Museum Director Musings on the Imminent Demise of the “Sugarcube Mission”

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In recent days, articles and editorials have been published discussing the recommendations in California’s newly adopted history-social science curriculum framework for fourth-grade instruction regarding the Roman Catholic missions and specifically the mission projects in which students constructed mission buildings using kits or of their own (or that of their parents) design.

While the framework, adopted a little over a year ago in July 2016, can’t prohibit teachers from assigning a mission-building project, it does have strong words for the long-standing tradition:

In selecting sources and directing students’ investigations, attention should focus on the daily experience of missions rather than the building structures themselves. Building missions from sugar cubes or popsicle sticks does not help students understand the period and is offensive to many. Instead, students should have access to multiple sources that identify and help children understand the lives of different groups of people who lived in and around missions, so that students can place them in a comparative context. Missions were sites of conflict, conquest, and forced labor. Students should consider cultural differences, such as gender roles and religious beliefs, in order to better understand the dynamics of Native and Spanish interaction.

I’ve been a judge for mission building projects for the 48th District Agricultural Association, which supports agricultural literacy in greater Los Angeles.  For this organization, the focus with these projects has been on students demonstrating the importance on agriculture at the missions.

California Indian 2 1842
A hand-colored print of a California Indian from Dr. Prichard’s Natural History of Man, published in France in 1842

How much is expected of a nine or ten-year old student to discuss that issues of “conflict, conquest, and forced labor” as part of “the dynamics of Native and Spanish interaction” is at the heart of the matter.  How do teachers approach these considerations in the classroom generally, much less with the specific project?  How are students expected to demonstrate a basic proficiency in understanding and explaining these issues?

The story of the missions is an important one for the early history of the Homestead’s occupancy by the family of William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste.  Nicolasa was born and raised in Taos, New Mexico, a Spanish town built near the ancient Native pueblo of the same name, so the issue of Native and Spanish interaction is part of her story.

In 1841, the Workmans, including their children, Margarita and José, came to Los Angeles and the next spring settled on the Rancho La Puente.  The rancho was established as one of many within the jurisdiction of the Mission San Gabriel, founded in 1771 in the Whittier Narrows and moved within a few years to its current location.  La Puente was utilized by the mission fathers for grain farming as well as horse and cattle raising and an adobe granary (often listed on maps as “Mision Graneros”) was located just north, across Valley Boulevard, from the Homestead.

Public surveys 6 1861
The 1861 edition of the “Public Surveys of California,” created for the land claims process involving Spanish and Mexican era land grants shows “Mission Graneros” as “Mis. Cranoras” on Rancho La Puente.  La Puente was a former ranch of Mission San Gabriel at the upper left.

For at least forty years (the earliest references found so far to La Puente date to the early 1790s) until the missions were “secularized,” or essentially shut down, in the mid-1830s, the rancho employed Native labor, undoubtedly forced in many, if not most, cases, to tend to the fields and the livestock.

John Rowland, William Workman’s New Mexico business partner and longtime friend, secured a grant to La Puente from Governor Juan Bautista Alvarado in spring 1842, but not without protest from the mission fathers at San Gabriel who protested they still had cattle and horses on the ranch.   A key condition of the grant, conforming to all such transfers of ranchos, was that any Natives found on the tract were to be properly cared for.  What was intended and what was carried out in practice could be very different.

Sources indicate that the Native settlement of Awig-na was either very near the Homestead or near La Puente High School, or both, given the occasional flooding of San José Creek, on which Natives (and Europeans) depended.  It is clear that the decision of Rowland and Workman to establish their homes near the village was, as with the mission’s establishment of the granary, so they could continue to use Native labor for their agricultural and ranching pursuits.

Miller visit Oct 1856
A published version of artist Henry Miller’s 1856 visit to the Homestead and his mention of native Indians.

Unfortunately, documentation of Native life on the rancho, either during the mission period or the Rowland/Workman years, is, as elsewhere, sparse.  In 1856, Henry Miller, an artist who visited the Workmans and then drew the plans for St. Nicholas’s Chapel, named for Nicolasa and placed in the newly established El Campo Santo Cemetery near one of the identified Native village sites, stated that the chapel was built “for the benefit of his Indians who live near his house in their shantees and who work for him, earning 50 cents a day.”

