Indians attack San Diego Mission in 1775

Used smoke signals

Indian children with nun at San Diego Mission
  • Indian children with nun at San Diego Mission
  • San Diego Historical Society photo

Killea studies the indigenous Indian and the European Spanish societies in early San Diego — and how the land and climate interacted with “two dissimilar cultural heritages that clashed more than they blended.” At the heart of this clash was the Indian raid on San Diego Mission, November 5, 1775.

In 1774, San Diego Mission was moved, from San Diego Bay six miles inland to its present site, in the hope of acquiring better land for crops and water for irrigation. In 1776, Father Pedro Font reported that the mission has “plenty of grass” but was short on firewood and “very much shorter on timber. In fact, the mission of San Diego is the worst...and likewise its Indians are the worst.”

The Indians lived in small, clan-like settlements, shaped by a specific dialect. The Spanish called these settlements rancherias, each of which occupied a distinct territory. Killea writes, “the average... rancheria probably contained about 30 square miles to support 200 people."

The Spanish colonists believed the Indians were primitive “diggers” who never communicated with another settlement. But in 1775, more than 40 rancherias joined to attack San Diego Mission. These included Indians “from the sierra [the Laguna Mountains] accompanied by some coastal Christian and non-Christian Indians.” Near one o’clock on the morning of November 5, between 600 and 1000 Indians descended on the mission. Using firebrands, arrows, stones, and clubs, they looted the church and set fire to the buildings. Eleven members of the Spanish colony — two priests, four soldiers, two blacksmiths, a carpenter, and two boys — “held off the attack until the Indians, suffering considerable losses, retired from the scene at daybreak. That morning, the survivors moved to the Presidio for protection.”

Why did the Indians, with no history of “institutional warfare,” attack? Killea writes, “Conjecture on Indian reasons...indicates [a] multiplicity of causes...but does not provide any certain answers.”

Some possible causes: when the mission moved inland, the priests proselytized to new and larger groups of Indians; the missions also used more Indian pastures for grazing cattle and horses. Also, the ringleaders of the attack, Francisco and Carlos, may have lost their home rancheria Cosoy, in Mission Valley, to the new mission site.

Other possibilities: the Indians feared a loss of their precious acorn supply — the basic staple of their diet. Also, the Indians revolted “because priests had baptized them, and they hoped to...retum to their former life by killing the missionaries and soldiers.”

Some say a single event triggered the uprising. Indians of the “El Corral” rancheria, which corralled the mission horses, danced “according to their native custom. When the priests learned of this, the Christians from the mission who had taken part were whipped as punishment for participating in the pagan rites.”

The causes could be many, but, Killea observes, the joining of Indian forces in San Diego was as unexpected as it was unprecedented. “Proliferation of languages is cited frequently as a lack of regular communication among small groups of aboriginals living in relatively close proximity.... However, these differences were not sufficient to obstruct communication when a matter of overriding importance was at hand. For example, the Spanish interpretation of...numerous smoke spirals as signals was confirmed by the Indian witnesses.”


  1. A flood in September or October of 1821, caused by torrential rains in the mountains, filled the bed of the river from "bank to bank” and "washed away or seriously injured most of the places” that had been planted. It changed the main course of the river from San Diego Bay to Mission Bay, then called "False Bay."
  2. The colonists did not seek to integrate the natives into their society and viewed them primarily as a readily available and seemingly inexhaustible labor supply.
  3. A severe earthquake in December 1812 seriously damaged the church structure and killed 43 of the Indian worshippers in the church at the time. Everything seemed to go downhill for the mission after that, and the earthquake was viewed as the turning point in the well-being of the mission and Its Indian charges.
  4. Lasuen played a key role in the selection and foundation of San Luis Rey Mission, which later was considered the most successful — spiritually and materially — of them all.
  5. When the Indian was placed in the mission system, the requirement to provide for one's immediate family and for contributing to the welfare of a specific kinship group was removed.... For the Indian, to work to contribute to the well-being of a stranger, whether other Indians or Europeans, or to benefit known enemies was directly contrary to the...complex requirements of the Indian's cultural heritage.
  6. To the Indians, with only tule rafts at their disposal, the sea on the west was a much greater barrier than the rugged mountains on the east. For years the outer barrier: of the region tended to protect the Indians from undue outside interference or invasion by more warlike peoples. On the other hand, to the late-18th-century Spaniards, it was the sea which provided an avenue of access...much smoother than the rugged mountain slopes and the arid desert so treacherous to mules and horses.... If the San Diego region was an entirely protected world to its native Indians, it became a post of exile, usually voluntary, to the Spaniards who came to conquer it.

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