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San Diego's first martyr

San Diego's first martyr

I am Father Luis Jaume, but to spare you the difficulty of pronouncing my last name, please think of me as Father Luis.

On the morning of November 5, 1775, at thirty-five years of age I became a martyr for the love of God. There is a white concrete cross in Mission Valley, a short distance from San Diego Mission Road where it borders the mission and a new set of condominium apartments. A plaque on the cross declares that it was on this spot that I embraced my death, but I suspect that the cross has been placed exactly there for the convenience of those who visit the mission. I died a little farther down the hill, as I shall describe later in my tale.

And before I begin, please do not think that I take my subject lightly, though events do seem more amusing at a distance of two centuries. No — I was by nature of a sober, perhaps even a somber, cast of mind. The Indians whom I converted to the Faith used to call me “the praying one” (but not to my face), and seeing your world as I do from Heaven, I find that I pray now more than ever.

Imagine the land around you as it was when the missionaries arrived to settle it for Spain. The hills were smooth loaves, denuded of rock and tree; the valley was broad and sandy in many places by the river, but the higher land was rich and suitable for growing wheat and com. At most times of the year the river was impossible to see at any distance, being little more than a string of pools, but one could always tell where the river was supposed to be, for its banks were marked by bushy young poplars, willows, and alders, and here and there were thickets of wild roses. Upriver the valley narrowed to a canyon of rubble; downriver it spread into the reed-choked marshes and the excellent harbor.

On April 11, 1769, the first of four missionary groups comprising the Sacred Expedition dropped anchor near the tip of Point Guijarros, which you call Point Loma. Within a few months the other groups arrived, one more by ship and two by land, bringing with them such necessities as mules, plowshares, saplings of olive and seedlings of grape, carpenters, blacksmiths, some Christians of Baja California to serve as laborers, a larger number of soldiers to protect the missions, and of course the Fathers and their implements of worship: crosses, chalices, censers, and the like. The Fathers, I must note, forgot the incense and sent for it with their first letters.

Of the 300 souls who set out on the expedition, nearly half died on the journey or shortly thereafter. These many deaths, unfortunate in themselves, were especially troublesome for the poor Fathers who immediately sought to convert the Indians of the region, who numbered about 3000 and whom they named the Dieguenos. But the natives saw plainly that the strangers were sick and dying, and would have none of a religion that brought such an end. Actually, it was not the Faith that they rejected at first; it was the food by which the Fathers sought to gain the Indians’ faith. The Indians suspected that the Spaniards were sickly on account of what they ate, and in fact they were right: most of the strangers were limp with scurvy, caused by the lack of vitamin C in fresh fruits and vegetables, which had been wanting during the voyage. For their part, the Indians lived in relative abundance, netting fish and digging for seafood, gathering acorns and the grain of the wild zacate grass, shooting antelope and deer with arrows, and knocking down rabbits with boomerangs. Thus when the Fathers smilingly gave them sugar, the adult Dieguenos refused to take it, and the children spit it up.

Father Junipero Serra was the first to note, however, that the Dieguenos could not resist cloth. They would barter what they had for it, and when they couldn’t barter they would steal. A few of them paddled a reed canoe to one of the ships at anchor and tried to take cloth from a sail. Others attempted on another occasion to cut away some rope. Finally the captain set a watch of two soldiers on board to keep the Indians off.

Always the soldiers stepped forward in such a case, always they put matters to right in their own blunt ways. Would that the peaceful Fathers had been the guards as well as the missionaries, then things would have turned out for the better.

There — you smile. But I know of what I speak. These Dieguenos, unchanged from the Stone Age, were no less sly than a modem attorney, but in all other ways they were children, as easily moved by kindness as by punishment. When the Spaniards first walked into their villages, the Indians treated them with such confidence and ease as they had known them all their lives. One moment they were solemn, and the next they jeered and pranced. They especially liked to mock the pompous soldiers who fired their muskets in the air. However, the mocking ceased after the first attack.

There can be no doubt but that the Dieguenos provoked it. The soldiers had been forbearing of the petty thefts during the first weeks of encampment. Then the expedition was divided when most of the soldiers trekked north to find the bay of Monterey, leaving a few guards for the brushwood shanties that served as the mission and hospital. One day while the soldiers took the horses to the river for watering, leaving the mission unguarded, forty or more Indians (no one knows how many) stole among the buildings carrying weapons and taking what they could. They tugged the very sheets from underneath the sick in the infirmary. It happened very quickly: the soldiers returned from the river and opened fire on the vandals, who shot back arrows in a staggered retreat.

