On a mission Hard truths and romantic myths entwine along El Camino Real, a road forged in the name of Christianity. It is a direct route to California's soul.

El Camino Real, the route that connects California's 21 Spanish missions, runs more than 600 miles from San Diego, near the U.S.-Mexico border, to Sonoma, north of San Francisco. Along the way, it passes through not only Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Carmel, but straight through the psyche of modern Californians.

In that latter landscape it is lined with the historical truths and romantic myths that make up the way California chooses to remember its roots.


The California missions weren't established in tidy steps northward from the first mission in San Diego. Their founding proceeded in a hopscotch manner, with later missions filling the gaps between earlier ones.

El Camino Real, the Royal or Main Road, probably followed established Indian trails, which, in turn, probably followed the habitual pathways of game the Indians hunted.


When the 21 beads of the mission rosary were in place, pedestrians or wagons could travel between any two without having to overnight on the road with costly military escort.

Like almost everything else regarding the missions, El Camino Real has been reconstrued over the years to suit contemporary wishes.

Efforts to re-establish it began in 1904, with the founding of the Camino Real Association. They were immediately caught up, however, in disputes between purists, who wanted the route to be historically accurate, and automobile interests, which saw the tourism potential of a readily drivable route.

The resulting route was a compromise. In 1906, the association began marking it with the first of 459 mission-style bells hung on 11-foot poles. A few of the bells are still to be found on rural segments of the route and close to missions.

The bell route has since given way to U.S. 101, which only approximates El Camino Real.

The original route of the padres now is buried beneath concrete and, in many places, is impossible to discern.

The way it was

Behind Mission San Juan Bautista is a rare exception. Partway down a slope that leads to a broad swath of semi-developed land, runs a stretch of stony dirt road about 100 yards long. It is gated at both ends. Wild blackberry grows rampant on its down-slope side.


It's a segment of El Camino Real preserved in a state that might have been recognizable to a Franciscan friar of 1797. It's a California anomaly, a bit of highway more suited to burro than Benz.

Driving past the piney, 2-acre hillock at Washington and Constitution in Fremont at the southeast tip of San Francisco Bay, a motorist would have scant reason to imagine anything particularly meaningful about it. Yet the fenced plot of undeveloped land with the concrete-and-wood sign reading simply, "Ohlone," is unique in California history.

It's the fulfillment, however pitifully circumscribed, of the intention that lay behind the establishment of the California missions.

Spanish colonial policy envisioned that all mission land would revert to the Indians after they had become reliable, Christian citizens of the empire.

The promise, which was supposed to be realized 10 years after a mission's founding, never flowered. The California Indians, essentially a Stone Age people, were adjudged too backward for stewardship over the increasingly valuable mission holdings.

Burial ground


To this day, the only mission land that has reverted to unfettered Indian control is the wind-swept hill in Fremont, about a mile from Mission San Jose. The place has been a burial ground for Ohlone -- pronounced o-LOW-nay -- Indians since time immemorial. In 1911, it became a Catholic cemetery, but racial attitudes being what they were, only Indians were buried there. In 1971, the Catholic Church gave it to the local Ohlone tribe.

"It's the only Indian land I'm aware of that was returned to the totally autonomous control of Indians after being mission land," says Andrew Galvan, an archaeological consultant whose father, Felipe, is headman of the Ohlone tribe associated with Mission San Jose.

Galvan, who recently completed a three-year term as president of the California Mission Studies Association, believes that Spanish missionary Junipero Serra was a saint, yet bristles at the romantic portrayal of mission Indians "as happy as peasants in an Italian opera."

Galvan gives lectures on how the mission system of agriculture and cattle-raising destroyed the Indians' natural hunting and gathering grounds; how the padres sometimes kept Indian children locked up to prevent their parents from leaving; how Spanish soldiers sallied into the Central Valley to capture Indians to replace those who had fled or died of disease at Mission San Jose.

He is equally insistent, however, that it was not the missions that all but destroyed California's Indians. It's estimated the mission contacted less than half of the Native Americans living here -- some historians estimate only 10 percent.

The eradication of aboriginal culture was accomplished by the Americans, who brought with them an all-but-official policy of Indian extermination.


To the padres, at least, the Indians were human beings with souls that merited saving.

