“The Neglect and Outrage Have Been Mainly Our Own”: A Report on the “Mission Indians, State of California,’ 18 August 1888, Part One

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

While this evening’s featured object from the museum’s collection dealt specifically with the indigenous people in reservations, all of which were then in what was then San Diego and San Bernardino counties, until some were situated within five years in the newly created Riverside County, there is a major greater Los Angeles connection.

The document is a report from the Committee on Indian Affairs to the first session of the House of Representatives during the Fiftieth Congress, and dealt with Senate Bill 2 “for the relief of the Mission Indians of California” with a recommendation to add a section concerning the building of water delivery systems and railroads (no longer than ten miles) and other transportation routes through native reservations on order of the Secretary of the Interior.

A drawing of an indigenous Californian made by a French artist in 1842 and a print of which is in the Homestead’s collection.

The focus here, however, is on more general statements about the native peoples of California and their treatment at the hands of colonizers in the Spanish, Mexican and early American eras. Notably the committee, in adopting the wording used in a Senate report, affirmed that:

the history of the Mission Indians for a century may be written in four words: conversion, cviilization, neglect, outrage. The conversion and civilization were the work of the mission fathers previous to our acquisition [seizure] of California; the neglect and outrage have been mainly our own. Justice and humanity alike demand the immediate action of Government to preserve for their occupation the fragments of land not already taken from them.

A key component of the report was the inclusion of “a report of Mrs. Helen Jackson and Mr. Abbot Kinney, giving the results of an investigation into the condition of these Indians and making recommendations of measures to be adopted for their protection and relief.” Helen Hunt Jackson was the author of the stunningly successful novel, Ramona, published four years prior and, though she intended the work to bring the plight of the indigenous people of California to greater public attention, readers instead were fixated on the romance between the title character and her doomed beau Alessandro.

As for Kinney, he was a cigarette manufacturer whose asthma (there’s an irony for you) led him to come to Los Angeles in 1880, where he and a Black servant stayed at the Sierra Madre Villa, a well-known resort at the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. One of a large number of “health seekers” to find respite among a number of resorts and sanitaria in the area, Kinney soon purchased 550 acres near the Villa and called his domain Kinneloa. Today, the unincorporated county area of Kinneloa Mesa is in part of this property, which Kinney and his family left to settle on the coast near Santa Monica and where he later founded Venice.

Another drawing of a native by the same artist.

The Jackson/Kinney report was dated 13 July 1883 and it began with the observation that “the term ‘Mission Indians’ dates back over one hundred years, to the time of the Franciscan missions in California. It then included all Indians who lived in the mission establishments, or were under the care of the Franciscan fathers.” Moreover, it was assumed that “very naturally the term has continued to be applied to the descendants of those Indians,” though in a rapidly urbanizing greater Los Angeles, indigenous people intermarried frequently with Latinos and were generally identified with them rather than as natives.

With respect to the Indian Bureau, however, the term was specific to the indigenous people from the Serrano, Cahuilla, Luiseño and Diegueño groups in San Bernardino and San Diego County. A table showed that the 1880 census counted just under 3,000 persons from these four groups, nearly 40% being Luiseños, a quarter being Diegueños, 23% being Cahuillas, and about half that being Serranos. As it usually the case with census data, it was noted that “this estimate probably falls considerably short of the real numbers, as there are no doubt in hiding, so to speak, in remote and inaccessible spots, many individuals, families and even villages, that have never been counted.”

A very rare stereoscopic photography from about 1870 of an indigneous kizh, or house, likely on the Rancho Santa Anita, and from the museum’s holdings.

Of those enumerated, they were said to be mainly “in small and isolated villages, some on reservations . . . some on Government land not reserved, and some upon lands included within the boundaries of confirmed Mexican grants.” Then, there were many said

to be found on the outskirts of white settlements, as at Riverside, San Beranrdino, or in the colonies in the San Gabriel Valley, where they live like gypsies in brush huts [the kizh dwelling, likely modified with modern elements], here to-day, gone to-morrow, eking out a miserable existence by days’ works, the wages of which are too often spent for whisky in the village saloons.

Jackson and Kinney added that tourists, coming upon “these wretched wayside creatures,would be greatly surprised at the sight of some of the Indian villages in the mountain valleys, where, freer from the contaminating influence of the white race, are industrious, peaceable communities, cultivating ground, keeping stock, carrying on their own simple manufactures of pottery, mats, baskets, etc., and making their living—a very poor living it is true, but they are independent and self-respecting in it, and ask for nothing . . . except that it [the government] will protect them in the ownership of their lands. . .”

The situation, sadly, was that the natives were gradually pushed further into the interior, while many of their former homelands, which contained wheat fields, orchards and vineyards, were left with “the ruins of their adobe houses” or dwellings “ocucpied by the robber whites who drove them out.” The authors stated that the matter was the responsibility of the federal government “which permitted lands thus occupied . . . to be put ‘in market,'” and those whites “who were not restrained, either by humanity or by a sense of justice” from filing claims under the 1862 Homestead Act “on lands which had been fenced, irrigated, tilled, and lived on by Indians for many generations.” Jackson and Kinney averred that “the Government can not justify this neglect on the plea of ignorance” because reports from regular and special Indian agents were submitted for some thirty years about these conditions.

Also discussed was some of the history of the preceding thirty or so years, including that “in 1851 one of the San Luiseno bands, the Aqua [Agua] Caliente Indians, in the north part of San Diego County [now Riverside County], made an attack on the house of a white settler, and there was for a time great fear of a general uprising of all the Indians in the country.” The writers stated that “it is probably that this was instigated by the Mexicans, and there was a concerted plan for driving the Americans out of the country,” this being four years after the seizure of Mexican Alta California by the United States. It was added tha four chiefs were executed by Army court-martial, while a treaty was arranged with the Luiseño and Diegueño tribes, including by “Col. J.J. Warner, the settler whose house had been attacked.”

