The History of California Essay
The Native American population in California flourished in the years leading up to the Spanish and Mexican periods in California. Hunting, fishing, and fertile land were very abundant and the Native population was growing steadily;
however the European colonization upon Native Americans during the Spanish and Mexican periods forever changed the lives and cultures of the Native Americans. The Native American populations were ravaged by displacement, disease, warfare, and the European’s attempt to dissolve all aspects of Native American life. As the Native Americans encountered the European explorers and mission Padres the first effects of colonization began to corrode the Native American life.
The impact of the European colonization is evident in the drastic decline in the Native American population in California during the Mission period. It has been estimated that there were about 310,000 Native Americans that inhabited California during the beginning of the Mission period, however the missions created a high death rate and low birth rate, due to several devastating factors that were introduced to the Native population with the building of the missions. Native Americans died daily of disease, infection, and starvation. By then end of the Mission period there were only 150,000 Native Americans estimated to be still living in California.
The Native American’s society was impacted dramatically by this loss of nearly half of the Native American population in California. Such a dramatic loss in a societies population can disrupt their ability to rebuild their population, which creates difficultly in passing on their culture to future generations. Without a strong population to protect their culture, European colonization was hard to resist and the Native American society did not have the population to successfully resist the European colonization. The Native American culture was not encouraged by the Europeans, who forced the Native American’s to convert to Christianity and leave their Native beliefs and culture behind, making it very hard for the Native American’s to preserve their own beliefs and culture.
The massive decline in the Native American population has been explained by some authors that have written about the California Missions and the Native Americans, each with very different view. Sherburne F. Cook, who expressed his belief that the Native Americans were primitive persons that were “stupid and ignorant,” explained that it was the Native Americans stupidity and ignorance forced the “authority at the top [to] exercise force, moral or physical, to obtain essential effort on the part of the mass.” Any group that is conquered is not going to adapt successfully to a foreign way of life, especially when it is forced upon them. Cook’s ideas on the Native American’s illuminates the Europeans feelings towards the Native Americans of California and why the Europeans felt that it was necessary to convert the Native Americans.
The Native Americans could have never imagined the changes that lied ahead with the arrival of their white neighbors. The Native Americans were made to work for the missions that were created to convert the Native Americans in to God-fearing Christians and to labor the mission fields. While in the missions, the Native Americans were persuaded by hard labor, beatings, starvation, and the stripping of their culture to convert to Christianity and to abandon their former religious beliefs. The Native Americans religious beliefs had deep roots in the land that they lived on. There were spirits for the land, and food that they used. The Native Americans found it very hard to watch the land that was important to them for food, shelter, and religious matters, taken away.
In the missions the Native Americans were no longer allowed to hunt and gather their food like they did prior to the arrival of the Europeans. Some Native Americans would try to escape from the missions to hunt deer and other game to feed their starving families that resided in the missions. However, most escapees were caught and then whipped for their disobedience.
The missionaries whipped the Native Americans, according to Francis Guest, because “whipping played a significant role in Spanish culture in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.” Guest suggests that the missionaries were welcoming the Native Americans into their culture and trying to make them part of the Spanish culture. The missionaries would apply the same discipline to themselves. In the end one can say that the whipping was just, but only when looking at the mission period from the viewpoint of the Spanish. Examining the mission period in today’s modern society, people would find the beating of the Native Americans by the mission Padres as unjust and even bizarre. People might see the Padres whipping as extreme and brutal today, since this is not normal behavior in modern society.
The Native American’s had the highest respect for the land that they lived on and from. Native American’s were very good at using every part of an animal that they killed during a hunt. When the Europeans came to California with their firearms in search of wealth, the new foreign settlers began to destroy the Native American way of life that depended on the untouched wild land that they lived on. The settlers would not use the entire animal. Animals would be found with only their skins taken, leaving the meat of the animal to rot. The Native American’s soon found that the animals that they regularly hunted were being driven away by the new settlers. The Native Americans did not corral or fence any game that they hunted. When European settlers arrived they put up fences to claim their portion of land. The fences became an issue with the native animals that would get stuck in the fences or were displaced due to the fences. The Native Americans resorted to hunting any animals that they found. The Native American’s “fittingly saw cows and horses grazing upon their lands as legitimate quarry for their subsistence.” This would later create more hostility between the Native Americans and the new settlers.
After the Mission period the Native Americans were drawn to the rancheros that the Californios ran. The Californio society meant the transfer of economic resources from the missions to the Californios and then to the mostly white settlers. Life on the ranchero was not as harsh as mission life, however they were still laborers. Douglas Monroy explained that, “life on the ranchos did not require the discipline characteristic of the missions; labor on the ranchos was hard, but not consistently demanding, and no one worked very diligently anyway. For their labors they received food, clothing, or perhaps a few hides, which they so often traded for drink.” The Californios’ rancheros took over more of the Native American land and drove more of the wild game away. It was not only the Californios rancheros that were threatening their land, it was the settlers that began to squat on the open land. These new settlers that came from the Eastern states and foreign lands would shoot any animal that was not theirs on their property, including any man, woman, or child they saw as trespassers.
The new settlers that were moving in to California from the east came to California in search of a fresh start and wealth. These city settlers did not look upon the Native American nicely. The settlers believed that they were better people than the Native Americans, more civilized. With the increased foreign population in California the Native American’s found themselves at the bottom of the social ladder with a population that was rapidly declining and struggling to keep their true culture alive.
Cook, Sherburne F., The Conflict Between the California Indians and the White Civilization. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1943.
Guest 0. F. M., Francis F. “Cultural Perspectives on California Mission Life,” Southern California Quarterly. 65, Spring 1983.
Monroy, Douglas. “The Creation and Re-creation of Californio Society.” In Contested Eden: California Before the Gold Rush, edited by Ramón A. Gutiérrez and Richard J. Orsi. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.