Tribal memories

Felipe Galvan mourns a vanished people he remembers, through his half-Ohlone mother and aunts and uncles, as lighthearted and sociable.

"They'd sit us down and try to make us listen so we wouldn't forget what happened to their people," Felipe says. "They were so sad about the whole thing, and there were so few of them. But what can I do about it now? The point is not to be angry, but to insist it be taught right."

The purity of blood in members of the Ohlone tribe Felipe Galvan heads is thinning with each generation. One-fourth is about as high a level of Ohlone ancestry to be found in any individual. Intra-marrying is not a viable way of preserving the blood quantum.

"The problem is, we all tend to be related," he says. "My brother married an Ohlone and we were worried for a time that they might be related. Eventually, there will be nothing. Right now in Fremont there's only one, two Ohlones" -- he points to himself and Andrew -- "and all the people sleeping at the cemetery."


The 9 a.m. Sunday Mass at the small church of Mission San Rafael, the northernmost mission on San Francisco Bay above Mission Santa Clara and Mission Dolores, is said in neither English nor Spanish. The liturgy is in Vietnamese.

About 40 of the 2,000 families that make up the parish here, with its spacious modern main church, are Vietnamese. The 80 to 90 people who come to the Vietnamese-language Mass fit tidily in the small mission church, a 1949-vintage, best-guess replica of a long disappeared original.

The convergence of different cultures -- clashing, assimilating, combining in marriage -- is an old story in California.

The Spanish colonial way -- so different from that of the more insular English -- accepted the intermixing of Europeans' blood with that of native peoples and others.

Archaeologist Jack Williams, who is leading the excavation of the old Spanish fort back at Presidio Hill in San Diego, says the policy "made California, from the beginning, a cosmopolitan place."

Williams says the people who lived at the San Diego presidio included Europeans, Mexicans, Afro-Hispanics and native Americans, as well as a few Filipinos and Chinese. "Even in the Spanish period," he says, "California was plugged into the Pacific Rim."


Last stop

In Sonoma's central plaza park, 600 miles from Presidio Hill in San Diego, a large tablet laid into the lawn of the reconstructed mission marks "The End of the Mission Trail." Mission San Francisco de Solana, which was founded in 1823, was the last and most northerly of all the missions established by Spain in the New World over 300 years.

What ultimately makes the missions evocative, what draws the visitors to the quaint adobe and comfortingly reconstructed spaces, is the thought of the people who inhabited them long ago. Human lives now gone are the source of the missions' resonance.

"The history of California is that we went through a lot of transitions in a relative heartbeat," says William Deverell of the California Institute of Technology.

"The missions seem haunted because we have an understanding of the wrenching nature of those transitions. They weren't easy. They were violent. They could be heartbreaking.

"The missions deserve meditation. They echo. I may cast aspersions on how they've been restored, but I'm glad they're around. They're quiet and sacred, and like all sacred sites, sad. They're somber and powerful because they're old in California, where usually what we praise is something new."


California mission tour

(No., Founded, Name of Mission, City)

1. 1769, Mission San Diego de Alcala, San Diego

2. 1770, Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, Carmel

3. 1771, Mission San Antonio de Padua, Jolon

4. 1771, Mission San Gabriel Arcangel, San Gabriel


5. 1772, Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, San Luis Rey

6. 1776, Mission San Francisco de Asis, San Francisco

7. 1776, Mission San Juan Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano

8. 1777, Mission Santa Clara de Asis, Santa Clara

9. 1782, Mission San Buena Ventura, Ventura

10. 1786, Mission Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara


11. 1787, Mission La Pusisima Concepcion, Lompoc

12. 1791, Mission Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz

13. 1791, Mission Nuestra Senora de La Soledad, Soledad

14. 1797, Mission San Jose, San Jose

15. 1797, Mission San Juan Bautista, San Juan Bautista

16. 1797, Mission San Miguel Arcangel, San Miguel


17. 1797, Mission San Fernando Rey de Espana, San Fernando

18. 1798, Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, San Luis Obispo

19. 1804, Mission Santa Ines, Solvang

20. 1817, Mission San Rafael Arcangel, San Rafael

21. 1823, Mission San Francisco Solano, Sonoma

Pub Date: 3/08/98