Jackson and Kinney went on to note that “the greater part of the lands which were by this treaty assigned to the Indians are now within the boundaries of grants confirmed and patented since that time [due to the Land Claims Act, passed by Congress on 3 March 1851 and carried out very slowly over the course of the next two decades or so]; but there are many Indian villages still remaining on them, and all Indians living on such lands are supposed to be there solely on the tolerance and at the mercy of the owners of said ranches, and to be liable to ejectment by law.” The pair, however, suggested that this last point should be tested in the federal courts because “it is certain that in the case of all these Mission Indians the rights involved are quite different from and superior to the mere ‘occupancy’ right of the wild and uncivilized Indian.”

The writers noted that, once the United States took Mexican California, the indigenous people “were so far civilized that they had become the chief dependence of the Mexican and white settlers for all service indoors and out” and they quoted the “admirable report” of Benjamin D. Wilson, an Indian agent who sent his document to the Interior Department in 1853:

These same Indians had built all the houses in the country [presumably including the adobe portion of the Workman House in 1842], planted all the fields and vineyards. Under the Missions there were masons, carpenters, plasterers, soap-makers, tanners, shoemakers, blacksmiths, millers, bakers, cooks, brick-makers, carters and car-makers, weavers and spinners, saddlers, shepherds, agriculturists, horticulturists, vineros, vaqueros—in a word, they filled all the laborious occupations known to civilized society.”

It is also notable that Jackson and Kinney wrote that “the intentions of the Mexican Government towards these Indians were wise and humane.” Looking back at the “melancholy facts,” the two wrote that “it is painful to go over the details of the plans devised one short half century ago for their benefit.” There were said to be betwee 20,000 and 30,000 natives in the 21 missions built between 1769 and 1823 and that they were “living comfortable and industrious lives under the control of the Franciscan fathers.”

While the pair noted that the plan was to convert the missions into pueblos “as soon as the Indians should have become sufficiently civilized,” they omitted that the concept was that this would be done in only ten years. The 1833 secularization act passed by the Mexican Congress “provided that the Indians should have assigned to them cattle, horses, and sheep from the mission herds; also lands for cultivation.” Governor José Figueroa further decreed that heads of households and any person over 21 years of age should receive “a lot of land not exceeding 400 varas (the vara being three feet), nor less than 100.”

Moreover, common lands for grazing and watering their cattle was to be provided. Half the cattle in each mission was to be divided among the natives “in a proportionable and equitable manner,” as well as half “the chattels, instruments, seeds, etc.” On top of this, “the Indians were forbidden ‘to sell, burden, or alienate under any pretext the lands given them. Neither can they setll the cattle.” Any rancherias, or villages, that had over 25 families could become pueblos with the distribution of land and property handled in the same way as that from the missions.

Jackson and Kinney mildly stated that “these provisions were in no case faithfully carried out” as the valuable lands and material at the missions “was too great a temptation for human nature, especially in a time of revolution and misrule.” The era from 1833 until the American seizure in 1846 “is a record of shameful fraud and pullage, of which the Indians were the most hapless victims.” The promises of secularization were ignored and the indigenous people “were forced to labor on the mission lands like slaves; in many instances they were hired out in gangs to cruel masters.” Subjected to such “cruelties and oppressions,” many left, “returning to their old wilderness homes” while “those who remained in the neighborhood of the pueblos became constantly more and more demoralized, and were subjected to every form of outrage.”

The ayuntamiento (city council) of Los Angeles ordered that “all Indians found without passes, either from the alcade of the pueblos where they lived or from their ‘masters (significant phrase), were to be treated as horse-thieves and enemies.” Wilson, in his report, observed that there were “whole streets in Los Angeles where every other house was a grog-shop for Indians; and every Saturday night the town was filled with Indians in every stage of intoxication.” Those jailed for public drunkenness were “bound out to the highest bidders at the jail gates.” Wilson added,

The Indian has a quick sense of justice, he can never see why he is sold out to service for an indefinite period for intemperance, while the white man goes unpunished for the same thing, and the very richest and best men, to his eye, are such as tempt him to drink, and sometimes will pay him for his labor in no other way.”

The authors noted that “even the sober and industrious and best skilled among them could earn but little, it having become a custom to pay an Indian only half the wages of a white man.” Having offered what they called a “brief and necessarily fragmentary sketch of the position and state of the Missions Indians under the Mexican Government,” Jackson and Kinney wrote that “it will be seen that our Government received by the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo a legacy of a singularly unhappy race in a singularly anomalous position.”

Moreover, “with every year of our neglect the difficulties have increased and the wrongs have been multiplies, until now it is, humanly speaking, impossible to render to them full measure of justice. All that is left in our power is to make them some atonement.” The pair felt it was fortunate that the indigenous population had decreaed dramatically due to “suffering, hunger, disease and vice” killing about a half in the prior three decades, “but the remnant is worth saving.”

Beyond seeking atonement for injustices, the indigenous “are deserving of help on their own merits” and were people who a visitor had to have “a sentiment of respect and profound sympathy” even as many natives continued to work land from which they could be ejected at any time. It was added “that drunkenness, gambling, and other immoralities and sadly prevalent among them, cannot be denied; but the only wonder is that so many remain honest and virtuous under conditions which make practically null and void for them most of the motives which keep white men honest and virtuous.”

With this “fragmentary sketch” completed, Jackson and Kinney turned to their presecription for the problems facing the Mission Indians and we’ll return for the second part of this post, so please check back then.

Leave a Reply