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3. Utopian Promise   

7. Slavery and

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Authors: Lorenzo Asisara (b. 1819)

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

Lorenzo Asisara Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
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.

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