A Migrant’s California Mission

San Gabriel Arcangel, the fourth California mission, photo by Tom McLean

San Gabriel Arcangel, the fourth California mission, photo by Tom McLean

Growing up Catholic, I always struggled with the idea of proselytism. Our neighbours were Jewish and Protestant, but I never worried about their souls (my parents didn’t either, thank God). Twenty years later, teaching in China, I was happy to quietly “bear witness,” to attend religious services and support the small, local community of Chinese Catholics. But I was also relieved that proselytism by foreigners was against the law. Share my beliefs with anyone who was curious? Sure. Try to persuade them that my beliefs were superior to theirs? I couldn’t do it.

Such memories crossed my mind as I wandered through a fine exhibition at the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens, Junipero Serra and the Legacies of the California Missions. Some museum exhibitions introduce us to perspectives we have overlooked or avoided. Others force us to reflect on our own beliefs and ideals. This exhibition does both.

Junipero Serra and the broad outline of his story are familiar in California. Serra (1713-1784) was born and spent the first half of his life on the Spanish island of Mallorca. He joined the Franciscans and eventually became a professor of theology in Palma. In 1749 he left his homeland to establish Catholic missions in New Spain: first in Mexico, later in Alta California. In Mexico, he was extending an already established system of missions; in California, he was working from scratch. Indeed, he and his followers were probably the first undocumented, Spanish-speaking migrants to set up home in the region. From San Diego to San Francisco, Serra established the first nine of an eventual 21 missions. Though a relatively small group, the Franciscans were accompanied by Spanish soldiers; after all, Spain had interests beyond conversion: they wanted to keep Catherine the Great and the Russians from establishing their own Pacific empire. The link between church and state was made palpable in the military forts, or presidios, which were often built within sight of the new missions.

Scaremongers tell us how immigrants transform or even destroy a community’s heritage. In the case of the Franciscans, they might be right. Serra set up missions in places close enough to native communities so that the mission bells would draw notice. Attracted by gifts and unusual sights and sounds, indigenous peoples increasing deserted their villages to join the missions. Once baptised, they were discouraged from ever leaving the mission without permission. The Franciscans introduced work hours; they also introduced punishment by flogging. Worst of all, they unintentionally introduced European diseases that devastated the indigenous population. The missions were abandoned in the 1830s, and Spanish landowners moved in, soon replaced by American landowners when California became a United State in 1850. Gradually Serra was absorbed into the American myth: a sort of Founding Father of the West, spreading the Christian work ethic among the native peoples and Mission Revival architecture among the rest of us. Indigenous Californians remain divided about Serra’s legacy: some remain stalwart Catholics; others stalwart opponents; still others find ways to weave together the varied strands of their heritage.

In previous blogs I’ve described exhibitions on the forced migrations of enslaved Africans to the Americas and of British convicts to Australia. It’s interesting (but perhaps not surprising) that the Franciscans were transforming the Pacific Coast at precisely the same time. Like the British in Australia, they introduced animals and vegetation unfamiliar to the region (like the now ubiquitous orange tree), and they peppered the landscape with new names (hence all those saintly appellations). And, while I think it would be wrong to equate Serra’s benevolent intentions with the slave trade, the Franciscans clearly expected their neophytes to work on the mission for the rest of their lives. Failure to do so resulted in physical, public punishment.

And yet Father Serra remains a remarkable figure. It must have taken enormous courage to leave Mallorca for a dangerous eight-month journey to the other side of the world, never expecting to return home. In a 1773 letter to his nephew (on display in the exhibition), Serra admits, “I could have kept up friendly relationships by letter … But if I was continually to keep before my mind what I had left behind, of what use would it be to leave it all?” Serra’s penchant for punishment seems appalling, but the exhibition reminds us that Serra also flogged himself (albeit in private). In 1749 he suffered a leg injury that never fully healed and must have made walking painful; and yet he walked thousands of miles in the following thirty-five years of his life.

Moreover, if we’re honest about it, most of us have far more in common with the Franciscans than the locals in this story. As the exhibition’s opening rooms make clear, the Franciscans were a global, intellectual community, founded by the Italian Francis of Assisi, shaped by the Scottish philosopher Duns Scotus. One of Serra’s key spiritual guides was a Spanish nun. The missions kept extraordinary archives of their indigenous converts, records that today help native Californians trace their ancestry. In a sense, religious organizations like the Franciscans were eighteenth-century search engines, reaching beyond nation and gender for knowledge and enlightenment. It all makes me wonder what moral blind spots future generations will marvel at when they critique the early twenty-first century.

