The Spanish Occupation of California

The Spanish occupation of California: plan for the establishment of a government. Junta or Council held at San Blas, May 16, 1768. Diario of the expeditions made to California. Assembled for this book with an introduction by Douglas S Watson. The plan and Junta have been translated from the Spanish documents by Douglas S Watson and Thomas Workman Temple II, and the Diario of Miguel Costanso follows the translation of Frederick J Teggart. Printed and published at San Francisco by The Grabhorn Press MCMXXXIV.



For this purpose, the officers, Don Pedro Fages, Don Miguel Costanso, and the second Capt. of the San Carlos, Don Gorge Estorace, landed on 1 May, with 25 of the soldiers and seamen who were best able to endure the fatigue. Skirting the western shore of the port, they observed at a short distance, a band of Indians armed with bows and arrows, to whom they made signs by means of white cloths, hailing them in order to obtain information. But the Indians, regulating their pace according to that of our men, would not, for more than half an hour, let themselves be overtaken. Nor was it possible for our men to make greater speed because they were weak, and after so long a sea voyage had, as it were, lost the use of their legs. The Indians stopped from time to time on some height to watch our men, showing the fear which strangers cause them, by what they did to conceal it: they stuck one end of their bows into the ground, and, holding the other end, danced and whirled around it with incredible swiftness. But the moment they saw our men at hand, they took flight with the same agility. At last we succeeded in attracting them by sending toward them a soldier, who, upon laying his arms on the ground and making gestures and signs of peace, was allowed to approach. He made them some presents, and meanwhile the others reached the Indians, and completely reassured them by giving them more presents of ribbons, glass beads, and other trifles. When asked by signs where the watering place was, the Indians pointed to a grove which could be seen at a considerable distance to the northeast, giving us to understand that a river or creek flowed through it, and that they would lead our men to it if they would follow.

Within a musket shot from the river, outside the wood, they discovered a town or village of the same Indians who were guiding our men. It was composed of various shelters made of branches, and huts, pyramidal in shape, covered with earth. As soon as they saw their companions with the company which they were bringing, all the inhabitants – men, women, and children – came out to receive them, and invited the strangers to their houses. The women were modestly dressed, covered from the waist to the knee with a close woven, thick, netted fabric. The Spaniards entered the town which was composed of from 30 to 40 families. On one side of it there was observed an enclosure made of branches and trunks of trees, in which, they explained, they took refuge to defend themselves against the attacks of their enemies – an impregnable fortification against such arms as are in use among them.


These natives are well-built, healthy, and active. They go naked without other clothing than a belt, woven like a net, of ixtle, or very fine agave thread, which they obtained from a plant called lechuguilla. Their quivers, which they stick between the belt and the body, are made of the skin of the wildcat, coyote, Wolf, or deer, and their bows are 2 yards long. In addition to these arms, they use a sort of throwing stick of very hard wood, similar in form to a short, curved saber which they throw edgewise, cutting the air with great force. They throw it farther than a stone, and never go into the surrounding country without it. When they see a snake or other noxious animal, they throw the throwing stick at it, and generally cut the animal in two. As the Spaniards learned afterwards from their continued intercourse with the natives, they are of an overbearing disposition, insolent, covetous, tricky and boastful; and although they have little courage, they boast much of their strength, and consider the strongest to be the most valiant. They beg for any rag of clothing; but after different ones on successive occasions had been clothed, on the following day they again presented themselves naked.



Fish constitutes the principal food of the Indians who inhabit the shore of this port, and they consume such shellfish because of the great ease they have on procuring them. They use rafts made of reeds, which they manage dexterously by means of a paddle or double bladed oar. Their harpoons are several yards long, and the point is a very sharp bone inserted in the wood; they are so adroit in throwing this weapon, that they very rarely miss their mark.



