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University of California Press


For a long period beginning in the nineteenth century, historians of California generally characterized missionaries during the Spanish and Mexican eras in one of two ways: as heroic agents of civilization or nefarious purveyors of destruction. The heroic interpretation became dominant in works influenced by the Spanish Revival movement, and it was also evident in the writings of the great Franciscan historians Zephryn Engelhardt, Maynard J. Geiger, and Francis F. Guest, all of whom based their work on the trove of documents at the Santa Barbara Mission Archive-Library. In the 1980s and 1990s, the nefarious interpretation became especially pronounced, due to a number of books that appeared in connection with the controversies surrounding the proposed canonization of Junipero Serra and the commemoration of the Columbus quincentenary.1

In the past fifteen years, however, mission historians have consciously shifted their perspective to focus on Indians. ln this new framework, the missionaries have been, very properly, de-centered. They tend to be regarded as an important set of people who-along with soldiers and settlers-made up part of the context and shaped part of the environment in which native Californians were active agents. As one set of actors among many, they were shaped in complex ways by all those with whom they interacted. Thus it is possible to see them in a more nuanced light.2

This essay is in that vein, for we endeavor to move beyond celebration or condemnation. Using Junipero Serra as an exemplar, we seek to determine how a person's identity as a Spanish Franciscan might affect both his choice to become a missionary in New Spain and how he lived out that choice. For Serra and his religious brothers, one of the most exciting things about Alta California was that they were in the first group of Spanish colonists to arrive there. They believed that elsewhere in New Spain, settlers, soldiers, and officials had oppressed the native peoples and inhibited the spread of the gospel. They thought that Alta California offered them a chance to set things right. They idealized Alta California as a fertile and inviting field. These missionaries did not realize that their assessment was deeply colored by the militant religious suppositions they had brought from early modern Spain and by their struggles with other Spanish colonists over how to treat indigenous peoples, a question that had divided religious and civil authorities in New Spain since the early sixteenth century. They viewed Alta California and its inhabitants through a lens that owed far more to the history of Spain and central Mexico than to anything or anyone that actually existed in Alta California. What Junipero Serra wanted to accomplish with the native peoples of Alta California was shaped by what he and his order had learned from their experiences in Mallorca, Mexico City, the Sierra Gorda, and Baja California.

We chose to focus on Serra because he was father president of the Alta California missions, because his activities produced a rich documentary record, and because he has come to symbolize the entire California missionary enterprise. However, a cautionary note is in order. Serra's voice was not the only missionary voice. Indeed, even during his lifetime, his views were far from unchallenged. In 1771 his former student and closest missionary companion, Francisco Pal6u, wrote to Mexico City to criticize Serra for wanting to establish too many missions too quickly. In 1775 his religious superior in Mexico City, exasperated by Serra's tendency to act without sufficient consultation, publicly chastised him and severely limited his powers in a strongly worded letter that he sent to all the California missionaries. We can learn much about the missionary experience by examining Serra- but not everything. His fellow missionaries could and did disagree with him. Tensions within the missionary community were more common than is often realized.3

Chapter of

Alta California : Peoples in Motion, Identities in Formation, 1769-1850


Steven W. Hackel


Copyright © 2010 University of California Press. All rights reserved.



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