Father Serra and another good padre, Juan Vizcaino, kept to their hut throughout the fighting, and prayed that no soul of the soldiers nor natives be lost. Suddenly the door flap was pushed aside and Father Serra’s beloved servant, Jose Maria, staggered in, an arrow through his throat.

His was the only death among the Europeans. Three or four of the natives were killed (the wailing of their women in the villages round about could be heard thereafter), and it seemed that many were wounded. Understandably, the natives kept out of sight for several days, but then, to the astonishment of all, they appeared one day at the edge of the camp, bearing their gravely wounded. By sign they made it known that they wished the Spanish doctor, Pedro Prat, to treat them.

To their eternal shame, some of the Europeans burst out laughing at the thought that their doctor should treat the savage enemy. But Father Serra, seeing an opportunity to advance his cause, straightaway accepted the proposal, on the sole condition that the natives should thereafter leave their weapons outside the compound’s fence, which was speedily erected.

Thus the natives were cured to the last man and the Fathers were blessed with the knowledge of having done good. Not that it won them any converts. Between July 16, when the mission was founded, and April 17 of the following year, when Father Serra sailed north to found the mission at Monterey, not a single Diegueno was converted at the mission S^n Diego de Alcala.

It was discouraging to find the Dieguenos so reluctant to give up their own beliefs (they held, for example, that the world was protected by porpoises), and not to accept that there is only God, and that He created a Hell and a Glory. But that is how God wished the work to progress.

I might add at this point that Father Serra did not like adversity — he savored it. He was fifty-six years old when he began his great work, having formerly been a missionary in Mexico, and before that, a philosophy teacher on his native island of Majorca. He believed that suffering was for himself a necessary condition for doing good; he never touched the rose and not the thorn. When he had given up his position at the university in Palma to convert the heathen in the New World, he had hardly stepped off the boat in Vera Cruz but that he was bitten on the leg by a snake or perhaps an insect (this detail is unclear), with the result that his leg from that day onward was ulcerous. Sometimes it kept him from walking, but more often he paid it no mind. It might even be said that he enjoyed the wound, insofar as it fostered good works. And if, after ten months of hardship in Alta California, there was not one convert to show for the trouble, then this could only mean to Serra that some great good was in the making. There is also the fact that Father Serra was stubborn with the stubbornness of a man who is only five-feet-two-inches tall.

By 1770 there were missions at San Diego and Monterey, and the following year the expedition was favored with the arrival of ten fresh padres from Mexico. Among them was myself. To me Father Serra granted the great honor of presiding at San Diego, the pedestal of the column of missions that others would establish up the coast. By the time I arrived to assume my duties, about twenty Dieguenos had been converted, and others liked to come to the mission to hear the neophytes sing. Thus it seemed to me a good beginning.

With me were Father Francisco Dumetz and Captain Don Pedro Fages, who was to assume command of the presidio, or fort, which had been built next to the mission. These were situated near the location of your Old Town, on a bluff that commanded the valley and the bay. We were two musket-shots from the beach and perhaps half a league (one and a half miles) from the largest of the nearby villages. From the presidio, one cannon aimed at the shore and one at the village. We were surrounded, as I have said, by a barricade of sticks.

They looked glorious to me, these few buildings of brushwood and mud, but to the gallant Captain Fages I think they were less than humble. He was from Catalonia, that rich hilly province of Spain that is first to go to war and also first to lose it. Forty-one at the time, the captain could boast of having won new territory for Spain, but the boast did no good while only priests and Indians could hear it. In fairness I must say that the captain was an aristocrat, and I the son of poor Majorcan farmers; it was natural that he should set himself above me. But the distance at which he set himself above the Dieguenos was a danger to us all.

Briefly, he permitted his soldiers to rape the Indian women. Perhaps he assumed that the Dieguenos, being savages, raped one another, when in fact they observed the natural laws regarding marriage and incest. They practiced capital punishment for certain crimes (they tied the culprit to a tree and shot him with arrows), but I confess I never learned whether these crimes included rape.

Permit me to describe but one case regarding the soldiers’ behavior, which I set down in a letter to my superior in Mexico, hoping that he would use his influence to have our captain dismissed.

One September day, four soldiers went to the Indian village known as "El Corral." They were Castelo, Ruiz, Bravo, and another whose name I was unable to ascertain. Outside the village they met with a young Christian Diegueno named Jose Antonio, who often serves as my interpreter when I go among the villagers. Passing him by, the soldiers asked an Indian woman for prickly pear apples, which she graciously gave them. Then they asked her for earthen pots, which she politely refused. Castelo went forth to take the pots, but instead seized the woman by the wrists. Jose Antonio, knowing well what was going to happen, started to leave, and the soldiers called after him, warning him not to speak. Then Castelo carried the woman to a corral and sinned with her, and after he came out, Ruiz did the same. The anonymous soldier then seized another woman and raped her in the corral, then Bravo did the same, Ruiz did the same, and Castelo did the same. Finally, in what seemed to me the most outrageous act of all, the soldiers gave the women two tortillas and some ribbons, and told them to keep the matter quiet.