The soldiers of the Presidio in California, of whom justice and fairness open oblige us to say that they worked incessantly on this expedition, use two sorts of arms – offensive and defensive. The defensive arms are the leather jacket and the shield. The first, whose shape is that of a coat without sleeves, is made of six or seven plies of white tanned deerskin, proof against the arrows of the Indians, except at very short range. The shield is made of two plies of raw bull’s hide; it is carried on the left arm and with it they turn aside spears and arrows, the rider not only defending himself, but also his horse. In addition to the above they use a sort of leather apron, called armas or defensas, which, fastened to the pommel of the saddle, hangs down on both sides, covering their thighs and legs, that they may not hurt themselves when writing through the woods. Their offensive arms are the lance – which the handle adroitly on horseback – the broadsword, and a short musket which they carry securely fastened in its case. They are men of great fortitude and patience in fatigue; obedient, resolute, and active, and we do not hesitate to say that they are the best horseman in the world, and among those soldiers who best earn their bread for the August Monarch whom they serve.



In general, the whole country is inhabited by a large number of Indians, who came forth to receive the Spaniards, and some accompanied them from one place to another. They are very docile and tractable, especially from San Diego onward.

The Indians observed to have the greatest energy and industry are those who inhabit the islands and the coast of the channel of Santa Barbara. They live in towns, the houses of which are spherical in form, like the half of an orange, are covered with reeds, and are as much as 20 yards in diameter. Each house contains three or four families. The fireplaces in the middle, and in the upper part of the house they leave an air passage or chimney for the escape of smoke. These Indians confirmed in every respect the affability and friendly treatment experienced in former times by the Spaniards who landed on this coast with General Sebastian Vizcaino. Both the men and the women are of good figure and appearance, and are fond of painting and staining their faces and bodies. They use large tufts of feathers, and hairpins which they put through their hair with various ornaments and coral beads of different colors. The men go entirely naked, but when it is cold they wear long capes of tanned otter skins, and cloaks made of the same skins cut in long strips, and turned in such a manner that all of the fir is on the outside. They then weave these strips together, making a fabric, and give it the form mentioned above.

The women are dressed with more modesty, wearing around the waist tanned deerskins, which cover them in front and back more than halfway down the leg, and a little cape of otter skin over the body. Some of them have attractive features. It is they who weave the baskets and vessels of reeds, to which they give 1000 different forms and graceful patterns, according to the use for which they intend them – for eating, drinking, holding seeds, or other purposes, as these people do not understand the use of clay as it is used by the Indians of San Diego.

The men make beautiful bowls of wood with strong inlays of coral or bone, and some vessels of great capacity, contracted at the mouth, which appear as if turned in a lathe; in fact with this machine they could not be turned out better hollowed or more perfectly formed. To the whole they give a polish which seems the finished handiwork of a skilled artisan. The large vessels which contain water are made of a very strong mixture of rushes, coated inside with pitch, and they give them the same shape as our jars.

In order to eat the seeds which they use instead of bread, they first of all roast them in large bowls, putting among the seeds red hot pebbles or small stones; then they stir and shake the bowl so as not to burn it, and after the seeds are sufficiently roasted, they grind them in mills or stone mortars. Some of these mortars are of extraordinary size, and as well-formed as if the best tools had been used in making them. The patience, exactness and energy which they exercise in making these articles are well worthy of admiration. They are so highly valued among the Indians themselves that they have a custom to place them over the grave of those who did that kind of work, in order to preserve the memory of their skill and diligence.

They bury the dead, and their burying grounds are within the town itself. The funerals of their chiefs are conducted with much pomp, and they erect over their bodies some very high rods or poles, on which they hang a variety of articles and utensils which they used. They also place on the same spot some large pine boards with various pictures and figures, representing, no doubt, the achievements and the valor of the individual.

