Month: June 2012


“The shepherds, the herdsmen, the maids, the babies, the dogs, the poultry, all loved the sight of Ramona.”


Ramona (1884)

I recently read Ramona, the 1884 novel by Helen Hunt Jackson that launched a thousand suburbs. The book was instantly popular, and reportedly has never been out of print. Ramona is the reason so many people traveled to California in the 1880s. They came to see the locations mentioned in the book. Once they were here, well . . . who could go back to Iowa once you’ve spent a winter in Southern California? The 1880s saw a land boom in So Cal, and Ramona was the means by which land promoters lured people out here. That, and a savage train rate war that brought the price of tickets from from to the Mississippi to California from $125 to $15, and even as low as $1 for a time.

I really wanted to hate the book. Dreaded reading it. Put off starting it because it seemed like it would be a chore. But I had to read it for two reasons. First, Ramona is the primary source of Mission Revivalism in late-19th century California. It is the reason the missions were rebuilt, and El Camino Real reclaimed, and, I suspect, why every year Fourth Graders all over California still have to build a mission model. Second, this upcoming week I am staying near Santa Paula, which is down the road from the primary geographic site associated with Ramona, Rancho Camulos. (In fact, Rancho Camulos still bills itself as the “Home of Ramona” and  runs a “Ramona Days” event every year.) I have arranged a special tour for family members, and it seemed to me I should at least have the courtesy to have read the book first.

Ramona Days poster

But I have to say that I ended up getting pulled into the novel, and but for some poorly drafted passages (see above), and the usual 19th century purple prose, I actually enjoyed it.

And no wonder. If it were a movie,  Ramona would be billed as Romeo and Juliet in the Garden of Eden. It combines the time-tested tropes of  star-crossed lovers and the fall from grace.  In this case, Romeo is Alessandro, son of a wise Indian chief and a model Nobel Savage; Eve is Ramona, blue-eyed, half-Indian maiden beloved of all, including poultry; the Garden of Eden is Rancho Moreno, one of the last of the great Ranchos, run under the iron grip of the quietly domineering hand of Señora Moreno, widow of one of the Mexican land grantees, and one of the dying breed of Californios. The fall from grace and expulsion from Eden comes when Ramona, raised to be Gente de Razon, wants to marry Alessandro, who, despite his good looks, is Indian, and thus Gente sin Razon, a person without reason. To the proud Señora Moreno, that makes him untouchable. You can read a decent summary here.

The book, as mentioned above, was hugely successful. It’s been made into a movie four times )the first Ramona was Mary Pickford); staged annually since the 1920s (with only a few years break during WWII) as an outdoor play in Hemet, California (with Raquel Welch, née Tejada, in the starring role in 1959); and most recently as a Telenova (around 2000). All of which an author normally thinks of as good things.

But in this case, Ms. Jackson, considered her book a failure.  She set out to write the book in order to draw attention to the plight of Native Americans in California: an Uncle Tom’s Cabin for Native Americans. But in doing so, she inadvertently created an idealized pastoral, pre-American culture of the leisure of rancho life of the Gente de Razon, and gave it the extra touch of pathos that disappearing cultures evoke. Her descriptions of life on the veranda )claimed to be modeled on the south veranda of Rancho Camulos), surrounded by citrus groves, the warm, languorous winters set against the backdrop of decaying mission ruins, all blessed by loving, paternal padres overpowered the social message that is just as carefully drawn. She created the myth of California that those of us who grew up here all share, what Carey McWilliams called our “Spanish Fantasy Past.”

And since then, Southern California has never been the same.

Posted by Scott Alumbaugh in California History, Fiction, 0 comments

Gente de Razòn

Gente de Razon

Gente de Razon

Gente de razón is a Spanish term meaning ¨reasonable people,¨or more closely, ¨people of reason.¨ It’s the term the colonial Spanish used to differentiate themselves from indiginous peoples they were subjugating acculturating. Bancroft throughout Volume I gives counts of colonial white, which he equates with gente de razón. In separate categories, he lists neophytes (converted indians) and gentiles (Indians still living in rancherías).

But you have to wonder who the reasonable people are in this first period of California’s western occupation.