The women came to me that afternoon in tears. I was unable to understand their language and couldn’t find Jose Antonio anywhere about, but guessed at the nature of their grief and sent them to the village nearest the mission, away from the soldiers. Then finding another interpreter, I went to El Corral and learned what had taken place. Later I questioned Jose Antonio, whose testimony agreed with everything I had heard before.

As I was preparing to take this grievance to the captain, the last insult occurred: I found Jose Antonio lashed in the stocks to be punished for having informed on the soldiers. Of course I released him, despite some warning from the corporal of the guard about my acting beyond my rights. My rights! That was a pretty word from one who consorted with rapists.

Well, I made my complaint. One month passed into the next. Nothing happened. Other Fathers had petitioned Captain Fages on similar matters, but he had paid little attention. In truth, he did punish some, but as soon as they promised to work more around the presidio, he freed them.

Later he stopped punishing them altogether.

I suppose men in power will always act this way; they always have. And because such men are common on the frontier, perhaps it was not so unusual. But, to say the least, it created new difficulties in converting the heathen. Once I was called on to chastise a neophyte for having slept with a man before marrying him. She calmly pointed out that the Christian soldiers were not afraid of God; they defied Him every day, and in worse ways than she had done. At this, I could do nothing but cry. Perhaps she thought me weak for doing so. She was strangely unmoved.

In the end. Father Serra had so many troubles with the captain that he walked most of the way to Mexico City and laid his complaints before the viceroy of New Spain, who transferred the captain to other posts, including that of fighting the Apache. Some years later, he again became the gobernante of California, and settled in Monterey with his pretty bride, also an aristocrat. She hated the frontier so much that in order to have her husband removed to a better post, she created a scandal, accusing him of having relations with an Indian girl. He died in Mexico at the age of sixty-four; thereafter he passed from my view.

After the captain’s removal, the next few years at the mission were ones of great progress. At my suggestion the mission was relocated to its present site, about two leagues (a league is three miles) northeast of the presidio, on the north side of the valley. Here we hoped our crops would grow. The wheat that had been planted in the first year washed away in the winter’s flood, and in the second year it withered for lack of rain. We planted the third crop at a place in the valley where the riverbed deepened at a bend, with high, rich ground around it, protected by an outcropping of land. When the third crop yielded well, we moved the mission close by the site. We also wished to put some distance between ourselves and the soldiers at the presidio, although it was prudent to have a few soldiers live with us at the mission for protection.

Yes, protection. I said that the Dieguenos could be moved by kindness as well as punishment, and nothing had occurred in three years to change their character in this regard. But certain conditions made the Dieguenos more difficult to handle than the Indians at other missions. For one there was the Dieguenos’ temper; they were a flickering people (again like children), more brash than courageous, like flint that ignites without burning. And it must be said that they were cool liars, telling the truth when it served their purpose, and telling an untruth when it served the same. This to them was no sin, but rather a show of resourcefulness.

Both of these traits might have been overcome if the Fathers had been able to keep closer watch on their converts, but because our mission was too poor to sustain many souls, the converts lived abroad among the villages, and each day the knitting of Christian ways unraveled when the converts went home to a pagan village. Our hope was that of growing enough wheat and com to feed our converts regularly, and thus keep them at the mission for their own sakes. As it was, a small number of families lived in houses attached to the mission, but most of the converts lived in their own huts nearby. In all about one hundred Christian Indians lived within the sound of our bell.

One of these was named Carlos. He embodied all of the traits that I have described. He was large, broad, hale, and proud — a chief of his village. He was among the earliest converts, having joined the mission in its second year, I believe, and making great use of its advantages. He suited himself in cloth, ate whatever there was to eat, enjoyed listening to the singing at mass (the Dieguenos had no music, not even a drum), and often went hunting when there was work to be done. It was said he, too, had taken part in the first attack upon the missionaries, in which the Indians stole sheets from the infirmary, but he disclaimed it, and I believed him. But I did not trust him.

This Carlos had a brother, also a convert, to whom we gave the Christian name Francisco. They were often together at the mission, and often left together at times when the neophytes searched the countryside for food. Francisco was younger than Carlos, but of the same stature and demeanor; the brother of the chief had a title of his own in the Diegueno tongue, as did the other relatives. The chiefdom resembled our monarchy in that respect.

