An Oral Account of Life at Mission San Rafael
as told by Juan Garcia
From The Independent, August 14, 1917.
From the Marin County Historical Society Magazine, vol. XV, no. 1, 1989, pp. 1-3, 21.
"My father, Corporal Rafael Garcia, was in charge of the building of the Mission San Rafael. He was sent to San Rafael on a sort of raft which drifted up the bay with the tide from the Presidio, and he was able to effect a landing at what is known as McNear's Point today. He was sent over by Dono Luis Antonio Arguello, Captain and Commandant of the Presidio in San Francisco. When he went ashore he was greeted by friendly Indians, who numbered about 500, were camped where the E. B. McNear home is today. They furnished horses to my father and his men, and they rode to San Rafael where they were greeted by Father Sarria and his assistants. The arrival of my father and his detachment of soldiers with their polished muskets, was expected by the Indians. There were 5,000 Indians in San Rafael a few hours after they arrived.
"I often heard him describe his arrival to my mother when I was a boy. It was a short time before Christmas, in 1817. At that season of the year, thanks to the early rains, the valley of San Rafael was spread before him in all its native loveliness. In the lower end of town, about the foot of B Street, the willows covered the ground and from the numerous wigwams of the tribe, columns of smoke shot up in the air and darkened the sky. The missionaries at this time had several little adobe huts where the Court House stands today. The same huts were acquired years after by Orey and J.O.B. Short.
"The Sunday following my father's arrival, the corner stone was laid and the Mission San Rafael, in the presence of thousands of Indians and according to my father, it was but a short time before Christmas, in the year 1817. Before the corner stone was laid, Father Sarria and his assistants celebrated the mass.
"My father thought a great deal of Father Gil, and he said he had a beautiful baritone voice and was familiar with the language of the different tribes. The good priest had a number of Indians he had borrowed from the other Missions, who were expert in the erection of adobe buildings and making tile for roofing.
"He and his assistants spent their time in baptizing the Indians, converting them to Christianity, and teaching them trades. My father told me that the Mission orchard was planted long before the Mission proper was erected.
"Several tribes of Indians made their headquarters in the County in 1800, numbering in the thousands. One tribe pitched their wigwams in the willows at the foot of B Street, another near the residence of E. B. McNear, near McNear's Point, another in the vicinity of the DeLong ranch and in the canyon back of Ignacio, and still another along the shores of Tomales Bay. Prior to 1817 the Indians quarreled and had pitched battles, but the coming of the missionaries, headed by Father Fortuni, rather civilized them.
"The County was alive with all kinds of game, such as herds of elk, deer, bear, lions and some buffalo. As late as 1820, my father told me, a small herd of buffalo existed in Mendocino County. He could never account for them being there. As for elk, they roamed the County in countless herds, and as a result, the Indians lived on the fat of the land. In the early part of the century the bears and lion were so numerous in the Pt. Reyes, Ross Valley and Mill Valley districts, that the Indians were always careful to leave these parts of the County severely alone. There was an old Indian legend that a bear killed one of their bad medicine men, and as a result they believed that something would befall them if they destroyed a bear. My father was of the opinion that they were afraid to tackle the bears with their primitive weapons. On numerous occasions when my father would give a barbecue he would take pleasure in relating incidents of the days of the Missions, and always termed them days of plenty.
"The tide water in the days of the Mission and for many years after, came up to E Street, and all the land east of B Street was a beautiful clam bed at low tide, where the Indians secured their supply of clam and mussels. The east end of the town, from B Street to the bay, was covered at high tide, and at the foot of B Street the Indians had their rancheria.
"During the winter the Indians were garbed in elk skins. In fact, all the wigwams and all the interior furnishings of the same were made from the skins of elks.
"All the land from B Street east along Fourth Street and north of Fourth Street was planted in fruit and grapes by the missionaries. The orchards were intact thirty years ago and the first property owners to cut into the orchard were Hepburn Wilkins, Douglass Saunders, Oliver Irwin and others.
"The same pear trees planted by the Mission Fathers can be found back of the Masonic Hall today, and there are several back of the Herzog property on Fourth Street, opposite Cijos Street. There is also one, still bearing fruit, back of the Magnes lot on Fourth Street. The apple trees can still be found in the lot back of the James Bagley home, and in several back yards in the section.
"I remember as a boy when the missionaries would use the water from San Rafael hill to irrigate the orchard. The water was run down in a ditch. It was a novel irrigation scheme and worked beautifully. The missionaries were very skillful in the different trades and never shirked work themselves.
"Father Fortuni was an all around mechanic. He could shoe a horse, make a wagon, do all the blacksmithing, build a house, make tile, mix adobe, or do anything. Their whole lives were wrapped up in educating the Indians. My father told me that over 1500 Indians were baptized in a few years. All the Indian marriages were performed by the missionaries, and every Indian made it a point to attend church from time to time.
"The Mission buildings were built of adobe in the shape of an "L" and roofed with tile made on the ground. The Mission stood on the site of the present Catholic church, the altar being on the precise spot now occupied by the present altar. The wing used as a church ran parallel with Fifth Street for about 100 feet, and ran back about 125 feet. It was a one-story affair with a loft used as a granary.
