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Serra-gate: The Fabrication of a Saint

An anthropologist and historian dissects and discredits the writings that Catholics use to buttress Friar Junípero Serra's Native human rights record.

There is a scurrilous fabrication being disseminated by the Catholic Church regarding Junípero Serra, the missionary whom Pope Francis intends to canonize on September 23, 2015. Monsignor Francis J. Weber—whose article appears on several Catholic websites—calls Serra a “defender of the Indians’ human rights in 1773 when he journeyed from California to Mexico City to personally present to the viceroy a Representación …which is sometimes termed a ‘Bill of Rights’ for Indians.”

Note that the phrase—“sometimes termed”—implies that Serra did indeed create a “Bill of Rights” for Indians. By using the passive voice, Weber deftly avoids the issue of the claim’s accuracy. He implies what unnamed others have implied, a curious position for an archivist emeritus and author of several publications about the California missions.

Archbishop José H. Gomez makes a more audacious claim: The “Representación” “is probably the first ‘bill of rights’ published in North America,” he wrote in Angelus: The Tidings Onlinelast January. The lower-case “bill of rights” does not indicate that there is a document labeled that way but similarly implies that there is one that can be described in those terms.

The National Catholic Review went further when it reported on May 2 that Archbishop Gomez “offered strong evidence that Serra had in fact been ‘a protector and defender of the Indians,’ and had gained a ‘Bill of Rights’ for them [from the Spanish Viceroy in Mexico City] in 1773.” The words “in fact” now assert that the Viceroy issued a document that was identified as a “Bill of Rights.”

American makes an even wilder claim when it states that the “outcome” of Serra’s trip to Mexico City in 1773 was “the famous ‘Regulation’ protecting the Indians and the missions. It was the basis for the first significant legislation in California, a “Bill of Rights” for Native Americans.”

These specious claims are not supported by the historical record. Let’s look at what the documents state regarding why Serra went to see the Viceroy in 1773 and what the missionary actually submitted.

Serra’s last letter before leaving San Diego was written on October 13, 1772. It was addressed to the commanding officer of the presidio at Monterey, Pedro Fages. Serra had had a difficult relationship with the officer ever since Fages had been appointed to his post two years earlier. The backstory of that letter is critical to understanding what Serra wrote and why.

In 1770, Fages replaced Gaspar de Portolá, the military commander whom Serra had accompanied in 1769 on the expedition to Alta California. In 1768, Jesuit missionaries were expelled from Baja California for having enriched themselves at the expense of the Spanish Crown. As a result, the Dominican and Franciscan replacements were accorded limited religious authority so that they could not do the same. Serra began his tenure as Padre Presidente with circumscribed powers and none over military commanders. This quickly proved a source of friction between Fages and Serra, both of whom established their headquarters in Monterey, the officer at the Presidio and Serra at Mission San Carlos Boromeo de Carmelo.

The two men had divergent views regarding establishing new missions versus civil pueblos, how the soldiers should be deployed, and what the soldiers did when off duty. Despite these differences, the two leaders established three additional missions from 1771–72. Fages refused to provide supplies and soldiers for a fourth in 1772 that had been approved at San Buenaventura. Unbeknownst to Serra, Fages had an ace in the hole.

Almost a year earlier, in November 1771, the newly appointed Viceroy, Antonio Maria de Bucareli y Ursúa, had written a letter to Fages, instructing him to direct Serra and his missionaries to “obey and comply” with Fages’s orders. Bucareli wrote the letter in response to Fages’s accounts of an earlier incident that involved the desertion of soldiers and a mule driver from the San Diego mission. Fages did not mention the helpful role that Serra and Father Paterna (from San Diego) had played in bringing about the return of the deserters. Fages only apprised Serra of Bucareli’s instructions in a letter dated October 11, 1772.

The delay in conveying Bucareli’s order to Serra alerted the latter that Fages had undoubtedly had further communication with the Viceroy during the intervening months. Serra was in a difficult position. On October 13, 1772, he wrote back to Fages:

"…[I]n always [having] persuaded and tried to have your inferiors obey your orders, I have testimony of my conscience…. I am ready to put into effect whatever his Excellency [Viceroy Bucareli] commands…. I only beg of you that … you will permit me to see the original letter of his Excellency from which you extracted the clause, not because I have the least doubt of the exactness of the copy, but to see whether from the context I can arrive at some knowledge of what or about what had been the information which may have given his Excellency occasion to send use such an exhortation.”

