Impact of Spanish Arrivals on Native Californians

by Shirley Reusch Drye


The arrival of the Spanish in California, and more specifically, the San Francisco Bay Area, in 1769 heralded the beginning of a decline in the Indian population. Great numbers died from European diseases (to which they had no natural immunity) and as a result of mistreatment and subsequent neglect. By 1880 the Indian population had been reduced to 20,000 from the 133,000 to 275,000 who were living throughout the State when the Spanish period began.

For the Ohlone (Costanoan) peoples, the result of introduced diseases, a declining birth rate, mistreatment, and cultural disorientation, their population fell from 10,000 or more in 1770 to less than 2,000 in 1832.

Their numbers diminished further under even more destructive American rule. Suffice it to say that by the first decades of this century, one full-blooded Ohlone was thought to live in San Mateo County. Today, people of Ohlone descent are once again attempting to recapture their native identify and traditions and to gain the Federal recognition so long denied them through broken treaties and their own peaceable nature. Federal recognition has in the past been granted mainly to warlike groups ... perhaps a commentary on our society's nature. If you wish further enlightenment on the subject of the Ohlone character, please read THE FIRST SPANISH ENTRY INTO SAN FRANCISCO BAY 1775, Edited by John Galvin, Published by John Howell--Books, San Francisco California.

Under mission influence and Spanish rule, the native population was brutalized by Spanish soldiers and mission padres. While the mission intent was benign--convert the natives to Christianity, teach them pastoralism, create pastoral communities and then depart, this benevolent intent soon broke down and deteriorated into mistreatment. The natives were considered to be like children, and Father Serra therefore instituted "spanking" those who misbehaved by his standards. In the building of the Missions, the natives were reduced to little more than slaves.

Archaeologists excavating at Mission San Diego made two curious discoveries: foundation rocks were brought to the Mission from a distance of 12 miles; and in extracting burials they found the skeletons of both women and young people to have bowed or bent forearm longbones (ulna and radius). The inference is obvious: the natives were carrying boulders the 12 miles to the mission. This is simply a single footnote to mission travesties.

Depending on who is telling the story, it is either glorious or disheartening. The disheartening story results from archaeology and ethnology, and more importantly, numbers: the catastrophic decrease in the native population.

It is particulary interesting to hear the contrasts now that the natives are revealing family letters, diaries and accounts. Mariano's Vallejo's story of his family's kindly treatment of their "servants." Valleyo is portrayed as harsh and lecherous.

Mexican independence in 1822 was followed within a few years by the secularizationof the missions. Missions became little more than parish churches, and the vast mission lands were granted to deserving Mexican citizens. Very quickly, mission Indians found themselves disenfranchized. With the passage of at least two generations under Mission guidance, some were unable to return to native life ways. They became menial laborers under Mexican rule.

That breif interlude was followed in 1846 by United States entry into California and American rule. If the Spanish and Mexican rules were harsh, American governance was legalized genocide. Laws were passed enabling whites to indenture any Indian found on the streets of California towns and cities. Orphaned children could also be legally indentured, leading unscrupulous whites to murder parents in order to indenture the children as servants. Again, these are brief footnotes to a dark era in California history.

Ohlone of today once again take pride in their rich heritage. It is to be hoped that we are entering an enlightened era which will engender interest in and respect and support for California,s native people.

Bibliography: THE FIRST SPANISH ENTRY INTO SAN FRANCISCO BAY 1775,
Edited by John Galvin, Published by John Howell Books,
San Francisco, California MCMLXXI

THROWN AMONG STRANGERS -- The Making of Mexican
Culture in Frontier California, Douglas Monroy,
University of California press, Berkeley

HANDBOOK OF NORTH AMERICAN INDIANS, VOLUME 8 CALIFORNIA
Robert F. Heizer, Volume Editor, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, 1978