Faulty Missions

While I blithely suggested in Shadowland, that during the roughly thirteen thousand years that indigenous peoples occupied this land, " not much happened" I take great exception to Kevin Starr's presumptuous line, in his California - A History, New York, 2005, that "During the fifty-two years of Spanish rule, little seems to have occurred outside the steady expansion of the mission system and the arrival of a few foreign visitors". Nothing that is, other than the genocidal extirpation of said indigenous peoples. The euro-centrism of California's State Historian is stunning.

Starr goes on, tightening the noose around his neck, "by contrast - from 1833 to its annexation by the United States in 1846 - the canvas is crowded with important events". That canvas might be more humanely employed as a hood for Kevin's head while the hangman for the Tribunal for Fair and Accurate Recording of Human History does his job.

1833 was the year that the Mexican Congress demanded that all missions be secularized. The Governor of California, Jose Figueroa took charge of this process and for a brief moment it seemed as though past wrongs might, to a small degree, be righted for the plan was to return half the Franciscan lands to mission Indians as the missions themselves were secularized over three years from 1834-1836. Figueroa died half way through this process and very few Indians ever came into possession of the land they and their forbears had worked, in appalling conditions, for half a century. By the end of secularization, the land grant rancho became the preferred device for re-allocating purloined land and more than 600 such grants were made during the Mexican era - distributed as political spoils. These vast holdings dominated the economy and led to a new class of Californian dons, living the good life with their extended families, on the rolling pasturelands of the State.

Meanwhile, locally, those Indians who remained wards of Mission San Buenaventura were relocated, in 1834, to worthless pastures along the Ventura River flood plain half a dozen miles inland from the coast. There they settled, built rough shelters (euphemistically called casitas and memorialized in the name of the village, Casitas Springs) and led lives tragically foreclosed by both the loss of their connection to a tribal life and the enforced institutionalization to which they had succumbed during the mission period. Little wonder that aside from the name, no vestige of their inhabitation survives in Casitas Springs, their sad histories apparently washed away in the frequent floods that plague these rank bottom-lands.

The stretch of road (SR 33), where once were dotted these casitas, now passes beneath an avenue of mature eucalypts, and winds between frame cottages sunk low to the ground in attitudes that suggest their owner-builders sought not the structures' longevity but instead, regular disbursements from their flood insurance policies, remains, I suspect, psychically scarred. The commercial highlight of this misbegotten stretch of highway is a bright neon and fluorescent-lit liquor and bait store. Otherwise, there is an antique lighting store with its stock gathering dust and increasing irrelevance as the federal ban on incandescent light bulbs begins to take hold, and a rental equipment yard. On the sharp incline that marks the eastern edge of the settlement, and serves as a dyke during inundations - holding the water in the town not out - once stood the Johnny Cash home; it burned to the ground some five or so years ago a little while after the man in black sold it.

Driving up the coast of California from Ojai, as we did last week, is to play a game of chicken with the San Andreas Fault. North to San Francisco and beyond, your route is twined along the length of the linear collision between the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate that grind past one another along a zone of subparallel faults, roughly one hundred kilometers wide, running north south between Eureka and the Salton Trough. For much of its length, the Mission Trail, built with the blood, sweat and tears of the indigenous population, follows this fault zone. Over the years, many of the missions have fallen victim to its temblors.

Mission San Diego de Alcalá was the first mission in Alta California, founded July 16, 1769, by Junípero Serra. Six years later it was burned to the ground by Native Americans and, rebuilt in 1776, was the first mission to fail seismically in the earthquake of 1801.

On December 8, 1812, a quake registering 7.0 occurred on the Mojave segment of the San Andreas fault causing significant damage as far away as San Juan Capistrano, where the foor of the mission collapsed killing 40 Native American worshippers as they celebrated the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Closer to the epicenter, the San Fernando Rey and San Gabriel Arcángel Missions were also damaged.

Later that same month, on the Winter Solstice, a magnitude 7.1 earthquake, centered in the Santa Barbara Channel, struck Santa Barbara, Ventura, and northern Los Angeles Counties. The chapel at Santa Barbara Mission was flattened and the church at La Purisima Concepcion Mission in Lompoc, completed in 1802, was destroyed. Nearby, Mission Buenaventura was felled by a combination of the quake and its resultant tsunami. Santa Inés mission in Solvang was also severely damaged.

Further north, Mission Santa Clara de Asís, built in 1784, was destroyed by an earthquake in 1818. Mission Santa Cruz, completed in 1794, was riven by earthquakes in 1840 and 1857 and collapsed a year later. Finally, in the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Mission San Juan Bautista was severely damaged. By some intercession of divine providence, however, Mission Yerba Buena, founded in 1776, survived both the earthquake and fire and is now the oldest building in San Francisco. In all, at least eleven of the twenty-one missions built between 1769 and 1823 either collapsed or were severely damaged by San Andreas Fault earthquakes.

Sonoma's San Francisco Solano is the last and northernmost outpost in California’s chain of missions. It is the only mission founded after Mexico achieved its independence from Spain - the government reasoning that it would stop the Russians advancing from the north. The church was attacked by Pomo Indians in 1826 after Father Altimíra’s constant beatings and imprisonment (their morale, apparently, having failed to improve) but it too, like Yerba Buena, has thus far escaped serious earthquake damage.

Starr's claim of the "steady expansion of the mission system", collapses under the most cursory of examinations. Between the hands of Native Americans bearing torches and the hand of god manifested in the wrath of San Andreas, the temporal and spiritual conquest of California by the Franciscans and their enablers, the Spanish Army, was resisted every step of the way.

Our trip, to San Francisco, Point Reyes, Sea Ranch, and a return via Sonoma, threaded through both strands of this braided history of Mission and Fault.

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