The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Black Legend, White Legend, Grey Truth in California's Missions

Some months back, I was on a very long flight, and so several hours in I took the opportunity to stand up and walk about the cabin in order to restore the circulation in my legs. I walked to the back of the plane and stood next to an older woman with whom I started talking. She was a school teacher, and we discussed the history classes that she taught to her junior high school students. During the course of this, she began to talk about what she had learned, and passed on to her students, about the colonization of California, that the native people s of California had been living a peaceful, idyllic life with plentiful resources until the Spanish showed up, forced everyone on to missions (with the church playing a role in support of the military conquest), spread smallpox and syphilis, and generally left a wave of destruction in their path.

This particular narrative, a fairly popular one, is known as the "Black Legend", the story of Spanish conquest and destruction, with the Spanish playing the part of melodrama villains in their quest for gold and glory.

There is another legend, though, one that is equally popular, though not as often heard publicly these days, that historians refer to as the "White Legend." In this version of the story, we hear about the Spanish priests arriving to establish missions in an attempt to make life better for the naive peoples. The role of military is usually downplayed, and the intentions of the allegedly kindly, gentle priests played up. The proponents of the White Legend rarely deny that many natives died due to the arrival of Europeans, but attribute those deaths to the introduction of new diseases, a factor that the Europeans didn't understand and could not have predicted.

Both of these legends contain some truth, but both are ultimately constructs developed to support particular politically-motivated readings of history, and both are ultimately false.

The truth is that colonization is not a simple black/white thing - it is extremely complicated, and the colonization of California especially so. There were so many competing interests and motivations on the parts of both the Europeans and the Californians that it is not possible to simply beatify or demonize any broad group (though certain individuals are absolutely open to criticism). The truth is very, very complicated.


So, let's start with life before the Spanish arrived. The notion that the Californians were living an absolutely peaceful life with plenty of resources isn't actually true. There was a good deal of conflict, and archaeological an ethnohistoric evidence clearly indicate that internecine warfare was not an uncommon occurrence. In the Santa Barbara Channel area, for example, the ethnohistorian John Johnson has documented patterns of social interaction indicative of the formation of alliances that served both peaceful purposes such as solidifying trade relationships, and less-than-peaceful purposes such as forming bonds to be utilized during inter-village fighting.

Likewise, Linda King, in her research in southern Ventura County found evidence of routine warfare between the southern Ventureno Chumash and the Gabrieleno people who inhabited the region immediately to the south.

The warfare practices of the Colorado River tribelets is literally the stuff of legend.

However, all was not warfare and strife. The same alliances that were utilized for, and sometimes caused, conflict also allowed extensive trade networks to exist, and allowed for integration of people from very different regions. Prehistoric California was not a simple place, but rather was a complex social landscape.


The act of colonization was a very long process, arguably beginning with Spanish exploration of the California coast during the 16th century. It's important to be clear that these early explorations did a number of things: they introduced European material culture to California (exotic trade goods were a mark of prestige amongst the Californians, and so the introduction of Spanish goods is important), and they provided advanced intelligence to the Spanish regarding the peoples of the region (and informing the eventual colonial strategy).

However, colonization really began in the mid-to-late 18th century with the establishment of the missions and presidios (military bases) along the California coast. From the outset, the establishment of the Spanish colonial system in California had a very weird and complicating dynamic - it was a joint venture between the Spanish military and the Spanish church.

There is a tendency amongst believers of the Black Legend to lump the Spanish together as a monolithic whole. However, this leads to oversimplifications and misleading thinking. Although the military and the church worked together - the military providing security and support to the missions and the missions providing labor and supplies to the presidios - there was always a tension inherent in the relationship. The clergy resented the military and felt that they should be subservient to the priests, while the military officers felt that the church was there to support them and resented the need to share power. As a result, both institutions routinely made attempts to undermine the authority of the other.

There are numerous stories of the brutality of the soldiers as well as that of the priests. I do not want to be misunderstood, most of these stories are probably either true or contain some degree of truth. However, we often hear of them from Spanish accounts from one institution intending to undermine the other, and as such they must be considered in this context, and separating the reality from the rhetoric is very difficult.

By the same token, stories used to justify the White Legend are often taken from documents produced by one of these two institutions in order to justify their own authority, and as such must also be taken within the context of the conflicts between the clergy and the military.

Another matter that must be taken into account is the fact that just as the Spanish were not a monolithic entity, neither were the church or the military. Within both institutions were a wide variety of individuals whose goals, intentions, and motivations were legion. If one wishes to find would-be latter-day conquistadors, they're not difficult to come by, nor are sadists who used their priestly garments as a shield, religious zealots, or bloodthirsty sociopaths in uniform.

At the same time, one can easily find professional soldiers who were trying to do their jobs with as clean a conscience as possible, priests who genuinely had the well-being of the Californians at heart, and individuals who were simply trying to make a good life in a difficult place.

