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article imageOp-Ed: 'Lands Never Trodden' tells U.S. History from California view Special

By Jonathan Farrell     Jul 15, 2014 in Lifestyle
Caldwell - The California Missions seem pretty familiar to us Californians that it is easy to assume that just about everyone knows of them. Yet, according to author and historian John J. O'Hagan, few people really know much about the California Missions.
In fact, ever since he and his wife moved to Idaho more than 40 years ago to raise their children, he was taken aback that almost nothing was known of his beloved State. "I was born and raised in California, not far from Mission Santa Cruz," he said. From about the fourth grade, "I was enthralled by California History." He said.
At about the fourth grade that is usually when the history curriculum in California's schools turns to the Old Mission Trail, El Camino Real. Everything Early California, from drawing maps of the mission trail to making home-made scale models of each of the 21 Missions that are situated from San Diego in Southern California to Sonoma in Northern California, becomes a focus. "Contrary to what many think, the Missions were not built in any consecutive order, such as going from South to North," said O'Hagan.
It is true that San Diego was the first Spanish Mission in California along the El Camino Real corridor, "The Franciscans went back and forth in their building, not simply in one ascending line up the state," he said. "And, some of the mission locales are a considerable distance from one another, 'not within a day's journey' as is commonly believed," said O'Hagan. What is clear, is that the Missions were along or near the coastline, which would give them a strategic advantage in proximity to major ports and sources of water.
While O'Hagan is grateful to have been able to raise his family in Idaho, he misses the Golden State and began to lecture on its history to those in Idaho who knew little of the Missions and California's importance to American History.
For centuries the  little poor man  of Assisi  Italy has inspired millions of people  the religious ...
For centuries the "little poor man" of Assisi, Italy has inspired millions of people, the religious order he founded was responsible for bringing Christianity in its Catholic form to Early California.
"Usually when people think of American History, said O'Hagan, they think of the East Coast and the 13 Colonies or they think of Daniel Boone and his footprints into the wilderness." "But when Daniel Boone was exploring Kentucky territory, the Missions were already established in California."
In fact when the United States of America was officially formed in July of 1776, there were five Missions in California already established. While there were missions established in other parts of the Pacific Southwest, such as Arizona and Texas, the Missions in California are the only ones still pretty much in tact. "Apart from Mission San Xavier in Tucson, and some in New Mexico said O'Hagan," the old missions in California are still with us, while others fell into ruin, were demolished or forgotten."
"Yes there is 'The Alamo' in Texas, he said, but that had not been in use when the battle of The Alamo took place." And, in terms of the Jesuits being present in California, "they did establish missions in Arizona and parts of Mexico in the late 1600's, and had a presence in baja California, but they were expelled by Spain and the Franciscans stepped in," said O'Hagan.
 This is one of the best renditions of what a mission like San Gabriel  might have looked like in it...
"This is one of the best renditions of what a mission like San Gabriel, might have looked like in its prime," said David McLaughlin. "Sketch artist, Oriana Day one of the best 19h century artists who painted or did line drawings of the old missions, whose footprint was still visible in those years," he said.
Oriana Day, sketch artist (born,1838- died,1886)
The political ambitions of the Jesuits (or Society of Jesus) and the thirst for power is pretty much what caused the Jesuit expulsion. This provided the Franciscans with no major competitors in their missionary zeal. And, their influence shaped the early days of California. O'Hagan noted that subduing the native population would not have been possible if the native-tribes had been more aggressive like their Mid-Western and Great Plains counterparts. The tribes like the Ohlone, Miwok, and others were basically a peaceful people. "The mild weather, said O'Hagan, and generations after generations of tribes living off of the land and considering 'Earth as mother' is perhaps a reason why they were mostly peaceful. The natives could not comprehend the type of life the European and later 'the white man' had in mind." "How can humans own and dismantle the earth? This behavior and attitude was totally foreign to the native peoples," said O'Hagan.
Each tribe was distinct, with over 100 languages and over 300 dialects. Even though they shared much in common like the land and its micro-climates, each tribe and sub-tribe was unique. They lived in small groups and 'camped' in various locations to enjoy the best conditions based upon the weather and the season.
O'Hagan also noted that perhaps the native tribes might have continued to live peacefully a bit longer if the Russians had not ventured out into California. This prompted the Spanish to quickly mobilize forces to claim California as Spain's territory. And, while there is much debate as to whether or not the natives were subjected to forced labor, O'Hagan insists that they were not slaves. "They were expected to become Spanish citizens of a New Spain," said O'Hagan. "It was their love for the land and their unique nature-focused religion that kept them from becoming completely won over by the Spanish to their way of life."
 This is a current image of historic San Francisco de Asís  from which the City gets its name. It i...
"This is a current image of historic San Francisco de Asís, from which the City gets its name. It is also known as Mission Dolores," said David McLaughlin. "It is a photograph taken by me in 2012," he said. "You have to get up early to catch the morning light and be there before there are an interminable stream of cars going by the old Mission or, worst, try parking in front," he added.