This is a complex story, and the exhibition tries hard to get the balance right. It opens in the cosmopolitan trading world of Mallorca, describes Serra’s experiences as a young scholar and Franciscan, and explores his early days in Mexico. The largest rooms focus on his time in Alta California. Numerous eighteenth-century drawings, diaries and letters are on display. Writing in March 1769, Serra notes of the indigenous Californians, “They go entirely naked, like Adam in Paradise before the Fall,” and one wonders why he didn’t leave well enough alone. While the curators have offered some accompanying translations, most documents are displayed untranslated. I found this rather refreshing: a reminder that part of Serra’s legacy is the prevalence of Spanish speakers in this part of the world (the exhibition’s brochure is in both English and Spanish).

The exhibition’s large, central room powerfully combines colonial artefacts with modern technology. The first objects one notices are beautiful woven baskets, created at the missions by indigenous artisans, which bring together local technique with Spanish imagery. Native Californians appreciated European music, and eighteenth-century string instruments are shown beside listening stations where one can hear the melodies they once produced. Another station allows visitors to hear one of the many native languages that Spanish migrants would have encountered and attempted to learn. Large religious paintings remind us that, in a world where spoken communication was uncertain, narrative images convey great power. Meanwhile, contemporary printed books from Europe display engravings of mission life, offering Europeans a (somewhat rosy) vision of the Americas.

Such objects help us imagine significant, individual moments in time: the weaver at work, the native Californian first encountering the look and sound of a cello, the missionary pointing to a picture of the crucifixion and acting out a story. In contrast, two technological interventions offer the longer history: on one wall, a video loop presents the changing map of the Los Angeles area during the Great California Indian Migration. We see the numerous small communities as they existed in 1769; the rapid appearance of missions and presidios; the equally rapid movement of native people from their homes to the missions. Over seventy years, the missions expand in size; the ancient communities shrink and disappear. A projection on the opposite wall presents a seemingly endless list of names and dates. These are some of the 80,000 baptised individuals recorded by the Franciscans. Like their lands, they were given new, European names. Two dates appear below each name: the year of baptism, the year of death. It is chilling to see how many died within just a few years of their conversion.

The penultimate room focuses on the post-mission era: the nineteenth- and twentieth-century American romanticisation of mission life, in novels, paintings, and the booming tourist trade. A final room brings us to the present moment: on one side, native Californian artists who respond creatively to the mission history and myth, on the other, the controversial movement to canonise Father Serra. He was beatified in 1988, leaving him one step from Catholic sainthood.

This isn’t a perfect exhibition. The move from Serra’s own journey to the larger story of the missions and California is a bit awkward, and the early biographical focus threatens to iterate the Serra as Great Man Alone image that the exhibition seeks to critique. I was also troubled by a display case that brought together indigenous objects made by various California peoples over the course of a thousand years—would the curators have summed up a millennium in Spain with twelve objects? But ambitious exhibitions always face limitations, and I left this one with a desire to know more, and to think deeply about the issues addressed. The Huntington exhibition tells the story of one man’s migration as part of many migrations: of the Spanish to the land now called California; of indigenous peoples from their villages to the missions; of successive waves of Americans to the west; of more recent waves of Mexicans to the north. It’s a welcome intervention in the complex narrative of American migration.


  1. Keith Tonkin · · Reply

    Greta piece of history Tom. Wasn’t the last “uncontacted” native American a Californian man who emerged from the wilderness in 1910, alone and expecting to be killed? I read something about him somewhere once??


  2. D.L. Davies · · Reply

    I have many issues with this review, but will only attempt to correct one misstatement. Serra’s self-flagellation was not “private”. He made a spectacle of himself, often during sermons. Serra was criticized during his lifetime for enjoying self-flagellation and for requiring others to watch, sins if one is one is Catholic.


    1. Thank you, D.L. Davies, for your response. I’ll look into this. If there are any factual errors in my article, I’ll do my best to correct them.


  3. Thanks, Keith, I appreciate that. It’s a fascinating exhibition. I think you’re referring to Ishi (d. 1916), who lived in northern California; search around the internet and you’ll find more information. Cheers, Tom


  4. Well done, Tom: you have a gift for storytelling and clear exposition. I especially loved the sentence about the Franciscans being like eighteenth-century search engines. My recent book on the Otago Peninsula also makes the point that in the contact period local Maori were drawn to European enterprises, especially the whaling stations, where they sought out economic opportunities.


    1. Thanks, Paul, and congratulations on your fine new book! I’ll be giving it a closer look soon.

      Thinking about these early encounters, I’m often struck by the initial shows of goodwill and cooperation. In the early days, Native Americans were remarkably generous to Serra & the Franciscans, and I’m sure the Franciscans were affected by such acts of kindness. But there are (almost) always larger political, military, or religious forces behind these enterprises; and that, I suppose, is where the tragedy begins.


  5. Tony Eyre · · Reply

    “the Franciscans clearly expected their neophytes to work on the mission for the rest of their lives. Failure to do so resulted in physical, public punishment.” – reminds me of the fly in the spider’s web. The sad tale of church colonisation through the centuries. Thoughtful reflection, Tom


  6. Hi guys, check out new Old Oceanside Mission website http://www.sanluisrey.org/


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