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.

March 08, 1998|By James Ricci | James Ricci,LOS ANGELES TIMES

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.

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