Skip to main content

Dispelling the Mission Myths in California

'Resurrecting the Past: The California Mission Myth' gets to the reality of the Spanish mission system in California, revealing its origins as oppression tools against Indians.
  • Author:
  • Updated:

Most people don’t realize that the 21 Spanish missions that stretch from San Diego northward to Sonoma, California had two beginnings, two births. The first was in 1769 with the founding of Mission San Diego and ending with the construction of Mission San Francisco Solano in 1823. The second, the rebirth, began in the 1880s, when developers and boosters rescued the Spanish outposts from crumbling adobe ruins to attract tourism and new settlers to the Golden State.

The latter gave rise to a romantic narrative deeply rooted in California’s popular culture, according to Michelle Lorimer, author of Resurrecting the Past: The California Mission Myth (Great Oak Press, 2016).

“Many non-Native people continue to marginalize Native history and disrespect significant indigenous sites for private purposes,” said Lorimer.


Well-written, fluid in style, meticulously documented and carefully organized, Resurrecting the Past avoids the tedium found in many scholarly books on this subject. The book should be required reading for anyone connected to the public history of the missions, such as students, docents, clergy, educators, librarians and members of the media. It belongs on a shelf along with the best books written on the missions.

Lorimer explains the missions’ metamorphosis from primitive Spanish outposts in which forced labor, excessive physical punishment, disease and death were prevalent, to today’s climate-controlled buildings with carefully manicured gardens, gurgling fountains and religious-oriented museum exhibits. Along with the restoration and reconstruction of the missions came the erasure of the experiences of Native tribes and the glorification of the Franciscan founders and colonizers, writes Lorimer, a lecturer in history at California State University San Bernardino. She backs up her central thesis with abundant footnotes from a variety of primary and secondary sources.

Ruins of Mission Soledad, near Salinas California (c. 1900). The mission was rebuilt in 1954 with funds provided by the Native Daughters of the Golden West.

Ruins of Mission Soledad, near Salinas California (c. 1900). The mission was rebuilt in 1954 with funds provided by the Native Daughters of the Golden West.

Only a few missions recognize the struggles that Native peoples underwent in protecting their culture and ancestral homelands against invasion, coping with harsh physical punishments, forced labor regimes and cramped, unsanitary living conditions, the author recounts. Two of these sites, La Purisima and San Francisco Solano, are run by the State of California.

Lorimer traces the mythmaking to historians Hubert Bancroft (1832–1918) and Herbert Bolton (1870–1953). Although Bancroft condemned the abuse that the soldiers perpetrated, he called the Spanish period California’s “Golden Age” and praised the efforts of the Franciscan friars who brought “civilization to a wild land.” Later, three prominent writers reinforced the mission myths: Charles Fletcher Lummis (1885) with his travel journals, John Steven McGroarty (The Mission Play pageant, 1911) and Helen Hunt Jackson, who wrote the famous novel Ramona (1884).

In recent years, scholars such as Edward Castillo, Steven Hackel, James Sandos Lizbeth Haas and others have been more critical of the Spanish period, detailing the negative impact of the missions on Indigenous Peoples. Lorimer argues that their findings have not yet filtered down to classrooms and the popular culture. Mission interpreters, she says, continue to promote the romantic narratives of the early 20th-century promoters and boosters.

Resistance Strategies

Part of the myth, writes Lorimer, has been to downplay Native resistance at the missions. A docent at Mission Santa Barbara, for example, said that since the Natives vastly outnumbered the padres at the missions, they could easily have overpowered them if they were that discontented.

Lorimer writes that there was in fact strong resistance at several missions, beginning with the Kumeyaay burning down Mission San Diego (1775), the Gabrielena/Tongva revolt at Mission San Gabriel (1785) and the Chumash revolt of 1824 that spread from Missions Santa Barbara to Santa Ines and La Purisma.

Docents at the missions almost never mention these revolts, which included the poisoning and assassinations of Franciscan friars. A docent at Mission San Diego erroneously said, for example, that the Kumeyaay who destroyed the mission and assassinated Fray Luis Jayme were “jealous of the Indians who lived there.” Historical documents, however, including letters from Jayme and Junípero Serra (the latter canonized by Pope Francis in 2015, over Native objections) to their superiors, show that the Kumeyaay had long complained that Spanish soldiers were assaulting and raping their women. Nevertheless, the Catholic Church refers to Jayme as “California’s first Christian martyr.”

The mission dismissed the comment of the docent and any discussion of the mistreatment of Kumeyaay women.

“I won’t let the docents say this. There is no written documentation of this,” said Janet Bartell, head docent at the mission. “Father Jayme himself was surprised by the attack. I will not let anyone say anything negative about the Franciscans or the Spanish soldiers. We are not about negativity."

Fugitivism was another Native strategy at the missions. Lorimer cites numerous Native testimonies recounting how they fled the missions to escape epidemics that killed scores of people as well as physical punishments authorized by the padres.

Indian Burial Sites

Another point of contention between Natives and the missions is the disrespect shown to indigenous burial sites, writes Lorimer. In 1989, officials at Mission San Diego were forced to halt construction of a multipurpose hall when archaeologists found the remains of 70 persons buried at the site, despite official denials they were there. A similar event took place at San Juan Capistrano, when church officials built an unpermitted “Rectory Garden” on top of a known mission cemetery.

When Caroline Ward conducted her 60-day Walk for the Ancestors to visit the California missions, she frequently asked where the Natives were buried.

“Quite often, the answer was ‘under the parking lot,’ ” she said, or beneath a nearby road.

Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun tribal band, said that only recently were the remains of 2,000 members of his band discovered at a cemetery near Mission Santa Cruz. Lopez coordinated a Summer Solstice burial service at the site on June 21. But the Amah Mutsun are hardly an isolated example, Lopez said.

“Another place is Mission San Juan Bautista,” said Lopez. “Mission records indicate that more than 19,000 Indians are buried there, but the cemetery only registers 300. We have no idea where the rest of the bodies lie.”