Mission Santa Cruz and the Ohlone and Yokuts Indians

by Philip Laverty

Mission Santa Cruz, La Misión la Exaltación de la Santa Cruz (The Mission of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross), was founded in 1791 by Padre Presidente Fermín Francisco de Lasuén, the successor of Junípero Serra. Alta California was the last extension of the Spanish Empire, which, at that time, occupied roughly two-thirds of North and South America. The missions, in conjunction with the military presidios and the later civilian pueblos, were intended to control Alta California and prevent the encroachment of British and Russian colonizers. The missions themselves were institutions of acculturation intended to pacify the native people and create from them a class of peon laborers through training, supervision, and punishment. Through baptism, the missionaries believed that they were saving pagan souls from eternal damnation in hell. It was believed that ten years would be sufficient to transform "wild" Indians into loyal tax-paying subjects of Spain and good Catholics. Native People were intended to become the lowest caste in a highly delineated racial colonial hierarchy.

The colonial policies and activities of the Spanish had to do, in part, with their view of Native Americans. The Spanish referred to themselves, and those felt to be sufficiently acculturated, as gente de razón, people of reason; while they referred to non-missionized natives as pagans, gentiles and gente sin razón , people without reason. In the mid-sixteenth century, at a time when Indian flesh was sold in markets as dog food, debates took place in Spain as to whether or not the native people were human beings. It was then decided that native people were rational humans with souls, however inferior. Nevertheless, one can find references to Indians in documents of the period as being, for instance, "comparable to a species of monkey" and the use of other animalistic terminologies such as beasts. Natives were considered to have neither government nor religion (or that they worshipped the devil), and to be mentally inferior. In the California missions native people had the status of children under Spanish law. The practical application of this was the enslavement of native people in the mission system. Once baptized, Indians were not allowed to leave the mission without permission on consequence of being forcibly returned.

Life for the Ohlone in the Santa Cruz area was seriously disrupted well before the founding of the mission. Diseases, which spread in advance of the colonizers, took their toll on pre-missionized Indians. Subsistence technologies and other significant knowledge were lost as key members of societies died prematurely. Other factors including violent skirmishes, the disruption of important trade networks and widespread rape of Indian women by military and civilian colonists, and hunger from degraded environments hastened the destabilization of Ohlone societies before missionization.

By the time Mission Santa Cruz was founded, the missions at Carmel, San Francisco, and Santa Clara, the civilian pueblo San Jose, as well as the presidios at Monterey and San Francisco had been in operation for some 15 to 22 years. The Spanish presence in Alta California had a devastating impact on its environment. By 1791 the native Ohlones around Santa Cruz would have been hard pressed for certain food items. For example, native bunch grasses (the seeds of which were an important, protein rich food source for the Ohlones) had already been heavily displaced by useless European grasses. Domesticated animals decimated native prairie lands, overgrazing native plants and spreading exotics. Other Spanish activities negatively affecting the environment include: widespread slaughter of elk herds, the hunting of grizzly bears and other predatory animals to protect livestock and for sport, the draining of marshlands for agricultural fields, and the canalization of creeks and rivers.

Factoring into the placement of Mission Santa Cruz was the occupation of the strategic north shore of the Monterey Bay in consideration of increased British activities in the Pacific and a more general climate of international tension. Additionally, there was concern that a non-missionized pocket of Indians posed the danger of rebellion to the other nearby missions. The mission was founded among five Ohlone villages. These villages were located in the prime hunting grounds of the area. The new mission's livestock pushed the herds of deer, elk, and antelope out of the grazing lands. Food gathering and hunting became increasingly difficult. Spanish livestock became a food source for Indian people. The colonists considered this theft and punished anyone deemed responsible. When feasible, missionaries consciously increased recruitment activities in times of hunger for native people. Food at the missions may have been not only attractive but necessary for survival.

