A Brief History of Los Cabos, Pt. V: The Arrival of Franciscan and Dominican Missionaries in California
Learn more about the history of Cabo San Lucas and the Los Cabos area of Baja California Sur, Mexico.
On the final day of November in the year 1767, a ship carrying the first appointed governor of California, Don Gaspar de Portolá, dropped anchor in San Bernabé harbor, near the abandoned mission of San José del Cabo.
The new governor had been bound for the capital of Loreto, but during his 44 days at sea the winds had inexorably pushed his ship south. Portolá was tasked with overseeing the expulsion of the Jesuits, inventorying the missions they had founded, and establishing a new order on the peninsula. The Franciscan religious order, under the leadership of Junípero Serra, would replace the Jesuits in California; but secular matters would no longer be the province of missionaries. Instead, soldiers and civil authorities answering to Portolá would be charged with administering economic resources.
“The 50 soldiers with Portolá rejoiced,” according to Peter Masten Dunne in Black Robes in Lower California. “Victims of the current rumors, they thought they were coming to a rich land. In Father Baegert’s acid comment, ‘they imagined that California was paved with silver and that heaps of pearls could be swept together with brooms.’
“Such illusions vanished with one look at the missions and their meager and bedraggled population…Already disillusioned by the wretchedness of the post of San José del Cabo, (Portolá) then gazed upon the poverty stricken settlement, Mission Santiago. From there he visited the silver mines of Santa Ana, a sixteen-hour ride from the mission. At that place the new governor was once again impressed by the dearth and drought he looked upon: the works impoverished, the miners in tatters with hovels for homes, the ore not worth the labor of digging it out.
“With augmented disillusion and perhaps depression Portolá pressed on by forced marches to Loreto, where he had to attend to his main business, the removal of the Black Robes (Jesuits). In his journey north he beheld the rocks of California and its dry arroyos, felt the thorns of its cactus and saw the land’s sharp shrubs scratch the belly of his mount.
“Portolá wrote to viceroy de Croix of the great and arid distances, ‘…in my ten long days’ march from Mission Santiago to La Pasión (Dolores) I did not find a single shelter except in the mining camp of (Manuel de) Ocio…and from there on neither ranch, nor house, nor even the least shelter along the road…For want of water pasture lands are lacking. The greater part of the country is a sandy waste sown with thorns and thistles.’”
So much for the riches the Jesuits had been accused of hoarding during their 70 years of missionary work in California. In San José del Cabo, where the new governor began his inspection, no missionary had been in residence since 1762, when the local Indian population had dwindled to a mere 63 Pericúes.
Within eight months of Portolá’s landing, three other figures of enormous historical importance had arrived on the peninsula. The first two, Junípero Serra and Francisco Palóu, reached Loreto with 15 other friars on April 1, 1768. Serra, who was canonized in 2015, would ultimately be remembered for his pioneering efforts in Alta California in much the same way–as the first “apostle”–as Juan María Salvatierra is for his missionary work in Baja California. But that was all very much in the future when the two friars, Serra and Palóu, took up their new duties.
By that time, Serra and Palóu had known each other for many years. Serra, born in 1713 in the small village of Petra on the Balearic island of Mallorca, had devoted himself to Christ at the age of 17, and after his religious studies, had taught philosophy to aspiring friars such as Palóu. They became fast friends, and eventually journeyed to México together in 1749.
Although the Franciscans were the second missionary order to arrive in California, they were heirs to a long history of converting pagan peoples that dated back to their namesake, St. Francis of Assisi. The Franciscans were in fact the first order to arrive in the Americas, in 1493, and in México, in 1522. With the expulsion of the Jesuits, responsibility for the California missions was given to the College of San Fernando in Mexico City, the authorities of which then chose Serra to spearhead the effort, recalling him from the mission he was then leading at Mezquitál.
After landing at Loreto, Serra immediately dispatched Palóu to the mission at San Javier; with the remaining friars assigned to the former Jesuit missions (Fr. Juan Moran was tasked with reopening San José del Cabo). At each mission, the friars assumed control of vestments and sacred vessels turned over by soldier-commissioners who had been administering the properties since the removal of the Jesuits. But the missionaries quickly realized that the ecclesiastical trappings of their office were of little use without the ability to provide food, clothing or shelter for their rapidly dwindling indigenous charges.
