Dehaut-Cilly’s Account of California in the years 1827-28

Duhaut-Cilly’s Account of California in the Years 1827-28

California Historical Society Quarterly Vol. 8, No. 3 (Sep., 1929), pp. 214-250


Recounting what happened at San Francisco:

Among the Indians, of whom the larger part seem to be so submissive, there are some who know the prize of liberty, and who seek to gain it by a flight. They easily succeed in escaping, but they are often retaken by emissaries sent in their pursuit by the missionaries and the commandants of the soldiers; and without considering that these men have done nothing but make use of the most natural right, they are generally treated as criminals, and pitilessly put in irons.

One of these unfortunate creatures, after several attempts to flee from his oppressors, had at last been condemned to die in irons by the Commandant of San Francisco. It is true Pomponio, so he was called, had added to the offense of his numerous desertions, thefts and even murders of some of those appointed to bring him back to his prison. He bore upon each leg an enormous iron ring, riveted on in such a way as to leave him in no hope of freeing himself from it; but this man, gifted with an energy and the courage proof against the most frightful tortures, conceives yet once more the plan of freeing himself, and he carries it out. When all of his watchers are plunged in sleep, he sharpens a knife, cuts off his heel and slips off one of his fetters; thus, without uttering the least sigh, he mutilates himself in a nervous and sensitive part. But imagine what strength of mind he needs to begin again his cruel operation; for he has yet gained only half of his freedom! He hesitates not; he takes off the other heel and flees, without fearing the acute pain which each step adds to his sufferings: it is by his blood tracks that his escape is discovered the next day.

Far from being touched by an act the ancients would have extolled, his tyrants were but the more enraged against their victim, and they pursued him unremittingly. Pomponio lived in the woods, among the bears he feared less than he did man, and for three years he ravaged mission and Presidio at San Francisco. At last a mounted picket surprised him sleeping, and, to put an end to the matter, he was shot to death.


Recounting what had happened at Santa Barbara:

For some time an Indian named Valerio, endowed with great courage and prodigious strength, driven to extremities by the bad treatment inflicted upon him (for many times the rod had furrowed his shoulders), had deserted the mission. His retreat was unknown; but every day his depredations revealed his existence in the vicinity. When he felt the need of anything, he appeared at night in the huts of his old companions, and took what was necessary to support life: they let him do it: woe to him who would prevent it! He crushed on his knee the head of a woman who quarreled with him about a common utensil.

Valerio should have been content with what the huts of the Indians supplied him: not one of his countrymen would have betrayed him; but he wished to have his revenge upon the mayordomo (steward, a kind of administrator) of the mission, a base and cruel man, author of all his wrongs. One night the Indian appeared, like a shadow, in the middle of his room; his glittering eyes froze with fright the mayordomo at the remembrance of things which made him shiver. But Valerio wanted not his life; he merely seized a pasteboard box full of papers of value to his enemy, and withdrew.

The danger was past: the mayordomo’s blood, whose circulation had been suspended from terror, began once more to flow; it filled anew his heart, but with it entered rage. He himself dared not, however, follow Valerio; he entrusted it to a vile creature, who discovered the refuge of the savage. It was half league from Santa Barbara, in the depths of a roomy cave, defended, on one side, by an inaccessible mountain ravine, and on the other, by a dense wood whose outlets he alone a knew. His prudence went so far as to never walk upon the sand or the bare ground neighboring his dwelling, in order not to betray himself by the imprint of his steps: before entering the sheltering wood, he leapt over the brush, abounding like a deer, that he might not bruise its tops.

Hardly had day appeared when the mayordomo went to denounce Valerio, first to the Padre, then the Commandant of the Presidio. He poured out upon the miserable man all sorts of calumnies: he represented him as a wild man; and ended by showing a long knife which he had, he said, taken from the savage’s hands at the moment the latter was going to plunge it into his heart. By these infamous means, he made all his passion pass into the minds of the chiefs and soldiers. The Mexicans gathered together agreed that the Indian must be shot like a dog. But who would undertake to carry out this barbarous sentence? It was Rodrigo Pliego, a young officer, who had continually in his mouth the words liberty and justice, and whose scarlet coat but imperfectly covered the rags of a coward, like a brilliant costume over a soiled shirt.

