The Geography of Hope: Jesuits, Indians and El Camino Real in Baja California Sur

Todos Santos Mission

by Bryan Jáuregui, Todos Santos Eco Adventures

In the 17th and 18th centuries the Jesuits were on a global roll. In China, the emperor prized them for their knowledge of astronomy, western science and mathematics; the Jesuits were trusted advisors to the court. In France, Spain and Germany the kings prized them for their supreme education and administrative acuity; the Jesuits monopolized the role of royal confessor. In Baja California Sur (BCS), the native Pericue and Guaycura Indians couldn’t quite figure out what to prize the padres for. Often, it was mutual.

Spain’s Ambitions and the Jesuit Theocracy

The Jesuits who established the first successful mission in Baja California in Loreto in 1697 were the latest in a long line of Europeans who had attempted to subdue and convert the peoples of the land they called California for the Spanish crown, starting with Hernan Cortez in 1535. Why such great effort with respect to Baja? The modern Jesuit historian Ernest J. Burrus puts it this way, “The extraordinary interest derived not so much from what Baja California was – an extensive and unproductive peninsula, almost completely uninhabited and uninhabitable – as for what it was believed to be – a land rich in pearls and precious metals, bordering on the straights of Anian…linking the Atlantic with the Pacific, shortening by thousands of miles the distance between Europe and the New World as well as the Far East.”

The Anian Straits were, it turns out, a mythical boundary between North America and Asia, and Baja was a peninsula, not an island as cartographers of the day held. But Spain’s interests were quite real, and one of the crown’s key drivers with respect to Baja was the desire to protect its Manila Galleon, a trading ship that traveled between Acapulco and the Philippines, bringing luxury goods from China and other parts of the East to Spain. The galleons were threatened by English and Dutch ships that were plying the waters of the Baja peninsula, using the harbors and bays of the southern tip of the peninsula as a base from which to plunder the Spanish ships as they attempted to transverse the Pacific. Moreover, the return voyage from Manila to Acapulco took 6 to 7 months, too long to maintain stores of potable water and fresh food. By the time the Manila Galleon was sailing past Baja, most of the crew and passengers were in the last stages of scurvy and beriberi; Acapulco was simply too far. They needed a place to go ashore to eat fresh food and recuperate. A safe harbor on the Baja peninsula was the only way to stave off death – and keep Spain supplied with the luxurious items from the Orient it coveted.

But Spain had no money to send a military force to secure the peninsula, and the Jesuits, keen to convert the Indians of California to Catholicism, saw an opportunity. Lead by the Italians Juan

Todos Santos Mission

Todos Santos Mission

María de Salvatierra and Eusebio Francisco Kino, the Jesuits struck a bargain: if the crown would give the Jesuits permission to settle in the peninsula and convert the Indians, they would pay for the whole thing themselves. In return for funding the enterprise, the Jesuits would manage all aspects of local government themselves, religious, military, civil and economic. The crown agreed, with the result that the group that was finally able to secure the Baja peninsula for Spain was, as Crosby notes, “the least impressive of armies.” When the Jesuit galley the Santa Elvira anchored off the coast in the Gulf of California on October 19, 1697, the crew it landed to conquer the shore included an Italian missionary, a Spanish soldier, a Portuguese ranch foreman, a Sicilian seaman, a creole muleteer, a Maltese artilleryman, a Peruvian sailor, a Yaqui warrior, a Mayo herder and an Indian boy. And with that multicultural force, the history of California was changed forever.

The Geography of Hope

The Baja peninsula is a piece of continental crust that was torn from mainland Mexico by violent, sustained, tectonic forces six million years ago. As naturalist Exequiel Ezcurra explains in The Camino Real and the Baja California Peninsula, “The folds and crests that have formed as a result of this intense tectonic activity are the principal cases for the uneven topography of Baja California, causes which in turn drive the local climate.” The Jesuits, despite their advanced level of education, were “Misled by their ignorance of the peninsula’s natural environment and their inexperience with peninsular people,” says Crosby. It was a steep learning curve.

