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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Slavery and Freedom Lorenzo Asisara (b. 1819)

[6856] San Gabriel Mission (1832), courtesy of the California Historical Society.

While the institution of slavery is generally associated with African Americans and with the antebellum South, it was in fact present in other regions and at other times in American history. Lorenzo Asisara’s story is an example of the enslavement of Native Americans in the American Southwest. Asisara was born into the Costanoan Indian community in the Mission at Santa Cruz. The Costanos, or “coastal people,” were Native Americans who traditionally resided along the Pacific coast from the San Francisco area south to Monterey. In his narrative “Punishment” (located in the archive), Asisara provides a rare eyewitness account of life within the Spanish Franciscan mission system from a Native American perspective. Transcribed from oral testimony Asisara gave in 1877 in an interview with field historian Thomas Savage, “Punishment” is an unusual narrative of mission discipline, the decline of the Franciscan order in California, and the decimation of the local Native American population.

The Franciscan empire in California was the product of the Spanish colonial project in the New World. Catholic priests of the Franciscan order were sent to California to Christianize the local Native Americans, claiming their land and turning them into laborers for the missions in the process. Because Franciscan Christianization involved compelling the Indians to give up their lands, culture, native religious practices, and independence, it often could not be accomplished by voluntary conversion and instead necessitated the use of military force. Once the Native Americans were baptized at the missions they became unpaid laborers who were not free to leave–that is, they essentially became slaves. Between 1770 and 1834 over 90,000 California Indians (a third of the pre-contact population) were enslaved within the Franciscan missions. Rampant disease and high rates of mortality ravaged the mission Indian populations.

Understandably, many Indians resisted Spanish domination, and that resistance took a variety of forms. Some natives opted to sabotage the missions by laboring slowly and performing tasks poorly, while others resisted more actively by running away, assassinating priests, or even leading large-scale revolts. By the 1830s, the mission system had become untenable. The Mexican government passed a series of “secularization laws” designed to break up the Franciscan estates and distribute the property to surviving Native Americans. In practice, few Indians were granted land or resources from the missions because corrupt civil administrators plundered most of the wealth.

Lorenzo Asisara’s narrative details the abuses of the priests at the Santa Cruz Mission, exposing their fraudulent financial dealings, sexual exploitation of mission Indians, and reliance on harsh physical punishments such as whipping and beating. “Punishment” also provides a unique first-hand account of a riot among young Indian men in defiance of Padre Ramon Olbes. Asisara’s participation in this riot was not unprecedented within his family; in fact, his father, Venancio Llenco, also had a history of resisting Spanish domination, conspiring in the assassination of a priest in the Santa Cruz Mission in 1812.

Asisara was raised in the mission from birth, eventually serving as a sacristan, or assistant to the priests during church services. Once the mission was broken up, he married and found work as a shepherd and cattle herder. Widowed in 1845, he moved to Yerba Buena (San Francisco), where he was conscripted into the Mexican militia until Mexico surrendered California to the United States in 1846. Returning to Santa Cruz, Asisara joined his friend Jose Ricardo and moved onto a homestead that had been granted to the Indians upon the divestiture of the Santa Cruz Mission. In 1866, Asisara and Ricardo were driven off by whites anxious to claim possession of the land. Despite over fourteen years of service to the mission, Asisara received no lands or remuneration for his labor. He spent the rest of his life working as a ranch hand in Santa Cruz.

Teaching Tips

  • Students often believe that slavery in America was a phenomenon limited to the antebellum period in the South. In fact, African American slavery existed in the northern colonies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and many “indentured servants” throughout early America experienced slavery-like conditions. Asisara’s narrative of the exploitation of Mission Indians in California should add another dimension to students’ conceptions of the institution of slavery in America. Ask them to think about the similarities between the management of Franciscan missions and southern plantations. They might also consider why the stories of enslaved Mission Indians have historically received so little attention in American culture.
  • Have students read aloud Asisara’s description of the riot that broke out when the Indians decided to defy Padre Olbes. How does the tension in the scene build? What touches off the riot? How does it escalate? Ask students to pay attention to Asisara’s defense of the Indians’ motivations in resisting Padre Olbes.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What kinds of abuses do Asisara and the other Mission Indians experience at the hands of the Franciscans? How do the Indians respond to these abuses? What sorts of strategies do they adopt to resist the Mission authorities and to improve their conditions?
  2. Context: Compare Asisara’s description of the riot in defiance of Padre Olbes with Frederick Douglass’s account of his fight with Edward Covey. What similarities do you find between these two incidents of slave resistance? How are the incidents different? Does Asisara seem to acquire the same kind of self-confidence and sense of independence that Douglass does from his act of rebellion? Why or why not?
  3. Exploration: Asisara’s narrative implicitly critiques the piety and morality of the Catholic priests who enslaved California Indians under the pretext of converting them to Christianity. Can you think of other slave narratives that engage in similar critiques, calling the religious pretensions of slaveholders into question? Why would this have been a popular and effective rhetorical strategy?

Selected Archive Items

[1279] Edward Vischer, Indian Rancheria of José Antonio Venado, At San Luis Rey Mission, Near the Zanja. Caicha-Tribe, Quechumas (1868),
courtesy of the University of California, Berkeley, Bancroft Library.
Made about a decade before the first recording of Asisara’s testimony, this drawing illustrates the material circumstances of Native Americans on former California mission lands after secularization.

[1891] Rand McNally & Co., New Enlarged Scale Railroad and County Map of California Showing Every Railroad Station and Office in the State (1883),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division [LC Railroad Maps, 189].
Building railroads required extensive mapping of natural geographical features. Later maps such as this one showed industrial transportation and government communications outposts.

[5228] Anonymous, Montgomery Street, San Francisco, 1852 (n.d.),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ62-55762].
Rapid, mainly white immigration during the Gold Rush brought California to statehood in 1850, as a “free state” that forbade slavery. Yet demand for land and forced labor caused genocidal-scale population decline among California Indians.

[6856] Anonymous, San Gabriel Mission (1832),
courtesy of the California Historical Society.
Missions often maintained large herds of cattle as a reliable source of meat.

[7048] Lorenzo Asisara, “Punishment” [Narrative By Lorenzo Asisara, Translated And Edited By Edward D. Castillo] (1877).
Asisara’s narrative details abuses by the priests at the Santa Cruz Mission, exposing their fraudulent financial dealings, sexual exploitation of mission Indians, and reliance on harsh physical punishments.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey

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Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6

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