And there's also the people in grey areas. Soldiers who acted on orders that, while lawful, were nonetheless immoral, priests who destroyed lives while trying to save souls, and profiteers who decided to take advantage of the situation to line their own pockets without ever engaging in the dirty work themselves.

In other words, to simply label the Spanish as evil super-soldiers out to wipe out the natives or as saints trying to do good works is to completely ignore the very complex situation that was Spanish colonization.


Another thing that both the White Legend and the Black Legend do is to cast the Native Californians to passive people to whom history happened, rather than active participants. Again, the truth is very different.

Let's take forced conversions. Forced conversion and missionization was common late in the Mission Period, due primarily to a reduced pool of converts in the areas surrounding the missions. However, early conversions were primarily voluntary. That being said, once somebody had become a neophyte (a Mission Indian), they faced many restrictions on their freedoms and lived a difficult life, and this fact should not be forgotten. However, the fact remains that early converts came to the missions voluntarily. In order to understand why, you have to know a few things about life in prehistoric California.

The economy of the Native Californians was dependent on exchange and trade. In addition, to be able to have and exchange exotic goods provided an opportunity to gain prestige as well as wealth. When the Spanish arrived, they provided exotic goods of a quality never before seen, and as such, many people were eager to establish exchange ties with these new visitors.

In addition to that, one of the primary ways that the native populations of many regions of California were supported was through ties with people in within and between regions. When the people of one region had a shortfall of food or other resources, they could use their ties to the other regions to make up for this shortfall, at least to some degree. Likewise, when the resources in a small patch of a region were running short, ties to people in another patch in the same region could be used to get supplies. When the Spanish arrived, with their abundant and exotic goods, they looked like ideal partners.

Related to the last point, the same ties that were so important in ensuring that necessary resources could travel between and within regions were also important in protecting villages from violence. One of the primary ways that a village might prevent internecine warfare from engulfing it was to have allies who were of sufficient size or martial capabilities to make aggression against the village seem like a very bad idea. When the Spanish arrived, with firearms, horses, and armor, well, they became the biggest kids on the block, and the desired allies for the local people.

The point to all of this is that the Native Californians were not passive victims of history, but were active participants with their own agendas and interests.

At the same time, the Spanish, while not quite understanding the motives behind the Native Interest in the colonists, nonetheless were more than ready to take advantage in it. By virtue of their technological capabilities, the weakening of the local people due both to disease and the loss of gathering and hunting lands, and Spanish organization abilities, the Spanish did get the upper hand in the end, and did commit many of the acts that proponents of the Black Legend point to. When this began to happen, native peoples were still not passive, they often fought (though sometimes colluded), but were not simply faceless victims.

Importantly, once natives became baptized and entered the missions, their freedoms were severely restricted (though, again, not to the degree that is often claimed). However, the forced conversions were not a particularly common thing during the early part of the Mission Period.


No discussion of the missions would be complete without a discussion of the role that disease played.

One typically hears that introduced diseases destroyed the populations of Neophytes. This is not a baseless claim - smallpox, syphilis, and similar diseases were present and could be devastating - but the maladies that were probably responsible for the most deaths within the missions were due not to introduced germs, but to cramming too many people together in a small space. Dysentery, respiratory illness, and other more mundane diseases were responsible for most of the deaths.

Away from the missions, however, diseases such as smallpox were extremely devastating. There are stories about entire villages wiped out so quickly that the dead are left lying on the ground, nobody left to bury them.


The reality of colonization is much more complicated than it is so often made out to be. The colonists consist of both villains and good, if misled or mistaken, people trying to do what they think to be right. The natives of the colonized place are not passive victims, but play their own role, sometimes working with and sometimes working against the colonizers.

And what I have written here really applies only to California. Colonization in general, and Spanish colonization of the Americas in particular, played out differently across time and space. The colonization of Mexico was different, as was the colonization of Peru*, of Argentina, and so on. Not only do generalizations prevent one from knowing the truth of California's history, they prevent one from knowing the truth of the history of the Americas.

*Peru is an interesting case. Many of the truly vile things that happened during the Spanish colonization of the Americas actually were done in violation of Spanish law! When Peruvians became well enough integrated into the Spanish system to understand this, they began suing. There are, in fact, letters from Spanish judges to priests working in Peru requesting that the priests talk the Peruvians out of their lawsuits, as these lawsuits were clogging up the Spanish courts.

1 comment:

Jairus Durnett said...

Everything is always more complicated than you think.*

A lot of the ideas I have about prehistory of the Americas come from two books: 1491 (Charles Mann) and Guns, Germs, and Steel (Jared Diamond). If anyone with actual expertise has read these, I would love to know if these can be considered to be reliable - if simplified - overviews.

*except for Huckleberry Finn.