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

Military Movements

Governor Neve had received his promotion to a lieutenant colonelcy. This caused him to abandon his former intention of resigning from the service and of returning to his family in Seville. He began, instead, preparation for the occupation and settlement of the Santa Barbara channel region, which included the establishment of a presidio  and the missions so long desired by Junipero. The soldiers destined to garrison the fourth presidio  of Alta California and to act as guards for the new missions were to be recruited in Sinaloa and Sonora. From these points settlers were also to be obtained for a new pueblo to be situated on the Rio Porciuncula, four leagues from the San Gabriel mission. The pueblo was to be called Nuestra Senora de los Angeles.

This recruiting duty fell to Lieutenant Colonel Rivera, who was ordered to leave Loreto in Baja California, cross the gulf to Sonora and gather recruits and settlers. Rivera's instructions were explicit. He was to enlist married men only; in addition, he was cautioned to take those only who were known to have good moral characters, and who were physically healthy and robust. They were to bind themselves to ten years of service. Both soldiers and settlers must be accompanied by their families, and "female relatives, of the settlers, if unmarried should be encouraged to accompany the families with a view to marriage with bachelor soldiers already in California." Each settler was to receive ten dollars a month, regular rations for three years, and an advance of clothing, live stock, seed and implements; these last were to be paid for later from the surplus products of the land.

Apparently these offers were not sufficiently seductive to induce more than twelve men to journey to Alta California, where, with their families, they were to form the population of El Pueblo de la Reina de los Angeles—that is, of Los Angeles. The requisite number of soldiers was more easily recruited. The expedition left in two detachments. The settlers, including among their number a sorry collection of Spaniards who had married mulattos, accompanied by a few soldiers, crossed the gulf to Baja California, and from there traveled overland to San Gabriel. The second division, commanded by Rivera and consisting of forty-two soldiers with their families, marched over the route opened by Colonel Anza in 1774. They reached the recently founded pueblo missions on the Colorado River late in June.

These pueblo missions Palou refers to laconically as un nuevo modo de conquistar. (A new method of conquest.) They were made by combining in one settlement a few of the attributes of presidio, mission, and pueblo. The friars had no part in the temporal management of these new establishments; they were relieved of every care beyond the strict confines of their spiritual duties. They acted as pastors to the soldiers and settlers, and as missionaries to the Indians. The converts were not required to live in a regular mission community, but were permitted to hold land and reside in the settlement with the Spaniards. To hazard this experiment among the fierce and warlike Yumas, was, as one historian declares "a criminally stupid blunder." A criminally stupid blunder it, was, indeed, particularly when viewed in the light of the facts presented to the government by Colonel Anza and Padre Garth, concerning the character of the Colorado River Indians. Palou says that when

. . . .Captain Rivera arrived with all his Expedition at the Colorado River where he found the two Missions which have been described, he saw that the greater part of the horses and mules were sick or exhausted and fearing that they would die on the long stretch of eighty leagues which had to be crossed before reaching San Gabriel, he determined to rest on the banks of the Colorado until they had recuperated. He sent the main body of the expedition on under the escort of an Alferez and nine veteran soldiers from one of the Sonora presidios, while he himself remained with a Sergeant and six men who had been sent from the presidio  of Monterey by the senor Governor to meet him. [Palou, Vida, p. 241]

Rivera made his camp on the eastern bank of the river, opposite the pueblo mission La Purisima Concepcion, which occupied the same site as the present Fort Yuma. He paid little heed to the warnings of Padre Garces that the Yumas were in a dangerous mood, that Palma, the former friend of the Spaniards was now their avowed and bitter enemy, and that in fact, a terrific storm was brewing which soon would burst upon them. In his disregard of these warnings, Rivera only followed the example of the commandant and every soldier and settler in the pueblo. Garces, and his brother friars had for many days vainly endeavored to rouse the Spaniards to an appreciation of their danger. Failing in this, they devoted all their time, not to the conversion of the few Indians who still remained friendly, but to "re-awaken interest in religious exercises and thus to prepare the souls of the unsuspecting men, women and children for death."

Rivera's presence had the effect of hastening the gathering tempest. The sullen and angry temper of the Yumas grew daily more pronounced when it became known that Rivera had no presents to give them and that his large herd of horses and mules had trampled down and destroyed their mesquite plants.

Three weeks after his arrival the storm broke with terrible fury. The pueblo missions, Concepcion and San Pablo (the latter situated some ten miles down the river), were simultaneously attacked. So indifferent had the Spaniards shown themselves to the morose temper of the savages, that the soldiers went abroad unarmed and, when working in the neighboring fields, neglected the ordinary precaution of leaving a guard in the pueblo. These conditions prevailed that July morning in 1781 when the Yumas swooped down upon the unprotected settlements, captured the women and children, massacred the men, and burnt the houses. The intrepid missionary explorer, Padre Francisco Garces, did not escape the fate of his compatriots, though valiant efforts were made by some of his Indian friends, to save him and his brother friars.

