During this Thanksgiving season, I cannot help but think about how our national feast day only reinforces a limited view of our nation’s origins and the relations between Native Americans and Europeans during the colonial period. As we gather around the table our thoughts turn instinctively — if only momentarily — to New England and the short period of comity between Indians and newcomers that has become so central to our national mythology… and when we think more broadly of our nation’s colonial past, we almost always think of another feel-good story: how in 1776 the thirteen English colonies struck as one to lay the foundation for our United States of America. Both stories are rooted in a thin strip of land along our Atlantic Coast, but in their drama and power, they tend to obliterate other valuable narratives about European-Indian relations in colonial America. The English, once they had borrowed all the food and provisions from Native Americans in New England, embarked on a slaughter that wiped most of the Indians from this earth.
Simultaneously, however, another group of European men — Spanish Catholic missionaries — was fanning out across the Americas hoping to extend Catholicism into new lands and thereby incorporate Indians into their realm. It is hard to imagine that any other group played a larger role in shaping the early period of Indian-European relations than the Franciscan and Jesuit missionaries who trekked out across much of the Americas from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries. Millions of Indians, from the southern tip of South America through the northern hinterlands of Canada were introduced to European culture and society — and often its ailments — by men in black or grey robes who preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ as savior.
One of those men — Father Junípero Serra — was born in Spain 300 years ago this year. He, like many of the Catholic missionaries who came to these lands, was also a founding father, but one cut from a different sort of cloth. His adult life played out in the Mediterranean island of Mallorca, in colonial Mexico, and then in Spanish California, lands far removed from New England or British North America. And yet, his work is more illustrative of the interactions between Natives and newcomers in colonial America than any feast in New England; in his life and work, and in Indians’ reactions to him and his policies, Serra embodies a larger history of Indians and Catholic missionaries that is nearly hemispheric in its scope.
Serra lived at about the same time as Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson, but he was a Founding Father of a completely different sort. Rather than launching an experiment of self-governance rooted in Enlightenment thinking, Serra brought to America older patterns of European life and belief. And in California, where he arrived at age 55, he instigated a revolution of ideas and practices that altered not only the people but also the land. He preached to Indians that they could be included in an expanding Spanish realm only if they adopted European agriculture and Jesus Christ as their savior. While that may seem like the height of European cultural imperialism — and to some extent it was — it bears remembering that English Protestants, despite their fond memories of that Thanksgiving feast, could never really imagine a world with Indians in it. Serra, by contrast, along with thousands of other Spanish Catholic missionaries who came to the Americas, could never really imagine a New World without Indians at its center.
Today, as historians reexamine the historical development of the Pacific coast of North America, re-envision the boundaries — geographic and chronological — of colonial America, and reconsider whose early American life is worth teaching, we should contemplate Serra’s life and legacy, and his contributions to the history of California and early America. That is why I have written a new history of his life, the first one in more than fifty years to place him in historical context.
The story of his life can be distilled into a series of paradoxes. He was opinionated, strong-willed, determined, and passionately devoted to his work but he had no self-identity in the modern understanding of the term. His ideas and passions were shaped by his admission into the Franciscan Order as a young man. As a deeply religious Catholic of the eighteenth century, he fervently distrusted his own intuition or inner voice, and he chose to follow God’s will as he understood it. That can be a tricky trail to follow for a modern historian and biographer, but I have sought to emphasize the historical times within which he lived and to highlight the degree to which his own religious beliefs seemed to shape his life in ways he believed were nearly miraculous. I have also focused on the other central paradox of his life, this one tragic and of epic proportions: he sought to save Indians by encouraging them to relocate to Catholic missions where they could hear the Gospel and live as Europeans, but once in the missions Indians succumbed to diseases at horrifically high rates, as they did across America during the colonial period.
Today, Serra’s statue stands in our nation’s capital in Statuary Hall as a reminder that he brought European culture to California, but his story holds larger truths — namely, that our nation’s formative historical period was continental in scope, ushered in by many different sorts of Founding Fathers, some of whom had little in common with those who gathered for that Thanksgiving feast or assembled in Philadelphia more than a century and a half later. Moreover, Serra’s presence in Statuary Hall reminds us that California, so often seen as a land of the future, has its own deep history, one firmly anchored in the history of European expansion during the early modern period.
Steven W. Hackel is an associate professor of history at the University of California, Riverside, and the author of the award-winning Children of Coyote, Missionaries of Saint Francis: Indian-Spanish Relations in Colonial California, 1769–1850 and Junípero Serra: California’s Founding Father. He also directs a project in digital history, the Early California Cultural Atlas, and is co-curator of the Huntington Library’s exhibit, Junípero Serra and the Legacies of the California Missions. He lives in Pasadena, California.