them to the camp, but they fled precipitately. Junipero gives a detailed and, under the circumstances, amusing account of how they finally succeeded in capturing a "Gentile" for the purpose of assuring him of their friendship.

Two Gentiles were again visible on the same height, and our Indians—shrewder than yesterday—went to catch them with caution that they should not escape.; them. And although one fled from between their hands they caught the other. They tied him, and it was all necessary, for even bound he defended himself that they should not bring him and flung himself upon the ground with such violence that he scraped and bruised his thighs and knees. But at last they brought him. They set him before me.

Then the good padre tells us that he gently pushed the struggling Gentile upon his knees and, resting his two hands upon the man's head, proceeded to recite the gospel of St. John over him. The poor fellow probably regarded this procedure as some sort of evil incantation, for it had the effect of scaring him wellnigh out of his wits. After making the sign of the cross over him, Junipero untied him, still "most frightened and disturbed."

He describes the appearance of the savage in a few graphic words:

He went naked like all, with his bow and arrows, which were returned to him; his disheveled hair long and bound with a little cord of blue wool, very well made, the which we could not discover where he had got it. . . . He was taken to the tent of the senor governor; they tried to console him, assuring him no harm could be done him. He was a robust young person seemingly about twenty years. Asking him what his name was, he answered Axajui. These senores wished to know what the word meant in his language, but this was too much to ask this poor folk. We passed our Axajui some figs, meat and tortillas for him to eat. He ate some, but little, always with perturbation.[Serra's Diary]

It may have been his fear of the Spaniards, or their kind treatment of him, or both, which induced the young savage to disclose, before leaving, a plot formed by the captain of his rancheria  and four other captains with their rancherias, to hide behind some cliffs and when the Spaniards took up their march again "to sally forth and kill the Padre and his Retinue." Junipero gave scant attention to the tale. Axajui was dismissed and told to assure his people of the goodwill of the Spaniards towards them. The next morning they set out on their march again.. The road was the best they had yet followed; it stretched over pleasant, gently sloping hills, "all smiling," chronicles Junipero, "with many flowers of various hues."

Nothing worthy of note occurred during the march. Occasionally on a distant ridge, a dusky form would show itself, then suddenly disappear again. Thus far they had followed the same route taken by the Jesuit father, Linck, when he explored the country in 1766, whose journal Junipero had with him. Now however they took a northeasterly course instead of a northerly one, as Linck had done and which would have led them in the direction of the Colorado River, instead of the port of Monterey. Before the Spaniards set out that morning, four savages were discovered near the camp. They were promptly captured by the enterprising neophytes, although vigorously protesting and threatening instant vengeance if not released. It happened to be the hour of mass, a ceremony which was always held before the day's march was begun. The captives were made to sit in a ring formed by the soldiers. By this simple expedient the indignant savages were forced to attend the religious services of their pious captors, whether they would or no. After mass they were given to eat and set free. They availed themselves of their liberty to join a band of Indians numbering upwards of forty, which had appeared. They all began shouting vociferously and making demonstrations of great anger. Through an interpreter the Spaniards learned that the savages were commanding them to turn back, and not to pass further into their country.

Long and most troublesome time was spent in getting rid of them in a good way but all fruitlessly and not without fear that they would break out. By order of the Governor four soldiers, set on horses, put themselves in a row, forcing them to retire. They resisted even this, and one of the soldiers firing a musket shot in the air toward them and after a bit another, they went fleeing, and our men went on loading the beasts to pursue our march.[Serra's Diary]

This little incident delayed their starting so that it was ten before they set out on their day's journey. "The Sun was most painful withal," sighed Junipero. But they had not rid themselves of the savages. Great numbers followed them as they marched through the hills of Contra Costa. This gave the Spaniards no uneasiness as long as the valley was spacious, but when the hills closed in upon them, and they had to pass through the narrows, the soldiers donned their leather jackets, the arrieros  laid hands to their weapons, and all kept a sharp watch for the enemy. Junipero suspected that these Indians were from the Bay of San Quentin, referred to by Admiral Cabrera Bueno in his Speculative and Practical Navigation  as being the most bellicose and daring in the Contra Costa. The next Indians they encountered were of a very different disposition. The Spaniards were seeking a camping place for the night, when a dozen or more savages approached them, "very merry" and with offers to show them a good halting place. Of this visit Junipero writes:

When we arrived, they—as if not to embarrass us during the task of unloading—withdrew to a declivity in front of us, and there stayed without moving. As soon as we were disoccupied, I sent to them by my page and an Indian interpreter their treat of figs and meat, with the assurance that they could come to us securely, and that they should come to salute us all, that we were all their friends. They responded with signs of gratefulness, but that they could not come to see us until the treat they wished to give us should arrive; that they had sent for it to their rancheria, which was near. So it befell that after we had eaten and rested, they came down with their nets of cooked meseal, and with all their arms; and putting the latter on the ground, they began to explain to us the use of them, one by one, in their battles. They played all the roles, as well of him who gave the wound as of him that was wounded, with so much liveliness and grace that we had a good bit of recreation. For so much as they wished to tell us in this matter the interpreters were quite superfluous.