In Appendix I of Antonine Tibesar’s Writings of Junipero Serra (1955), there is a letter from Rafael Verger, Guardian, to Serra dated March 9, 1773. It commands the latter to prepare a “juridical and exact report of all that will serve and is necessary to the stability and prosperity of those faraway new conquests [at the missions]…(pp. 401–2). Serra’s response was dated four days later. It is captioned on page 295, “[Document] 28. To Antonio Maria de Bucareli y Ursúa[:] Report [the English translation of Representación] on the general condition and needs of the missions of Upper California; thirty-two suggestions for improvement in the government of the missions. Written at Mexico City, March 13, 1773. Accompanying memorandum lists the church furnishings needed in some of the missions.”

The description is accurate. There is no mention of Indian rights or privileges in the title and none included in any of the 32 “suggestions.”

The report is the first document that Serra wrote that year and the only one thus entitled. It contains 32 items that fall into one or several of four categories: (A) changes concerning the commanding officer; (B) changes in the authority of the missionary fathers/Serra; (C) changes in the number and abilities of personnel at the missions other than the officer and missionary fathers; and (D) requests for goods and administrative practices to improve the missionary enterprise. I have classified the items for the sake of summarizing them. (Readers can access the full text of the “Representación” at the website of the Amah Mutstun Tribal Band.) Since the items are suggestions for “improvement,” it is easy to infer what the original complaint or problem was. Fages’s abuse of power is a persistent theme.

A. Changes concerning the commanding officer

Serra did not mince words when he stated in Item (6), “A measure that seems to be me of special importance is the removal, or recall, of the Officer Don Pedro Fages from the command of the Presidio at Monterey, and the appointment of another in his place” (p. 299). Serra supplied reasons: “every one [sic]” of the soldiers was “wrought up” not merely because of the long hours and lack of food, but because of the harsh treatment they received from Fages (p. 301). Those who did not leave only did so because they could not.

Item (7) recommended that Sergeant Don Jose Francisco Ortega replace Fages, and provided a detailed account of the sergeant’s accomplishments and abilities (pp. 301–305).

B. Changes in the authority of mission Fathers

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Item (9) deals with Serra’s own authority and is similarly straightforward: “Your Excellency should notify the said Officer and the soldiers that the training, governance, punishment and education of baptized Indians, or of those who are being prepared for Baptism, belong exclusively to the Missionary Fathers, the only exception being for capital offences” (p. 307).

Item 8 recommended that the viceroy give “strict orders” that, as soon as the missionary father of any mission request it, the newly appointed officer should remove any soldier who “gives bad example, especially in the matter of incontinence” (p. 305). Serra did not identify specific transgressions or their severity that were grounds for a soldier’s removal.

Serra further recommended (item 14) that each missionary father appoint a soldier foreman of his choosing to oversee farm and other work because under Fages, whenever a father praised a good soldier, the individual would immediately be dismissed or reassigned elsewhere.

C. Changes in the number and abilities of Spanish personnel at the missions other than the commanding officer

Serra made numerous recommendations regarding military and civil personnel involved in the missionary enterprise. He suggested the number of soldiers needed at each mission and why (item 10); soldiers’ pay should be increased to attract better men and their families (item 11); laborers should be brought in from Mexico to perform certain jobs (item 12); Christian Indian families from Baja California should be encouraged to immigrate to Alta California to provide a good example (item13); a forge and blacksmith should be provided at Monterey (items 16, 17, 18); a carpenter should be sent to the missions (item 19); and a doctor was needed at the missions (item 28).

D. Requests for specific goods and administrative practices to facilitate the missionary effort

Serra requested that a frigate loaded with provisions be sent “with upmost speed” to Monterey in order to save those at the presidio and missions from “the pangs of famine and starvation” (items 1–2) (pp. 295–297). However, he did not mention that Fages had taken his soldiers on a hunting expedition that killed 30 bears some 50 leagues from Monterey. The meat was critical in addressing the severe food shortages that resulted from the missions’ inept farming practices that had been exacerbated when a scheduled packet boat of supplies had failed to arrive. Like Fages, Serra was not above selectively presenting facts to suit his agenda.

Item 3 called the viceroy’s attention to the fact that while provisions were allocated for the 12 missionary fathers, none were specifically reserved for Serra, and it did not “seem the right thing that my brethren should have to maintain me with what they need for themselves” (p. 297).

Item four recommended that whatever was sent him as alms from Mexico be plainly marked for the missions and “are not to be inspected by the Officer of the presidio” (p. 299). Similarly, item 15 recommended that “an invoice of everything that is sent by boat to the missions for their upkeep …be separate from what is sent to the Commanding Officer at the presidio and the [soldier] escorts” (p. 313).

