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Serra, Father Junipero
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Photo of Junipero SerraJunipero Serra

(1713-1784)

A priest in the Franciscan order of the Catholic Church, Junipero Serra was a driving force in the Spanish conquest and colonization of what is now the state of California.

Serra was born into a humble family on the Spanish island of Mallorca in the Mediterranean Ocean. His parents sent him to a nearby Franciscan school, and his intellectual abilities soon caught the attention of his teachers. At age fifteen he enrolled in a prominent Franciscan school in the nearby city of Palma. The next year he became a novice in the Franciscan order and shortly thereafter was ordained as a priest.

Serra's intellectual acumen and enormous willpower secured his appointment as a professor of theology at the tender age of twenty-four. Six years later, in 1743, he moved on to a professorship at the prestigious Lullian University.

Despite his success as a pulpit orator and professor, Serra hungered for something more. In 1749 he secured permission to travel with some fellow Franciscans who intended to devote themselves to work at a mission near Mexico City. Serra took the long sea voyage to Spain's colonies. Despite ill health from the voyage, upon his arrival in Vera Cruz he insisted on walking all the way to Mexico City, a distance of over two hundred miles. This was the first of many feats of physical stamina and willpower which were to make the Franciscan a legend in his own time.

For some fifteen years, Serra worked in Mexico at much the same tasks as he had in Spain, although he took on missionary work to nearby Indian peoples in addition to preaching, hearing confessions, and helping to administrate Mexico City's College of San Fernando.

In 1767 the Spanish emperor's expulsion of the Jesuits from Spain's colonies led the government to ask the Franciscan Order to replace them as missionaries in Baja (lower) California. Serra was appointed head of these missions. The next year the Spanish governor decided to explore and found missions in Alta (upper) California, the area which is now the state of California. This project was intended both to Christianize the extensive Indian populations and to serve Spain's strategic interest by preventing Russian explorations and possible claims to North America's Pacific coast.

Serra spent the rest of his life as head of the Franciscans in Alta California. Already over fifty years old, dangerously thin, asthmatic, and seriously injured in one of his legs, the undaunted Serra led the founding of the Mission of San Diego in 1769, aided an expedition in locating San Francisco Bay, and personally founded eight other missions, including his lifelong headquarters, the mission San Carlos Borromeo at Carmel. His Herculean efforts subjected him to near-starvation, afflictions of scurvy, and hundreds of miles of walking and horse riding through dangerous terrain. Moreover, he was notorious for his mortifications of the flesh: wearing heavy shirts with sharp wires pointed inward, whipping himself to the point of bleeding, and using a candle to scar the flesh of his chest. His sacrifices bore fruit for the missionaries; by his death in 1784, the nine missions he had founded had a nominally converted Indian population of nearly 5,000.

Serra argued with the Spanish Army over the proper authority of the Franciscans in Alta California, which he thought should subsume that of military commanders. In 1773 he convinced the authorities in Mexico City to increase financial and military support for expansion of his missions, and to expand the authority of the Franciscans over both the army and the baptized mission Indians. He also urged Mexican officials to establish an overland route to Alta California, a suggestion which led to colonizing expeditions from New Mexico which established civilian settlements at San Francisco in 1776 and at Los Angeles in 1781.

Serra wielded this kind of political power because his missions served economic and political purposes as well as religious ends. The number of civilian colonists in Alta California never exceeded 3,200, and the missions with their Indian populations were critical to keeping the region within Spain's political orbit. Economically, the missions produced all of the colony's cattle and grain, and by the 1780's were even producing surpluses sufficient to trade with Mexico for luxury goods.

Despite the frequent conflicts between military and religious authority, for Alta California's Indians the missions and their Franciscan administrators were part and parcel of an enormously destructive colonization process. The Spanish, largely through disease, were responsible for a population decline from about 300,000 Indians in 1769 to about 200,000 by 1821. The strenuous work regime and high population density within the missions themselves also caused high death rates among the mission Indians. By law, all baptized Indians subjected themselves completely to the authority of the Franciscans; they could be whipped, shackled or imprisoned for disobedience, and hunted down if they fled the mission grounds. Indian recruits, who were often forced to convert nearly at gunpoint, could be expected to survive mission life for only about ten years. As one Friar noted, the Indians "live well free but as soon as we reduce them to a Christian and community life... they fatten, sicken, and die."

Junipero Serra is still a well-known figure in California, a virtual icon of the colonial era whose statue stands in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park and in the U.S. Capital. In 1987 Pope John Paul II beatified Serra, the second of three steps necessary for the Church's bestowal of formal sainthood. Many Indians and academics condemned this decision, pointing to the harsh conditions of mission life and Serra's own justification of beatings. (In 1780, Serra wrote: "that spiritual fathers should punish their sons, the Indians, with blows appears to be as old as the conquest of [the Americas]; so general in fact that the saints do not seem to be any exception to the rule.") Defenders of Serra cited the context of his times, his enormous personal sacrifices and religious zeal, and his opposition to punitive military expeditions against the Indians as exonerating factors. More than two centuries after his death, Junipero Serra is still a pivotal figure in California history and the history of the American West, this time as a flashpoint for controversy over European treatment of Indians.


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