St. Junípero Serra and the Founding of the West

The story of the American founding usually begins in the East. In that account, we speak of the War of Independence, the establishment of the American republic, and prominent founding fathers like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. However, there is an older story involving other founding fathers which took place in the West.

Nearly 80 years before the Pilgrims founded the Plymouth Colony, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo explored the coast of California under the flag of the Spanish Empire. Named after a mythical island in a popular Spanish novel, California was claimed for Spain by virtue of its nearby imperial strongholds in Mexico and Peru. However, the Spaniards made no serious effort to occupy the region until a Franciscan friar, St. Junípero Serra, arrived with other colonists in 1769. Over the next fifteen years—covering the American Revolutionary War period—Serra established nine of California’s famous missions, helped lay the foundation for much of its modern economy (including its agriculture and winemaking), and planted the seeds of the Catholic faith for generations to come.

For these reasons, Serra has been hailed as “one of the founding fathers of the United States” by Pope Francis. It is most likely no coincidence that Serra’s memorial in the Catholic Church is celebrated on July 1, just a few days removed from the celebration of the Declaration of Independence on July 4. Still, if Serra is a founding father, he is clearly one of a different sort. Rather than espousing the Enlightenment ideals of liberty and self-governance which fueled the American Revolution, Serra brought an older scholastic worldview to California, one which was more inspired by the likes of John Duns Scotus than by John Locke. And yet Serra’s arrival in California also heralded the arrival of a broader legal and historical tradition which—in theory at least—was equally dedicated to the advancement of freedom and human rights.

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A “Humanitarian” Colonial Policy
From the very beginning of its presence in the New World, Spain had an interest in “converting” and “civilizing” the natives of the Americas. To achieve these goals, the Spaniards originally devised a quasi-feudal labor system known as the encomienda. Under this system, the lands and indigenous people of the New World were distributed among the Spanish colonists, who held them in trust, or encomienda. The trustee, or encomendero, was charged by the sovereign to provide for the protection, conversion, and civilization of the natives as a condition of his grant.

While the encomienda was in theory benevolent and was designed to provide for the welfare of the indigenous people, in reality it devolved into a form of de facto slavery. At the urging of clerical reformers like Antonio de Montesinos and Bartolomé de las Casas, Spain undertook an unprecedented period of self-examination and self-criticism of its treatment of the indigenous people in the New World. The result was the development of a colonial policy which, according to scholar Herbert E. Bolton of the University of California at Berkeley, “was equaled in humanitarian principles by that of no other country.”

In 1542, the same year that Cabrillo first explored the coast of California, King Charles I of Spain decreed the “The New Laws of the Indies for the Good Treatment and Preservation of the Indians.” The New Laws solemnly declared the illegality of native slavery, called for the gradual abolishment of the encomienda, and enjoined the colonists to protect and save the indigenous people. Colonial resistance nonetheless ensued, and legal decrees continued to be issued by the Spanish Crown. The body of law which was eventually developed over the course of three centuries became known as the “Laws of the Indies.”

Charles F. Lummis, an early Indian rights activist and founder of the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles, once remarked that “[n]o other nation in the world … has ever put into force laws so noble, so far-sighted, so humane, as those formulated by the Crown of Spain, with Church assistance, and carried out by the official and clerical administrators.” Under the Laws of the Indies, it was illegal to evict the natives from the lands upon which they lived or to place them on reservations. The separation of native children from their parents was expressly forbidden. In mind-boggling detail, the Laws of the Indies strictly enjoined the protection, education, kind treatment, and conversion of the natives while demanding that their existing habits and social systems be respected to the extent possible. These laws comprised the very first legal codes in what would eventually become the Southwestern United States.

As a practical matter, the gradual abolition of the encomienda was made easier as the Spanish frontier moved northward. The native groups beyond the Rio Grande were more nomadic and less amenable to settlement, and consequently the encomenderos were less enthusiastic about settling there. To contend with these realities, Spanish colonial officials tapped into the apostolic zeal of the missionaries and the military might of their soldiers, establishing numerous missions and presidios along its northern frontier.