He needed for soldiers armed with rifles, and for archers, to bring to an end this perilous enterprise.

At the head of this band went the martial republican, brandishing his sword, cautiously toward Valerio’s hospitable cave. Crouched near a small fire, he was quietly making his cheeses, when, at a gesture from Pliego, one of the archers shot and arrow which went whistling to bury itself under the wretch’s shoulder. Then the cheeses were upset; the red man raised himself to his full height, cast upon his executioners a dreadful look, tore the arrow from his breast to hurl it back at them; but they did not leave him time for it: three other arrows and two bullets reached him and made him reel to the ground.

The guard returned; and upon a horse lay a red and brown mass – Valerio’s body.


At San Diego:

The Californian creoles are little addicted to the hunt, but Loma is occasionally the theater of bloody inroads on the part of the Indians. Two or three times a year those of Mission San Diego gain the padres’ permission to make expeditions thither.

The hunters, to the number of two or 300, then form a line of battle, from the steep mountain bluff to the shore of the Bay, and thus they walk abreast, driving before them the long eared band. They are armed with macanas: this is a curved and polished lath which they throw with great skill. As they advance, the number of fugitives, recruited at each step, increase, and excite the activity and cries of the hunters. The lively object of these maneuvers appears at first to attach little importance to it; always believing some ground remains for flight, if need be.

“… He eats, he takes his ease,

He is ready for all things that please.”


But there must soon be a end to this drama: arrived at a very restricted spot, where the hill slope ends abruptly in a wall of rock, the hares which the Indians have gradually driven thither, seeing themselves stopped, to the left, by this precipice, to the right, by the impassable steep wall of Loma, and ahead, by the impenetrable thickets, begin to recognize the imminence of the danger: they are disturbed; and in their terror they dart this way and that to find a way of escape. Some seek vainly to climb the wall on the right, others hurl themselves into the bay; there are some, and these are the only ones to have any chance of safety, which attempt to run through the adverse front; it is a general massacre, a veritable Saint Bartholomew, in which many always perish before the remainder can pierce through the line, broken finally, of the Indians.


At San Luis Rey:

To the north, 200 paces from the mission, beings the rancheria, or village of the Indians. It is composed of thatched huts, merely, of various shapes, the larger number conical, scattered or grouped without plan over a great extent of ground. Each one of these hovels holds a family, and altogether contained at this time a population of more than 2000 persons. In the beginning, stone houses, distributed with regularity, were built for the Indians, and this method is still in use at several missions. It is believed to have been observed since that that kind of dwelling did not suit the health of the Indians, accustomed to their cabins; so that many of the padres had decided to let them build themselves huts to their taste. But why seek, in the shape of the houses, the cause of the mortality of the Indians? It is altogether in the slavery which withers the faculties and impoverishes the body. It cannot believe that, in more comfortable dwellings, the savages, free, would live less long.


While the gente de razon amuse themselves thus variously, the Indians, on their part, betook themselves to their favorite games: the one seeming to please them the most consists in rolling an osier ring, 3 inches in diameter, and casting upon this ring, while rolling, two sticks, 4 feet long, in order to stop it in its course. If one of the two sticks, or both together, go through the ring, or if the ring rest upon the two sticks, or upon only one of them, a certain number of points is counted, according to the amount of hazard. When a pair have played their game, two opponents began again, and so alternately, until a match is finished. According to M. la Perouse, this game is called, in the Indian language, tekersie.

Other Indians, like the Bas Bretons, gathered into two large bands; each, provided with a stick in the shape of a bat, tried to push to a goal a wooden ball, while those of the opposing band strove to drag it in a contrary direction. This game appeared to attract both sexes alike. It happened, indeed, that the married women having challenge the single women, the latter lost the game. They came, crying to complain to the padre, that the women, making an ill use of their strength, had taken unfair means to stop their arms as they were going to strike the ball.