Occasionally, a few indians, and even sometimes larger groups, escaped from the missions to live back in their native villages. Up until 1800, the Spanish government forbade troops from being used to return the Indians to the mission. The civil authorities were still under the impression that Indians ought to be free to choose whether to convert to Catholicism. Which seems reasonable.

But the Franciscans would sometimes insist, and soldiers would be sent to round up the escapees. Sometimes government officials would be concerned about this practice, so they would interview the captured escapees to ask why they ran away. The answer? Because they were overworked, underfed, occasionally flogged and forced to work in shackles, and they were afraid they would die if they stayed because so many of their relatives and friends were dying every day of various diseases. Which seems to me to make running away a reasonable response.

The priests were forbidden to punish returned runaways, and instead directed to treat them with extra kindness to entice them to stay. Bancroft is skeptical that this happened in every instance.

It’s interesting to note that many of the Franciscan missionaries who came to California left as soon as they could. Others sought to retire early claiming hardship. Still others were removed, some for insanity, and one or two because they were too punitive zealous to the natives even for Franciscans. In one case, a missionary (Padre Antonio de la Canception Horra) was deemed insane by his colleagues and sent back to Mexico. He sued to have himself declared sane, claiming that the real reason he was removed was because he complained about the poor treatment of the neophytes. After a lengthy review, the Viceroy and the Franciscans found there was no basis to his claims (Bancroft 587-596).

From other sources, I know that after 1800, the treatment of indians worsened, more died, and soldiers went more frequently and further afield to find runaways and to recruit more forced labor neophytes.

None of which really seems very reasonable at all.

Posted by Scott Alumbaugh in California History, 0 comments

California in 1800

Map of Pueblo San Jose

Map of Pueblo San Jose

I’ve had a few posts drafted, but was hoping to polish them up a little. I don’t seem to be doing that, so I’ll just get them up here and move on. Starting with this . . .

I finished volume one of Bancroft’s seven volume treatise on the history of California.  That brings me up to the year 1800. What I’m gathering so far is that things in California are ambling along, but it is kind of a jumbled mess.

In the Spanish scheme of things, presidios protect, missions assimilate, and pueblos populate. In California in 1800, the presidios are defenseless, the missions are killing the Indians almost as fast as they con convert them, and the pueblos, well . . . they’re just sort of there.

The Spaniards are only interested in settling the land from San Diego to San Francisco, and only as far inland as the Coast Range. Which means all the nice part. Everything on the other side of the hills is tule or desert. And of course the Russians and British are to the north. The Spanish tried to establish a couple of missions on the Colorado, and to keep a land route open between  Sonora and San Gabriel. But the mission experiment ended in a bloody uprising and as of 1800, no one had wanted to reopen the route bad enough to see if they had calmed down.

The settled parts of California were kind of a mish-mash of institutions and interests.

The presidios (San Francisco, Monterey, Santa Barbara, and San Diego) are a shambles. Vancouver visited the coast three times in the 1790s and laughed at how weak the Spanish defenses were. Most of the soldiers’ time seems to have been spent building and rebuilding their forts and quarters because they couldn’t stand up to the weather.

The pueblos (San Jose, Branciforte, and Los Angeles) are just a step above penal colonies, the pobladores being largely people serving time for vagrancy in Guadalajara and sent north to make room for worse criminals. Occasionally some are sent back because they are too lazy to work the land set aside for them. At one point in the 1790s, the settlers in San Jose got bored and started torching all the pueblo officials’ homes (Here’s a link to a map of Pueblo San Jose). Both San Jose and Los Angeles pueblos, situated on the Rios Guadalupe and  Porciuncula, respectively, had to move because their original sites flooded periodically.

And the missions. Well, there are eighteen at this point, all except Santa Inez and the two across the bay; San Rafael and San Francisco Solano (Sonoma). And the overriding impression Bancroft gives of the Franciscans is that they are a bunch of spoiled children grabbing all the land and resources and native Indians they can and saying, “Mine! Mine!”  They see the military as a necessary evil, the civil government as an unwanted meddler, and the pueblos as corrupting influences encroaching on their land. Their buildings keep falling down, too (seems to be a pretty recurrent problem) which doesn’t help.


Posted by Scott Alumbaugh in California History, 0 comments