Ranch and Mission Days in Alta California
The Indian houses were never more than one story high, also of adobe, but much smaller and with thinner walls. The inmates covered the earthen floors in part with coarse mats woven of tules, on which they slept. The Missions, as fast as possible, provided them with blankets, which were woven under the fathers’ personal supervision, for home use and for sale. They were also taught to weave a coarse serge for clothing.
The California Indians were full of rude superstitions of every sort when the Franciscan fathers first began to teach them. It is hard to collect old Indian stories in these days, because they have become mixed up with what the fathers taught them. But the wild Indians a hundred years ago told the priests what they believed, and it was difficult to persuade them to give it up. In fact, there was more or less of what the fathers told them was “devil- worship” going on all the time.
Rude stone altars were secretly built by the Mission Indians to “Cooksuy [Kuksu],” their dreaded god. They chose a lonely place in the hills and made piles of flat stones, five or six feet high. After that each Indian passing would throw something there, and his act of homage, called “pooish,” continued until the mound was covered with a curious collection of beads, feathers, shells from the coast, and even garments and food, which no Indian dared to touch. The fathers destroyed all such altars that they could discover, and punished the Indians who worshipped there.
Sometimes the more ardent followers of Cooksuy had meetings at night, slipping away from the Indian village after the retiring-bell had rung and the alcalde’s rounds had been made. They prepared for the ceremony by fasting for several days; then they went to the chosen place, built a large fire, went through many dances, and called the god by a series of very strange and wild whistles, which always frightened any person who heard them. The old Indians, after being converted, told the priests that before they had seen the Spaniards come Cooksuy made his appearance from the midst of the fire in the form of a large white serpent; afterward the story was changed, and they reported that he sometimes took the form of a bull with fiery eyes.
Indian alcaldes were appointed in the Mission towns to maintain order. Their duty was that of police officers; they were dressed better than the others, and wore shoes and stockings, which newly appointed officers dispensed with as often as possible, choosing to go barefoot, or with stockings only. When a vacancy in the office occurred the Indians themselves were asked which one they preferred of several suggested by the priest.
The Mission San José had about five thousand Indian converts at the time of its greatest prosperity, and a number of Indian alcaldes were needed there. The alcaldes of the Spanish people in the pueblos were more like local judges, and were appointed by the governor.
The Indians who were personal attendants of the fathers were chosen with much care for their obedience and quickness of perception. Some of them seemed to have reached the very perfection of silent careful, unselfish service. They could be trusted with the most important matters, and they were strictly honest. Each father had his own private barber, who enjoyed the honor of a seat at the table with him, and generally accompanied him in journeys to other Missions. When the Missions were secularized, this custom, like many others, was abolished, and one Indian barber, named Telequis, felt the change in his position so much that when he was ordered out to the field with the others he committed suicide by eating the root of a poisonous wild plant, a species of celery.
The Indian vaqueros, who lived much of the time on the more distant cattle ranges, were a wild set of men. I remember one of them, named Martin, who was stationed in Amador Valley and became a leader of the hill vaqueros, who were very different from the vaqueros of the large valley near the Missions. He and his friends killed and ate three or four hundred young heifers belonging to the Mission, but when Easter approached he felt that he must confess his sins, so he went to Father Narciso and told all about it. The father forgave him, but ordered him to come in from the hills to the Mission and attend school until he could read. The rules were very strict; whoever failed twice in a lesson was always whipped. Martin was utterly unable to learn his letters, and he was whipped every day for a month; but he never complained. He was then dismissed, and went back to the hills. I used to question Martin about the affair, and he would tell me with perfect gravity of manner, which was very delightful, how many calves he had consumed and how wisely the good father had punished him. He knew now, he used to say, how very hard it was to live in the town, and he would never steal again lest he might have to go to school until he had learned his letters.
It was the custom at all the Missions, during the rules of the Franciscan missionaries, to keep the young unmarried Indians separate. The Young girls and the young widows at the Mission San José occupied a large adobe building, with a yard behind it, inclosed by high adobe walls. In this yard some trees were planed, and a zanja, or ]water-ditch supplied a large bathing-pond. The women were kept busy at various occupations, in the building, under the trees, or on the wide porch; they were taught spinning, knitting, the weaving of Indian baskets from grasses, willow rods and roots, and more especially plain sewing. The treatment and occupation of the unmarried women was similar at the other Missions. When heathen Indian women came in, or were brought by their friends, or by the soldiers, they were put in these houses, and under the charge of older women, who taught them what to do.
The women, thus separated from the men, could only be courted from without through the upper windows facing on the narrow village street. These windows were about two feet square, crossed by iron bars, and perhaps three feet deep, as the adobe walls were very thick. The rules were not more strict, however, than still prevail in some of the Spanish- American countries in much higher classes, socially, than these uneducated Indians belonged to; in fact the rules were adopted by the fathers from Mexican models. After an Indian, in his hours of freedom from toil, had declared his affection by a sufficiently long attendance upon a certain window, it was the duty of the woman to tell the father missionary and to declare her decision. If this was favorable, the young man was asked if he was willing to contract marriage with the young woman who had confessed her preference. Sometimes there were several rival suitors, but it was never known that any trouble occurred. After marriage the couple were conducted to their home, a hut built for them among the other Indian houses in the village near the Mission.
The Indian mothers were frequently told about the proper care of children, and cleanliness of the person was strongly inculcated. In fact, the Mission Indians, large and small, were wonderfully clean, their faces and hair fairly shining with soap and water. In several cases where an Indian woman was so slovenly and neglectful of her infant that it died she was punished by being compelled to carry in her arms in church, and at all meals and public assemblies, a log of wood about the size of a nine-months’-old child. This was a very effectual punishment, for the Indian women are naturally most affectionate creatures, and in every case they soon began to suffer greatly, and others with them, so that once a whole Indian village begged the father in charge to forgive the poor woman.