Father Fermin de Lasuén, El Presidente of the Nueva California missions, celebrated mass in 1787 at the site to become La Purísima Mission. The site chosen for La Purísima Mission was known to the Spanish as the plain of Rio Santa Rosa and by the Chumash as Algsacpi. Permanent missionaries and soldiers did not arrive at the site until March of 1788. The first padres assigned to La Purísima were Father Vicente Fuster and Father Joseph Arroita.
Upon the arrival of the padres, construction of temporary buildings began. One of the first jobs for the padres was to translate the mass and catechism instruction into the native language, so the Chumash would understand and accept the new faith brought to them.
As with any new venture, the first few years must have provided the padres with many ups and downs. There were many construction projects to complete: the church, living quarters, workshops, storage and water systems. Land had to be cleared so that crops, orchards and vineyards could be planted. The padres were challenged with encouraging the Chumash to come and learn about this new culture and religion that was to change their ways and their land. As the Chumash were baptized, they were taught new skills to become productive members of the mission community.
As the Padres struggled to establish the mission, they received help from other missions with the donation of cattle, sheep, goats, horses, burros, mules, pigs, corn, wheat, barley, peas, beans, and root stock and cuttings for orchards and vineyards. Supplies that could not be manufactured by the missions were brought up from New Spain (Mexico) by ship, including bells, church furnishings, cloth, tools and iron. Supply ships from New Spain visited the missions two times a year. The padres received an annual stipend of $400 worth of goods and an annual allotment of $1,000 worth of goods from the Pious Fund to help support the mission. The monies in the Pious Fund were donated by the wealthy in Spain to help expand Spain's empire. Slowly permanent buildings were constructed and the crops and livestock began to flourish.
More and more Chumash came into the mission community. According to the mission report dated December 31, 1798, the primitive church lacked sufficient space for the 920 mission inhabitants. Construction had begun on a new church with the padres laying the new foundation. The padres expressed the need for trained craftsmen to oversee this project to insure it would be structurally sound, but they lacked money to pay the craftsmen. Major industries at the mission were the weaving of cotton into cloth and wool into blankets, and the making of shoes.
While the greatest number of the mission population were neophytes (the converted Chumash Indians), there were a handful of others on whom fell the task of making the mission functional. Two padres were assigned to each mission. They reported to El Presidente of the Nueva California missions. A corporal and five soldiers from the Santa Barbara Presidio provided the military presence at La Purísima Mission. Occasionally, when they were available and the missions could afford their assistance, Master Craftsmen and their families would live at the mission for the period of their employment.
Few writings by the Padres exist to tell us about life at La Purisima; however, they were required to submit an annual report each December regarding progress at the mission. The Annual Reports provide us with information on the religious and material success of the missions, but provide little insight into daily mission life.
In 1800, Father Horra, formerly of San Miguel, accused the Franciscan padres of mistreating the Indians. Governor Borcia was directed to make an investigation into this matter, requiring both the military officials and the padres to respond to fifteen questions bearing on the subject. Although this was a time of trial for the padres at La Purisima, it provides us with the fortunate circumstance of giving us our best glimpse of how the Padres viewed mission life for the neophytes.
Below is a summary of "The Replies of the Father of Mission Purisima:"
The Christian Doctrine was taught in Spanish and the Chumash language. The Chumash were instructed in the principles of the Catholic religion before receiving baptism. The Fathers spoke Castilian, and encouraged the neophytes to learn and speak it, but in general everyone spoke a composite language. The Indians were permitted some time to leave the mission.
The neophytes were given morning and evening meals of atole and a mid day meal of pozole. They were allowed to gather wild foods, as was their custom before the Spanish came. On Sundays and special feast days everyone received almost a half peck of wheat. Neophyte men were given a woolen blanket, a suit of cotton cloth and two woolen breech cloths. Women and girls received gowns, skirts and woolen blankets. The clothing items were expected to last at least one year with some care. Housing for the neophytes was their native tule houses, the same as before the Spanish arrived because it had not been possible to construct permanent buildings for them.
Hours worked by the neophytes was not to exceed five hours per day. Some of the labor was proportioned as piece work. To keep them at the mission, pregnant, nursing, and aged women, and children were required to perform a small amount of work. The neophytes were taught how to deal with the soldiers and other people outside of the mission. The neophytes did not like to work for the soldiers because the soldiers over-burdened them, or deprived them of the necessities enjoyed by those at the mission.
