Native Americans had lived in California for over 10,000 years when Gaspar de Portola arrived in 1769. With the Portola Expedition came Father Junipero Serra who established the mission system. Although occasional tribal warfare occurred during food shortages, the Gabrielino Indians were a gentle people, especially in the handling of their children. The Padres complained that they “treated their children like idols” because the children lacked discipline.
This permissive attitude contrasted sharply with the discipline imposed by the Padres in running the missions. For example, once an Indian decided to join a mission, he was not permitted to leave. If he left and failed to return he could be hunted down, beaten, or even killed. Furthermore, Indians were denied specific privileges, such as riding horses or using Eurpean weapons.
The church acted as guardian, holding mission property until the day Indians would be self-governing. Settlers from Mexico saw it in their own best interest to dismantle the mission system so they could appropriate the hotly contested lands. There were many Indians whom the Padres still wanted to baptize when the Mexian settlers moved in. The Padres protested that the townspeople were taking advantage of these Natives. At times, they would labor for an entire week and only be paid a lace handkerchief or a bottle of alcohol. Women could be taken advantage of, then abandoned. Men who did this were at times publicly punished.
Indians were not considered “gente de razon” (people capable of reason). They were viewed as children. Though the Padres were charged with training them in skilled labor and educating them in preparation for self-government, they were seldom taught to read.
California, which had the largest Native American population in what is now the U.S., became a place where many tribes disappeared. European diseases such as smallpox spread through the living quarters of the overcrowded missions. Indians were no longer permitted to practice their religious and ceremonial bathing. This spawned further disease. Under such unhygienic conditions, infant mortality rose. The final blow to the Inidans came in 1849 when gold was discovered in California. What remained of the Indian culture was nearly destroyed by the arrival of thousands of lawless gold-seekers known as “forty-niners”.
During the Mexian American War from 1846-48, the population of California numbered approximately 7,000 Mexicans; 15,000 mission Indians and non-baptized Inidans conversant with the Mexican culture; and 1,000 foreigners who were a mixture of other Latin Americans, European and U.S. immigrants. Of those who claimed Spanish descent, half intermarried with Mestizo, Indian, or people of African descent. Only one in three percent were actually from Spain.
Many residents defined themselves as “Californios”. This was not meant to deny their Mexican heritage, but to assert their love for their most beloved California. Pio Pico, Governor of California, and Andres Pico, Commander of the Californio forces, were brothers and Mexicans of African descent.
In California more than in the rest of Mexico a person’s station in life was not strictly determined by race, but by his or her cultural assimilation and attainment of education. An Indian who wore the trappings of a well-educated person could assume a higher social status. Many Californios spoke the local Gabrielino language because they were accustomed to negotiating with the Indians.
Forty-four persons from northwestern Mexico founded the City of Los Angeles in 1781. More than half were of African descent. This era has been referred to as California’s Spanish Period because Spain ruled Mexico during this time and that rule extended to California. However, California was settled by Mexicans, not Spaniards.