Volume 4

The Encounter … the Tongva Meet the Spanish

The Tongva had been thriving in the Los Angeles basin for 3000 years when Juan Cabrillo sailed into the present day harbors of San Pedro and Long Beach. The year was 1542. Separated by the vast American continent and the Atlantic Ocean, the Tongva had no knowledge of the existence of Europe, its culture, religion, customs, or technology. Excited by the presence of the huge ships, the Tongva paddled their plank canoes, called tiats, out to meet the Spaniards to present them with gifts of flowers, food, water and shells.

To be that trusting of the new arrivals may indicate that they had few threats in their lives that would give them cause to be frightened. Cabrillo wrote in his journal that the Tongva were a “friendly, generous and handsome people.” The first encounter went well for both parties, but the Tongva’s naivete of the world would come to an end 229 years later when the Spanish established the Mission San Gabriel. The Spanish were naïve also. They believed that their way of life would be beneficial to the Tongva. They falsely assumed that the indigenous people of California were lazy, artless, godless people. They used this rationale to invade Tongva lands in search of treasure, destroying their culture in the process. 

This aggressive behavior was not new to the Spanish. Their destruction and enslavement of the Incas, Mayans, and Aztecs had brought untold wealth to the Spanish ruling class in previous centuries. The plundering of indigenous lands and the exploitation or enslavement of native people became an accepted standard for Europeans, and later on, for Americans as well. Since the people of the New World had remained in a “Stone Age” state of technology, they were no match for the Spanish, equipped with cannons, guns, and horses. To justify the plundering of the New World, the Spanish claimed that they needed to convert tribal people to Christianity. The Tongva culture was up against two dangerous, powerful forces: lust for gold and religious extremism. Ironically, the Spanish never found any gold in California, but there were more than 1,000,000 indigenous people to baptize. 

Only in recent decades has it been acceptable to acknowledge the incalculable suffering of the Native Californians under the mission system brought by the Spanish. An example of this acknowledgment can be found in Time Life Book Inc.’s, The Indians of California, (1994):

“The tragic effect of the mission system was to disrupt time honored subsistence patterns, expose the Indians to the ravages of European diseases, and leave the survivors at the mercy of settlers who cared little for their welfare. California, the land of promise, became the setting for some of the saddest episodes of abuse in the sorry history of white/Indian relations.”

Compare that statement to one published in a 1950 State of California textbook, Early California:

“They had to work hard. They had to learn new ways of working. But life was better because they had better tools … The Spanish gave the Indians other ways of getting food. Because of these good tools they had better houses, better food, and better clothing than in the old days. The plow was the most important tool … Planting and gathering was not such hard work for the Indians as the work they had done in the old days.”

What the Tongva Say

The Spanish soldiers and priests entered the Los Angeles basin in 1771 to establish their fourth mission, Mission San Gabriel, near a Tongva village on the Rio Hondo River.

The Spanish use of violence to make a conquest did not change when they reached California. Accounts of executions, whippings, rape and abduction show that the invasion was not peaceful. To be fair to the Spanish, conquering armies the world-over used terrorism to gain control of a population. But even Father Junípero Serra complained to the Mexican Governor about the soldiers routinely killing Indian men to take their wives. In order to discourage the practice, he urged the soldiers to marry the women.

Revolts were common. The most famous revolt took place in our own back yard at the San Gabriel Mission, 14 years after its founding. A young shaman woman named Toypurina organized with a group of followers, including two Tongva chiefs, planned to attack the mission, put the priests to death and reclaim their land and traditions. She recruited all the people from her own village, Jachingna, and the entire population of Asuksangna (Azusa). Betrayed by one of her followers, the attack on October 25, 1786 not only failed, but ended in prison terms for her and her co-organizer Nicholás José. At her trial, Toypurina stated that she loathed the occupation of her land and the enslavement of her people. She spent six months in solitary confinement, after a forced baptism. After her imprisonment, Toypurina, age 27, was compelled to marry a soldier, Manuel Montero. They had four children and she died at Mission San Bautista when she was 39.

San Gabriel Mission became a place where the natural work habits of the Tongva were changed and their labor exploited. Century-old hunting and gathering practices were forbidden. The Tongva’s twice daily bathing rituals were deemed immoral. Their healthy high protein diet was replaced by a starchy one. The spacious domed houses were replaced by crowded dormitories. Families were routinely broken up.  The Tongva became the unpaid laborers and slaves of the Franciscan missionaries and soldiers. Disease was rampant in the crowded, unsanitary conditions provided at the missions.

Prior to colonization, California had the highest indigenous population in North America. It is believed that the indigenous population numbered just over a million. By 1846, when the State came under federal control, the indigenous population had dropped to 100,000. After the Gold Rush of 1849, the population had dropped to below 50,000. By 1919, it stood at 16,000. The main causes of death were murder, disease, and starvation. Over a very short period of time, the once proud, rich Tongva nation was reduced to a dispirited group of laborers, no longer in control of their destiny.