Histrionic art, it would seem, was not entirely unknown to those merry children of the wilderness. While they were enjoying the clever little pantomime, two women suddenly appeared. Until now, the Spaniards had encountered no women among the savages. Their absence had been to Fray Junipero something of a comfort. As the men went naked, the friar feared the women also would go abroad unclothed. The mere thought of this possibility scandalized him to such an extent that he greatly desired putting off the ordeal of meeting them. When therefore the women came modestly covered as to their persons, Junipero's relief was great. He even indulged himself in a sly little fling at feminine volubility.

"They talked," he declared, "as rapidly and efficaciously as this sex knows how and is accustomed to."

One of the women proved to be the girlish wife of the chief of the rancheria. She carried upon her head a portion of the "treat" intended for the Spaniards. This "treat "was a large pancake made of dough. Fray Junipero's mind was not upon food. He rose to welcome the young woman, placing both of his hands upon her head. The immediate result of the good friar's blessing was a sticky mass of soft dough adhering to his fingers. To add to his discomfiture both wife and husband began explaining to him the correct manner of eating this doubtful delicacy. "The older woman also talked, more than all and in yells," said the poor padre, a bit impatiently we suspect. It is trying to be considered merely hungry and greedy when engaged in the wholly meritorious act of blessing an infidel. The following morning when the Spaniards were breaking camp and preparing to leave, the savages announced their intention of accompanying them a certain distance on the way in token of their friendship. They added an exotic touch to the march far from pleasurable. They displayed symptoms of colossal mischievousness insistent to the point of enmity. When the expedition traversed narrow trails bordering steep precipices, the savages gleefully amused themselves sliding down the slopes above in great numbers, hurrahing lustily as they slid, and frightening the animals by their uproar, so that these latter were in imminent danger of falling over the cliffs. To quote from Junipero's journal again:

It was said to them that this was enough already, that we were very content and sure of their fine friendship. . . . . But since from the uproar they did not attend nor understand, we remained in the same fix, and the bad matter progressed because the way grew always worse. The chief of them was called and was charged concerning the matter and tried to compose and gather his people, in which he succeeded only in part. At last the Senor Governor, who had gone forward, turned back and reinforced the request. And seeing that it was not enough he ordered a musket shot into the air in their direction.[Serra's Diary].

They were astounded by the roar and flash of the firearms and fled like hinds. "And the trouble was ended," said Junipero, "although I already felt that with this demonstration we left them some doubt of our love toward them."

The Spaniards now continued their march unimpeded by further annoyances. They kept always in the direction of the coast, hoping with the ascent of every hill to see from its summit the broad Pacific glistening below them. The intolerable fervor of the sun, combined with the difficulty of the road they traversed, caused the daily march to be limited, seldom enduring more than three or four hours and only occasionally lasting five or six. During this journey, Fray Junipero was quick to examine the most advantageous points for future mission and pueblo sites. It was his desire to form a connecting line of missions from Velicata—now called San Fernando—to San Diego, thus materially facilitating intercourse with the proposed new establishments of Alta California, while at the same time providing for the spiritual needs of the hordes of savages populating this barren region. In all probability the energetic friar would have accomplished his plan, had the Franciscans retained the spiritual charge of Baja California.

The Indians still continued to be friendly, merry folk. They had their clown (chahuaco)  to amuse them, and dancing men who went about carrying rattles in their hands and fantastically frolicked for their food. They looked upon the Spaniards with the same degree of half-fearful, wholly gleeful interest that children nowadays accord an exhibition of trained lions. It may be that the constant meeting with these lively Indians caused the neophytes who accompanied the expedition to long also for freedom and jollity. But whatever the cause, they began to desert in ever increasing numbers, greatly to Fray Junipero's distress.

After noon and all having eaten, nine Indians of those who accompanied us deserted us at one blow. When in the middle of the afternoon they were missed, they were hunted for, but not even one track of them could be found, and inquiring of those that have been left to us what could have been the cause of this unlooked for news, as they were given food, were treated well, and always showed themselves content, they answer they do not know. God, our Lord, bless them as well for the well they have served us, as for the lack they will be to us in the future. [Serra's Diary]

But twelve neophytes remained with the expedition. As the journey continued, food became more and more scarce. To remedy this scarcity hunters were dispatched to provide the hungry travelers with some of the deer and antelope which were roaming the neighboring hills. Junipero has a good-natured laugh at the marksmanship displayed.

