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Database Tells the Stories of 100,000 Mission Indians

August 08, 2006|Larry Gordon | Times Staff Writer

Reclaiming a neglected part of California's past, historians Monday unveiled an immense data bank that for the first time chronicles the lives and deaths of more than 100,000 Indians in the Spanish missions of the 18th and 19th centuries.

In an eight-year effort, researchers at the Huntington Library in San Marino used handwritten records of baptisms, marriages and deaths at 21 Catholic missions and two other sites from between 1769 and 1850 and created a cross-referenced computerized repository that is now open to public access.

The Early California Population Project, its creators hope, will help bring the state's Spanish colonial and Mexican eras from out of the long shadows cast by the 13 English colonies on the East Coast.

"What we are trying to do here is to say these people have a history, and it's not a history that can be caricatured," said the project's general editor, historian Steven W. Hackel. "It's a history that emerges from a deep native past and a deep Spanish past and shows how the two came together for better or worse."

Huntington officials say scholars and amateur genealogists will be able to track, among other things, how many descendants of a Miwok Indian survived into the era of U.S. statehood, how many people died in an earthquake or a measles epidemic, how frequent intermarriage was between Spanish soldiers and Indian women, or how many Indians worked in farming or became skilled artisans.

The database does not offer judgments on the long debates about whether the Franciscans forced Indians into the missions and treated them brutally or whether Father Junipero Serra, founder of the California mission system, deserves to be, as he is now, just one step from sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church.

However, it does document the Franciscans' obsessions with converting Indians to Catholicism and its bans on polygamy and illegitimacy. And, death by death, it shows an extraordinarily high mortality rate as Indians became exposed to European diseases such as measles, influenza and smallpox.

"People who think the missions were places of cultural genocide and terrible population decline can look at this database, and they'll see that people came into the missions and died soon after," said Hackel, a history professor at Oregon State University. "People who want to see something else in the missions can look here too. It also shows tremendous Indian persistence and attempts to maintain their own communities within the missions."

The public can gain access to the database through an Internet link at http://www.huntington.org. Conducting searches on the site can be complicated at first because of the many choices involved.

The project, which cost $650,000, used records mainly taken from microfilm of the originals. They overwhelmingly concern Indians in the coastal regions from the San Diego to Marin County areas, perhaps as many as half of the Indians within the current state borders. Some Spanish soldiers and Mexican settlers are included through the turbulent times of Mexico's independence from Spain in 1821 and California U.S. statehood in 1850.

There are some gaps in the documents as the missions declined, the Franciscans were stripped of their authority and Indians revolted. After the San Diego mission was burned down in an insurrection in 1775, the priests re-created the logs from memory, Hackel said.

Still, the Franciscans remained good record-keepers. They assigned numbers to each baptism and carefully noted parents and godparents, village of origin, ethnic background and trades. As a result, many people can be traced with astonishing specifics through life and, with computer links, their progeny.

For example, a 2-day-old Indian boy, given the name Francisco, was baptized Aug. 11, 1786, at Mission San Diego, the project shows. The information links to his marriage at 18 to a woman named Maria Loreta, also 18 (a spinster by that era's customs) and her death five years later with no children.

Francisco married again the next year to Antonina, who died childless 10 months later. He married a third time, to Thomasa (she was 13 and he was 26) and had a baby girl, Ynes, who died at 6 months. Francisco died April 4, 1817, apparently held in high regard by the Franciscans because he was given a deathbed communion, not just an anointing.

Thomasa married twice more and had 10 more children, two of whom are recorded as dying in infancy.

The causes of deaths in that clan were not given, but other records reveal risks of Western life beyond disease. Some people died from bear and snake attacks and others drowned in wells. The 1812 San Juan Capistrano earthquake killed 39, all buried in the ruins of the mission church.

"It tells us one heck of a lot about the people of California before 1850," said Robert C. Ritchie, the Huntington's director of research. "It has an enormous amount of detail that sits below the big story we know: the dying of so many native people along the coast."

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