Mission mayhem


Studying California Missions reportedly became part of the fourth-grade curriculum in the 1960s. I was a fourth grader at Buena Terra Grammar School in 1961. I remember my parents driving us to tour many of the missions along El Camino Real, or at least experience the ruins.  And I recall proudly constructing a model of San Juan Capistrano. I only wish I had a photograph of my plaster and paint masterpiece.5462136055_3a0deb21a7_z

It certainly couldn’t compare to the ones at Knott’s Berry Farm that my brother and I regularly visited. I’ve learned that the original mission models first appeared in the park in 1956, commissioned by Walter Knott to be placed along a trail next to the stagecoach ride to keep people from wandering in front of the horse-drawn carriages. Apparently Knott had heard about a set of mission models displayed at the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition built by Leon Bayard de Volo, an Italian immigrant. De Volo worked for Warner Bros. for many years before beginning to build models on contract when Knott commissioned a larger set for the farm.

Over the years, one by one, the models were removed until the last two were taken away, placed in storage in 1998. In 2013 the models were rediscovered, lovingly restored or reconstructed, and reinstalled in 2016. Small huts were built to protect each mission model from the elements. Wired to provide light, with backdrops to represent the sky, the huts were placed in the same area along the stagecoach trail. Knott’s General Manager was quoted as saying, “The California Mission models hold as much educational value as they do sentimental value for many of our guests.”


A model of Mission San Luis Obispo on display at Knott’s Berry Farm. The project to refurbish and in some cases, build from scratch, the mission models started in 2014, with most of the restoration done by Bob Weir. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG) Taken in Buena Park at Knott’s Berry Farm on Thursday, December 1, 2016.

The timing of this resurrection seems interesting given that Junipero Serra was canonized in September 2015. For years there has been increasing documentation of the missionaries’ mistreatment of the indigenous Californians. Rape, murder, incarceration, slavery, it is hard to reconcile these revelations with the Franciscan fathers I learned about in school. They may have been well-intentioned, but I am appalled that, without adequate contextualization, the missions and missionaries continue to be extolled.


In mid-May 2015, my review of Elias Castillo’s A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California’s Indians by the Spanish Missions appeared in the San Francisco Examiner:

School students and tourists may have a romantic vision of California’s missions and the relationship between indigenous peoples and the Franciscan friars who headed them. Journalist Elias Castillo’s book, “A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California’s Indians by the Spanish Missions,” challenges the notion, charging that forced labor and physical punishment ultimately led to the annihilation of California’s early inhabitants.

Twenty-one missions stretch across the state, from Mission San Diego de Alcalá, founded in San Diego in 1769, to Mission San Francisco de Solano, founded in Sonoma in 1823. Derived from mission records, it is estimated that the state’s indigenous population before the mission period was as high as 350,000, with an estimated 500 to 600 tribes or tribelets with their own cultures, traditions and languages. (After the period, the population is estimated at 150,000.)

Castillo succinctly traces the life of Miguel Joseph Serra (he later took the name Junípero to honor Saint Junipero, a companion of Saint Francis), including the iconic figure’s self-inflicted lashings and self-loathing. Serra subscribed to the contemporary view that indigenous people were demonic and their culture must be destroyed, replaced with “belief in a single God and the complex accompanying Catholic morality, theology and rituals.”

The details of this well-meaning, if misguided, cultural confrontation are an important, and painful story, adding immeasurably to our understanding of a complicated and contested chapter of California’s history.

The book’s publication is timely, with Pope Francis’ plans to canonize Father Serra, who was beatified in 1988, in September.

Castillo, a three-time nominee for the Pulitzer Prize and a former reporter for the San Jose Mercury News and the Associated Press, researched the book using primary sources, including material from little-known church and Spanish government archives.

His heavily footnoted text is fascinating in its detailed accessibility, and 14 pages of bibliographic sources, eight pages of color plates, a five-page index and various appendices solidify the documentation, which is not undermined by the few minor typos.

Lest one think that this history is no longer relevant, Castillo ends with this reminder: “The Bureau of Indian Affairs is playing Russian Roulette with the heritage of the United States. Each year that passes as the agency, perhaps deliberately, moves at a ponderous snail’s pace on petitions for recognition, Indian elders die and along with them the history, language, knowledge, and traditions of the First Americans…”


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