Memoirs of California from the 1820s by a Russian Visitor

Memoirs of California

KT Khlebnikov and Anatole G Mazour

Pacific Historical Review, volume 9, number 3 September 1940 pages 307 – 336

Memoirs of California by KT Khlebnikov, translated by G Mazour:

At the missions there are from 500 to 3000 Indians of both sexes. In former days under Spanish rule the governors partly equipped the military commands with Indians to whom were known the hiding places of their kinfolk; and these detachments sometimes counted nearly 100 men, who suddenly attacked the dwellings of the natives, captured and brought them to the missions for settlement. It happened more than once that these Indians would defend themselves desperately, and both sides would leave at the place of encounter several dead and injured. I have seen Indian soldiers in whose bodies were found lances of Indian bows that caused the premature death of the victims.

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Formerly the care of the Indians was very poor, but with the secession from Spain the form of administration was bound to change. They received daily provisions, though not at every mission, which consist of frijol, corn, barley, and dry meat, and on Sundays fresh meat, wheat, lard, and fruit. Indians who are married and have families live in houses or grass huts built at missions, but adults who are single live in the common headquarters, men’s separate from women. Each evening the room or the dwelling of the girls is locked, and in the morning it is opened. Seizure of free Indians has now stopped; and even the older residents are allowed to go free, though the latter, not having led a nomadic life, rarely return to their native places. The plan of the government to make citizens of them and settle them throughout California will probably fail entirely and will not materialize for a very long time. Those freed by the missions, now being by the order of the governor, under no compulsion to labor, completely refuse to work and seek a livelihood by theft. The missionaries make musicians out of them; and if there are no excellent virtuosos among them, there are at least all possible instruments in use. In the better missions various shops are organized; and though not perfect, then at least satisfactorily supply all domestic demands.

According to all officials the best mission in all California is San Luis Rey. To the missionary of San Luis Rey, as the most enlightened and active of all his brethren, are ascribed many complementary qualities. It must be noted that since the missions gain no more Indians, the population on account of sickness is notably decreasing, and the women give birth from 8 to 10 children, the majority of them die during infancy. Many women it is asserted, deliberately killed their children in the womb and have abortions. Venereal diseases are spread to a large degree through the whole of California. Padre Felipe Arroyo asserted that this disease is being transmitted to the native Indians who live in the interior of the continent.

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Many travelers have compared the Albion and California Indians with chattel because of their marked stupidity. It seems to me that circumstances do not necessitate their being intelligent: first composed of numerous tribes with entirely different dialects, they do not lead a social life, and their intelligence and form of expression are stunted by sheer lack of exercise. In the second place, climate and environment produce enough means for a livelihood. The oak produces acorns, which comprise the chief provision; in many places wild rye grows, the grain of which is gathered by the Indians. In the ground they find many hamsters, Siberian marmots, mice, frogs, etc., which make up their diet. Those living near the coast gather lobsters, shrimps, shells, and various sea animals. They can skillfully catch geese and other birds, also mountain sheep, goats, and deer. In the third place, they have no homes, no settled places, but find refuge in the hollows of big trees, in mountain clefts or in tents made of twigs, which are not difficult to abandon when the time comes to change places. Fire is usually obtained by rubbing dry wood, the pieces of which are saved during the moving. In the fourth place, the climate does not compel them to dress in skins or textile fabrics. Men and women go around nude; on rare occasions women wear a piece of some animal skin fasten to a grass belt which covers the groin. Then, fifth, neither barter nor trade of any kind is practiced among them. Sixth, many tribes are not warlike people at all. All their weapons consist of bows and arrows made quite skillfully, but even these are used for the most part against birds and beasts.

Since the native in his primitive condition readily finds his chief needs, food and shelter, everywhere, there is consequently no reason for exerting his intellectual capacities in improving his state; he thinks that of all that inhabitants of the entire world, those of neighboring territories or territories rumored of, he is the happiest. Perhaps it is this mode of life that is responsible for his deep ignorance. However, one cannot deny a certain degree of intelligence in the Indians: their bows tied with deer thongs are made quite ingeniously. In their arrows they place lances made of obsidian, Jasper or flint, skillfully set in; the baskets made of roots are neatly and firmly woven, decorated with red and azure feathers and blue shells. Their head decorations of feathers are also beautifully done. The Indians who live on the islands across from Santa Barbara have boats made of wood. These were probably introduced by the Spanish, for among the Indians who lived near the sea, in San Francisco, for instance, or along the bays of Great and Little Bodega, these boats are not seen. There, when the natives sail across, they use cane woven together in the form of a skiff or canvas, in which they speedily move during stormy weather, while in San Francisco soldiers are frequently transported in them to the missions. The Indians who live in the missions comprise artists and craftsmen of all kinds, even though not skilled ones; but that is, perhaps, because they have had neither systematic training nor the chance to observe. Many of them understand the Spanish language and learn to read and write.

The Indians who are settled at the missions, after being baptized and under strict surveillance of the missionaries, become accustomed to live commonly. There quartered in huts in each of which dwell two and more families. Artisans and servants of the priests are dressed in suits made of freize; but laborers ordinarily have woolen blankets with which they wrap themselves. Women wear shirts and skirts; on Sundays they all go to church and dress rather neatly. Men and women are freed of work on all holidays; they are given better food than that served on the other days. Then separate groups commonly come out to play. Men, adults, and children as well as women, form circles near or across the missions. The older ones sit around, while the frisky young men play ball. Many Indians who deserve confidence have their own cattle, hogs, and chickens, and cultivate gardens. It is strange to see how a thousand or two natives obey with profound submission a friar who is assisted by five or six soldiers who are hardly superior to the Indians. There were, however, examples of missionaries who became the victims of their own immoderate severity. One of them in Santa Cruz was hanged by the Indians on a fruit tree in the garden.

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The Colorado River flows into the Red Sea, or California Bay. The source is in the Sierra Verde and runs along the distance of about 200 leagues (600 miles); the shores of the river are settled by numerous independent Indian tribes and because of the near location of the San Diego harbor, frequently come there. In 1825 the governor dispatched an official to make a survey of the river in order to establish a post highway. Early in 1826 some Indians arrived in San Diego; their leader called himself a general and two of his subordinates captains. The whole distinguish suite came nude except for a strip of cloth hanging on the belt in front. The Commandant General of California welcomed them, treated them and presented them with clothes, hoping to establish a firm friendship. But at their departure they drove away with them all the horses from the suburbs of San Diego belonging to the inhabitants of that town. A detachment sent after them returned with no success. Those Indians were tall, well-built, and bodily strong. The general, or their leader, was distinguished by a long cane with the silver cane head. Both men and women were nude. They own many cattle, and ride horses without saddles easily. In the rainy season the Colorado River becomes deep but in the summer it can be forded. The governor has firm intentions of building a post road across the river to Mexico.

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