David McLaughlin, Pentacle Press
Also, diseases like chickenpox, measles, and the common cold, pushed the natives to almost the brink of extinction. And, again, the fact that the natives did not believe that one person could own 'mother earth' had them puzzled. Those that did survive, assimilated and subsequent generations were born into the Mission system.
"When studying the old Missions and Early California, it is important to realize that the situation was very complex," said David McLaughlin of Pentacle Press. He coordinates and manages a web site, which is dedicated to information about California.
It is part of the work of Pentacle Press, yet as he explained, "I wanted to have an objective, professional website source that would be easy to navigate through and obtain factual and accurate information about California History, especially about the Missions," he said.
While not acquainted with O'Hagan's book, he agreed with what O'Hagan had said that the natives were not slaves. This is not to say that they were not mistreated and that they did not fight back. But when looking at the complexity of the situation, the native tribes were initially recruited to become part of New Spain so to keep out the other Europeans, like the exploring Russians as well as the English and the French who were also moving through North America.
The Franciscans set out to establish communities and the basic approach was to attract the natives and have them live in or near the Mission while they worked for food, shelter, and learned skills. "There was a 'Golden Era' for the Missions in California and that was from about 1780 to 1805," said McLaughlin. "There were no major tribal conflicts, the soldiers were being paid and it was okay." "To get a picture of one of the best Mission settings at this time is to look at Mission San Luis Rey, he said, that at its peak had over 3,000 natives." The lifestyle of the rancheros and subsequent massive land grants took away much of the natives' way of life as they had once known it.
That and the fact that as time went on, the native tribes became more dependent upon the Missions for food and livelihood. "Certainly some would leave the Missions but then they would come back," said O'Hagan. McLaughlin noted that when soldiers were sent out to bring back runaways it is most likely because of a 'breech of contract' with the Mission.
This does not dismiss the fact that the native tribes were often mistreated. "Yes, they were abused in more than once instance," said O'Hagan. He cites several very unpleasant situations were the conquistadors were unruly, disruptive. They lassoed native women and had their way with them, like at Mission San Gabriel. These incidents lead to bloodshed and more tension.
Father Junipero Serra blamed the bad conduct on the soldier's commander and managed to have him removed. His influence and political savvy was without question very dominant. Yet whatever Serra's short-comings in how he treated others, his zeal for converts was sincere.
"Serra was indeed a very strong leader, said McLaughlin, but I think his successor, Father Fermin Lasuen was much more effective in helping the Missions flourish." It was Fr. Fermin, according to McLaughlin, who was instrumental in bringing about that 'Golden Age' of the Mission Era in California.
"It is also very important that historians see the good things that the Franciscans brought with them, not just the negative things," said McLaughlin. "Yes, the life of the Mission was routine and structured. But it could help the natives' lives to became more stable." McLaughlin explained, "until the Spanish arrived, native tribes lived out in the open, moved from spot to spot and had to manage when conditions were harsh." "The Missions changed that," he said. "The natives were able to enjoy things like horses, wheat, cattle, clothing, and a variety of fruits, like grapes, oranges and apples. And, they learned skills, such as music, play sophisticated instruments like the violin, pipe-organ, and how to read and write music."
"The Missions in essence, said McLaughlin, began to decline because Spain was not able to maintain its hold over such vast areas and also keep things peaceful at home." "The Franciscans were under-staffed, soldiers were not getting paid," he said. And, with the conflicts Spain had with England and France, things were unraveling.
And, when there were uprisings, "mostly again that had to do with the complexity of the situation as time went on," said McLaughlin. A lack of consistency and cohesive order took its toll on the expansions of Spain.
It is difficult to imagine the conditions of Early California compared to today. "Early life in California was not always the 'paradise' we see today. "Settlers had to rough it and few Spanish people wanted to settle in such a wilderness as California." "Even in Mexico, few people wanted to venture to California," he noted. "This is why recruiting the natives and converting them to Christianity was vital to the establishing of a 'New' Spain," said McLaughlin.
As O'Hagan said, "the padres would not have been able to build any of the missions if it were not for help from the natives." "The tribes motifs and art-styles are incorporated into much of the building of the various missions. Just look at the beams of the interior of Mission Dolores in San Francisco for example, they are painted like the intricate weave of a native-made basket."
O'Hagan's decision to write the book was due in part to a trip he took to Italy some years ago. "In touring Italy I was able to visit the old churches, he said, and it struck me that we have our own very old churches very similar to them, right here in the States, in California."
"Hardly anyone knows of them well enough to make that comparison," he said. "That is why I set out to write the book, I wanted to feature these architectural jewels." "You can't go anywhere else in the United States to see anything as grand as these," he said.
McLaughlin agreed, that in terms of importance, California was indeed very vital to the history of the United States. And, he agreed with O'Hagan that once the American government took over California and the Pacific Southwest territories, that is when the life of all the native tribes declined completely. "The land-grab that followed once the Gold Rush arrived and California became a state, that was the real end of the way of life that the native tribes had known for centuries."
Still, like O'Hagan, McLaughlin believes the story of California and the Pacific South West is a fascinating one and is worth studying. To learn more about author, historian John O'Hagan and to purchase his book, "Lands Never Trodden, The Franciscans and The California Missions, visit the Caxton Press web site.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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