When we had been at the new site for nearly two years, and had enjoyed good crops and much prosperity, both in the number of new converts and in quality of our buildings, some of which were now of adobe and wood, a woman came to me one day with a grievance. She said that Carlos and Francisco had come upon a fish she was going to sell, and had stolen it. The brothers denied this charge. But in questioning others, I learned that the brothers indeed had been at fault, and so I punished them in the normal fashion, having them come before me and caning them a few times on the back and legs. Whatever you think of this sort of punishment from the hands of Fathers, let me say that it was less severe than the Indians might have done to one another, and moreover, that the punishment of sin is one of the Church’s great blessings, for unpunished sin will flourish and lead to Hell.

These incidents occurred in the fall of 1775, around October, I believe. It was a busy month for the Fathers as we prepared for the feast of our seraphic patron, St. Francis, on October 3. And what a joyous feast we had that year! For the first time since the mission was founded there was plenty to eat; we feasted on beef, mutton, and rabbit, on breads of wheat and com, and on various Indian dishes. Best of all, we baptized sixty new converts on one day. At last we Fathers could entertain the hope that soon all the Dieguenos would be converted.

Not long after the feast, Carlos and Francisco disappeared, leaving word that they had gone to the villages in the hills to seek converts — an excellent excuse, for otherwise we would have followed them and brought them back for another punishment. In fact, the brothers had gone to the more remote villages in hope of starting a war against the mission. So many of their people were being converted, they said, that soon there would be only Christians, and the people in the hills would be persecuted and forced to adopt the Faith.

These rumors of war reached me at the mission, but I refused to heed them. Was I misled by the signs of prosperity around me — by the plentiful harvest and the memory of sixty converts, all in white cloth, crowded near the font to be baptized? I truly can’t remember. Perhaps the feast had made me feel the mission was blessed, and therefore invulnerable, when in reality it was more vulnerable than ever. In living I observed excessive joy to be followed very often by sadness of the same degree, and likewise deep sadness seemed to cultivate a kind of joy, if only that of noticing, as though for the first time, the texture of one’s hand and the color of grass. The feast had made my joy excessive. Then was my joy preparing me for trials yet to come?

This is speculation. I should declare that God prepared my way, and that my duty was only to know that way and follow it.

On the fourth of November in that fruitful year, under a bright moon, 800 Dieguenos approached the mission, then divided their forces, sending half down the valley toward the presidio. They intended to attack the mission and the presidio at the same time.

I was asleep in my room, and next to mine slept Father Vicente Fuster, who had replaced Father Dumetz as my companion in the previous year. In the smithy were two blacksmiths and a carpenter, and in the guardhouse, a corporal and three soldiers, all numb with slumber.

The heathens first crept into the huts of their own Christian people and warned them to make no sound before the attack, then they crept into the church, broke into the locked vestry and looted it of the surplices and other vestments, then set the church and various other brushwood buildings on fire.

The carpenter and blacksmiths, I believe, were the first to awaken. Jose Arroyo, one of the smiths, rushed forth with a sword and was felled quickly with arrows. The carpenter, Jose Urselino, received two wounds that took his life after the battle. He and Felipe Romero escaped to the guardhouse where they roused the soldiers.

The Indians meanwhile had begun to shriek like fiends in Hell, and it was this noise that opened my eyes. There was smoke, and the sharp odor of burning wood, and yellow lights and shadows dancing against the wall. I called to Father Fuster, who just at that moment rushed into my room and cried, “The Gentiles are upon us!” We were both more fearful than I should like to admit, but we calmed ourselves quickly as we made for the guardhouse, running along the outside of the long adobe building. I remember seeing the good padre running before me, and thinking that he had had the presence of mind to put on his sandals. And then I thought of the Holy Cross above my bed, and wondered if it would burn, being wooden.

Reaching the end of the building, we had only to turn the comer and enter through the guardhouse door. Father Fuster went before me. To my left, at about thirty paces, I clearly saw a band of Indians — I don’t know how many — and among them were ones wearing the clothing of our mission. I halted; my right hand was on the corner of the building, and then I let it go and walked toward them.

Their shouting ceased as I approached, and when I reached them they were altogether silent. I suppose they thought I was carrying a weapon; I saw a few of them step back as I neared, but this only made me raise my palms toward them in a sign of peace.

From where I stood, I saw the faint tattoos they wear on their foreheads and chins. I said, “Love God, my children,” and then they took hold of me, first one and then several at once, touching me raised their excitement to an awesome pitch. Before I could think of what to do, they were shaking me and tearing at my habit and dragging me I knew not where.

