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Rebellion in the California Missions: February 21-22, 1824

Updated: Feb 21, 2020

Indian neophytes at the missions could sense the changes brought about by the Mexican Revolution. Since the supply ship from San Blas had stopped coming in 1811, Indian laborers had borne the burden of feeding the soldiers and their families, and they were weary. Moreover, the soldiers, who had less fear of the friars, had grown more careless toward the Indians and at times mistreated them cruelly. The fact that the unconverted Indians, or gentiles, having learned the use of the horse, had grown emboldened in their attitude towards the Spanish population, made the neophytes even more restless and discontent.

A California native, by Louis Choris (1795-1828)

This smoldering discontent flamed into violence on February 21, 1824. What exactly happened is unclear, but it seems to have started when one Corporal Cota ordered the flogging of a neophyte at Mission Santa Inés. The Indians rose, the few soldiers at the mission defended themselves and the friar, and several mission buildings were burned. The next morning, when Sergeant Anastasio Carrillo arrived at Santa Inés with a small force, he found that the hostile Indians had fled to the nearby mission, La Purísima Concepción.

Purísima had been the scene of another uprising on February 21. Throughout the afternoon and the night, Corporal Tiburcio Tapia, with four or five men, defended the soldiers’ families and the friars against an Indian attack, until their powder ran out. During the affray, the Indians killed four travelers, Dolores Sepulveda and his companions, en route to Los Angeles, while losing seven of their own number. The next morning, the Indian insurgents sent Tapia and Fray Blas Ordáz (who had the reputation of living an irregular religious life) to Santa Inés to warn Carrillo not to approach Purísima; if he did, the Indians would slaughter the soldiers’ families. Carrillo’s answer is unknown, but the Indians finally released the families. The other friar at Purísima, Fray Antonio Catarino Rodriguez, remained to minister to the rebels.

Mission La Purisima Concepcion, as it appears today

Reinforced by Indians from Santa Inés and from other missions, the Purísima Indians prepared to defend themselves. They sent messengers to other missions and to the gentile tribes, fortified the mission, mounted a decrepit cannon, and waited for the inevitable assault. At Santa Barbara, on Sunday, February 22, Fray Antonio Ripoll and Fray Antonio Jaime succeeded in quieting the neophytes and ordered the soldiers at the mission to withdraw to the presidio. But, at the presidio, when Captain José de la Guerra heard that two of the soldiers had been wounded in a tussle with the Indians, he marched on the mission, and a three-hour fight ensued in which two Indians were killed, three wounded. When Guerra retired to the presidio, the Indians took whatever they could from the mission (respecting, however, the church itself), and fled to the mountains. They had begged Fray Antonio Jaime, who was sick in bed, to go with them, but he had refused. On the same afternoon, Alférez Maitorena arrived with Guerra’s troops and, in the next two days (against the friars’ protests) sacked the Indians’ houses and killed several Indians in cold blood. By the end of February, the rebels had fled to the Tulares.

Map of the “Tulares”– Tulare Lake and the river systems that fed it. Tulare Lake is now dry, the waters that fed it having been diverted for irrigation.

The news of the Indian revolt frightened the governor at Monterey. He sent 100 men south under Lieutenant Mariano Estrada and Alférez Francisco de Haro to join with Captain de la Guerra in an assault on Purísima. In the early morning hours of March 16, the Mexican cavalry fanned out to left and right, while the rest of the force opened fire on the mission walls. Within, the neophytes, numbering about 400, returned fire with the old cannon, a few swivel guns, muskets, and arrows, but they were no match for the Mexican regulars. The Indians tried to flee, but the cavalry prevented them. Finally, Fray Antonio Rodriguez interceded for the Indians, and, at 10:30 a.m., the battle was over. Guerra and Estrada condemned seven of the neophytes to death for the murder of the Sepulveda party and sentenced the four ringleaders of the revolt — Mariano, Pacomio, Benito, and Bernabé — to ten years labor in the presidio, followed by perpetual banishment. The seven condemned to death received the sacrament of Penance and the Eucharist before they were shot.

With the defeat at Purísima, the Indian revolt lost steam. A few smaller operations were conducted against the remaining rebels in the Tulares, but the danger was over. By the intercession of Fray Antonio Ripoll and Fray Vicente Sarría, the governor extended a general pardon to the rebellious Indians, and by June 16, 1824, California was again at peace.

California Music, Old and New

The musical traditions of the California natives  of  the Spanish friars were very different. Our first offering is a song of the Chumash, a tribe that peopled Santa Barbara, Santa Inés, and La Purísima Concepción missions. The second is a recording of the music the Franciscans taught the Indians — and which they, by all accounts, rendered beautifully.

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