Extremes: The Life and Times of Father José Maria Zalvidea

Father Zalvidea’s organization kept up with the lash!

William Heath Davis (circa 1850)
  • William Heath Davis (circa 1850)

Part One

Herbert Howe Bancroft: “There is no evidence that Father José Maria de Zalvidea ever had an enemy or said an unkind word to any man…. He was doubtless a model missionary, and then later regarded by the common people as a saint.”

Robert M. Senkewicz: “All authors agree that, as a Spanish missionary, he was very successful. However…he also tended to personify some of the worst aspects of the mission system. He [treated] the Indians as children, who, if they were to be truly converted, needed to be appropriately punished.”

William Heath Davis (1844)

After a visit to San Diego, William Heath Davis and James McKinley stopped at Mission San Luis Rey, where Davis encountered “the strangest man” he’d ever seen.

A tall, ancient Franciscan, burly and light-complexioned, paced from one end of the plaza to the other. Stooped over, bobbing his head, prayer book in hand, he looked lost in thought — or just lost.

He wore thick leather shoes, not the friars’ traditional sandals, and walked in a cautious, tiptoed motion, as if each step would bring pain. He sucked air in brief, asthmatic fits.

When he approached Davis, the friar gave him a sideways glance — “around the corner, as it were” — and a nod. Then he said, “Vamos, si señor... vamos, si señor... vamos, si señor” and retraced his pensive path across the plaza.

A woman came up carrying a gift. As if waking from a trance, the friar turned his back to her but reached out his free hand. He accepted the gift, said “Vamos, si señor” several times, and trundled on.

A former hide-and-tallow trader, Davis had seen much of the world and would eventually try to build a New San Diego eight miles south of Old Town. But the priest’s eccentricity astonished him.

Suddenly the friar snapped his fingers in a “spasmodic motion” and roared, “Vete, Satana!” (“Get away, Satan!”).

Surely, Davis told McKinley, the old padre’s “demented.”

“Oh, no,” said the trader from Scotland, who’d known Zalvidea for ten years. “His mind is perfectly clear and unimpaired.” He has given “his whole life to religion” and doesn’t “hold any intercourse with the world.”

At the afternoon meal, the friar frantically scraped vegetables, tortillas, beef, pudding, even a pie into a single wooden bowl. “An act of penance,” someone whispered to the visitors. “He does not care to enjoy his meals, and so makes them distasteful.”

Davis and McKinley stayed a day and a night. During that time, Davis tried to learn all he could about the old gray relic from a bygone era.

Born at Vizcaya, a Basque region of Spain, Zalvidea had been a missionary for almost 40 years: briefly at San Fernando Rey; at San Gabriel from 1806 to 1826, which he helped become the most productive mission of the chain; then, after exhaustion and possibly a breakdown, at San Juan Capistrano until 1842; finally, at San Luis Rey. Now in his mid 60s, Zalvidea had lived through the rise of the mission system and the long years of its decline and secularization.

Davis also learned that, like Father Junípero Serra when he gave a sermon, there were rumors that Zalvidea scourged himself with a disciplina — a short whip — to “scour” away his sins.

Davis knew that the most ascetic friars inflicted self-punishment to imitate the sufferings of Christ. And he left San Luis Rey, the stately white “king of the missions,” convinced that Zalvidea was “a saint on earth on account of the purity and excellence of his character.”

Father José Maria de Zalvidea (1814)

In 1814, Fathers Zalvidea and Gil wrote a report about Mission San Gabriel. Authorship is usually credited to Zalvidea.

For the Franciscan friars, “Christian time” was a clock. Each hour had appointed duties: matins, meals, work, rest. Even after eight years at San Gabriel, Zalvidea was still struck by the natives’ inability to organize themselves around clock-time.

“They have never used a calendar,” he wrote. “Nor do they regulate their days by hours. When they feel like it they go out to hunt and return towards evening, and if not, spend the whole day in idleness.”