Yet, the dramatic decline in the native population worsened considerably just after the chapel’s completion, sometime around 1860, as alcoholism, violence, and disease, including smallpox, took a horrific toll on the Native people.  It is uncertain how many Natives, who were very numerous on the Rowland half of La Puente, survived on the ranch beyond the 1860s.

The mission site in San Gabriel was also important to the Workman and Temple families.  Many sacraments involving the family were conducted in the old stone church which still stands and it seems certain that San Gabriel priests conducted services in St. Nicholas’s Chapel.

SG Mission Rogers SV 2
An 1880s stereoscopic photograph by F.H. Rogers, a Los Angeles-based photographer, of Mission San Gabriel.

In 1846, as the American invasion of Mexican Alta California was imminent, Governor Pío Pico granted the mission lands around the church and associated structures to Workman and Hugo Reid, a native of Scotland who married Victoria Bartolomea, a prominent Native.

The ownership of mission lands by Workman and Reid (and Reid’s successors after his death in 1852) was heavily contested by local settlers and the federal government, resultng in the U.S. Supreme Court’s rejecting of Pico’s grant, which had been validated by a land commission and local federal district court.

Later, Workman’s grandson Walter P. Temple acquired property across from the mission and, in the early 1920s, developed three business buildings and donated a lot for San Gabriel City Hall.  He was also a major donor to the Mission Playhouse, which housed the widely-known “Mission Play,” a pro-mission and highly romanticized rendering of “Native and Spanish interaction.”  Temple also placed a marker at the old mission site in Whittier Narrows that incorrectly locates the site, but which is designated a California Historical Landmark.

Tom Gabriela wedding
Thomas W. Temple II and Gabriela Quiroz were married at the old Mission San Gabriel church in November 1938, one of many Workman and Temple sacraments held at the site.

Temple’s son, Thomas, who eschewed the law to become a historian and genealogist, served as the historian of the mission and the City of San Gabriel from the 1930s until his death in 1972 and was rendered a singular honor, remaining the only layperson buried with the clergy in the courtyard adjoining the old stone church.

So, the question of those mission projects is a particularly interesting one for us at the Homestead.  The new framework goes on to offer detailed suggestions for how teachers can work with students to better understand the mission period:

Students should analyze the impact of European diseases upon the indigenous population. And as much as possible, students should be encouraged to view sources that represent how missionaries viewed missions and how natives lived there, and the role of the Spanish/Mexican settler population in facilitating the system. In addition to examining the missions’ impact on individuals, students should consider its impact on the natural environment. The arrival of the Spanish, along with their imported flora and fauna, catalyzed a change in the region’s ecosystem as well as its economy. What had once been a landscape shaped by hunter-gatherer societies became an area devoted to agriculture and the distribution of goods throughout the Spanish empire. Students can analyze data about crop production and livestock in order to better understand how people used the land and intensified the use of its natural resources.

These are all laudable goals, though this is asking a lot given the overall curriculum for fourth grade studies of California history.  Supporters of the mission project argue that the old standby can be adopted to address the concerns expressed in the framework, while opponents feel that the project glorifies the European and Catholic point of view at the expense of the Natives.

This post hardly can expect to offer concrete (or wood or sugarcube) answers for this highly charged question, but it does seem that, given the importance placed on critical thinking, textual analysis, group work, and interactive projects, that the next generation of student projects dealing with the “Native and Spanish interaction” could offer several choices to students.

These could include something offering a snapshot of lives in a Native village; on a mission; or on a rancho.  A project could explore Native activities at a local village or trade with other tribes; the revolts of Natives peoples, such as the one projected by the Native woman Toypurina at San Gabriel in the 1780s; the important work of Eulalia Pérez de Gullien, the llavalera (literally, keeper of the keys or housemother for females at the mission); how Natives were employed as forced labor in agriculture, hide and tallow rendering, and stock raising at missions; and how they worked on Spanish and Mexican era ranchos owned by private citizens.

Museums like the Homestead can be useful and important sources of ideas, information and collaboration with districts, schools, teachers and students and their parents, as projects of whatever kind are developed under the new framework.

Rather than lament the apparent demise of the mission project, this is an opportunity to see what new, educational, and, yes, fun projects can be created with a greater degree of depth and richness so our fourth-graders can know more about the remarkable period of “Native and Spanish interaction” that was so vital to the the transformation of California.


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