“The Franciscans could offer nothing, either to attract or reward the Indians,” wrote Zephyrin Englehardt in his comprehensive The Missions and Missionaries of California. “It was a most unworthy and humiliating state of things which the natives were not slow to perceive, and which naturally provoked contempt instead of respect for their spiritual guides. During the Jesuit rule the Indians saw that religion was supreme and its representative was independent; now they found religion treated as a secondary matter, and the missionary himself subject to the whims of men who cared nothing for the welfare of the neophytes. It is not strange that under such circumstances the Indians lost their exalted ideas about a religion whose teachers could be dealt with so unworthily.”
The fortunes of the Indians were further damaged with the arrival of yet another exalted personage: Don José de Gálvez. Gálvez was at that time perhaps the most powerful man in Nueva España. Appointed visitador by the king–a sort of roving inspector general–his broad powers often exceeded those given to the viceroy in Mexico City. Gálvez came to California in July of 1768, and promptly ensconced himself at the mines of Real de Santa Ana, his headquarters for what would be an ambitious campaign to make the peninsula profitable, and to explore and settle Alta California.
In a little under a year, Gálvez issued a series of sweeping edicts, none of which were conceived with the welfare of the indigenous inhabitants in mind. In order to maximize labor in areas with agricultural potential, for example, Gálvez began transplanting Indians from their traditional home regions in order to use them as a free labor source.
“The results were a disaster,” noted Dave Werschkul in Saints and Demons in a Desert Wilderness: A History and Guide to Baja California’s Spanish Missions. “In 1769, one ranchería of 44 Indians was moved from San Javier to San José del Cabo. All but three died. Gálvez closed the missions at Dolores del Sur and San Luis Gonzaga and relocated the remnants of the Guaycura tribe to Todos Santos. Most of the Indians died during the first year during a smallpox epidemic, and those who survived fled the mission.”
As if that weren’t enough to decimate already fragile populations, he decreed that Indians should work the salt mines on Isla del Carmen, and should do so without pay since it was their duty to God and king. He also asked them to pay a small tribute to the king, as a sign of respect. Predictably, these measures were neither popular nor effective, so Gálvez restored “temporal” power to the Franciscans, giving them the same control over their charges once enjoyed by the Jesuits. In return, he expected obedience and productivity.
Galvez also effectively “nationalized” the mines at Santa Ana–taking over operations on behalf of the royal treasury–a move that stripped the only marginally successful entrepreneur on the peninsula, Manuel de Ocio, of his power and property. Ocio, who had paid for the ships that brought Portolá and Gálvez to California, and later paid many of the costs for the expedition to Alta California, received neither reimbursement nor reward. On the contrary, he was taken for all his remaining money and then some in a card game with Galvez’s officials, and then murdered by miners after they robbed his storehouse.
In his efforts to drive population growth on the peninsula, Gálvez fared little better. His plan was to promote civil communities via a series of land grants, and to that end some 47 concessions were awarded in the areas of San José de Comondú, La Paz, San Antonio and Todos Santos between 1769 and 1821.
But “just as Galvez had deceived himself about sequestered Jesuit riches,” wrote Harry Crosby in his benchmark work, Antigua California: Mission and Colony on the Peninsular Frontier, 1697–1768, “he failed to perceive the truth about the peninsula’s lack of resources. There were no readily exploitable assets, so there was no economic base for his ambitious community. To escape such uncompromising conditions–and the inevitable failures that could blight their careers–the people that the visitor general left to administer the area managed within a year or two to arrange transfers for themselves.
“Many recently arrived colonists departed when they could get passage to the mainland. A few years later, the only vestiges of Gálvez’s grand plans were the documents in which they were ordered. Most of the humble people that he brought to work mines had gone home or joined the local gente de razón in subsistence ranching, usually as squatters rather than legitimate landholders. A few entrepreneurs made their living as miners, pearlers, or merchants, but their activities were on a small scale; no one made a fraction of the profits enjoyed by Manuel de Ocio in his heyday.”
While a new cast of characters were changing the character of life on the peninsula in 1769, groups of scientists were racing to advantageous viewing spots around the globe to take observations during a rare Transit of Venus, hoping to accurately map the distance between the Earth and the Sun. One of these groups, led by Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Chappé d’Auteroche, Spaniards Salvador de Medina and Vicente de Doz, and Mexican astronomer Joaquín Velázquez de León, landed in San José del Cabo on May 20. Their team subsequently traveled to Santa Ana, where they observed the transit on June 3. Chappé d’Auteroche died of malaria shortly after completing his observations–they were published posthumously–and in fact only nine of the 28 members of the expedition made it home alive.