It would be unseemly, I think, to dwell on what they did with me. Also it is unimportant. Let me say only as a matter of curiosity that they gave me the death of their worst criminals. This took place in the dry bed of a stream which was well below the height of the mission, and also at a greater distance, I guess, than that between the mission and the white memorial cross you may see today. My temporal remains were discovered the next day and decently put to rest.

Why, then, did I do it? No long answer would suffice. I didn’t think of what I was doing. Certainly I did not act out of valor. I did it because I loved them, and because I felt that an act of love, as Father Serra had shown in treating the wounded, is finally more potent and in a sense more real than the blows of a club or a stone. All of us who lived that night are dead today, and all that remains of any use is the fact of what we did.

But enough of that — we still have Father Fuster, the blacksmith, the carpenter, and the four sleepy soldiers in the guardhouse. Father Fuster — now there was a brave man! — hastened back to my room to find what had become of me. One minute I was at his heels, the next I was gone. Despairing, he returned to find the soldiers vainly battling the fires that the Indians had set on the roof of the building. Soon the room became untenable. God in this extremity provided one of them with the thought of taking refuge in the cookhouse, a low, three-sided adobe structure that had the advantage of being roofless. At the expense of wounds to each one of them, the defendants removed themselves to this open box and succeeded in building a barricade in the place of its fourth wall.

Here they passed the night, firing their muskets into the natives, who retaliated by throwing rocks and firebrands over the walls. Father Fuster protected a fifty-pound sack of gunpowder with his cloak and body.

When the Indians retreated at dawn, their Christian brethren approached the survivors with bows and arrows, saying that they themselves succeeded in driving away the attackers. All but the few adobe buildings were burned to the ground. My body was found and identified by the patches of white skin that showed through the blood. Carrying the dead and wounded, the survivors walked the six bitter miles to the presidio, not knowing whether it too had been destroyed.

There they found everything normal. The soldiers at the presidio had not even been aware of the fighting at the mission. The Indians who had gone to attack the presidio turned back when they saw the mission on fire, for they assumed that the soldiers had seen it too, and had cocked their guns for the attack. What honor these Indians paid the King’s soldiers! Their sentinel had not even noticed the mission's bonfire of half a dozen buildings; he said later that he took it to be the shine of moonlight on the woods. He was not punished for his negligence, nor were the soldiers at the mission who had failed to post a night watch.

The news of the burning soon reached the other missions, and was demoralizing to all but Father Serra. On hearing of my death, he threw up his hands and cried, “Thank God! Now the ground has been watered, and the conversion of the Dieguehos will be complete.’’ He rushed to San Diego, as did soldiers from all over the territory. While the friars made reports, the soldiers hurried to the villages, questioning the natives and capturing anyone named as one of the assailants. These were brought back to the presidio to be flogged, questioned, and flogged again. One of the unfortunates died of his lashings. Another, half dead, escaped from the infirmary.

Carlos must have known that the soldiers would hunt him out of the country, and so he returned to the presidio on his own and gave himself up to the Fathers. An ancient custom granted that any fugitive from criminal or civil law could seek asylum in a church, bestowing himself on God’s mercy. Thus Carlos presented himself in the church — or rather, the warehouse that served as a church within the presidio. The comandante Fernando Rivera y Moncada drew his sword and dragged poor Carlos out of the building, while Father Fuster stood by the altar and declared Rivera excommunicated. The comandante then appealed to Father Serra, who said that the excommunication would stand until the fugitive was returned. At last Rivera relented. Without admitting that he had led the revolt, Carlos repented his sins and was forgiven. His brother was never seen again at the mission, and Carlos came to miss him dearly.

The rest of the captured Indians, who numbered only thirteen, spent about a year in the stockade, and then, one morning in February, were released. A salute of the cannons, and a cheer from soldier and Indian alike, ended the affair.

In closing, I must contradict my beloved Father Serra, for the watering of the ground with my blood did not assure the complete conversion of the Dieguenos. Of all the Indians in California, those of San Diego yielded least to the kindness and discipline of our Faith. They were a stubborn people. Or perhaps resolute is a kinder word. They resisted our love as much as they gave in, partly, I suppose, out of love for their own immemorial fathers.

A curious thing happened while the captives were in the stockade. One of them was a medicine man who was known to have wished to kill Father Serra during the first attack on the encampment years earlier. He somehow reckoned the anniversary of that attack, August 15, and managed to hang himself from one of the stockade’s rafters. He did this without the help or knowledge of his captors, or his fellow prisoners.

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