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Op-Ed: Former Journalist wants America’s other coast history known (Includes interview and first-hand account)

While by today’s standards these three ‘Padres’ of the old California Mission trail would perhaps be considered ‘fanatics’their unique zeal opened the way to ‘The Golden State.’ As a native Californian, this reporter sometimes overlooks the history that surrounds and permeates the Pacific Southwest and the West Coast. I have read recent significantly well-written books on the California Missions, like John O’Hagan’s “Lands Never Trodden.” Still, there is so much taken as granted that it is easy to forget or not even know the great difficulties many people faced entering into the prairies and Westward territories that help make the United States what it is today.

When I stumbled upon this new book “Franciscan Frontiersmen, How Three Adventurers Charted The West,” three vague names brought me back to 4th Grade and the study of Early Californa. Just about everyone knows Junipero Serra and as we all know his name also stirs controversy. But not so often cited are the three ‘Padres’ that were the backbone of the Missionary zeal.

Franciscan Friar priests, Francisco Garces, Pedro Font and Juan Crespi were among the steadfast who suffered to establish the Missions and bring Christianity in its Roman Catholic form by way of imperial Spain to California and the new world. What makes them remarkable and unlike Serra and the others is that they went above and beyond to fulfill the goal, literally.

I had the fortunate opportunity to speak to the book’s author Robert A. Kittle who in addition to being an award-winning journalist for the San Diego Union-Tribune, he is also a historian with a scholarly background. This new work is unlike typical ‘history books’ because as he mentioned to me, they are from the actual writings of the three padres as they traversed up and down the California Coast to Mexico and back; and ventured to the Colorado River, Arizona and surrounding areas.

With that sense of direct source commentary, the book is a page-turner. So, I asked Kittle a few questions about this book. Our conversation was obviously much more than what any 4th grade Early California history class could or would cover. Here is what I asked of him.

It is clear to me that you have taken great efforts to uncover that the expeditions along California Mission trail as well as into the New World were a major investment, mostly with human lives. What motivator was most relied upon by the Spanish? Was it a quest for more glory and wealth or a genuine sense of religious faith? — Even if a bit zealous! Or was it both? How can you discern which one was greater or lesser in the material you have uncovered?

“The Spaniards’ motives for colonizing the West Coast of North America were varied and complex,” said Kittle. “To begin with, the Spaniards routinely referred to their aims as a ‘conquest’ of both the territory and the Native Americans who had occupied the land for more than 10,000 years.

“The Franciscans referred to their evangelization of the Indians as a ‘spiritual conquest,'” noted Kittle. “King Carlos III and his viceroys in Mexico City certainly were motivated by the additional wealth that they imagined would accrue to the Spanish crown. At the time, silver mines in Mexico and South America were helping to keep the Spanish government afloat in a period when it was engaged in successive European wars. In addition, the Spanish crown was very keen to claim the West Coast before the Russians or the British laid claim to it.

“But it is important to note,” said Kittle, “that King Carlos III and the viceroys always cloaked their conquest in the mantel of religious righteousness. As stipulated in the official orders from the viceroy, the prime purpose of the colonizing expeditions was to save Indian souls from eternal damnation.

“The general scheme, naive in the extreme, was to convert the Natives to Catholicism and then assimilate them as good Spaniards who lived in established villages and worked the land and livestock herds, just as peasants in Spain did. This way of life was completely foreign to the Native Americans, most of whom were itinerant hunter-gatherers, accustomed to roaming from the coast to the mountains at different times of the year in search of food,” said Kittle.
“The Franciscans were incredibly devoted to the concept of saving Indian souls through baptism. They measured their success by how many Indians accepted baptism. For the most part their aims were entirely humanitarian. It is nonsense to accuse the Franciscans of genocide, as some revisionist scholars do today.”

You mention how both the indigenous people and the European clashed repeatedly, with disastrous effects. Why did the Spaniards remain? And how did the natives endure? Especially when they, as you point out, were almost obliterated by disease and strife.

“We must understand that most Native Americans did not acquiesce in Spain’s intrusion into their lands,” said Kittle. “But enough native people from various tribes, did cooperate to sustain the fledgling missions. It was the manpower of the Indians that built the churches and adobe dwellings and worked the fields and tended the herds and wove the fabrics and tanned the leather.