Rivera, in his camp across the river, realized too late his precarious position and too late attempted to take precautions to insure the safety of his men and himself. Entrenchments were hurriedly thrown up, but the surging, shrieking savages swarmed past them and entered the camp. The little handful of men fought desperately for their lives; but overpowered by the red-skinned demons, they fell gallantly resisting to the last. Rivera's uniform was stripped off of his body by a Yuma chieftain, who was seen later proudly arrayed in the dead officer's clothes.

So died Captain Fernando Javier de Rivera y Moncada. He was not a man of brilliant intellect, or great force of character, and possessed an exaggerated sense of his own dignity and importance, but he was an honest, kind-hearted Spanish gentleman, reserved in manner, generally liked by the padres and a decided favorite with the soldiers. His memory was long honored in San Diego, where funeral masses were said on the anniversary of his death.

The news of the revolt came like a thunderbolt from a clear sky upon the company at San Gabriel. In particular was Governor Neve deeply affected. The establishments on the Colorado, there is every reason to believe, were founded in accordance with his plans, approved and adopted by his friend de Croix.

The disaster caused Governor Neve to suspend further operations in California. He kept the troops massed and in readiness at San Gabriel in case the Yumas, hot with fight and victory, should in their arrogance swarm over the border and incite the Californians to a general uprising. These pre-cautions did not, however, interfere with the founding of the new pueblo, Nuestra Senora de los Angeles. The site selected was but a short distance from the. mission. In the event of an alarm the soldiers would be close at hand to afford protection to the settlers. The winter passed peacefully enough and without serious indications of a native revolt, although the Indians in the neighborhood of San Juan Capistrano and those below San Diego showed a smoldering hostility towards Spanish supremacy that caused for a time a little uneasiness. All winter the soldiers were encamped at San Gabriel. They lived in an enforced idleness, conducive neither to patience nor to discipline. With the coming of the spring, when the trees in the mission orchards were in bloom, the camp took on a sudden appearance of activity, indicative of departure.

Governor Neve had decided that it was no longer necessary or expedient to further postpone the occupation of the Santa Barbara channel region. He wrote to Junipero, requesting him to send two friars, one to administer the mission San Buenaventura and one for Santa Barbara. Junipero was at his own mission, San Carlos, eagerly awaiting Neve's decisions. The six friars promised from Mexico had not arrived. They were expected on the next transport. In the meanwhile Junipero had but two supernumerary priests in all California. One of these was Padre Cambon, who had recently returned from the Philippines and was recuperating in San Diego from an illness; the second supernumerary was at San Carlos, where he was needed to supply the president's place when the duties of the latter took him abroad. Junipero had long been too anxious to establish these missions in the populous channel country to permit any postponement because of an insufficient number of friars. He determined to take charge of the Santa Barbara mission and presidio  himself, until the arrival of the transport, which would bring six missionaries. He appointed Padre Cambon for the San Buenaventura establishment, and started south immediately, stopping at the intervening missions to confirm some neophytes he had baptized on a previous visit. Late in the evening of a day in March he arrived in the little pueblo, Los Angeles. Here he spent the night. At an early hour the next morning he was up, hastening towards San Gabriel. In his eagerness to arrive, and probably in his weariness, the four leagues separating the mission from the new pueblo appeared to him leagues of exceptional length. He limped along with all the haste his years and feeble strength permitted. But once he arrived, the indefatigable old friar forgot his fatigue.

It was the hour of mass; he himself officiated and delivered a fervorosca platica  (fervent discourse) as though he had not just completed a difficult cult foot journey of many wearying leagues. That evening Governor Neve called upon him. They did not discuss their plans, however, until the following day. The mission of San Buenaventura was to be founded first, then the presidio  and mission of Santa Barbara. The Governor was careful not to disclose to Junipero that the new missions were to exist under a system similar to the one which had been tried with such fearful consequences on the Colorado. Some of the more dangerous features of the experiment were to be omitted, but the departure from the usual mission system was pronounced, and was intended to pre-pare the way for a complete removal of the temporalities from the missionaries. So Junipero's joy remained for the present unclouded.

[Illustration] from Junipero Serra by A. H. Fitch


Governor Neve, with his personal escort of ten soldiers, headed the expedition. It consisted of seventy soldiers with their officers, including our old friend Lieutenant Ortega, who had been summoned from San Diego to take command of the more important post about to be established at Santa Barbara. Following the soldiers came their wives and families and a certain number of neophytes. The muleteers in charge of the baggage and provisions, together with the servants, brought up the rear. The padres, in this large assemblage, were few in number—only Fray Junipero and Fray Pedro Benito Cambon. The order to start was given. As the company set out with stout hearts upon their journey, many a Godspeed was sent after them by those remaining in the mission. For more than seven months the soldiers with their families had converted San Gabriel into a fair-sized, and probably lively, Spanish settlement.