The Indian presence at California missions came about through many various and complex reasons. Traditional life became unviable due to environmental and social degradation. Key Indian resistance leaders (including Charquin and Pella of the Quiroste tribe who lived in the mountains east of Año Nuevo) were defeated. Occuring more frequently throughout the period were military assaults that took prisoners who were baptized within days of their capture. Sometimes children were offered for baptism from resisting villages who were defeated by the Spanish.There may have been a desire among some to align with the dominant agent, the colonists, in the emerging structure of social power. Belief among native peoples in the supernatural sanction of their traditional lifeways may have faltered. At times, there were parental offerings of children who were perceived to have been cured from serious sickness by missionaries. Missionaries focused baptismal efforts on children dying from epidemics, who legally did not have to give consent to baptism. Additionally, people may have tried to avoid inter-tribal warfare which escalated in the face of colonial pressures.

Baptism was considered by the Spanish and the Church to be contractual. Through baptism natives, by law, were supposed to transfer their rights of self-determination to the missionaries and comply fully with their will. It is evident that this was not made understandable to the natives. The notion of conversion is not tenable for many reasons including the documented persistance of native religions during and after the mission period. Throughout the Americas religious beliefs were non-absolutist (their religions were not believed to be the one and only true religion), consequently, people did not replace one set of beliefs with another. Moreover, the ever present military intimidation and threat created a climate of extreme fear. Any individuals or groups who resisted Spanish rule or interfered with their colonial enterprise were the objects of what was legally defined a "just war."

At first, the missions were supplied with money and goods from New Spain enabling them to function fairly, although not completely, independent from Indian labor. As time went on, Spain became embroiled in wars both in Europe and with rebelling colonies. By about 1800 the missions and presidios were, for the most part, on their own necessitating a fuller reliance on Indian labor. Missions were redución (reduction) systems with the legal power to relocate baptized native people from their villages to the mission compounds. These reduction policies were increasingly made use of. After 1800 there was little pretense of "conversion," but mostly military assault and the capture and eventual baptism of prisoners.

The rate of population decline among Natives at the mission was roughly 90-95% per generation. Life expectancy at mission Santa Cruz averaged 8.6 years. By about 1805 the local Ohlone population was nearly destroyed. The Spanish began large military expeditions into the Central Valley where Yokuts Indians were captured. Children were often captured and baptized first for the reasons that their parents would generally follow to try to protect them and the fact that children are generally easier to control. Isolated from the influence of their families and society, children were easier to bring up as Spanish citizens.

At the mission, Indians were given new names. They were prohibited from speaking their languages, practicing their religions and, for the most part, hunting and gathering (except when mission crops failed). Their every activity, including the association between unmarried males and females, meal times, rest and work were strictly controlled and supervised.

Mission rules were enforced through punishment and rewards. Whippings, stockades, irons, incarceration, beatings and exile to distant missions were common, and torturous executions occured periodically. More serious punishments were carried out by the military, others by appointed Indian overseers, and some by the missionaries. A study by Sherburne Cook found that 90% of the crimes punished at the mission amounted to resistance. Considerable resistance took place in California missions. Mission Santa Cruz was attacked and partially burned on December 14, 1793 after a group of baptized Quirostes were forcibly returned to the mission. Padre Andrés Quintana was assasinated in 1812 because, according to the son of one of the conspirators, he began using a whip with metal wire at the end of each strap. Many people fled the mission and much effort was put into the retrieval of escapees. Forced return was policy throughout the mission period, of which there was a high success rate. The Spanish use of horses, armor and guns and other metal weaponry gave them decisive military advantage over the Indians. Rewards of food, other material goods and status were given to those who obeyed.

It is important to understand the past to be able to understand the present. Native Californians are here today, engaged in many issues of cultural preservation and politics. As the present is made up by the past, the struggles of native people today are directly related to their colonial experience.





The California Indian Way of Fighting
(Modo de Pelear de los Indios de California), 1791, by José Cardero or Tomás de Suria.


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