Safe Harbors in a Colonial World
Like other missions in the West, the California missions established by St. Junípero Serra had both a religious and a secular purpose. Serra and the missionaries were primarily motivated by the religious purpose of converting the Indians to Christianity, but they were also charged with fulfilling the secular responsibilities formerly held by the encomenderos: protection and civilization. To achieve these goals, the missionaries gathered the baptized natives into the daily regimen of prayer and labor at the missions, teaching them not only the basic tenets of the Catholic faith, but also the rudimentary skills of plowing, farming, irrigation, cooking, sewing, spinning, and weaving. All of this was done within the general framework established by the Laws of the Indies.

The California missions were intended to be temporary institutions. After a period of about ten years or so, the mission church was supposed to be transformed into a regular parish, and the surrounding mission lands were to be transformed into a pueblo through a process known as “secularization.” Upon being secularized, the mission territories were supposed to be parceled out and returned to the native farmers as the rightful owners of the land.

While the ten-year goal of secularization might have worked in other parts of the New World, Serra found it to be entirely unrealistic in California. In resisting secularization, Serra believed he was protecting the natives from colonial abuses which had oppressed the natives for centuries. As long as the natives remained under the missionaries’ protection, the natives were protected from having their labor exploited and their lands taken by nearby Spanish settlers and ranchers. Serra’s fear was that the Spanish settlers in California would treat the natives just as harshly as the encomenderos had treated them in Mexico and Peru.

Serra clearly viewed the missions as safe harbors within the larger environment of Spanish colonialism. In this respect, he believed that he stood in the tradition of the great Indian protectors of the past. In the 1500s, Bartolomé de las Casas had advocated for separate areas for the natives in order to remove them from the Spanish population and to prevent attendant abuses. Serra likewise fought against the encroachments of Spanish settlers on native lands in the Sierra Gorda missions in Mexico and at Mission Santa Clara in California. Butting heads with Spanish colonial officials on this point, Serra cited provisions of the Laws of the Indies which clearly supported his position. For the same reasons, Serra was generally opposed to the establishment of pueblos, including the one which would eventually become the City of Los Angeles.

Serra’s famous legal brief on mission governance, the Representación, has been called a “Bill of Rights for Native Americans.” While this is perhaps a little hyperbolic (much of the document addressed practical matters, such as the need for a forge and a blacksmith at the missions), the Representación nonetheless contains certain provisions which were clearly intended to protect the natives. For example, one provision authorized the missionaries to remove any Spanish soldier “who may set a bad example, especially in matters of chastity” and was obviously designed to expel soldiers who had been accused of raping indigenous women. Serra’s recommended provision was eventually incorporated into California’s first legal code, the Echeveste Reglamento of 1773.

Serra as Founding Father?
Some may find it incongruous to compare the achievements of St. Junípero Serra with those of the founding fathers. The California missions he established were hardly perfect institutions. They were flawed in various ways, as most human institutions are. On the other hand, the search for moral perfection in human history will always be a quixotic task. Witness the current efforts to remove the statues of Thomas Jefferson and other founding fathers who fell short of their own ideals concerning human freedom.

Critics of Serra often seem to assume that some other utopian alternative to the missions was possible. Yet the sober reality for the natives of California in the eighteenth century was that the arrival of a foreign colonial power was inevitable. There is no reason to think the indigenous people would have fared any better under the English, the French, the Russians, or any other foreign government, and there is good reason to believe they would have fared much worse in the absence of the missionaries. The negative experiences of the natives during the California Gold Rush go a long way to prove this point.

According to Drs. Robert M. Senkewicz and Rose Marie Beebe of Santa Clara University, Serra “profoundly believed that encounters with missionaries would prove more advantageous to eighteenth-century indigenous peoples than the other possibilities that he thought were realistically available to them, specifically domination by soldiers or settlers.” They go on to conclude that, in view of contemporary historical circumstances, Serra’s belief was “quite reasonable.” Serra thought the missions would not only prepare the natives for the next life but also protect them in the present one. This was not utopian idealism. This was a belief derived from long experience worked out over the course of centuries in an often harsh colonial world.

(Photo credit: Byron W. Moore /


  • Patrick M. Laurence

    Patrick M. Laurence, an attorney, writes on legal, cultural, and philosophical issues from Orange County, California. His talk “Junípero Serra on Trial: Criminal or Saint?” has been presented to numerous audiences and was featured on a nationally-syndicated radio program. He received his undergraduate degree from Thomas Aquinas College in California and his law degree from Ave Maria School of Law in Michigan.

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