Long after the expedition had made camp that night, a courier, breathless with fast riding, appeared before the governor's tent. He had been sent in hot haste from San Gabriel to overtake the travelers and deliver a message from Don Pedro Fages, who had unexpectedly arrived at the mission. Of Fages' career from the time of his removal from the office of military commandant of California until the present we know little. He now reappears upon the scene as a lieutenant colonel, and under orders from the Caballero de Croix to report to Governor Neve in California for the purpose of consulting with him regarding certain punitive measures contemplated against the Colorado Indians.

On receipt of the message, Neve turned his command over to Ortega and retraced his steps that same night to San Gabriel. The expedition continued its journey without him. Three days later the company arrived at a place called by Portola in 1769—Assumpta. Years ago it had been selected as an advantageous site for the mission San Buenaventura. It was a singularly beautiful spot, not far from the sea beach at the southeastern extremity of the channel. Junipero performed the usual religious ceremonies, then the work of building was at once begun.

Neve rejoined the expedition after an absence of two weeks. He found that the energetic president had the mission farm laid out, the digging of ditches for irrigating purposes well under way, and preparations generally established for a flourishing agricultural community. To make the most of time, to grasp and hold each moment lest it slip swiftly by him and so escape unprofitably from out his life, was, by the very constitution of his nature, characteristic of Junipero. It was this which caused him to push forward with unbounded energy, the establishment of San Buenaventura in all its various details, without the least suspicion that Neve had contemplated for the new missions a system in which missionary management of temporalities, laying out of farms, planting, sowing, and reaping under the customary mission supervision, were to have no part.

Whether Neve's recent conference with Fages on the disasters of the pueblo missions rendered him less keen to institute a change in California, or whether he preferred that Junipero should receive the first notification of this change from Mexico, it is certain that he said not a word to alter the conditions already existing at San Buenaventura.

This was the last mission founded by Junipero. With Neve's arrival preparations were at once made to proceed with the other establishments. A guard of fourteen soldiers were left with Padre Cambon. This was the largest number ever assigned to one mission. The precaution was considered necessary in a region where the natives numbered over ten thousand crowded together in a comparatively limited area.

Once again was heard the bustle incident to departure and the breaking up of camp. The women gathered their few household utensils together. The men hurried to and fro, busy with the loading of pack mules, and the adjustments of their arms and accoutrements, while the officers discussed with one another the most feasible route over which to travel. The presence of women in the expedition appears to have made slight, if any, difference in the number of leagues compassed during the day's journey.

On a beautiful little grass-covered plain, sloping abruptly down to the sea the travelers halted. Immediately behind this plain rose a rugged range of mountains.

The physical conditions of Santa-Barbara are almost perfect. The climate, while it tends to reposefulness, is not enervating. The sparkling atmosphere, the clear, unflecked sky, the blaze of light on sunny days—conditions which when continuous first excite, then weary, and gradually predispose the healthy man to a state of inactivity which has nothing in common with a state of serenity—are not repeated here day by day with unvarying regularity. Frequently soft mists sweep in from the sea, veiling the splendor of the sun, and imparting a refreshing moisture to the air. The traveler feels pleasantly braced, predisposed to contentment, and to forget any trials which may have beset him.

On a slight eminence, about a mile from shore, a site was selected for the Santa Barbara presidio. 1t was not far from a large native town called Yanonalit, after a powerful chieftain who ruled over more than thirteen rancherias. Neve took care to conciliate the great Yanonalit, hoping through his influence to gain the good will of the natives. He was successful to the extent of inducing the savages to assist in felling timber for the presidio  buildings. For this work they were paid by the Spaniards in food and clothing.

Junipero had arranged to remain in Santa Barbara pending the arrival of the friars from Mexico. But his plans were altered when he learned from Neve that the Santa Barbara mission could not be founded until the Santa Barbara presidio  was completed. As this implied a long delay, the president decided to return to Carmel in the interim and continue his mission duties there.

He accordingly sent for one of the friars administering San Juan Capistrano to look after the spiritual welfare of the soldiers, many of whom he had recently confirmed, and again took up his journey. He was happy in having founded San Buenaventura and in the prospect of adding soon another mission to his list. As he traveled northward, forgetful of his years and growing feebleness, he may have dwelt with a pleasant inward satisfaction on the work he had accomplished in this beautiful land. In their order from south to north, the missions he had founded were San Diego, San Juan Capistrano, San Gabriel, San Buenaventura, San Luis Obispo, San Antonio de Padua, San Carlos, Santa Clara, San Francisco. Four thousand neophytes were living in these establishments. Everywhere the farms were prospering. There were rich fields of wheat, maize, and barley, while fruit and vegetables were raised in abundance. Mission herds of horses, mules, and horned cattle had multiplied to 4,900 head. Of sheep, goats, and swine there were 7,000 head. New churches had been erected, buildings had been improved, fences and corrals made, irrigating works introduced. From a wilderness inhabited only by savages wellnigh the lowest in the scale of humanity, Fray Junipero had converted California into a flourishing Spanish province, where a traveler could start from San Diego on horseback, go north to San Francisco, and be assured a large part of the way of a good night's lodging with Spanish fare and hospitality, and a fresh horse with which to continue his journey.