When night was calm, I went with Fray Antonio to see the Indian dances, which appeared to me as interesting as they were strange. They were lighted by torches whose effect was to seem, by contrast, to spread a sad veil over the starry vault of the sky. A dozen men, having no other clothing than a cinture, the head adorned with tall feather plumes, danced with admirable rhythm. This pantomime always represented some scene, and was performed chiefly by striking the feet in time, and making, with eyes and arms, gestures of love, anger, fright, etc. The dancers held the head erect, the body arched, and the knees a little bent. Sweat, rolling down the entire body, reflected, as in a burnished mirror, the fire of the torches; and when it annoyed them, they scraped it off with a flat piece of wood which they held in their hand.

The orchestra, arranged like a semicircular amphitheater, was composed of women, children and old men, behind whom one or two rows of amateurs could at least taste of this spectacle. The harmony of the songs governing the time was at once plaintive and wild: it seemed rather to act upon the nerves them the mind, like the varied notes from an Aeolian harp during a hurricane. From time to time the actors rested, and at the moment the songs stopped, everyone breathed at the same time into the air with a loud noise, either as a mark of applause or, as I was assured, to drive away the Evil Spirit; for, though all are Christians, they still keep many of their old beliefs, which the padres, from policy, pretend not to know.


At mission San Francisco Solano:

… He showed me the place where a few days before, some wild Indians of the neighborhood had killed two men of the mission, shooting them with their arrows while asleep. This murder was attributed to the hatred that las gentiles bear toward all the Christian Indians; but this time it appeared to be the result of revenge and reprisals.

The Spanish government of California has always followed the atrocious system of ordering, from time to time, excursions to the settlements of the interior, either for retaking the Indians escaped from the missions, or driving away las gentiles by exciting terror among them; expeditions which, while costing the life of some soldiers and many natives, have served but to nourish hatred. The last and most ridiculous one of these little campaigns was made in 1826, under the command of Alferez (second Lieut.) Sanchez. This is the cause of it.

After the harvest, the Padre of San Francisco Solano had given permission to eighty of his Christian Indians to visit their native settlements; and they were on the way in a large boat, going up the Sacramento River, when the savages, attacking them unawares in a confined spot where they could neither flee nor defend themselves, killed more than 40 of them. As a result of this, and incursion was ordered and entrusted to the passionate ardor of Sanchez, who advanced into the country at the head of 20 or 30 mounted soldiers. At their approach, all the Indians able to defend themselves lay in ambush in the woods, when they shot their arrows at the troop, while it was impossible for the horseman to reach them or even see them; but they, enraged, revenged themselves upon the women and children who had not been able to flee; they massacred 30 of them, and returned, in shameful triumph, with two young girls and a child whom they brought prisoners, as a token of their victory.

Were one to ask these imitators and descendents of the Spanish if there be no other way of gaining peace with these people; imbued with the ideas of their ancestors, they give the Indians so inhuman a character that, to hear them, it is impossible to treat them otherwise. “They live,” they say, “in separate villages; and if peace be made with one of these hamlets, it is a motive for attack by the neighboring villages, who regard its inhabitants as traitors, and who join together to destroy it.” But if one considers that the missions are peopled only by these same men, and that the padres, using in turn mildness and severity, have been able to acquire over them the immense influence which keeps up these establishments, one cannot help thinking that the commandants at the presidios have taken the reverse of good policy as well as of humanity.

I noticed one thing which would seem to prove that the resentment against so lamentable a system has not gone so far as to render the natives unruly. At the time of the harvest, the missionaries at San Rafael and San Francisco Solano obtain as many gentiles as they want for helping them gather the grain. They come to these missions with their wives and children, construct their temporary huts, and work in the harvesting for a small quantity of corn or maize which the padres give them. We found two or 300 of them had been at San Francisco Solano for several weeks.

Nothing is more miserable than the people at the little camp they had pitched in front of the padres dwelling. The men are nearly naked, and the women have only a cloak made of narrow strips of rabbit skin twisted into strings and sewed together. This garment is very warm; but being thick it serves as a retreat for an immense number of those parasitic insects so disgusting to us; for them, on the contrary, it is a kind of portable poultry yard, where, in leisure moments, each one selects his choicest dish. While the young men are letting fly their arrows at the beaver or the goat, their gentle friends are busy with another hunt; and on their return they are offered the succulent product in a mussel shell; as the dandy offers a lady his bonbon box of mint lozenges.

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