post-title A Brief History of Los Cabos, Part III: The Age of Jesuit Mission Building

A Brief History of Los Cabos, Part III: The Age of Jesuit Mission Building

A Brief History of Los Cabos, Part III: The Age of Jesuit Mission Building

Although Hernan Cortés had landed in La Paz by 1535, and present-day San José del Cabo was a frequent stopping point along the world’s most lucrative trade route by the latter part of the 16th century, the first permanent settlement on the Baja Peninsula—then known simply as California—was not established until 1697.

This delay of some 150 years was not for lack of effort. The Spanish were desirous of land support for their galleon trade, which was beset by attacks from English and Dutch pirates, and the pearl beds of La Paz exerted a powerful fascination for Spanish adventurers. Cortés and Sebastián Vizcaíno both attempted settlements in La Paz during the 16th century, each of which failed in less than a year due to food and water shortages, and unrelenting attacks from indigenous tribes.


Juan María Salvatierra, the “conqueror” of California.

Similar problems afflicted another notable attempt at colonization: the 1683 expedition led by Admiral Isidro de Atondo y Antillón. After initially landing at La Paz, which was by that time customary, the admiral quickly earned the enmity of the Guaycuras by having some 10 of their number shot, and he and his company of three ships were obliged to sail north, ultimately coming ashore at San Bruno, some 20 kilometers north of present-day Loreto.

After finding a base with sufficient water and pasture land, and establishing good relations with the local Indians, the Admiral and his men were responsible for several important California firsts: They founded the first mission, Misión San Bruno; made the first serious attempt at agriculture on the peninsula; and explored the interior in all directions (among those reaching the Pacific Ocean after an overland journey was the royal cosmographer, Eusebio Francisco Kino).

Unfortunately, not a single drop of rain fell for 18 months, and the expedition and its attempts at agriculture and settlement were abandoned at enormous cost in 1685.

The short-lived experiment fired the imagination of Kino, however, who was one of three Jesuits to take part. Proselytizing and propagating Christianity (specifically, Catholicism) was the foremost mission of the Society of Jesus—which was founded in 1534, and had its soldiers of Christ in New Spain by 1572—and Kino was eager to convert the indigenous peoples he had encountered in California.

Kino shared this enthusiasm with a fellow Italian Jesuit named Juan María Salvatierra, and after years of legal wrangling, the two were eventually able to get the necessary licenses and permissions from the Viceroy to return to the peninsula…provided, of course, that they were self-sufficient and privately funded.

After obtaining the necessary contributions, the two made haste to get under way. But Kino was detained due to Indian trouble in Sonora—he would later be the first to definitively establish that Baja California was not an island, but a peninsula, thus ensuring his everlasting inclusion in historical chronicles of this sort—and Salvatierra and a small group of soldiers set sail without him, arriving in San Bruno in October 1697.

Within a week of their arrival, they had already experienced something Atondo never did: They had been rained upon, drenched in a tropical downpour. Salvatierra was joined by another padre, Francisco María Piccolo, and a mission—Misión de Nuestra Señora de Loreto Conchó—was soon established in Loreto. This was the first permanent settlement, the beachhead for over 70 years of Jesuit mission building on the peninsula, and earned Salvatierra an enduring legacy as “the first Apostle of California.”


Misión de Nuestra Señora de Loreto Conchó, as it appeared during the 18th century.

Although glorious in retrospect, the first years were hardscrabble ones. The missionaries were for quite some time in danger from the natives they sought to convert, and in the early days were protected by only makeshift fortifications. There were few soldiers, and these were often dispatched on supply runs to the mainland. Engaging ships for this purpose was also a problem, as the missionaries were often taken advantage of, and sold inferior goods at inflated prices. And when they sought to redress this problem by buying their own ship, they were sold a ship that was barely seaworthy and in constant danger of sinking.

As Pablo L. Martínez writes in his authoritative Historia de Baja California (or History of Lower California): “On the 27th of November, of the year of entrance (1697), the galleot (a small supply ship) left for the Yaqui, with the object of conducting to the peninsula some persons and animals that waited there. There remained in Loreto, aside from the two padres (Salvatierra and Piccolo), seven Spanish soldiers, five sailors from the lighter, two native Indians and others of the Oriental coast, well armed, with plenty of powder and ammunition.”

A year later, at the end of the 1698, the colonizing population had grown…to 22 Spaniards and eight beasts of burden.

Considering that the indigenous peoples at this time numbered some 50,000 throughout the peninsula, one can only marvel at the courage of the missionaries, who were always willing to share their meager rations and evangelical zeal with the Indians, despite the fact that in the early years the latter made several earnest attempts to kill them.

It should not be supposed, however, that the indigenous peoples were homogeneous, since many tribes existed among the larger groups of Cochimí, Guaycura and Pericú, and insults and attacks often led to warring factions that made the “civilizing” work of the missionaries much more difficult.

But Padres Salvatierra Piccolo, and Juan de Ugarte expanded their area of influence with a single-minded determination, and had soon established missions throughout the center of the peninsula, from Mulegé to Comondú. And as the first generation of apostles passed away, new missionary leaders took up the task, completing the southern “loop” with missions at La Paz (1720), Santiago (1724), San José del Cabo (1730) and Todos Santos (1734).

