This time, Mexico launched an expedition to its most remote land: California.

On April 15, 1834, a wagonload of 239 settlers left Mexico City for California. The expedition, under the command of José María Híjar and Colonel José María Padrés, was made up of 105 men, 55 women and 79 children under the age of 14. It included 22 teachers, 19 agricultural workers, 8 tailors, 8 carpenters, 12 seamstresses, 2 doctors, a confectioner and a musician, among many other trades. The average age of the settlers was 20 years old. The men in the group rode horses and were armed with guns and swords. The carts carried women, children and provisions, as well as 10 Merino sheep and five Tibetan goats. The expedition was Mexico’s most ambitious attempt to colonize its remote province of California.

“It was a gala day, which would have filled the long line of Spanish viceroys and Spanish and Mexican governors who had labored to colonize California with joy,” writes C. Alan Hutchinson in “Frontier Settlement in Mexican California: The Híjar-Padrés Colonie and its origins, 1769-1835. A government newspaper, El Telegrafo, treated the expedition as an epic event. “(T)he streets through which they passed were filled with people filled with admiration and enthusiasm for the colonists, who had overcome the repugnance of their education and the laziness left to us by the Spaniards, and had decided to leave the comfort of the capital and set about guarding the most remote regions of the Republic, (and founda) new towns which may one day be destined to change the face of this continent and direct the attention of the civilized world to places now entirely unknown.

The Híjar-Padrés party, as it was known, did indeed help found new cities, including San Francisco and Los Angeles. But it turned out to be a complete fiasco – one of the most egregious of the many missteps that marked Mexico’s feeble 25-year reign over California.

The expedition was the brainchild of Mexico’s liberal co-president, Valentin Gómez Farías. Farías wanted him to achieve two goals. First, it was to prevent the Russians, who had established an outpost at Fort Ross, from seizing Mexican territory. Second, it was to provide a humanitarian solution to the most pressing and intractable problem faced in California by both Mexico and its former colonial master, Spain: what to do with the indigenous peoples. This question was inextricably linked to another pressing concern: the disposition of the millions of acres of land controlled by the missions.

It was a bitter dispute over these last two related issues, which pitted the Governor of California and the settlers who were already living there against the new colony, which brought down the Híjar-Padrés party.

Previous question: After watching the 1930 Big Game between Cal and Stanford, who told a reporter, “Your game of football is splendid, thrilling, beautiful… great living picture, spontaneous unconscious art”?

Answer: Diego Rivera.

This week’s question: What is Fort Gunnybags?

To understand this controversy, a bit of context is necessary. The Spanish colonial project in California, the heart of which was its network of missions stretching from San Diego to Sonoma, aimed to transform the natives into “civilized” Christians, or people of razon(people of reason), thus saving their souls while making them productive Spanish citizens. The best land in California was controlled by the missions, which nominally held it in trust for the native peoples, who were supposed to inherit the land when they became people of razon.

This project had completely failed. Many of the Indians who had come to the missions died of disease or misery or fled, and those who remained showed no interest in becoming farmers or working at other jobs. Even when they were given their own land, they had no interest in working it. They wanted to return to the free path they had experienced before the arrival of the Spaniards. After Mexico became independent from Spain in 1821, their lot did not improve and in some ways worsened. Those who remained in the declining and demoralized missions, or who worked for the Mexican Californians (who had begun to call themselves Californios), were in fact serfs, whose unpaid labor enabled the wealthiest Californios, the rancheros , to enjoy a seigniorial way of life. Some lower-class Californios abused native people, giving them liquor and taking their clothes and food.

Even before Mexico gained independence, a growing number of liberal and progressive thinkers in Madrid and Mexico City had become critical of the Church’s paternalistic approach to Native Americans. Inspired by idealistic Enlightenment ideas and increasingly anticlerical, they eventually demanded an end to the California missionary system. This demand was enshrined in law on August 17, 1833, when Mexico passed a law secularizing the California missions.

Most policy makers in Mexico and its remote province of California supported the secularization of the missions. (The mission fathers, who naturally opposed it, were viewed with suspicion by Mexican officials.) But there was no consensus on what to do with the natives, those who still lived in the missions and those who did not live there.

Mexican Governor of California José Figueroa and the Californios took a paternalistic view of Native Californians, similar to that of the mission fathers. They believed that the natives were childish creatures who could not simply be liberated or treated as equals because they would return to their old way of life. If given the mission lands, the missions—the engine of California’s economy—would be ruined, and unscrupulous Californios would cheat them anyway. The Californios had come to these conclusions after decades of interactions with Indigenous peoples and were convinced they were speaking from experience. The most humane way to deal with them, they said, was to emancipate them very slowly and carefully, if at all.

Farías and other Mexican liberals took a much more optimistic view. They viewed the natives as fellow Mexicans and human beings who would become productive citizens if given education, encouragement, and land. The views from Híjar were typical. Hutchinson writes, “Hijar’s attitude toward the Indians was that reflected in the laws of the new Mexican Republic – egalitarian as well as humanitarian. Although he found the natives on mission “so degraded and demoralized that they will prostitute their daughters and wives”, he considered that they and the pagan Indians of the interior had “a marvelous natural talent”. Comparing them favorably to the indigenous peoples of the Mexican mainland, he said that one could deduce “that they possess elements that would help them towards civilization, in which they would make great progress with a policy different from that used until now. now by the three dominant classes (missionaries, soldiers and settlers) whom they hate.

Both parties sincerely believed that they had the best interests of the natives at heart. But the Californios were also driven by self-interest: they wanted to get their hands on the mission lands.

A clash between the Californios and the new settlers was likely in any case. And when the Californios were convinced that the settlers were going to appropriate the lands of the mission, this confrontation became inevitable. The story of the bitter feud between Figueroa and the rulers of the colony, and the ignominious collapse of the whole enterprise, will be the subject of future Portals.

Gary Kamiya is the author of the best-selling “Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco.” His most recent book is “Spirits of San Francisco: Voyages Through the Unknown City”. All Portals of the Past material is original to The San Francisco Chronicle. To read previous portals from the past, go to

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