Junipero Serra — The Missionary Who Fought to End the Abuse of Native Americans by Spanish Soldiers

European armies often committed atrocities against the tribes of the New World throughout America's colonial period. But one priest fought to put an end to the bloodletting in Spain's overseas territories.

A number of European armies committed atrocities (like those pictured here) against the tribes of the New World during America’s colonial period. But there was one Spanish priest who fought to put an end to the bloodletting, at least in his country’s overseas territories.

“In the struggle between the soldier and priest, the latter had won.”

By George Yagi Jr.

EUROPEAN ARMIES of the 18th century were built on the same rigid class system that defined civilian life of the age. The officer corps was largely comprised of gentlemen; the rank and file were gathered from the lower strata of society, most often its dregs.

In the case of the Spanish army at the onset of colonization in Alta California, those who served came not just from the home country’s population of undesirables, but a great number were convicts pressed into service in Mexico.

Unsurprisingly, when unleashed into the California wilderness, these men committed outrages on the native populations, much to the grief of the Franciscan missionaries who were trying to gain converts to Christianity. As a result, a major struggle ensued between the soldiers and padres as the missionaries sought to bring the abuses to an end and effectively protect the Native Americans.

During the early years of colonization, no women accompanied the Spaniards, and soldiers were expected to maintain a lifestyle similar to the Franciscans. Although orders were issued against such behavior, rapes quickly became commonplace, some with extremely tragic results. At Mission San Gabriel on Sept. 9, 1771, soldiers raped the wife of a local Indian chief, killing her husband in the struggle. Only the day before at the settlement’s founding, friendly members of the tribe had eagerly aided the priests in constructing a chapel after viewing an image of the Virgin Mary that one of the padres carried. A year later in August 1772, a young woman suffering partial blindness was abducted nearby Mission San Diego and repeatedly assaulted by three soldiers. Following the traumatizing encounter, she later killed the baby born because of it.

One particularly disturbing incident took place on June 2, 1773, when two young girls were raped near San Diego, with one dying as a result of the attack. A local clergyman went so far as to call for the offenders’ heads.

“Many of them deserve to be hanged,” remarked Father Luis Jayme.

The padres lodged repeated protests with the governor, Pedro Fages, but they fell upon deaf ears. Alta California was supposed to be a missionary colony and the soldiers were dispatched to protect the priests, not abuse the locals. At the forefront of this struggle with the government was Father Junipero Serra, head of the California mission chain. A brilliant academic who left his post as a professor of theology at Lullian University to work as a missionary on the frontier, Serra blasted Fages for permitting the abuses to continue. He also charged the governor with overreaching his orders by attempting to control the missionaries. His protests all but ignored, Serra departed for Mexico on Oct. 17, 1772 to take his case to the viceroy, Antonio María de Bucareli y Ursúa, in person.

Juniperro Serra. (image source: WikiCommons)

Juniperro Serra. (image source: WikiCommons)

Traveling first by sea, then overland, the journey was fraught with danger for Serra. At 59 years old and in failing health, the aging clergyman very nearly perished more than once en route.

Following his arrival in Mexico City, the still sick Serra immediately sought an audience at Viceregal Palace. He placed his grievances before Bucareli, who asked that they be put into writing. Serra agreed and in effect drafted legislation laying out the rights of Native Americans in Spanish California. Entitled the Representación, it consisted of 32-points. On the conduct of the soldiers, Serra wrote:

I suggest that Your Excellency give strict orders to the Officer who will be sent, that as soon as the Missionary Father of any mission requests it, he should remove the soldier or soldiers who give bad example, especially in the matter of incontinence; he should recall them to the presidio and send, in their place, another or others who are not known as immoral or scandalous.

As the mission settlements themselves were supposed to be under the direction of the Franciscans, Serra added:

Your Excellency should notify the said Officer and the soldiers that the training, governance, punishment and education of baptized Indians, or of those who are being prepared for Baptism, belong exclusively to the Missionary Fathers, the only exception being for capital offenses. Therefore no chastisement or ill-treatment should be inflicted on any of them whether by the Officer or by any soldier, without the Missionary Father’s passing upon it.

In the end, Serra’s requests were granted. Mission Indians would enjoy rights as human beings under the protection of the Spanish Crown, which officially recognized them as Hijos de Dios, or “Children of God.” This was in stark contrast to views held on the east coast of America, where natives were guaranteed no rights and treated largely as savages. Through Serra’s efforts, the soldiers’ reign of terror in California had come to an end. In another victory for Serra, his adversary Fages was also recalled. The upheaval between the obstinate soldier and the humble Franciscan, which threatened to ruin the new colony, was finally over.

The journey to Mexico had been no small matter, as Serra recorded during a stop in Jalisco:

This trip to Mexico has broken my health for owing to the roughness of the road, I arrived in the city of Guadalajara burning with fever. Within a few days the Fathers ordered me to receive the sacraments and I was in danger of death for many days.

The viceroy too understood the gravity of the friar’s condition. “Father Fray Junípero Serra almost in a dying condition… [came] to this capital to present his requests and to inform me personally,” wrote Bucareli. “A thing which rarely can be presented with such persuasion in writing.”

Serra made quite an impression on the viceroy during their meeting.

“I listened to him with the greatest pleasure,” said Bucareli. “I realized the apostolic zeal that animated him while I accepted from his ideas those measures which appeared proper to me to carry out.”

In the struggle between the soldier and priest, the latter had won. While abuse was not entirely eradicated, it was a step in the right direction. The Native Americans would not endure such suffering again until the arrival of the Americans during the gold rush, when viewed as “diggers,” the newcomers hunted them down and subjected them to treatment far worse than the Spaniards ever did.

41wMdoGz4kL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Dr. George Yagi Jr. is a historian at California’s University of the Pacific. His latest book, The Struggle for North America, 1754-1758: Britannia’s Tarnished Laurels, explores Britain’s years of defeat during the Seven Years’ War. Follow him on Twitter @gyagi_jr

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