in the Franciscan order of the Catholic Church, Junipero Serra was
a driving force in the Spanish conquest and colonization of what is
now the state of California.
born into a humble family on the Spanish island of Mallorca in the
Mediterranean Ocean. His parents sent him to a nearby Franciscan school,
and his intellectual abilities soon caught the attention of his teachers.
At age fifteen he enrolled in a prominent Franciscan school in the
nearby city of Palma. The next year he became a novice in the Franciscan
order and shortly thereafter was ordained as a priest.
acumen and enormous willpower secured his appointment as a professor
of theology at the tender age of twenty-four. Six years later, in
1743, he moved on to a professorship at the prestigious Lullian University.
success as a pulpit orator and professor, Serra hungered for something
more. In 1749 he secured permission to travel with some fellow Franciscans
who intended to devote themselves to work at a mission near Mexico
City. Serra took the long sea voyage to Spain's colonies. Despite
ill health from the voyage, upon his arrival in Vera Cruz he insisted
on walking all the way to Mexico City, a distance of over two hundred
miles. This was the first of many feats of physical stamina and willpower
which were to make the Franciscan a legend in his own time.
fifteen years, Serra worked in Mexico at much the same tasks as he
had in Spain, although he took on missionary work to nearby Indian
peoples in addition to preaching, hearing confessions, and helping
to administrate Mexico City's College of San Fernando.
In 1767 the
Spanish emperor's expulsion of the Jesuits from Spain's colonies led
the government to ask the Franciscan Order to replace them as missionaries
in Baja (lower) California. Serra was appointed head of these missions.
The next year the Spanish governor decided to explore and found missions
in Alta (upper) California, the area which is now the state of California.
This project was intended both to Christianize the extensive Indian
populations and to serve Spain's strategic interest by preventing
Russian explorations and possible claims to North America's Pacific
the rest of his life as head of the Franciscans in Alta California.
Already over fifty years old, dangerously thin, asthmatic, and seriously
injured in one of his legs, the undaunted Serra led the founding of
the Mission of San Diego in 1769, aided an expedition in locating
San Francisco Bay, and personally founded eight other missions, including
his lifelong headquarters, the mission San Carlos Borromeo at Carmel.
His Herculean efforts subjected him to near-starvation, afflictions
of scurvy, and hundreds of miles of walking and horse riding through
dangerous terrain. Moreover, he was notorious for his mortifications
of the flesh: wearing heavy shirts with sharp wires pointed inward,
whipping himself to the point of bleeding, and using a candle to scar
the flesh of his chest. His sacrifices bore fruit for the missionaries;
by his death in 1784, the nine missions he had founded had a nominally
converted Indian population of nearly 5,000.
with the Spanish Army over the proper authority of the Franciscans
in Alta California, which he thought should subsume that of military
commanders. In 1773 he convinced the authorities in Mexico City to
increase financial and military support for expansion of his missions,
and to expand the authority of the Franciscans over both the army
and the baptized mission Indians. He also urged Mexican officials
to establish an overland route to Alta California, a suggestion which
led to colonizing expeditions from New Mexico which established civilian
settlements at San Francisco in 1776 and at Los Angeles in 1781.
this kind of political power because his missions served economic
and political purposes as well as religious ends. The number of civilian
colonists in Alta California never exceeded 3,200, and the missions
with their Indian populations were critical to keeping the region
within Spain's political orbit. Economically, the missions produced
all of the colony's cattle and grain, and by the 1780's were even
producing surpluses sufficient to trade with Mexico for luxury goods.
frequent conflicts between military and religious authority, for Alta
California's Indians the missions and their Franciscan administrators
were part and parcel of an enormously destructive colonization process.
The Spanish, largely through disease, were responsible for a population
decline from about 300,000 Indians in 1769 to about 200,000 by 1821.
The strenuous work regime and high population density within the missions
themselves also caused high death rates among the mission Indians.
By law, all baptized Indians subjected themselves completely to the
authority of the Franciscans; they could be whipped, shackled or imprisoned
for disobedience, and hunted down if they fled the mission grounds.
Indian recruits, who were often forced to convert nearly at gunpoint,
could be expected to survive mission life for only about ten years.
As one Friar noted, the Indians "live well free but as soon as
we reduce them to a Christian and community life... they fatten, sicken,
Serra is still a well-known figure in California, a virtual icon of
the colonial era whose statue stands in San Francisco's Golden Gate
Park and in the U.S. Capital. In 1987 Pope John Paul II beatified
Serra, the second of three steps necessary for the Church's bestowal
of formal sainthood. Many Indians and academics condemned this decision,
pointing to the harsh conditions of mission life and Serra's own justification
of beatings. (In 1780, Serra wrote: "that spiritual fathers should
punish their sons, the Indians, with blows appears to be as old as
the conquest of [the Americas]; so general in fact that the saints
do not seem to be any exception to the rule.") Defenders of Serra
cited the context of his times, his enormous personal sacrifices and
religious zeal, and his opposition to punitive military expeditions
against the Indians as exonerating factors. More than two centuries
after his death, Junipero Serra is still a pivotal figure in California
history and the history of the American West, this time as a flashpoint
for controversy over European treatment of Indians.