The friars arranged specific workdays: “five hours a day in winter, six to seven in summer.” Rather than labor for free at the mission, many natives would sneak off to one of the four nearby ranchos. They’d work as cooks or water carriers or till the fields.

The practice, Zalvidea complained, “is one of the most potent causes why the [Spanish rancheros] are given to so much idleness.”

“In the service of their masters,” Zalvidea wrote of the natives, “they live according to their pagan notions and practices,” which “inspires them with a great disaffection for Christianity.”

Most natives and even many converts, the report admits, still practiced “idolatry.” Zalvidea said he could stop the practice by separating children from the older generation, “the ones who mislead the young.”

The report notes that native husbands gave their wives “whacks on the head by means of sticks and slaps to the stomach even when they are with child.”

And non-Christian women could divorce their husbands — at will. There was no “indissoluble bond” of marriage.

To keep their flock “decently covered,” the friars insisted they wear a coton — a short tunic — and a narrow cloth for men’s genitals. The coarse tunics, which caused frequent itching, didn’t stop the natives from “unchastity.” According to the report, they “mated like animals,” which “has permeated them to the very marrow with venereal disease.”

Zalvidea was one of the first Franciscans not to blame the natives such diseases. Spanish soldiers brought the “putrid and contagious malady” in 1774, when de Anza’s first exploratory expedition came to Alta California. By 1814, the disease had “spread among the Indians here to such an extent that as soon as a child is born it already has in itself this contagion.”

Of every four children born, three died within two years from “dysentery of the blood,” the report says. And “those who survive do not reach the age of twenty-five.”

When the child was the result of a rape, especially by a “white man,” native women attempted abortion.

“The missionaries see to it,” the report concludes, that neophytes “are directed not only along the road of justice but also to realize the utility of work educating them in the arts and agriculture. So, little by little, the diligence exerted to this end bears fruit.”

Hugo Reid (1852)

After leaving San Luis Rey, Davis and McKinley stopped at Rancho Santa Anita, where Hugo Reid, a fellow Scot and old friend of McKinley’s, was an hacendado. The land baron owned an 8000-acre spread beneath the San Gabriel Mountains. Davis found Reid “cultivated and educated, a big-hearted man.” Reid married Doña Victoria, a Native American, and adopted her children. He and his wife knew Father Zalvidea during his years at Mission San Gabriel. In 1852, Reid described the mission in a series of letters to the California Star.

Zalvidea was a “man of talent, possessed of a powerful mind — which was as ambitious as it was powerful, and as cruel as it was ambitious.”

When he came to Mission San Gabriel, Zalvidea learned the local tongue so he could preach sermons in the local dialect. He planted orchards of fruit trees, gardens of lilies, high-stalked century plants, passion vines, and thick hedges of red roses. (One historian labeled him the “Johnny Appleseed of the Missions.”) He specialized in vineyards. Irrigated by a dam the natives constructed, the grapes produced the best wine and brandy in New California. Shipments even went to Mexico.

“It was to him that the…splendor of San Gabriel was due,” wrote Reid. “He remodeled the general system of government…. Everything under him was organized — and that organization kept up with the lash!”

According to Reid, Zalvidea punished every infraction. He ordered runaways whipped (“Who would not have deserted?” Reid asks). He punished drunkenness, but waited until the offender sobered up, the better to feel the pain.

Zalvidea appointed native alcaldes to act as judges and enforce punishments. He chose the laziest ones, Reid says, because they would “take more pleasure in making the others work than would the industrious ones!”

Each alcalde carried a wand, to denote his position, and a ten-foot-long rawhide scourge: a multi-thong whip. “They did a great deal of chastisement, both by and without orders.”

While most friars thought little of the hechizeros — spiritual leaders, today called shamans — Zalvidea distrusted the “special powers” of their Satanic witchcraft. He had them chained in twos, “like hounds in couples, and kept them well flogged.”

When he learned that native women pregnant with a “white” child committed infanticide, Zalvidea had them punished. Among the penalties: “shaving the head, flogging, iron leggings.” He also ordered them “to appear every Sunday in church, on the steps leading to the altar, with a hideous painted wooden child in her arms!”