“So, Spain established enough of a foothold in the land to remain. But, as noted in the book,” said Kittle, “the colonization was accomplished on the cheap as much as possible. How did the Indians endure all of this?

“Anthropologists estimate there were about 300,000 Natives in California in 1769. By the early 1830s, when the Mexican government disbanded the missions, the Native population had dropped to about 150,000. Kittle went on to say…
So, the toll on the Native American population was heavy. Incidentally, the Native population fell even more sharply as the Americans arrived in California in 1848 under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.”

If Mexico had a more stable government or manifested a similar constitution, I asked, do you think the Spanish contribution to America would have been given more spotlight over the English? In other words, said Kittle, would the American story and its cherished ideals been centered more on the West Coast rather than the East Coast?
Kittle rephrased my question immediately by saying. “Why do Americans relish their English history but overlook their Spanish history?”

“From the very beginning,” Kittle said, “our English forebears looked down on Spain as inferior. The period of Spanish colonization covered in my book occurred parallel to the American Revolution along the Atlantic Seaboard, the defining moment in our life as a nation. This overshadowed what was happening on the West Coast. We’ve always been an Atlantic-centered country.

“Even today,” noted Kittle, “half of the U.S. population lives in the eastern time zone. English immediately became the dominant language of the American colonies because England provided most of the immigrants to the New World.
So, the Spaniards were always regarded by Americans as foreigners and, worse, as competitors in the settling of North America. The English viewed the French explorers with equal disdain.

“This ethnocentrism on the part of the English and their descendants is neither surprising nor uncommon. Consider that, as residents of California, we know that many Californians today look down on Spanish speakers as inferior, culturally and economically. An acquaintance who is 68-years-old told me that when she attended high school in the Central Valley her parents forbade her to take Spanish classes, because they considered Spanish culture (as well as the brown-skinned boys who spoke Spanish as their first language) to be inferior.”

From your study and experience, I asked, why does America still have trouble accepting and dealing with its ‘mixed’ past? (Especially regarding, race, status and class?) Issues about boarders seem to always focus only on Mexico.

“As noted above in answer to your previous question, most Americans view themselves to this day as an Anglo nation. Immigrants who aren’t Anglo are expected to assimilate themselves to our predominant Anglo language, customs, mores, etc. As you may know, Mexicans have a very different attitude toward the indigenous peoples and to immigrants in general.
Mexicans generally are proud of their ‘mestizo’ heritage, the traditional blending of the races. The Spanish-speaking pioneers who first settled California were a diverse mix of races and ethnicities.”

I was curious to know if the Padres and the Conquistadors viewed the land as something ‘golden’ like many people do today when they look upon the West Coast. So, I asked Kittle. Do you think the natural beauty of California and the Pacific South West is another reason why the Spaniards and others forged ahead, against hellish conditions?

“Frankly,” he said. “I doubt that the natural beauty of California attracted the Spaniards. In most cases, life on the frontiers of New Spain was a difficult endeavor. Getting sufficient water for drinking and irrigating crops was always a challenge, for example. Producing enough food to sustain the missions was a challenge. Food often had to be rationed.
The land was much more difficult to make a living from than was the case in Europe. In the hundreds of thousands of words I have read in the diaries and letters of the Franciscans and other Spaniards, there is little praise for the beauty of the land. When there is praise, it is usually for the fact that a stretch of land is arable and therefore a suitable place to establish a settlement.”

And as we talked further, Kittle did point out that what distinguished the three padres from others was the fact that they would go without water, with out food, traversing to places even their native-American guides advised them not to go. It was that zeal whether you believe in a god or not. The three men had an unwavering zeal that truly believed they were on a mission to “baptize and save souls” all for the glory of God as they believed their religion to be above all others.
Even if by today’s standards and understandings their zeal might be seen at best as misguided, the courage they held was remarkable. What most people don’t know, said Kittle is that between these three padres, more miles were covered in their collective travels than by the Lewis and Clark Exposition more than 20 years later.”
“Franciscan Frontiersmen, How Three Adventurers Charted The West,” is published by University of Oklahoma Press (2017).

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