The mission at San José del Cabo was a particularly important achievement for the Jesuits, since shore support for the yearly Manila Galleons had been a Spanish goal since Cavendish sacked the treasure laden galleon Santa Ana in 1587. Sebastián Vizcaíno, the man who gave La Paz its modern name, very nearly performed the same function for San José. He was aboard the Santa Ana when it was attacked, and was put ashore with the rest of the survivors.


What we now know as San José del Cabo was called Añuití by the Pericúes, and dubbed San Bernabé by Spanish explorer and adventurer Sebastián Vizcaíno.

Known only as Añuití by the Pericúes, Vizcaíno gave the future city its first Spanish name, San Bernabé, before making his way back to mainland México. And San Bernabé it remained for over 40 years, until the Jesuit mission was founded by padres Nicolás Tamaral and José Echevarría.

Historian Pablo L. Martínez, who grew up in nearby Santa Anita, explains the rationale behind the modern name thusly: “The name of San José was given after José de Villapuente, benefactor of colonization (he and his wife gave generously to the Jesuit cause in California); and that of del Cabo was added to distinguish it from Comondú, which was also San José.”

Tamaral soon evidenced his understanding of the strategic importance of this mission, supporting the first arriving galleon with food and fresh water, so that the captain did not need to send an armed party ashore. Although the estuary, known to the mariners as Aguada Segura, had long been known as a place to secure fresh water, from this point forward it was a mandatory stop for Spanish galleons on their Journey from Manila to Acapulco. Word of Tamaral’s generosity spread, and ultimately paid dividends during the Rebellion of the Pericúes, although the reciprocal support came too late to save Tamaral himself.

The southern Pericúes, were from the start of the region’s mission building phase, the most recalcitrant and rebellious Indians the Jesuits had encountered. Ill-feelings were inflamed, in many instances, by the tribal guamas, or witch-doctors, who saw the missionaries as threats to their power and railed against them at every opportunity. Discontent was also fanned by church doctrine that ran contrary to traditional practices; most notably, strictures against polygamy.

Francisco Javier Clavijero’s credits the latter solely in his epochal Historia de la Antigua o Baja California: “There was no other motive than the hatred of those savages for Christian law,” he says, “that deprived them of the many women they had for their comfort and pleasure, according to what the conspirators later confessed. The first to join them were some tribes who lived on the southern coast between the two missions of Santiago and San José. In that region resentment was stirred up against all the missions in the south, but with such secrecy that the missionaries did not suspect a thing.”

The Jesuits had almost immediately established a Presidio in Loreto, but other missions were decidedly less secure. At the time of the Pericú uprising in 1734, there was one soldier in La Paz, two in Santiago, and three in Todos Santos. In San José del Cabo, there were neither soldiers nor garrison.

Word of Pericú plots reached the Jesuits, but because the Indians controlled the roads, letters urging the southern padres to evacuate to the mission at Dolores were never received. Lorenzo Carranco, padre at Santiago, sent some of his neophytes to fetch Tamaral from San José, because he feared that without soldiers there he was in the most vulnerable position. Tamaral refused to abandon his post.

Despite their overwhelming numerical superiority, the Pericú were understandably wary of Spanish firearms. But when the two soldiers from Santiago went into the nearby Sierra de la Laguna to fetch oxen, a group of conspirators saw an opportunity, and killed Carranco, his altar boy…and eventually the returning soldiers, when it turned they were replacements who carried not guns, but knives.

Here’s how Clavijero describes the killing of Carranco: “Two of them immediately seized him, and threw him outside the house, hung up his habit, while the others shot their arrows.  Lifting up his eyes and his heart to the sky, he offered God the sacrifice of his innocent life for his sins and those of his sons in Christ, and afterwards he fell dying to the ground, invoking the sacred names of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Then with sticks and stones they began to take from him the small amount of life that remained.”

Pericu Rebellion

Padre Lorenzo Carranco became the first Jesuit martyr in California, after being killed by rebellious Pericúes in 1734.

Although many Jesuits had died for the cause–including, by this time, Salvatierra, Piccolo, and Ugarte–Carranco was the first California martyr. He would not be the last. The conspirators headed directly for San José del Cabo, where they surprised Tamaral in the middle of saying mass.

According to Clavijero: “The padre grasped their perverse intentions, and in order to calm them, he said: Wait, my sons, I will try to please you with everything there is in the house. But they, frustrated by that pretext, did not wish to ask for anything else. The same ones who had overpowered Padre Carranco threw themselves on him and cast him to the ground. Seizing him by the feet, they tossed him outside in order to shoot him full of arrows, but all the conspirators rushed forward and decided to decapitate him, which they did with one of the knives he had given them through necessity.”

Tamaral Mosaic Tyson

This tile mosaic depicting the death of Padre Nicolás Tamaral is displayed above the entryway of the old Catholic church in San José del Cabo. Image: Joseph Tyson

This was the first salvo of what would be a three year “war” (1734 -1737), the repercussions of which would ultimately foretell the end of both the Jesuits and the Pericúes.

But that’s another story.

by Chris Sands, Travel Writer.

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