"In the middle of the Mission building was the apartments of the Fathers, and adjoining that was a school by Friar Juan Amoros. He devoted his spare moments day and night to teaching the Indians in the different trades and the beauties of Christianity. He was a first class mechanic, being able to shoe a horse, make brick and tile, whipsaw lumber, make and mend harnesses, and was an all around blacksmith. He made a wonderful water clock that was a first class timepiece and it was used at the Mission up to 1845. Father Amoros was a good linguist, being able to talk French and Spanish fluently and was familiar with the Indian languages of the day. He was a devout disciple of the Catholic church and an able orator, and his voice was ever lifted in impressing on the minds of the Indians the beauties of religion.
"Sunday and holy days of obligation were great days at the Mission, and the Indians and their families would come for miles around and attend mass in the Mission church. They would bring venison, clams and hides to the good missionaries, and in return they would take away such provisions as were obtainable at the Mission storehouse. It was not an uncommon sight to see 2,000 Indians gathered around the Mission on Sundays.
"The Indians and their families would come from all over the County. The Nicasio tribe, who were once powerful and who once numbered in the thousands, were inclined to be warlike, and whenever they arrived in San Rafael, the Missionaries had all they could do to keep them from quarreling. They were better known as the Digger Indians, and in and around Nicasio Valley lived in dugouts in the ground, and were the first Indians to use the Hamman baths in the West. They would place rocks in a deep hole and build a fire over the same. After the fire died down the hole was covered up and the sick patient was put in the hole, while water was poured over the hot rocks, causing the steam to arise and immerse the sick man. If he came out alive, according to the medicine man, he was cured. If he died, it was the will of Allah.
"Another tribe came from Olompalia, or what is known today as Burdell's. It was here that the first adobe house was built in Marin County, or northern California. It was erected in about 1789 by Camillo Ynitia, chief of the tribe in that locality. The house still stands today.
"The peaceful tribes lived on a rancheria at what is known as the foot of B Street today, and another on the site of the Currigan tract at San Anselmo and a third on the site of the E. B. McNear home near McNear's Point.
"During the first three years of the Mission over 350 were solemnized among the Indians, and over 1,000 children baptized. The first year there were 1,600 members of the Mission and the Fathers worked early and late to educate all these Indians and teach them in the different arts of civilization.
"The old Mission orchard consisted of hundreds of trees and was cared for by the Indians. The pears and apples were dried and the grapes were made into wine. The Indians were expert farmers and understood pruning and raising fruit, grain, berries and vegetables. There were about 2,000 fruit trees in the orchard and about 25 acres of grapes.
"For weeks before Easter Sunday the missionaries were occupied in instructing the Indian children for the Sacrament of Confirmation. Friar Amoros would gather all the children in the church every day and instruct them in their catechism. Over a hundred were confirmed by Father Fortuni on Easter Sunday. Two days before Easter the Indians began arriving in San Rafael until on the great day several thousand Indians were camped here and there in the valley. The squaws were dressed in every color of the rainbow and the Indians had on their war paint and wore pants and vests made of elk skins.
"In the lower end of town every tree and shrub was used as a hitching post for the Indian ponies. The church with its wooden benches and earthen floor was banked on all sides with the most beautiful flowers the forest and valley produced. When the procession was formed over 200 boys and girls participated in the procession, headed by the missionaries. When the procession passed around on Fifth Street through hundreds of Indian braves, all the Indians and squaws knelt on the bare ground and chanted a prayer taught them by their religious instructors. During the day over forty marriages were solemnized by the missionaries, and during the several days that passed, the Indians celebrated the event in their usual style of feasting, horseback riding, and horse racing. The carcasses of two score elk were roasted and served to the Indians. During these days the missionaries never failed to mingle with the Indians and settle any disputes that arose among them. During the carnival of fun and feasting several deaths occurred among the Indians and they were buried in the rancheria back of the present Hotel Rafael. The missionaries headed the solemn procession, followed by the three bodies which were strapped to long poles drawn over the backs of ponies, the poles dragging on the ground. The graves were dug before the funeral cortege arrived. The priests of the Mission gathered around the graves, as the grave diggers and the relatives of the deceased came forward and placed beads, arrowheads, mortars and pestles, polished abalone shells, clams and mussels in the graves. Before the bodies were lowered in and pestles, polished abalone shells, were placed in the bottom of the grave, followed by another layer on top of the bodies. As the priests of the church chanted the litany, the brave men and their squaws would moan and sigh. For hours after the priests had taken their departure from the grave the squaws would remain to weep and wail until for into the night.
"Friar Juan Amoros succeeded in securing a number of string instruments from Spain and had a seven string orchestra, the cello being played by a young Indian brave, while young Indian squaws made up the rest of the orchestra. They played exceedingly well.
"My father also described evening scenes among the wigwams. Here and there one would encounter the mothers with suckling babies at their breasts, while they worked with the pestle crushing grain in the mortar for the tauteiste, which served as their bread. Here and there one could discern the squaw loaded down with a load of wood, wending her weary way along a path leading to her wigwam. Here and there was noticed a powerful young buck returning with elk, deer, rabbits, and other prey of the forest, while on the other hand the fishermen returned with products of the river, bay and ocean. The young squaws, the belles of the day, painted with the colors of the rainbow and decked in gorgeous calicoes and burdened with shell and bead ornaments, occupied places of advantage beneath the spreading oaks for which the valley was famous in the early days. While the young squaws were decked in their finery and wandered here and there from wigwam to wigwam, the young and old bucks were squatted here and there in the shade smoking their long pipes and awaiting the evening dinner call.
"This was life in the old days when the forest and the sea furnished all the luxuries and necessities for the larder and when the inhabitants of beautiful Marin County lived on the fat of the land."