Revolting Indians

Passive resistance to colonial rule

Indians at Mission San Diego de Alcalá c. 1900
  • Indians at Mission San Diego de Alcalá c. 1900
  • San Diego Historical Society photo
  • “Between Mission and Reservation: The Experiences of San Diego Indians, 1833-1880”

Before the Spanish conquest, five groups of Native Americans lived in what is now San Diego County: Northern Diegueno, Kumeyaay, Luiseno, Cahuilla, and Cupeno.

They referred to each other by location; a band to the east, for example, was the “east people.” And they lived in “seasonal camps”— the mountains in summer, the valleys in winter — “selected according to access to water and protection from extreme weather and potential ambushes.”

When the Spanish established Mission San Diego de Alcala in 1769, cultures clashed. The Spanish missionaries dedicated themselves “to converting the Indians from what they viewed as lazy, godless savages to hard-working, disciplined Christians.”

Julie Edson’s thesis studies the responses of the indigenous population to conquest. In trying to “grasp the thoughts and feelings of the Native Americans toward their conquerors,” Edson finds both adaptation and resistance. She also tells one of the most horrific tales in California history.

To “prevent indigenous forms of knowledge, authority, and power from being passed from parents to their children,” the missionaries placed “neophyte” children in dorms away from their parents. The children couldn’t practice their religion or its rituals. Anyone who did suffered severe punishment.

Along with submitting to mission culture, the Indians faced “increased migration, war, disease, and social and economic inequities.” Old World diseases — smallpox, influenza, measles, and the common cold — devastated indigenous populations. (In 1806, for example, a measles epidemic killed almost one-third of all neophyte children.) “In pre-mission aboriginal society, the approximate annual death rate was 50 people per 1000.... (It) increased to an estimated 170 per 1000 by the beginning of the 19th Century.”

The Indians became a cheap labor force under the missionaries. They worked in the fields and orchards, made soap and adobe bricks, spun cotton and wool. Some crafted saddles, while others worked as carpenters, vaqueros, shepherds, and shearers.

Active resistance was rare, though in 1775, Father Serra predicted a rebellion after Spanish soldiers assaulted Kumeyaay women. “The gentiles... many times have been on the point of coming here to kill us all,” Serra wrote, “[because] some soldiers would catch Indian women...to become prey for their unbridled lust.” On November 4, 1775, an estimated 800 Indians from nine villages destroyed Mission San Diego and killed three Spaniards. They rebelled to protest “sexual assaults on the women and six years of Spanish rule.” That native Americans from nine villages — not all of them friendly — would band together illustrates the breadth of their rage.

To protest the “rigidity" of mission life, and to retain their ancient traditions, the Indians often used passive resistance. One group of neophytes at Mission San Diego refused to speak Spanish. Even when Fathers Fernando Martin and Jose Sanchez threatened punishment, the neophytes would not obey. The priests couldn’t understand “what reasons keep them from using Spanish.”

In a famous instance of devotion to ancestral customs, as a young neophyte of Mission San Juan Capistrano lay dying, he refused to take the final sacraments. “When asked why he refused, he responded, ‘Having lived deceived, I do not want to die deceived.’ ”

Priests often used the military to “recruit” Indians. As a result, many natives became fugitives. “The condition of these Indians is miserable indeed,” a visitor to Mission San Diego wrote in 1829, “and it is not to be wondered at that many attempts of escape from the severity of religious discipline of the Mission.”

The soldiers on recruiting forays traveled many leagues on horseback “to various villages, where they would drive off the Indian men and lasso the women to satisfy their lust.”

The women responded with abortion and infanticide. Abortion prevented “the birth of an Indian child into the mission institution aimed to destroy Indian culture and society.” Women practiced infanticide on racially mixed children. Hugo Reid observed: “Their disgust and abhorrence never left them.... In fact, every white child born among them for a long period was secretly strangled and buried.”

When they learned of this practice, the priests meted out severe punishment, even to mothers of stillborn children, whom the priests suspected of infanticide. Hugo Reid: “Having found out the practice.. .of destroying children born to the whites, [Father Jose Maria Zalvidea of Mission San Gabriel, Los Angeles] put down all miscarriages to the same cause.”

Zalvidea’s punishment included “shaving the head, flogging for 15 subsequent days, irons on the feet for three months, and having to appear every Sunday in church on the steps heading up to the altar, with a hideous painted wooden child in her arms.”

Edson’s thesis concludes that during the mission period, “The prevalence of neophyte disobedience illustrated that the actions by the missionaries.. .achieved limited success among the mission Indians.... Even the priests acknowledged the limits of acculturation.” When the missions became “secularized,” in 1833-’34, the Indians, no longer wards of the church, allegedly gained their freedom. “1833-1850 may be set down as the golden age of the Native Californians,” says the History of San Diego County (1888). “The missions were breaking up, the presidios deserted. Never before and never since did a people settle down under the blessings of more diverse advantages.”


  1. The Indians adopted proactive methods for earning money independent from working for landowners or begging.... The Indians of Agua Caliente claimed “the immediate vicinity of a spring as their own,” and they required one dollar [from people wanting] to bathe there.
  2. The welfare of indentured Indian children went unchecked because the law also prevented Indians any recourse against an abusive or neglectful white owner. Section 6 of the Act [ for the Government and Protection of Indians] provided that...in no case shall a white man be convicted of any offense upon the testimony of an Indian.”
  3. “The son counts 18 years as a Christian, but the father is an obstinate savage still enamored of his brutal liberty and perpetual idleness. The granddaughter is a Christian, but the sister stays in the mountains.”

Share / Tools

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • AddThis
  • Email

More from SDReader


Log in to comment

Skip Ad

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader