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The Present Condition of the Mission Indians in Southern California, by Helen Hunt Jackson, first published in 1883.



The Spanish Promise

When Spain relinquished California to Mexico after the Mexican revolution of 1821, she tried to protect the native peoples by making proclamations on their behalf. Helen Hunt Jackson notes the following about Spain's good intentions:

"We command," said the Spanish king, "that the sale, grant and composition of lands be executed with such attention that the Indians be left in possession of the full amount of lands belonging to them, wither singly or in communities, together with their rivers and waters; and the lands which they shall have drained or otherwise improved, whereby they may by their own industry have rendered them fertile, are reserved, in the first place, and can in no case be sold or aliened. And the judges who have been sent thither shall specify what Indians they may have found on the land, and what lands they shall have left in possession of each of the elders of the tribes, caciques, governors, or communities"

Grazing estates for cattle are ordered to be located "apart from the fields and villages of the Indians." The king's commands is that no such estates shall be granted "in any parts or place where damage can accrue to the Indians." Every grant of land must be made "without prejudice to the Indians;" and "such as may be granted to their prejudice and injury" must be "restored to whomever they by right shall belong."

"In order to avoid the inconveniences and damages resulting from the sale or gift to Spaniards of tracts of land to the prejudice of the Indians, upon the suspicious testimony of witnesses," the king orders that all sales and gifts are to be made before the attorneys of the royal audiencias, and "always with an eye to the benefit of the Indians;" and "the king's solicitors are to be protectors of the Indians and plead for them."

In those days everything in New Spain was thus ordered by royal decrees. Nobody had grants of land in the sense in which we use the word. When the friars wished to reward an industrious and capable Indian, and test his capacity to take care of himself and family, by giving him a little farm of his own, all they had to do was to mark off the portion of the land, put the Indian on it, and tell him is was his.

Most of the original Mexican grants included tracts of land on which Indians were living, sometimes large villages of them. In many of these grants, in accordance with the old Spanish law or custom, was incorporated a clause protecting the Indians. They were to be left undisturbed in their homes; the portion of the grant occupied by them did not belong to the grantee in any such sense as to entitle him to eject them. The land on which they were living, and the land they were cultivating at the time of the grant, belonged to them as long as they pleased to occupy it. The instances were rare in which Mexican grantees disturbed or in any way interfered with Indians living on their estates. There was no reason why they should. There was plenty of land to spare, and it was simply a convenience and an advantage to have the skilled and docile Indian laborer on the ground.

But when the easy-going, generous, improvident Mexican needed or desired to sell his grant and the sharp American was on hand to buy it, then was brought to light the helplessness of the Indian's position.

The American Attitude

What cared the sharp American for that sentimental clause, "without injury to the Indians"? Not a farthing. Why should he? His government, before him, had decided that all the lands belonging to the old missions, excepting small portions technically held as church property, and therefore "out of commerce" were government lands. None of the Indians living on those lands at the time of the American possession were held to have any right to them. That they and their ancestors had been [living on them for generations] made no difference. Americans wishing to pre-empt claims on any of those so-called government lands did not regard the presence on them of Indian families or communities as any more of a barrier than the presence of so many coyotes or foxes. They would not hesitate to certify to the land office that such lands were "unoccupied".

The American wanted every rod of his land, every drop of water on it; his schemes were boundless; his greed insatiable; he had no use for Indians. His plan did not embrace them, and could not enlarge itself to take them in. They must go. This is, in brief, the summing up of the way in which has come about the present pitiable state of the California Mission Indians.

Outraged Whites Speak Out

In 1852 a report in regard to these Indians was made to the Interior Department [in Washington DC] by the Honorable B.D. Wilson of Los Angeles. Mr. Wilson was an old Californian, had known the Indians well, and had been eyewitness too much of the cruelty and injustice done to them. He estimates that there was at [the time of the fall of the missions] in the counties of Tulare, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and San Diego over 15,000 Indians who had been connected with the missions in those counties. They all spoke the Spanish language, and a not inconsiderable number could read and write it. They had built all the houses in the country, had taught the whites how to make brick, mud mortar, how to use asphalt on roofs; they understood irrigation, were good herders, reapers, etc. They were paid only half the wages given to whites. The Los Angeles [mayor] passed an edict declaring that "all Indians with out masters" must live outside the town limits; also. That all Indians who could not show papers from the alcalde of the pueblo in which they lived, should be treated as "horse thieves and enemies".

Twenty years later, when another special report on the condition of the California Mission Indians was asked for by the Government, not over 5,000 Indians remained to be reported on. Vice and cruelty had reaped large harvest each year. In some instances whole villages of them had been driven off at once by fraudulently procured and fraudulently enforced claims.

There are still left in the mountain ranges of South California a few Indian villages which will probably, of some time to come, preserve their independent existence. Some of them number as many as two or three hundred inhabitants. Each has his own chief, or, as he is now called, "captain".

Of Mr. Wilson's report in 1852, and Mr. Ames's report in 1873, nothing came, except the occasional setting off of reservations by executive orders, which, if lands reserved

Were worth anything, were speedily revoked at the bidding if California politicians. There are still some reservations left, chiefly of desert or mountainous lands, which nobody wants, and on which the Indians could not live.

The last report made to the Indian Bureau by their present agent closes in the following words :-

"The necessity of providing suitable lands for them in the form of one or more reservations had been pressed on the attention of the department in my former reports; and I now, for the third and perhaps last time, emphasize that necessity by saying that whether government will immediately heed the please that have been made on behalf of these people or not it must sooner or later deal with this question in a practical way, or else see a population of over 3,000 Indians become homeless wanderers in a desert region."

If the United States Government does not take steps to avert this danger, to give them lands and protect their rights, the chapter of the history of the Mission Indians will be the blackest in the black record of our dealings with the Indian race.

Helen Hunt Jackson, 1883