SANTA CRUZ -- The Bay Area author of an upcoming book shatters the image of California's historic missions as idyllic sites where Franciscan friars and Indians lived in harmony.
Speaking before about 100 people Saturday at the American Indian Resource Center at UC Santa Cruz, Elias Castillo, author of "A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California's Indians by the Spanish Missions," said in reality the missions were "death camps."
"More than an estimated 62,000 Native Americans died within California's 21 missions," said Castillo, a former San Jose Mercury News reporter. "Indigenous people were held captive and treated brutally by Franciscan friars from 1769 to 1833."
The talk was hosted by the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band of Costanoan/Ohlone Indians as part of the twice-yearly Mutsun speaker series.
Castillo, whose book will be released early next year by Linden Publishing in Fresno, began working on the project after a 2004 bill was introduced by U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., to fund restoration work at the missions. While language in the successful bill supported what California school children are generally taught -- that missions were beautiful places where benevolent Franciscan friars invited Native Americans to live with them, be introduced to Christianity and become educated -- Castillo felt that wasn't factual.
"I took extreme umbrage at that statement," Castillo said. In response, he wrote an opinion piece for the editorial pages of the San Francisco Chronicle describing the missions as places where Native Americans were enslaved, beaten and whipped for attempting to leave -- and died by the thousands from malnutrition and disease.
"That's the terrible dark secret of the missions," he said.
The op-ed piece resonated with many people, and the positive response prompted Castillo to write a book setting the record straight. Castillo scoured mission archives housed in Santa Barbara and at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, as well as books and other material stored at the Dr. Martin Luther King Library Jr. in San Jose and at Stanford's Green Library. He uncovered meticulous records, detailing the names of Native Americans who had violated mission rules. The records included the date and the punishment administered, including the number of lashes they received or the time they spent in stocks. He also discovered letters written by Father Junipero Serra, who is often celebrated as the learned priest who launched the mission system.
Castillo disputes that assessment. After reading reports written by the priest, he concluded that Serra was a terribly deranged man.
"What amazed me was the letters I found," Castillo said.
One letter written by Serra in 1775 instructed a Spanish governor to whip "troublemakers" and offered to send shackles to serve as an example to others, Castillo said. In another letter written that year, Serra described the spiritual site of the missions as developing "most happily. In (Mission) San Antonio where (there) are simultaneously two harvests at one time, one for wheat, and of a plague among the children who are dying."
Castillo's book is welcomed by many Native Americans, including Val Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band of Coastanoan/Ohlone Indians. Lopez, who grew up hearing stories of Native Americans poisoned by missionaries and mothers killing their children at birth to prevent them from being enslaved under such brutal conditions, said his tribe has been hoping for centuries that the real story would be told.
"Our tribe has been waiting for this, (for someone) to tell the truth since the missions were closed," Lopez said. "Our history has ... been lost for more than 200 years and thought to be unimportant."
Follow reporter Terri Morgan at Twitter.com/SoquelTerri.