Our hunters have been unfortunate because all of those animals have mocked at their shots, and have remained walking about, and of fresh meat we have had but the desire.

The road now became more difficult. The hills were rough and steep to climb, the descents long and wearisome. "It seemed more like sliding than walking," sighs the friar, "and all the earth so movable that it seemed dust, in which the beasts stuck." And again he writes:

Now hills, slopes and barrancas  offered, and at the end of five hours we saw that we had to descend to a depth so great and precipitous that it gave one the horrors to look at it. Every one dismounted, and, half walking and half dragging, falling and getting up, we descended to the valley.

Water also became more scarce, more difficult to find. Frequently they had only a small quantity which they carried in bags of skin from preceding places. The faithful sergeant, Ortega, went two or three days' journey in advance, searching for water. Often after laboriously digging for the precious fluid, it was found brackish, tepid, or insufficient to supply the needs of either man or beast. The neophytes continued to desert, Junipero writes sorrowfully:

Thus little by little we go losing our companions, more necessary to us than some think, as only he who sees it from near could form a worthy conception of how they work, ill-fed and without salary.

In the midst of these troubles the travelers were cheered by a glimpse of the "sea of the Contra-costa," from the eminence of a high hill. Also, the discovery of a rich silver mine by one of the muleteers lent a pleasurable excitement to their toilsome journey. Fray Junipero's comment on this discovery is laconic enough. "Much good may it do them," he said with true Franciscan indifference to riches.

In strong contrast to this lack of interest, he displays a keen appreciation of the many natural beauties they now encountered on their journey. As they drew nearer the more fertile country of Alta California, he notes the many beautiful flowers.

And that there should be nothing lacking in this line [he says with a simple, charming delight] today, on arriving at the camping place we have met the queen of them all, which is the Rose of Castile. When I write this I have before me a branch of rose bush with three roses opened, others in bud, and more than six unpetaled. Blessed be He who created them.

He gives the place the poetical name of the "Arroyo of the Roses," and adds, "It is in so many places rank with Rosebushes full of flowers that well could an apothecary extract his profit."

The travelers resumed their laborious march over steep hills, through deep ravines, till one evening, worn and covered with the fine dust of the country, they descended into a well-watered plain, which spread out before them like a shining garden of Eden. Here they gladly rested for a day, that the animals might graze luxuriously on the green grass and have water sufficient to quench their thirst. "The men," said Junipero, "also thought to have their refreshment with fishing and hunting." Again they proved themselves indifferent sportsmen, for the friar assures us that" the fishers caught never a fish nor the hunters hit even one sure shot at the jack rabbit and cotton tails that were crossing the plain."

Portola and Junipero in the meantime had rather the best of it for they remained quietly in camp and were refreshed with "chia-water" which the natives brought them, "giving us with joviality, great pleasure and consolation such as we had not had till here."

After mass the next day a little market scene was enacted:

The soldiers and Gentiles were trading little white handkerchiefs, which they greatly crave, for various strings of fresh fish, in which they well showed themselves not to be a bit fools, because if the handkerchief was small, also the fish were less that they gave for it, without haggling or disputes doing any good.

Junipero describes these savages as having "beautiful figures."

The women go very honestly covered, but the men naked like the others in totum. They wear their quivers over the shoulder. As they are usually described they wear a kind of crown of Beaver Skin or of other fine fur on their head. They wear the hair cut, in a form of perruque and plastered with white clay with some cleanliness. May God give them that of the soul Amen.

A little later on the journey, after a two days' march we have a picture of the friar, seated on the ground, surrounded by a company of men, women, and children, teaching them to say "Jesus Maria" and holding the while, carefully, in his arms a little naked, nursing babe, which one of the women had thrust upon him. "I give them what I can, I caress them as best I can, and thus we are passing on, as now there is no way of doing better work." Junipero's feeling for the Californian Indians was one of extreme gentleness, kindliness, and sympathy. While other missionary fathers comment on their stupidity, their laziness, their treachery, their inordinate love of amusement, he speaks only of their "affability and joyousness." Of the coast Indians he writes, "All the Gentiles have pleased me, but these in especial have stolen my heart from me." They came near to stealing more than the good friar's heart. These naked children of the wilderness manifested a curious mania for clothing or for "any little trifle that they imagine conduces to their adornment." The Spaniards found themselves in the awkward position of having to exercise extreme vigilance to retain intact the very garments they were wearing. For food they cared but little, "because," declared Junipero, "they are stuffed, and accordingly are fat; and the Senor Governor would like most of them for grenadiers, on account of their lofty stature." They made repeated efforts to take Junipero's habit from him. They caught him by the sleeve and with signs indicated their desire that he remove his priestly frock and bestow it upon them. "If I had consented to all who proposed this to me," he said with quiet amusement, "there would be, quite a big enough community of gentile friars."