Travel, like seemingly everything else during the period, was a perilous undertaking. But the exploration and occupation of Alta California was a major priority–both the English and Russians were showing increased interest in the area–so Gálvez organized land and sea expeditions (the ships departing from La Paz and Cabo San Lucas, respectively) to explore and establish settlements. Among those going overland were the commander of the Loreto presidio, Fernando Rivera y Moncada, governor Gaspar de Portolá, and the presidente superior of the missions, Junípero Serra (Fr. Palóu assumed control of the Baja California missions upon Serra’s departure).
The eventual success of this undertaking, which also began in 1769, resulted in everlasting benefits for virtually everyone involved. Serra founded the first nine missions in Alta California (as opposed to the one, San Fernando Rey de España de Velicatá, the Franciscans built in Baja California), and is now a Catholic Saint. Portolá, the overall leader of the expedition, achieved acclaim for, among other things, the “discovery” of San Francisco Bay. Rivera y Moncada twice served as governor of the newly settled region. And Gálvez, despite his horrible record in peninsular California, is remembered by two recent historians (James J. Rawls and Walton Bean, California: An Interpretive History) as “the most effective visitador in the history of New Spain.”
For years prior to the exploration of Alta California, yet another Catholic religious order had been angling for a foothold in California. The Dominicans were petitioning the king for access to California missions even before the Jesuits were expelled in 1768, and in 1770 were finally granted permission to share the peninsular missions with the Franciscans. But after the occupation of Alta California, a rejiggered geographic agreement was reached: the Franciscans would administer the freshly built missions in Alta California; the Dominicans the increasingly woebegone missions in Baja California, many of which had been plundered to provide supplies for Serra’s missions north of the border.
According to historian W. Michael Mathes in Land of Calafia: A Brief History of Peninsular California , 1533–1848: “Following the terms of the concordat with the Franciscans, and with a mission field thus secured, 10 Dominican friars arrived at Loreto on October 14, 1772, to be followed by 18 more on May 12, 1773, under Father Procurator Fray Vicente Mora who had been appointed father-president following the drowning of Iriarte y Laurnaga en route to California.”
Although the Dominicans would eventually control the Baja California missions for a longer time span than the Jesuits–83 to 70 years, respectively–one group is remembered as ushering in a peninsular “golden age,” while the other is primarily associated with hardship and impoverishment. Both categorizations are grossly simplified, but there is no arguing that the era following the settlement of Alta California was a long, dark period in the annals of the first California. By the end of the 18th century, the indigenous population had fallen from approximately 50,000 (when the Jesuits arrived in 1697) to an estimated 4,500. The Pericúes, the original inhabitants of the Los Cabos region, had been culturally extinct for close to three decades.
Disease and natural disasters also took a toll. In 1793, for example, the mission at San José del Cabo had to be rebuilt and relocated following heavy flooding. The Dominicans suffered a scandal a decade later when it came to light that some of its friars were savagely whipping their indigenous charges, beyond the bounds even of what was then considered acceptable. And supply and communication lines from the mainland were increasingly interrupted due to repercussions from political events transforming Europe.
The separation between Nueva and Antigua California became more pronounced when Monterey was named capital of the Californias in 1776–Loreto, long the seat of power, remained home to a lieutenant governor–and was made in official in 1804, when then Alta and Baja California were officially separated and given their own governments.
The profound changes in Europe, particularly during the first decade of the 19th century, were in large part influenced by Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French and conqueror of much of Europe. Napoleon invaded Spain in 1807, imprisoned its ruler, Ferdinand VII, and replaced him with his own brother, puppet king Joseph Bonaparte. By the time the Spanish regained control of their land, chaos and uncertainty in their many colonies were contributing to burgeoning revolutionary movements throughout the Americas.
On September 15, and again the following day in the year 1810, a priest named Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla issued his famed grito, a call for revolution proclaimed in the small town of Dolores in Guanajuato, México. This was the start of the Mexican War of Independence. By the end of that year, San Blas in Nayarit, the primary point of departure for ships ferrying supplies to Baja California, had been captured, and an already grim situation on the peninsula was about to become even worse.
But that, as they say, is another story.