California, 1790-1810

Let us begin at the beginning, at an event without which Diego de la Vega would not have been born. It happened in Alta California, in the San Gabriel mission in the year 1790 of Our Lord. At that time the mission was under the charge of Padre Mendoza, a Franciscan who had the shoulders of a woodcutter and a much younger appearance than his forty well-lived years warranted. He was energetic and commanding, and the most difficult part of his ministry was to emulate the humility and sweet nature of Saint Francis of Assisi. There were other Franciscan friars in the region supervising the twenty-three missions and preaching the word of Christ among a multitude of Indians from the Chumash, Shoshone, and other tribes who were not always overly cordial in welcoming them. The natives of the coast of California had a network of trade and commerce that had functioned for thousands of years. Their surroundings were very rich in natural resources, and the tribes developed different specialties. The Spanish were impressed with the Chumash economy, so complex that it could be compared to that of China. The Indians had a monetary system based on shells, and they regularly organized fairs that served as an opportunity to exchange goods as well as contract marriages.

Those native peoples were confounded by the mystery of the crucified man the whites worshipped, and they could not understand the advantage of living contrary to their inclinations in this world in order to enjoy a hypothetical well-being in another. In the paradise of the Christians, they might take their ease on a cloud and strum a harp with the angels, but the truth was that in the afterworld most would rather hunt bears with their ancestors in the land of the Great Spirit. Another thing they could not understand was why the foreigners planted a flag in the ground, marked off imaginary lines, claimed that area as theirs, and then took offense if anyone came onto it in pursuit of a deer. The concept that you could possess land was as unfathomable to them as that of dividing up the sea. When Padre Mendoza received news that several tribes led by a warrior wearing a wolf’s head had risen up against the whites, he sent up prayers for the victims, but he was not overly worried; he was sure that San Gabriel would be safe. Being a communicant of his mission was a privilege, as demonstrated by the number of native families that sought his protection in exchange for being baptized, and who happily stayed on beneath his roof. The padre had never had to call on soldiers to "recruit" converts. He attributed the recent insurrection, the first in Alta California, to abuses inflicted by Spanish troops and to the severity of his fellow missionaries. The many small local tribes had different customs and communicated using a system of signing. They had never banded together for any reason other than trade, and certainly not in a common war. According to Padre Mendoza, those poor creatures were innocent lambs of God who sinned out of ignorance, not vice. If they were rebelling against the colonizers, they must have good reason.

Father Mendoza worked tirelessly, elbow to elbow with the Indians, in the fields, tanning hides, and grinding corn. In the evenings, when everyone else was resting, he treated injuries from minor accidents or pulled a rotted tooth. In addition, he taught the catechism classes and arithmetic, to enable the neophytes, as the baptized Indians were called, to count hides, candles, corn, and cows, but no reading or writing, which was learning that had no practical application in that place. At night he made wine, kept accounts, wrote in his notebooks, and prayed. By dawn he was ringing the church bell to call people to mass, and after morning rites he supervised breakfast with a watchful eye, so no one would go without food. For these reasons—and not an excess of self-confidence or vanity—he was convinced that the rebelling tribes would not attack his mission. However, when the bad news continued to arrive for several weeks, he finally paid attention. He sent a pair of his most loyal scouts to find out what was happening in other parts of the region; in no time at all they had located the warring Indians and gathered a full report, owing to the fact that they were received as brothers by the very Indians they were sent to spy on. They returned and told the missionary that a hero who had emerged from the depths of the forest and was possessed by the spirit of a wolf had succeeded in uniting several tribes; their goal was to drive the Spanish from the lands of their Indian ancestors, where they had always been free to hunt. The rebels lacked a clear strategy; they simply attacked missions and towns on the impulse of the moment, burning whatever lay in their path, and then disappearing as quickly as they had come. They filled out their ranks by recruiting neophytes who had not gone soft from the prolonged humiliation of serving whites. The scouts added that this Chief Gray Wolf had his eye on San Gabriel, not because of any particular quarrel with Padre Mendoza, whom he had nothing against, but because of the location of the good father’s mission. In view of this information, the missionary had to take measures. He was not disposed to lose the fruit of his labor of years, and even less disposed to have his neophytes spirited away. Once they left the mission, his Indians would fall prey to sin and return to living like savages, he wrote in a message he sent to Captain Alejandro de la Vega, asking for immediate aid. He feared the worst, he added, because the rebels were very near by; they could attack at any moment, and he could not defend himself without adequate military reinforcements. He sent identical missives to the Presidio in San Diego, entrusted to two swift horsemen using different routes, so if one were intercepted the other would reach the fort.