California Mission Indians is a designation for the Indians of Southern California forced by the Spanish into the mission system in the coastal areas of the southern two-thirds of the state. All of the Indians who traditionally lived in the San Diego area when the Spanish arrived in 1769 are called Mission Indians.

For thousands of years, the southern and central Pacific coast region was one of the most densely populated areas north of Mexico. Population estimates range as high as 300,000 American Indians speaking 80 distinct languages.

The Chumash tribe was the largest, with around 20,000 members. Despite the diversity of tribes in the region, archeological evidence doesn't indicate a lot of inter-tribal warfare.

The first Spanish Mission was built in 1769 with Indian labor

In 1769, a Franciscan missionary named Father Junipero Serra led a Spanish army up from Mexico and reached present-day San Diego. It was he who built the first of 21 missions that would extend up north to San Francisco. The missions were built with Indian labor. They settled, in part, where there was a ready-made population of potential Christian converts that would also supply labor for running the mission system that was their economic underpinning. When conversions were slow to be made among the Indians, they kidnapped them by the thousands. If they were uncooperative, they were whipped, branded, mutilated or even executed.

Thousands died of malaria, smallpox, scarlet fever, and other diseases for which there was no native immunity. Three major epidemics broke out during the Spanish period. In 1777, there was a respiratory epidemic; in 1802, a pneumonia and diphtheria epidemic; and in 1806, a measles epidemic. However, diseases were not the only cause for the rapid decline of the Indian population while under mission rule. Much of the decline can be attributed to changes in diet and inadequate nutrition.

California Natives did not become Mission Indians willingly

While many textbooks to give the impression that the California natives passively accepted the missions, Spanish domination, and conversion to Christianity, this was not the case.

In fact, the initial reception of the Franciscans by the California Indians was anything but hospitable.

Resistance to the Spanish Franciscans was organized by village chiefs and influential shamans and this resistance was expressed through attacks on the Franciscan missionaries and later on the Spanish soldiers sent to protect the missionaries.

In 1771, the Indians attacked the San Gabriel Mission in the Los Angeles basin twice. Both attacks were triggered by the rape of a Kumeyaay woman by the soldiers who were assigned to protect the Franciscans. One chief was killed and the Spanish soldiers placed his head on a pole as an example.

Kumeyaa at the Mission of San Diego revolted in 1775

In 1775, the Kumeyaay at the Mission of San Diego revolted, burning the mission and killing one of the priests. Fearing reprisals from the nearby Spanish presidio, the attackers quickly fled into the interior, taking with them some booty in the form of clothing, trinkets, and religious icons. Spanish troops were called out to capture the ringleaders.

The rebellion against the Spanish missions was the result of forced labor and the rape of several Kumeyaay women. The Indians viewed the Spanish priests as shamans and held them responsible for the disease and misfortune which was befalling them. Thus, the killing of the priest, an evil shaman in the eyes of the Indians, and the removal of sacred objects from the mission was a way of cleansing the land of the spiritual evil that was growing on it.

Spanish investigators claimed that at least fifteen villages took part in the rebellion, including several so-called Christian villages. Leaders of the insurrection were identified as Oroche of Macate, Francisco of Cullamac, Rafael of Janat, and Ysquitil of Abusquel.

In 1776, the Spanish Franciscans selected a number of Ohlone and Costanoan Indians to be flogged and threatened with execution. The action was intended to stop any more resistance to their missionary activities.

In that same year, Indians attacked the San Luis Obispo Mission and set fire to the roofs of the buildings.

Shaman with supernatural powers participates in Gabrielino revolt against San Gabriel Mission in 1785

In 1785, Toypurina (Gabrielino) convinced Indians from six villages to participate in a revolt against the San Gabriel Mission. Toypurina, a medicine woman who was considered to have supernatural powers, killed people with her magic during the attack, but the priests and soldiers had been warned and the insurgents were arrested. At her trial, Toypurina denounced the Spanish for trespassing on and destroying Indian lands.

Another Indian leader, Nicolas Jose, spoke out against the Spanish prohibition of traditional Indian ceremonies. Most of the Indians were sentenced to 20 lashes and Toypurina was deported to the San Carlos Mission. The public flogging of the Indians involved in this revolt was a ritual designed to restore Spanish domination, a common practice throughout Spanish America.

Many Mission Indians tried to escape the Franciscan missionaries by running away and hiding.

