San Fernando Mission, 1769-1834

The Franciscans established San Fernando on May 14, 1769, only two years following the establishment of Santa Maria de los Angeles, the last Jesuit establishment,[i] further to the south. Eventually, the missionaries suppressed Santa Maria, and moved the population of that marginal establishment to the jurisdiction of San Fernando. The Jesuits had identified the Velicata site as a potential location for a new mission because of the large indigenous population in the area, and the availability of water for agriculture. 

The Building of San Fernando Mission

There are relatively few details regarding the construction of San Fernando mission. The first description of the mission casco comes from the 1773 inventory prepared when the Franciscans passed jurisdiction of the mission to the Dominicans. The inventory described the church as a new adobe structure built of adobe with a roof of tule and packed earth. The church measured 16 x 7 varas. There was also a new residence for the missionaries built in the same fashion as the church with dimensions of 22 ˝ x 8 varas. There was also an adobe granary.[ii]

The church reported in 1773 had either been enlarged or replaced by a larger structure by the early 1790s. A 1793 report described the church as being of adobe and poles, and measuring 33 x 5 ˝ varas (see Table 2.1). Annual reports from 1797 and 1798 noted construction at the mission. In 1797, the Dominicans directed the construction of twoadobe and xacal structures at San Fernando. In the following year the missionaries reported the addition of an adobe structure 16 x 7varas to the mission casco. The reports did not always indicate the use of the buildings, although the one built in 1798 was used for storage.[iii]

In the early 1920s, historical geographers Carl Sauer and Peveril Meigs studied San Fernando mission, The mission church and associated buildings occupied a terrace up against a steep hillside just above the arroyo floor, presumably safe from possible flood damage. The adobe church obviously was the largest structure, and Sauer and Meigs located foundations for other buildings. In terms of the configuration of the mission casco, San Fernando more closely resembled missions further south with buildings erected around the church but not in the form of a quadrangle or with defensive walls as was the case in the Texas and California missions.

Mission Economy

The economy of San Fernando mission was similar to that of Comondu, based on ranching and farming. The missionaries also operated several visitas that were centers of farming and ranching.One important visita with improvements that included buildings was San Juan de Dios.[iv] A reference to a second appears in the 1773 inventory of the mission. The inventory describes the visita as being located about 1 ˝ leagues from the mission in a plain. A corral had been built for livestock, and obviously the site was a ranch for livestock.[v] Ranching appears to have been conducted on a small scale because of the limited pasture in the arid region. Numbers of cattle never passed around 200, and the flock of sheep and herds of horses were also small (see Table 4.1).

Agriculture was the mainstay of the mission economy, although in most years local grain production did not supply the needs of the bulk of the neophyte population. The Franciscans built an irrigation system that drew upon the stream that runs through the narrow arroyo where the missions is located. In his 1771 report Francisco Palou, O.F.M., noted that:

It [San Fernando] is situated in a valley through whose center runs a stream of water of some abundance sufficient to irrigate the land which the valley contains, and they easily succeeded by means of a dam of earth and stone to collect the water.The Father soon set tow ork cultivating the land in order that he might have wherewith to feed the pagans to win them to God…It has been discovered that the land is very salinous, wherefore it does not yield corn and wheat abundantly; much of it generally spoils. ..They have begun to plant fruit-trees, cotton, and vines; but they have produced nothing, because the saltpeter withers the plants.[vi]

Despite the poor early prognosis, the Franciscans and later the Dominicans did direct the production of some large crops (see Table 4.2). The largest wheat crop on record was 800 fanegas, 400 for corn, and 300 for barley. 

Demographic Patterns at San Fernando

Baptismal and burial registers survive for most of the early period of the existence of the mission, and provide important insights to the process of congregation and demographic patterns. The missionaries baptized the vast majority of the indigenous population within a decade. By 1779, the Franciscans and Dominicans baptized 96 percent of all gentiles converted at the mission.[vii] However, the actual process of conversion probably took longer, since large numbers of neophytes lived at satellite villages because of the limited agricultural potential at Velicata, the site of the mission. The population reached a recorded high of 1,406 in 1775, but then declined over the next half-century. The population stood at 363 in 1800, 155 in 1808, and in 1829 only 19 people continued to live at the mission (see Figure 4.1).[viii]

The indigenous population of San Fernando also experienced extremely high mortality rates over the first ten to fifteen years, as epidemics swept across the land. In the 1774-1778 quinquennium alone some 30 percent of the population died, and death rates continued quite high until after the 1781-1782 smallpox epidemic (figure 4.2). Another series of epidemic pretty much finished off the indigenous population. Even in non-epidemic years death rates were higher than birth rates, and mean life expectancy at birth was low. On average children born at the mission lived only 4.7 years, and during the severe epidemics live expectancy was even lower (see Table 4.3).