Serra recommended that expeditions be launched to establish overland routes between San Diego and Monterey and the Tubac Presidio (in present day Arizona) and Santa Fe (New Mexico) for better communication and to hasten the conquest of these regions (item 5).

Serra requested several specific items for the missions: bells (item 20), the mission furnishings and garb of the Jesuits who had been expelled from Baja California (item 21); mules (item 26); and that livestock be sent to the missions where they will receive better care than at the presidios (item 27).

Serra suggested that there be a severe penalty for opening letters addressed to others or sending them astray (item 22); that scales be accurately calibrated (item 23); that official stamps of specific weights be placed on all goods sent from Mexico to eliminate fraud (item 24); and that care be taken when packing foodstuffs for shipment from Mexico to assure they were edible when received at the missions (item 25).

He also recommended that leaves of absence be granted for 10 soldiers to return home (item 29); that soldiers who married converted Indian girls be given animals and land at their wife’s mission (item 30); and that a general amnesty be decreed for soldiers who had deserted and fled to live among the gentiles (item 31).

Lastly, Serra requested that he and the other mission fathers be given an exact duplicate of the viceroy’s final decisions for their own “guidance,” including any inventories of items sent the missionaries and/or the presidios. In the same vein, Serra asked to be informed of any order or instruction given to the commanding officer of the presidio at Monterey so that neither Serra nor any of the other fathers would interfere in that command (item 32). Given his disputes with Fages, Serra wanted no confusion about what his own powers were and what those of any future commanding officer were not.

The 32 items further substantiate that Serra went to Mexico City to defend his position vis-à-vis the commanding officer. In his report to the viceroy, Serra shrewdly re-framed what in essence was a power struggle between Fages and himself into a comprehensive plan to reform the administration of the missionary enterprise. All of the “suggestions” remained top-down from the Spanish administrators’ perspective. None discussed Indian complaints or desires. Apparently Natives were not considered or consulted.

Serra did not ask for teachers and books to help the Indians learn to speak, read and write Spanish so that they could function on their own in Spanish society and understand Spanish law. He did not request stock animals for each Indian family, although he did request that livestock be given to soldiers who married Indian girls and given as well to immigrants from Baja California to encourage them to settle at the northern missions. Serra did not suggest any change that would accord the Indians greater independence or control over their lives. He neither suggested nor was granted “rights” for Indians.

Indeed, what Serra requested—and what he was granted—was exclusive control over the baptized Indians except with respect to capital offenses. He himself did not in turn grant Indians any rights or privileges. His exclusive authority over them did not result in improvements in their lives. The abuses of Indian men and women by the soldiers did not stop after he obtained exclusive authority over the baptized Indians. Nor did the Indians themselves think their lives had improved as evidenced by ongoing native resistance such as running away from the missions despite harsh punishments for doing so and launching attacks on the missions at San Diego in 1775 and San Luis Obispo in 1776.

Serra’s authority (right) over baptized Indians included what he deemed a transgression and an appropriate punishment. On July 31, 1775, Serra wrote to Fernando de Rivera y Moncada (who replaced Fages but was not whom Serra had recommended), regarding several Indians who had run away from the mission but had been recaptured. Serra was sending the Indians to Rivera for a month-long period of exile and whipping as punishment that would also serve as a warning to others. Serra added, “If Your Lordship does not have shackles, with your permission they may be sent from here” (as quoted by Elias Castillo in A Cross of Thorns:The Enslavement of California's Indians by the Spanish Missions A Cross of Thorns (Craven Street Books, 2015).

It is a gross distortion to claim that Serra’s increased authority over every aspect of the Indians’ lives at the missions gave Natives “rights.” It is not true that Viceroy Bucareli issued a document that was called a “bill of rights” or accurately could be described as one. It is incorrect to refer to Serra’s “Representation” as a “Regulation” or to describe it as one. There is no foundation whatsoever for stating that Serra’s 32 “suggestions” were the “basis for the first significant legislation in California, a ‘Bill of Rights’ for Native Americans.”

Why do Catholic websites, publications and spokespersons fail to identify the “Representación” accurately and explain its provisions in detail? Perhaps it is so their audience will not notice that the 32 points are not “rights” for Indians. Serra did not travel to Mexico City to defend Indian rights or submit a document that anyone identified as an “Indian Bill of Rights” or a document that could legitimately be “termed” one. Catholic sources have shamelessly created a fabrication in an effort to make it seem as if Serra deserves canonization.