By John-Robin Middlebrook
Several Native American tribes dwelled in the area, including the Tongva, Juaneño, and Luiseño before the Spanish colonization began in the late 1700s. The two major groups of American Indians in Orange County were thought to originate from the Shoshonean family. They came to be known as the Gabrieleños and the Juaneños because of their proximity to the San Gabriel and San Juan Capistrano Missions.
In the late 1700s, the Spanish set out on a military campaign to colonize the West coast of the New World. The Spanish expeditionary leaders sought to rapidly transform California’s American Indian population into Spanish citizens to strengthen ties to Spain. In 1769, Gaspar de Portolá became the first Spanish military leader from Europe to officially explore and write about the territory of Orange County. He named many of its rivers, mountains, and valleys after the Catholic Saints. The Spanish Empire wanted to colonize quickly on the West coast because their enemy, Britain, was preoccupied on the East coast with the Revolutionary War.
The Spanish promised to give land to the American Indians in exchange for their support of colonization. This was the opposite of the British, who were opposed to assimilating American Indians into the British colonies. The Spanish also encouraged intermarriage between Spanish soldiers and American Indians. For example, Jose Antonio Yorba, born in Spain in 1746, from whom Yorba Linda in Orange County was eventually named, became a corporal under Gaspar de Portolá during the Spanish expedition of 1769. Yorba married an American Indian by the name of Maria Garcia Feliz at Monterey and had two children.
While the Spanish military was busy colonizing California for its resources, the Spanish Christian missionaries migrated to California to convert American Indians to Christianity. Father Serra from the Christian Franciscan order, an order best known for its vows of poverty, traveled with other Christian missionaries funded by the Spanish Empire and the Jesuits from Baja California to build missions. On November 1, 1776, the Franciscans built the first modern building of Orange County, known as the San Juan Capistrano Mission, which became the seventh mission of 21 in California.
Father Serra soon fled the mission after it was built because of opposition by the American Indians. However, he came back and began to teach the American Indians the Christian religion and because language was such a significant barrier between the Spanish and American Indians the Christian missionaries taught American Indians practical job training skills such as tanning, winemaking, blacksmithing, small business operations, and ranching.
Christian missionary life took place in the midst of a very aggressive military campaign by the Spanish Empire. The Spanish military was trying to colonize large amounts of California in hopes of eventually taking over the New World.
To date, there seems to be more bad reports depicting how the American Indians were treated within the Christian missions than there are good reports, but it is important to note that the most powerful force in the colonization of California was the Spanish military and not the Spanish Christian missions, even though the Christian mission did become the most widely recognized historical icon going back to that time. Some Christian missionaries created laws that were very bad, including demanding the American Indians not leave the missions once they were converted to Christianity. Many runaways were hunted down and forced into slave labor at the mission after conversion. However, most of the Christian missionaries were frustrated by the idea of American Indian labor used by the military and the settlers. Many American Indians joined the missions willingly.
It has also been discovered that at the highest point of missionary development in California, many American Indians worked only 4-5 hours a day and spent the rest of the time in choir, mass, instruction, and worship. The problem was that the Christian friars at the highest levels viewed the new American Indian converts, or neophytes as they were called, as spiritual children and not as equal and capable leaders. Thus, American Indian social growth was stunted as they were not recognized as equal citizens. However, the California mission period did not last long enough to really establish mutual trust between the two cultures.
The missionary period in California lasted less than two generations, conservatively from 1776-1833, but probably not even that long. It is difficult to understand how much influence the Spanish military and war factions had in the operations of the mission. There was also the problem of disease brought by the Spanish to the American Indians. The majority of American Indians were not killed by violence, but rather were decimated by three major epidemics, two of which were breakouts of smallpox and measles, and both had no cure at the time. These periodic outbreaks caused many American Indians to doubt the Christian faith.
Between 1776 and 1821 Spain remained in sole control of Orange County and California with hardly any land concessions to individual families. There were one or two exceptions including one military leader, Juan Pablo Grijalva, who received title to some California lands. During this time period, small bands of British, Russian and French traders also came to the region to trade with the missionaries and American Indians.
In 1810, a major change occurred when the Mexican and Spanish governments began fighting for land. In 1821 Mexico beat Spain and declared themselves an independent nation. The following year, the Mexican flag replaced the Spanish flag in Orange County. Almost immediately afterward, Mexico took away the promise of land from the American Indians and gave land to certain petitioning individuals who could show that they had enough resources to build a dwelling on the land in less than one year and who could cultivate the land for the Mexican government. American Indians were deeply upset over their lost promise for obtaining land and were no longer happy living in the missions. Since Spanish resources were spread thinly across North and South America during the fighting, supplies going to the missions became scarce and the missions and American Indians were left to fend for themselves. Immediately many missions in California were abandoned and the churches fell in ruins.
In 1833 the Mexican government secularized all of the California missions and took them away from control by the church. At this time the mission system of California had ended. The Mexican government tried to revert the land to American Indian control immediately.