From their base in Loreto the padres set out to establish a series of missions from which they could save souls, and initially chose areas where the Indians appeared to congregate. Their experiences in mainland Mexico had led the padres to believe that the California Indians would have strong emotional ties to certain locations, and they completely failed to grasp that the terrain of Baja meant that the Indians practiced their semi-nomadic, seasonal hunting and gathering regimen over a wide geographical area, with no particular attachment to any one place. The Indians depended for their survival on a deep knowledge of tinajas, or bedrock cachements, that held rain for a substantial period of time after a rainfall. The Jesuits were unaccustomed to operating in a land with no rivers and no consistent annual rainfall. They gradually gained a better understanding of the land and its peoples, but, as Crosby notes, “The Jesuits initially failed to realize that supporting a mission’s people on irrigated agriculture required many times the volume of water that the same group used in their traditional lifestyle. Their education was expensive. Of nine missions founded in the first 24 years of the conquest, one was abandoned and 5 had to be moved to better sites.” It was not a stellar start.

The business of saving souls proved equally complex. In the northerly central areas around Loreto, they found the Cochimi Indians somewhat welcoming.  But further south, the Guaycura and Pericue Indians were proving much tougher customers. In the early 1700s there were probably about 5,000 Guaycura in the area between Magdalena Bay and Todos Santos, and 3,000 Pericue in the area south of Todos Santos to the Cape.  They were not friendly, even with each other. The Guaycura roamed their territory in small groups who spoke different dialects and constantly battled with each other, the Cochimi and the Pericue. For their part, the Pericue spoke a common language and battled less among themselves, but they were accustomed to a great deal of independence, a character trait which did not square well with the Jesuit desire to lure them into mission life. Indian distrust of the padres was likely fueled by the English and Dutch pirates who stalked the Manila Galleons from their bases in BCS, and who, as Crosby notes, “had reasons to instill in the local people their own fear of any representative of Spanish authority.” And the Jesuits had made the bargain to be the sole representative of that authority in all matters

El Camino Real

Poor welcome notwithstanding, the Jesuits pressed on with their plans to build and maintain a camino real. The term “Camino Real” or “Royal Road” has its roots in medieval Spain and referred to roads that were built and maintained at the behest of the king. In colonial Mexico, the phrase was used to refer to roads that connected major settlements, and in California, the phrase came to mean the system of communication that facilitated the constant flow of people and provisions that were required for the colonization of the Baja peninsula. Generally, there was very little that seemed royal about the roads that the padres built with the labor of their Spanish soldiers and neophyte Indians. In many cases road building meant simply moving large obstacles out of the existing Indian footpaths that provided the most direct route from one site to another. But they did succeed in building impressively straight roads over tough terrain, and El Camino Real eventually connected the mission in San Jose del Cabo to the mission in San Francisco, California, covering almost 1,400 miles and over 50 missions built by Jesuits, Dominicans and Franciscans. More than any other, it is the route the ties together the histories of the United States and Mexico.

But at no time in their 71 years in the Baja peninsula did the actual number of European Jesuit padres on the ground total more than 17 men. It proved to be a dangerously low number. In the first third of the 1700s the Jesuits remained a most unimpressive army, and as they built their roads and missions in the hostile south to secure a safe port for the Manila Galleon, the Spanish crown refused to pay for more soldiers to protect them. And the natives were definitely restless. Raging epidemics of measles and smallpox had decimated the Guaycura and Pericue populations, reducing their populations by half in a single generation. Years passed in which the Jesuits and their converts did little more than tend the sick, bury the dead and attempt to procure food from the mainland; years of drought and plagues of locusts had severely limited their ability to support a settled community through agriculture on mission lands.