“He was in his chastisements most cruel…he must assuredly have considered whipping as meat and drink to them, for they had it morning, noon, and night.”

Reid also questions conversions: “They had no more idea that they were worshipping God, than an unborn child has of Astronomy.”

Baptism gave the missionaries an advantage: “once baptized, they lost ‘caste’ with their people” and had to side “with the oppressor.”

“Although severe to the Indians,” Reid continues, Zalvidea “was kind in the extreme to travelers and others.” He spread a “splendid table daily” and gave travelers “a good bed to sleep on.” Whenever the guests departed, they had fresh horses and a servant “to go as far as the next mission.”

“Loss of his favorite hobby” — Reid doesn’t specificy — “capsized his reason, and after lingering for many years in a disturbed religious state of mind, he at length expired, regretted by all who knew his worth and gigantic intellect.”

Eulalia Perez (1877)

She was born in Loreto in the 1760s. Around 1814 — the year Zalvidea wrote the report — she began working at Mission San Gabriel. In 1821 she became la llavera — “keeper of the keys.” When she retired, the Mexican governor gave her Rancho San Pascual (today’s Pasadena, Altadena, and San Marino). Since a woman couldn’t own land she had to marry a man to keep it. She died in 1878, at least 109 years old.

“Father Zalvidea loved his ‘mission children’ very much,” Perez told an interviewer. “This is what he called the Indians whom he personally had converted to Christianity.”

He also “wanted the wild Indians to have something to eat. So he planted trees in the mountains and far from the mission so the other Indians would have food.”

Yes, he punished the natives. Most were put in the “stocks or confined to a cell.” More “serious” offenders went to the “guardhouse” (an “underground dungeon,” some say). They were tied “to a cannon or a post” and whipped “twenty-five times or more, depending on the crime.”

“Sometimes they would put a shotgun behind their knees and tie their hands to the gun. This punishment was called ley de bayona. It was very painful.

“Father Sanchez and Father Zalvidea always showed much concern for the Indians,” adds Perez. “Both men were well loved by the gente de razon (Spanish-speaking Californios) and the neophytes, as well as by the other Indians.”


  • 1. Banning Taylor (of the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation): The padres committed “acts that even with the softening of time appear brutal.”
  • 2. Douglas Monroy: “That [the natives] were not blank slates upon which to inscribe the Word of God doomed the missions.”
  • 3. Michael C. White: Zalvidea “was in the full sense of the word a saint.”


  • Bebe, Rose Marie, and Robert M. Senkewicz, Testimonios: Early California through the Eyes of Women, 1815–1848 (Berkeley, 2006); Senkewicz, interview.
  • Dakin, Susanna Bryant, A Scotch Paisano in Old Los Angeles (Berkeley, 1939).
  • Davis, William H., Seventy-Five Years in California (San Francisco, 1967).
  • Engelhardt, Fr. Zephyrin, O.F.M., San Luis Rey Mission (San Francisco, 1921).
  • Geiger, Maynard, O.F.M., Franciscan Missionaries in Hispanic California, 1769-1848 (San Marino, 1969).
  • Gil, Fr. Luis; Zalvidea, Fr. José Maria, Mission San Gabriel in 1814, (trans. Geiger), the Historical Society of Southern California (Sept. 1971).
  • Monroy, Douglas, The Prideful Mission and the Little Town: Los Angeles, historycooperative.org.
  • Sandos, James A., Converting California: Indians and Franciscans in the Missions (New Haven, 2004).
  • White, Michael C., California All the Way Back to 1828 (Los Angeles, 1956).

The Life and Times of Father Zalvidea, Part Two

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"Zaldivia appointed native Alcaldes to act as judges and enforce punishments. HE CHOSE THE LAZIEST ONES. Reid says because they would "Take more pleasure in making others work than would the industrious ones!" San Diego hasn't changed very much has it?

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