The neophytes were punished if they left the mission furtively, especially at night. Other misdeeds the padres punished the neophytes for included concubinage and theft. Punishments for both sexes included whippings, shackles, stocks and being locked up. Crimes against the common good, such as killing cattle or sheep, or setting fire to pastures, were given to the corporal of the guard.
After studying the reports, the viceroy felt the charges against the missionaries were unfounded. Unfortunately, although the above narrative depicts the padres' view of the Indian life at the mission, there are no descriptions of how the Indians viewed their new life. This leaves many unanswered questions about what really took place at the missions.
A commonly asked question is "Why did the Chumash accept the mission way of life?" One answer could be that the Chumash may originally have been fascinated with the tools, animals, fabrics, color, etc. that the Spanish brought with them. This, along with religious rituals, chanting and music may have intrigued a people who had their own religious ceremonies and were artistically talented. A second and possibly more compelling reason may have been the loss of the Chumash's ability to survive outside of the mission system. Before the Spanish came, the Chumash depended on the natural resources to provide them with food. As the domesticated mission herds increased in number, the animals ate the plants that the Chumash used and fouled their water holes. It eventually became impossible for the Chumash to survive in the old ways, and the missions may have offered the only alternative.
In 1802, a large and handsome church structure was completed. This project emphasized the Padres' concern about their lack of construction knowledge and their need for skilled craftsmen at the mission. The doorway of this structure still stands at the original mission site, now owned by the City of Lompoc.
The mission population reached its high point in 1804 with 1,520 neophytes under its jurisdiction. The year 1804 also marked the arrival of Father Mariano Payeras. Each padre associated with La Purísima Mission made a valuable contribution to its establishment and success; however, Father Payeras had unique foresight, dedication, organizational, and public relations skills that helped La Purísima Mission expand its material wealth and maintain good relations with neighboring ranchos. The mission industries prospered, producing soap, candles, wool, and leather products among their leading commodities.
There was little coin or money circulating in Nueva California. The chief items used for trading were soap, cigars, horses, cattle, hides and tallow. Obviously, there were supplies that the mission could not produce. Each year, ships from San Blas, Mexico, brought china, sugar, fine cloth, and other commodities, which were exchanged for mission products. The fathers received yearly four hundred dollars worth of mission equipment.
Additional income for the mission came from hiring out the neophytes to the neighboring ranchos. According to the mission account books, the neophytes were paid 1 1/2 reáles a day or 18 and 3/4 cents and their board. The wages received for the Indians' labor went to the mission. In turn the laborer was paid in goods from the mission store. The neophytes were already provided with clothing, blankets, housing and food by the mission.
The mission had to pay their craftsmen and mayordomo in money, rather than just trade or barter. The account book in 1811 shows that Francisco Xavier Aguilar was hired at $25 a month and board; however, it did not identify his occupation. The same year Josef Antonio Ramirez, a carpenter and stone mason, was hired for $200 in silver per year including board and two pounds of chocolate a month.
At the height of its success, a series of disasters began to hurt La Purísima's prosperity. European diseases such as smallpox, measles, and other health problems began to take their toll on the mission population. Between 1804 and 1807 there were about 500 deaths. The worst year, 1806, saw 220 deaths recorded. This must have been a period of fear for the Indians, not knowing if they or their family members would become ill and seeing no way to cure the diseases. This must also have been a period of frustration for the padres as they helplessly watched the neophytes dying.
While humans experienced fear, frustration and strained relationships, the earth's crust was preparing to relieve itself of some stress. On December 8, 1812, twenty-five years after La Purísima's founding, a series of small tremors were experienced. On December 21, there was a violent earthquake that caused serious damage to the mission. The structures that survived the first jolt were brought down by a second and more violent quake about a half hour after the first. To make matters worse, heavy and prolonged rains followed the earthquakes. The unprotected adobe bricks began to melt back into mud.
La Purísima Mission would not be rebuilt on the old site but was abandoned in favor of a new site in a small canyon, La Cañada de los Berros (canyon of the watercress) or, as the Indians called it, Amúu.
This history continues in the second chapter, 1813-1834.
Top photo: Henry Chapman Ford etching of old Mission La Purisima, 1883, a part of the Robert B. Honeyman, Jr. Collection of Early Californian and Western American Pictorial Material