|Monterey in 1786: Life in a California Mission
The Journals of Jean François de La Pérouse
with an Introduction and Commentary by Malcolm Margolin
This is a book which everyone in California ought to read carefully. It is the best succinct volume I have
found to date providing a factual, firsthand account of what life was like at a California mission.
The topic is mature and presented with academic rigor, but it's a page turner which is easy and fun to
read. The introduction and other interpretive notes are at least as important and interesting as the source
document itself, which is a set of journals by Jean François Galaup de La Pérouse who captained a
goodwill expedition from France in the late 1700s.
The King of France went to extraordinary lengths to make this expedition happen. Its four year mission
was to boldly go where no French had gone before, to explore what to France were strange, new lands,
and to report on the activities of other European powers operating there. Monterey was just one of La
Pérouse’s many stops. The expedition marked the first time non-Spanish vessels visited Spain’s California
Decades later, after the Mexican-American War and the Gold Rush, Euro-Americans heading west to
prospect and settle would discover the ruins of the California missions and fashion from them the myth of
a romantic era when “peaceful, tonsored monks bestowed blessings upon the children of nature in an
arcadian world of harmony and love.” (Pages 47-48.) The facts presented in La Pérouse’s “captain’s log”
allow the reader to separate such fantasy imagery from reality. In 1786, for example, after sixteen years
of operation, the mission at Carmel was mud and thatch, and Spain had yet to produce in California any
of what we tend to regard as mission architecture today.
La Pérouse, whose purpose was neither to praise nor scorn, but to record and report observations, did an
excellent job of describing a typical day in the life of the mission at Carmel. He concluded based upon
copious details set forth in the book that the mission most closely resembled a late 18th century slave
plantation. The book cites multiple sources of evidence indicating that the living conditions at the
missions left the Indian residents traumatized and deeply depressed.
In his introduction, Malcolm Margolin explains some of the dynamics that may have motivated the
creation of this system. He discusses how the monks came to enter missionary service and what
motivated them, and how the particular personalities of the Father-Presidents and individual monks
affected the way that the missions developed.
The book explains that with baptism, Indians at the missions lost their freedom. What the Franciscan
monks demanded of the mission Indians far exceeded what was expected of European villagers, and
corporal punishments were administered liberally for minor infractions. Mission residents were
purposefully separated from their homelands and traditional economies. Inside the missions, Indians lost
many family members, including many children, to overwork, injuries, and disease. They had very
limited control over what they ate, when, or how much. The authorities did their best to drive their prior
religious convictions and traditions out of them. Residents could not date, or court, or marry according
to their desires or customs. They could not parent their children as they saw fit. They lost their health,
and the vast majority died prematurely.
While such broad brush conclusions can be found elsewhere, this volume contains copious evidence to
The Museum of Tolerance pulls few punches, but at the missions there are no whipping posts on display.
As evidenced in the book, such tools as whips, chains, and stocks were employed regularly at the Carmel
mission. These are not included in exhibits or even many discussions today because they are so at odds
with the romantic myth of the missions that became prevalent after California became a U.S. state.
If you want to know the facts that this book contains, then, you will have to read it, because I do not
believe you will become exposed to the same information through standard exhibits at historical sites.
I highly recommend this concise scholarly work to you.
- Glenn Anaiscourt
I'd love to hear your thoughts.
|by Glenn Anaiscourt