Polygamy is not permitted among these people; the chiefs alone possess the right to take two wives. In all their towns there was noticed a class of man who live like women, associated with them, wore the same dress, adorned themselves with beads, ear rings, necklaces, and other feminine ornaments, and enjoyed great consideration among their companions. The want of an interpreter prevented us from ascertaining what kind of men they were, or to what office they were designed; all suspected, however, a sexual defect or some abuse among those Indians.

In their houses the married people have their beds set apart on platforms raised above the ground. Their mattresses are some plain petates, or mats of rushes, and their pillows are the same kind of mats rolled up at the head of the bed. All these beds are hung with similar mats, which serve for decency, and as a protection from the cold.

The expertness and skill of these Indians is unsurpassed in the construction of their canoes of pine boards. They are from 8 to 10 yards in length from stem to stern post, and one yard and a half in breadth. No iron whatever enters into their construction, and they know little of its use. But they fasten the boards firmly together, making holes at equal distances apart, 1 inch from the edge, matching each other in the upper and lower boards, and through these holes they pass stout thongs of deer sinews. They pitch and caulk this seams, and paint the whole in bright colors. They handle them with equal skill, and three or four men go out to sea to fish in them, as they will hold eight or 10 men. They use long double bladed oars, and row with indescribable agility and swiftness. They know all the arts of fishing, and fish abound along their coast, as was said of San Diego. They hold intercourse and commerce with the natives of the islands, from which they obtain coral beads, which in all these parts take the place of money. They value, however, more highly the glass beads which the Spaniards gave them, offering in exchange for them all they possess, such as baskets, otter skins, bowls, and wooden dishes. But above everything else, they esteem any kind of knife or sharp tool, admiring its superiority over those of flint; and it gives them much pleasure to see use made of axes and cutlasses, and the ease with which the soldiers felled a tree to make fire wood by means of these tools.

They are also great hunters. In killing deer and antelopes, they employ an admirable device. They preserve the skin of the head and part of the neck of one of these animals, removing it with care – with the horns left attached to the skin – and filling it with grass or straw to keep its form. This mask they put like a cap on the head, and with this odd equipment they set out for the woods. On seeing a deer or antelope, they crawl slowly with the left hand on the ground, carrying the bow and four arrows in the right. They lower and raise the head, turning it from one side to the other, and make other motions so characteristic of these animals, that they attract them without difficulty to the decoy, and having them at short range, they discharge their arrows with sure effect.

Among them are seen some pieces of broadsword, iron, and fragments of wrought silver, which being of small value, surprised our man. Being questioned by signs how they obtain these things, they gave to understand that they received them from the interior, toward the east. Although New Mexico lies very distant in that direction, it is possible that passing from hand to hand, in the course of time, these treasures had come into their possession.

Their language is sonorous and easy to pronounce. Some of our people believed that they could discover in it a certain relation to the Mexican, in which the L and T are often sounded as it was noticed among these natives.



In this harbor the vessel succeeded in taking on water near an Indian town, whose inhabitants gave first-hand information of the land expedition, explaining by unmistakable signs how strangers had passed going north, and had returned afterwards, short of food, proceeding to the south. They showed how our men were mounted on horses by placing themselves in a similar manner on the barrels which the sailors had brought on shore, and made other motions characteristic of a man on horseback. They also mentioned the names of several soldiers, which, being known to some of the sailors, proved that it was not by chance they uttered these words.



The natives of Monterey live in the hills, the nearest about 1 ½ leagues from the beach. They come down sometimes and go out fishing in little rafts of reeds. It seems however, that fishing does not furnish their chief means of subsistence, and they have recourse to it only went hunting has yielded little. Game is very plentiful in the mountains, especially antelopes and deer. These mountaineers are very numerous, extremely gentle and tractable. They never come to visit the Spaniards without bringing them a substantial present of game, which as a rule consists of two or three deer or antelopes, which they offered without demanding or asking anything. Their good disposition has given the missionary fathers well-founded hopes of speedily winning them over to the faith of Christ.

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