But the characters of the Indians changed, as the expedition drew nearer Alta California. They now combined a marked maliciousness with their many demonstrations. The Spaniards soon realized that these savages were neither so friendly or trustworthy as those they had previously encountered. They were within a few days' travel of San Diego. The march was often over a succession of difficult barrancas, with banks all soft and slippery and prickly pear abounding everywhere. Once the day's journey lasted more than six hours of such toilsome marching that Junipero declared it was for him "the most molestful day's journey that we have had." Besides the fatigue, the travelers had to endure the vexation of being followed by armed bands of Indians, who amused themselves darting with incredible swiftness in and out between the mules, the soldiers and the muleteers, impeding the march.

To all and repeated remonstrances the savages responded with derisive laughter and increased efforts to annoy. Sometimes they would withdraw, only to suddenly reappear and swoop down upon the little cavalcade with roars of laughter. They did not desist from this amusement until they themselves grew tired. When night fell camp was made in a valley on the banks of a little stream which tumbled joyously into the foam-flecked sea. But even here the weary Spaniards were not allowed to remain in unvexed tranquility. Hordes of men, women, and children surrounded them. The behavior of the savages resembled a conclave of jabbering, grinning monkeys. They imitated their unwilling hosts in every minute action; they pressed themselves close against them, the better to abstract bits of coveted clothing. The patience displayed by this little band of Spaniards is worthy of comment. They did not even resort to that effectual styptic to Indian intrusion, the firing in the air of musketry. The management of this second land expedition by Governor Portola bespeaks him a high-minded, large-hearted man, possessing a notable ascendency over the rough, reckless soldiers under him It was this which enabled him to march successfully through a long stretch of country densely populated with savages without an incident occurring derogatory to the name of Christianity.

Portola himself did not escape the importunities of the savages. They evinced an ardent desire for his leather jacket, his waistcoat, breeches, in fact, for every garment he wore. From Junipero they begged his habit and bothered him continually to give them his spectacles. The friar good-naturedly, but unwisely, took off his glasses to permit one of his tormentors to examine them. He writes:

God knows what it cost me to recover them again, because he fled with them. At last after a thousand difficulties I recovered them after they had been in the hands of the women who hankered after them.

Before the Spaniards left this camping place they were cheered by unexpected tidings from their countrymen in the port of San Diego:

Two Gentiles were seen coming anew in the distance, and one of them had on a blue cotton, as it was a new thing until here, because we had not seen even a thread of clothing, we waited his arrival with anxiety, as by the sign we all guessed he was the bearer of good tidings. So it was, because they told us that they came from San Diego, where that clothing had been given them, and that although they had spent two days on the road, it was because they had been detained by fishing. They gave us news of everything, although much of that which they told us seemed to us incredible, such as that there were two boats there and so many padres. And that which pleased us most was their saying that they had met the sergeant with his Companion on the road, who, as I have said, went on ahead exploring sites and watering places for the regulations of the Day's Journeys, and that since yesterday he would already be in San Diego.

This proved to be all true, for the next day Ortega appeared and with him were ten soldiers of the first land division. They had been sent by Captain Rivera y Moncada to escort Governor Portola and his expedition to San Diego. The new-comers were hailed with joy; their compatriots crowded about them, listening eagerly to the budget of news they had to tell.

Portola had halted one day in camp to refresh the beasts. He now determined to push on in; advance with his servant and eight soldiers. The remainder of the company were ordered to follow as expeditiously as the weary pack animals would enable them. Fray Junipero, if we read aright between the lines of his journal, was near the point of exhaustion during the last two days of this journey. Fearfully, painfully he worked his way over steep eminences and rough passes. There were many barrancas to cross which appeared to him more difficult and dangerous than any they had hitherto encountered.

Although I passed all of them praying and trying to do acts of conformity, my heart came to be compressed much, seeing danger in each one, and that when coming out of one, it was to cross soon without rest another. But like all things of this world, they came to an end and after a little more than three hours of walking we arrived at a rancheria very populous with Gentiles.

Here Junipero had hoped to rest, but Ortega, retaining a vivid recollection of his experience in that rancheria, urged the tired friar onward. After an hour's additional marching they halted for the night "by a beautiful brook of good water." On the morning of July t, 1769, a little before noon, Fray Junipero and the second land expedition arrived at San Diego, having traveled forty-six days from Velicata. When from the eminence of a hill they descried the port, the soldiers exultingly announced their arrival with volley after volley of musketry. Far below on the smiling shores of San Diego Bay came an answering salute, while the two ships riding in the harbor thundered forth deep salvos of welcome, which, reverberating against the hills, echoed far out over the tranquil sea. So were finally united in San Diego the four divisions of that great expedition organized by Galvez and Fray Junipero, which was to settle California and add a notable page to the long record Spain has established as one of the greatest colonizing forces in the world.