Against this backdrop, in 1733 the Jesuits of the southern missions, led by Padre Nicolás Tamaral, began an effort to eradicate polygamy amongst the Pericue. With their missionary zeal and Eurocentric outlook, the Jesuits had been working for years to quell the ancestral customs of the Indians, but the attack on polygamy appears to have been the tipping point for the Pericue. As Crosby states, “The subject of women was particularly sensitive among the Pericue at that time. Diseases, most notably syphilis, were disproportionately reducing the female population. Neophytes in the south were deeply disturbed by a growing lack of mates.” Amongst all the Indians of the Baja peninsula, women were the chief procurers of food, so the more wives a man had the higher his status; important men like chiefs and shamans had several. In a pointed challenge to local leaders, Padre Tamaral made explicit efforts to attract young women as neophytes. It was missionary vs medicine man, and the unprotected missionaries were vulnerable while the traumatized Pericue were deadly focused; they were able to unite the warring factions of the southern Baja Indians against what they saw as an alien invader who had unleashed ravaging disease against their people and wanton destruction against their culture. The pirates likely fueled their rage.

On October 1, 1734 the body of Padre Nicolás Tamaral of the San Jose del Cabo mission was found clubbed, mutilated and burned. The same thing happened to padres and their servants at the missions in La Paz and Santiago. The revolt grew, the Pericue consolidated their hold on the tip of the peninsula, and when the Manila Galleon landed at the Cabo port established by the Jesuits in January 1735, the Pericue killed all 13 men in the longboat that had been sent ahead to seek help from the mission.

It was the beginning of the end for both the Jesuits and the Indians in BCS. Salvatierra and Kino’s dream of a theocracy was lost, as was California’s isolation as others came in to settle the land.  By the time the Jesuits were expelled from California in 1768, the Guaycura and Pericue were linguistically and culturally extinct – perhaps their genes live on in the world and their souls reside in heaven. The Jesuits were suspected of harboring hordes of gold, silver and pearls that they were not sharing with the king, but when the inspector came from Spain after their expulsion, he was shocked at the poverty of the missions. The Jesuits had barely survived, and producing food to keep the missions and their neophytes alive in the harsh Baja landscape was almost all they hadharsh-landscape time for.

It was not an accident that the first people to come ashore with Padre Salvatierra at Loreto in 1697 included a ranch foreman, a muleteer, and a herder. These Jesuit recruits were chosen for their skills in building a community based around agriculture and ranching. When the Jesuits were expelled from California, many of these “soldiers” and their families stayed on and became the backbone of the vaquero, or cowboy culture that replaced that of the native Indians, a culture that – unshackled from the poorly chosen mission sites – still thrives in Baja to this day. In fact, this culture was exported north along El Camino Real, and the Baja vaqueros are now honored in the western USA as the cultural ancestors of the American cowboy. To celebrate El Camino Real and its role in the cultural connection of the peoples of the Baja peninsula and the US state of (Alta) California, several organizations are working to have the entire 1,400-mile corridor declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

What Ezcurra calls “the savage and seductive landscape of Baja California” has lured many to its shores, and changed the fates of all. The Pericue, who quite possibly sailed to Baja from Polynesia, survived on the peninsula for roughly 12,000 years. The Jesuits only 71. Human survival along El Camino Real can still prove tenuous, and it is perhaps for this reason that the writer and naturalist Wallace Stegner refers to the wild landscape of Baja as the “geography of hope.” Writes Ezcurra, “Baja California, more than any other place on earth, deserves this description: the peninsula is a vast corridor of hope, a world where untamed nature may still be able to survive in all its splendor. Or, as Octavio Paz wrote, it is a place where, “the world still has beaches, and a boat awaits you, always.” And that is a royal road indeed.

Sources: Interviews with Harry W. Crosby, David Richardson and Trudi Angell. Several books including Antigua California: Mission and Colony on the Peninsular Frontier, 1697-1768 by Harry W. Crosby; Jesuit Relations, Baja California 1716-1762 by Ernest J. Burrus, S.J.; The Camino Real and the Missions of the Baja California Peninsula/El Camino Real y Las Misiones de la Peninsula de Baja California by Miguel Leon-Portillo, California’s El Camino Real and its Historic Bells by Max Kurillo; and Californio Portraits: Baja California’s Vanishing Culture by Harry W. Crosby.

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