Periodic epidemics devastated the population of San Fernando mission, as to did chronic ailments such as syphilis and respiratory ailments. Scholars have pointed to a pattern of season mortality, with higher death rates during the colder months when people generally spent more time indoors which facilitated the spread of contagious diseases. It was also a period when the old, young, and infirm succumbed to a combination of maladies. Deaths at San Fernando clearly fits the pattern of seasonal mortality, In percentages the largest numbers of burials occurred in the winter (December to February) and spring (March to May), with 27.1 percent and 27.5 percent respectively.[ix] This pattern was similar to several neighboring missions along the Pacific Coast north of San Fernando established by the Dominicans after 1774. A different pattern can be seen at Comondu, with higher mortality in the fall (September to November) and spring (March to May), with 27.1 percent and 29.2 percent respectively.[x]

The pattern of age and gender imbalance discussed above for Comondu mission does not completely apply to the indigenous population of San Fernando, although signs of imbalance already appeared at the end of the eighteenth and in the early nineteenth centuries. Comondu had already existed for six decades when the Franciscans established San Fernando, and therefore the process of demographic collapse was already more advanced. Young children under age nine (parvulos) constituted between 18 and 24 percent of the population of San Fernando in the years 1795 to 1798.[xi] While this was still higher than at Comondu in the same years, it still showed a trend towards more imbalances resulting from dropping birth rates and high mortality rates among children. In terms of the sex ratio, the population of San Fernando already evidenced gender imbalances with more males than females.[xii] The population of San Fernando was well on its way to near extinction, and only 19 people remained at the mission in 1829.

Table 4.1: Livestock Reported at San

Fernando Mission
 

Year

Cattle

Sheep

Horses

1769
1770
1771
49
40
12
1772
1773
75
71
12
1774
75
55
11
1775
79
98
24
1776
107
186
30
1777
1778
1779
1780
114
227
34
1781
1782
110
178
12
1783
120
1784
152
310
12
1785
113
287
12
1786
107
279
10
1787
88
130
12
1788
38
189
10
1789
1790
1791
1792
1793
113
202
31
1794
77
100
28
1795
100
60
28
1796
101
150
12
1797
67
140
38
1798
70
1799
60
128
52
1800
110
103
54
1801
170
60
54
1802
1803
160
54
58
1804
1805
100
120
39

Source: Annual Reports, Archivo General de la Nacion, Mexico, D.F.; Homer Aschmann, The Central Desert of Baja California: Demography and Ecology (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1959).

Table 4.2: Grain Production at San

Fernando Mission
 

Year

Wheat

Corn

Barley

1769
1770
1771
200
1772
1773
107
26
1774
1775
100
1776
200
300
1777
1778
1779
1780
1781
1782
338
410
107
1783
1784
700
260
1785
950
140
1786
940
120
1787
400
130
1788
29
70
1789
1790
1791
1792
1793
767
1794
515
104
1795
500
200
1796
493
100
1797
300
130
1798
800
150
30
1799
380
1
6
1800
450
80
130
1801
200
60
12
1802
1803
500
40
12
1804
1805
700
90
21

Source: Annual Reports, Archivo General de la Nacion, Mexico, D.F Homer Aschmann, The Central Desert of Baja California: Demography and Ecology (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1959).

Table 4.3: San Fernando Mission Demographic Statistics
 

Quinquennium

Mid-point 

Birth Rate

Death Rate

Life Expec.

1774-1778

1,216

69

301

.5

1779-1783

792

39

110

1.2

1784-1788

559

50

76

7.2

1789-1793

506

39

52

16.1

1794-1798

452

20

55

11.9

1799-1803

313

15

116

1.2

1804-1808

201

14

115

1.2

1809-1813

128

27

103

1.6

1814-1818

87

5

90

1.6

Source: Robert H. Jackson, Indian Population Decline: The Missions of Northwestern New Spain, 1687-1840 (Albuquerque, 1994), 79.

 

Notes


 

[i] Zephyrin Engelhardt,O.F.M.,Missions and Missionaries of California: Lower California (Santa Barbara, 1929), 491.

[ii]Vicente Fuster, O.F.M., Miguel Hidalgo, O.P., and Pedro Gandiaga, O.P., “Entrega de la Mision de S[a]n Fernando de Velicata,” AGN, Misiones 12. 

[iii]San Fernando Mission annual reports, 1797 and 1798, in AGN Misiones 3.

[iv]Aguilar Marco, Misiones, 111.

[v]Fuster, Hidalgo, and Gandiaga, “Entrega.” 

[vi]Engelhardt, Missions and Missionaries,492-493.

[vii]San Fernando MissionBaptismal and Burial Registers, St. Albert’s College, Oakland, California.

[viii]Jackson, Indian Population Decline, 109-112.

[ix]Ibid., 122-125.

[x]Ibid.

[xi]Ibid.,112.

[xii]Ibid., 113.

   

   

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