In 1795, over 200 Costanoan staged a mass escape from Mission Dolores and 280 Indian “converts” fled from the San Francisco Mission. The following year, another 200 Indians fled from the San Francisco mission.

In 1798, 138 Indian “converts” fled from the Santa Cruz Mission, and in 1805, 200 converts fled from the San Juan Bautista Mission.

In 1811, Nazario, a Mission Indian cook at the San Diego Mission, was subjected to 124 lashes. He then poisoned one of the priests. Since the Indians often viewed the Franciscan missionaries as powerful shamans or witches, it was appropriate in their culture to poison them, as this was the traditional Indian way of dealing with such people.

In 1812, a group of Indian converts at the Santa Cruz mission murdered a Franciscan missionary because of his plans to punish Indians with a cat-o’-nine-tails with barbed metal on the ends of the leather straps.

Chumash at La Purísima Mission Revolt in 1824

In 1824, the Chumash at the La Purísima Mission revolted against ill treatment and forced labor imposed by the priests and soldiers. The revolt was sparked by the routine beating of an Indian at the Santa Ynez mission.

A force of 2,000 Indians captured La Purísima and were reinforced by Indians from Santa Ynez and San Fernando. For more than a month, the Indians who occupied the La Purísima and Santa Ynez missions were able to resist Spanish military attempts to restore order. The news of the revolt soon reached Santa Barbara and the Indians attacked the soldiers, sacked the mission, and then retreated to the back country.

The Spanish recaptured the missions after four months. The four leaders of the revolt, Mariano, Pacomio, Benito, and Bernarde, were sentenced to ten years of chain-gang labor.

Mission Indians see a sign of changes to come in the sky

Another factor in the revolt was the appearance of a twin-tailed comet in the night sky. According to traditional Chumash beliefs, such a sign foretells of great changes which are about to happen.

In 1828, Mission Indians, under the leadership of Yokuts chiefs Estanislao (Stanislaus) and Cipriano, revolted against the Mexicans in the San Joaquin Valley. Among those joining the revolt were refugees from the Santa Cruz, San José, and San Juan Bautista Missions. Estanislao established a fortified village which was ringed with deep trenches. The Indians were successful in repelling three counterattacks by the Mexican army.

In 1829, Mexican troops attacked Estanislao’s stronghold. After several hours of intense fighting, the Mexicans breached the stockade using canon fire. They then retreated for the night. In the morning, the Mexicans found the Indian camp deserted. Thinking that Estanislao and his rebels had fled to another stockaded village about 10 miles away, the Mexicans attacked the village. They set fire to the stockade and shot all who tried to escape. They found that Estanislao was not among the dead.

Estanislao later secretly returned to the Mission San José and asked the priest for a pardon. The priest agreed that he could return to the mission if he promised never to raid again.

Kit Carson fought the Mission Indians

In 1830, Christian Indians under the leadership of Francisco Jímenez, the Indian alcalde of the Mission San José, attempted to capture some Indians who had run away from the mission and were living with the Ochejamne Miwok. The Miwok repelled the invaders.

Jímenez then recruited the aid of some American trappers, including Kit Carson, who fought the Miwok for an entire day, killing many Indians, and burning the village. They took some captives back to the mission.

Later the Sierra Miwok captured about 60 horses from the American trappers. Kit Carson and others chased the Miwok for over 100 miles into the Sierras. They attacked the Miwok camp, killing eight and taking three children captive. They recaptured most of their horses.

In 1833, American fur trappers found a village of Spanish-speaking Chumash living near Walker Pass. This group of Indians were renegades who fled from the Spanish missions during the 1824 revolt. They were raising corn and had horses.

The Mission Indian Period ended in 1834

After 65 years, the mission period ended in 1834 after Mexico won its independence from Spain and secularized the missions. Only then were the mission Indians free to leave, but by then they had no villages to return to.

The California Gold Rush increased the slaughter of the Mission Indians

In 1848, the United States acquired California from Mexico under the Treaty of Guadalupe, just in time for the Gold Rush of 1849. Now, the mountain tribes encountered European miners who saw Indian women as concubines and Indian men as slaves or even as shooting targets for sport.

From a high population estimated at over 300,000 before contact, Indians in California only numbered about 16,000 in 1900. Because of disease, homicide, and loss of their native environment and food sources, the Indian population in California decreased by about 99.5% in a period of ony 131 years, or in about three generations!

The Indian groups known as the Mission Indians are the following tribes today: