As of December 31, 2014, I retired from full-time teaching in Humboldt State University's Department of History. While this website will remain online, it is no longer maintained.

History 383 - Dr. Gayle Olson-Raymer

Sociopolitical Aspects of the 1775 Revolt at Mission San Diego de Alcala: An Ethnohistorical Approach

Illusttation of Killing Father Jayme in November, 1775

The following is an abridged article written by Richard L. Carrico about the 1775 revolt at Mission San Diego.

"During the night and early morning of November 4-5, 1775, a force of Native Americans surrounded Mission San Diego de Alcala, set fire to its fragile wooden structures, and attacked a small contingent of stunned Spaniards. The attack gave Alta California its first Catholic martyr and weakened Spain's already tenuous hold on its northern territory. In spite of the efforts of Spanish missionaries to convert the native Diegueno (Kumeyaay) people of San Diego to Christianity after 1769 and of the presidial forces to subdue them, large segments of the Kumeyaay population resented the European intrusion.

In the more than two centuries since that early morning violence, academic and popular writers have provided numerous and sometimes bewildering accounts of the insurrection. The most common view holds that a large number of native villagers from throughout San Diego banded together to belatedly resist Spanish intrusion. Historians also agree that Father Luis Jayme and two other Spaniards were slain and that the survivors were forced to withdraw to the uncertain safety of the presidio six miles west.

In spite of our generalized knowledge about the mission sacking, insufficient attention has been given to why the revolt actually occurred, what villages took part in the raid, who led the revolt, and what military and social alliances may have been formed. An ethnohistorical approach to contemporary Spanish documents provides a fuller explanation of these issues and offers an insightful glimpse into California Indian resistance. When viewed from contemporary accounts and weighted with an understanding of Kumeyaay culture, the revolt can be seen as a reasoned reaction to the danger posed by the Spaniards. As defined by Trigger in his analysis of approaches to Native American responses to European contact, viewing the revolt as reasonable is a rationalistic stance as compared the more standard "romantic" stance that fails to understand the insurrection in a truly cultural context.

Given over six years of tension between the struggling Spanish settlers and the native people in San Diego, it is hardly surprising that the 1775 insurrection occurred. The first two years of contact passed uneventfully, marked by no baptisms and several minor skirmishes including native attempts in August 1769 to pillage a ship anchored offshore and an attack on the sick camp near San Diego Bay. That attack resulted in the death of Father Junipero Serra's Indian servant from Baja California. In spite of these hostilities, trade was apparently reciprocal, if slow-paced, given the paucity of Spanish supplies. If the native peoples were aware of the lasting threat posed by the newcomers, they did not initially exhibit obvious fear or outward resentment. Historical events on both sides of the presidio garrison walls soon changed all of that.

Beginning in 1771 the Spanish priests, Luis Jayme and Vicente Fuster intensified their conversion efforts and pushed farther into the interior of San Diego. Previously unaffected native band leaders apparently became increasingly alarmed as the missionaries and soldiers made forays from their little adobe and thatch fortress that sat on what is now Presidio Hill. Relocation of the mission in August 1774, six miles east of the presidio complex to the present site of Mission San Diego de Alcala, and closer to major rancherias, no doubt raised native anxiety.

Religious Rationale for the Revolt

With less than one hundred converted neophytes by the end of 1774, Father Luis Jayme and Vicente Fuster began a concerted effort at winning converts during the summer and fall of 1775. Between July and late September almost four hundred natives were baptized including native leaders (kwaipai) at relatively remote villages. Several historians have made a strong case for the rapid increase in baptisms, and thus of forced contact, as a primary cause of the revolt. Certainly local Indian people in general, and religious leaders in particular, increasingly felt the threatening presence of the European intruders as summer turned to fall...

Secular Reasons for the Revolt

Sheer numbers of baptisms that weakened shamanistic power or raised the hackles of native jealousy were not the only source of growing friction between the two cultures. Father Jayme reported rapes of Indian women at the rancherias of El Corral (Tapin) in the San Luis Valley region of present-day El Cajon and at Rinconada (Jamo) on the coast near present-day Pacific Beach. In at least one case, the rapist murdered his victim. Jayme also wrote to his superiors that "lazy and indolent" soldiers grazed cattle upon native fields and grasslands (assumedly in the San Luis Valley) prompting cattle thefts and armed skirmishes. Other threats to native food supplies came from outright theft of supplies and from barters turned sour. Perhaps more compelling, one informant reported that one underlying motive for the sacking was fear that villagers would be seized and made to work in the mission fields...

The Role of Disease in the Revolt

... The degree to which the introduction and spread of diseases played a role in the insurrection is uncertain. Reff, in his analysis of revolts in New Spain, has argued that the Tepehuan and Pueblo revolts of the seventeenth century were "millenarian movements that stemmed in part from disease-induced population collapse." In all probability, the San Diego Mission revolt did not receive quite the stimulation from a rapidly declining population as did the Tepehuan and Pueblo insurrections. While disease and fears of contagion may not have been a primary causal effect of the mission revolt, when coupled with the resistance to conversion, they formed a potent witches brew. The revolt can be seen as an attempt to both stem the tide of mission religious influence and to stop the concomitant spread of disease.

The Revolt

The fires of revolt were smoldering in the summer of 1775. Reportedly, native runners carried word of the pending insurrection far afield. According to Father Francisco Garces, who was with the Anza exploration party in the eastern deserts, the Colorado River tribes were aware of the brewing revolt and had been invited by the locals to join -- an offer they refused. Ironically, Garces, who would die six years later at the hands of desert Indians, boasted that the eastern Indians refused to join the revolt because of their loyalty to him.18 As the San Diego priests persisted in their unwanted conversions, October came and went amid a heightened air of tenseness and a flurry of native restlessness.

When the attack came shortly after midnight on November 5, 1775, the Spaniards were ill-prepared. Eleven men represented the entire force at the mission itself and a similar number of soldiers constituted the garrison at the presidio six miles to the west. While the presidio guards apparently dozed through the early morning hours, warriors from at least fifteen villages attacked the thatched and brush mission.

Within a matter of minutes Father Jayme was pierced with stone arrow tips and beaten to death. Jose Arroyo, a blacksmith, was slain and Urselino, the carpenter, also met his death. The survivors fought off the attackers amid flashing muskets and terrified confusion. Fearing reprisals and counterattacks from the soldiers at the nearby presidio, the aggressors did not press their advantage and instead fled into the interior. The impoverished mission yielded a scanty booty; religious icons, clothing and trinkets...

The Insurrectionists

Ortega's investigation revealed that at least fifteen villages including the so-called Christian villages of San Luis, Matamo, Jamacha, Meti, La Punta, Janat, Abusquel, and Mactate took part in the revolt as well as the gentile villages of Chiap, Melejo, Utay, Cojuat, Tapin and Cullamac. Leaders of the insurrection were identified as Oroche of Macate, Francisco of Cullamac, Rafael of Janat, and Ysquitil of Abusquel. Perhaps indicating the degree to which the revolt was partially fueled by spiritual concerns, three of the four leaders came from villages considered to be Christian.

Aftermath of the Revolt

The historical implication of the insurrection is that it was a major, but not fatal, set back for the struggling mission. Following their hasty retreat to the presidio in November 1775, it would be more than one and one-half years before Junipero Serra returned to San Diego in the summer of 1777. Serra's goal was to personally rebuild a new mission on the charred adobe ruins in Mission Valley. Ultimately the mission grew, and while it never prospered in the manner of some of the other missions, it did serve as a religious outpost that linked Baja and Alta California. Unlike some of the other missions, San Diego only held a tenuous grip on the native population and then only in the region closest to the church. By no means did all of the Indians in the mission district come under the church's influence nor did Spanish hegemony prevail. The spirit that flared on that November night in 1775 was never extinguished.

The overall effects of the November 1775 revolt can be viewed from several historical and cultural perspectives. For the missionaries the insurrection was clearly the work of the devil rather than of repressed or dissatisfied native people. This response was natural from men fully immersed in a post-medieval epistemology and Christian world view. To Serra, Lasuen, and others, the true enemy on the Spanish colonial frontier was Satan himself. The Franciscans in Alta California perceived the devil's gnarled claws at work everywhere just as their predecessors had after the Pueblo revolt 105 years before.

Given this belief system, the Franciscans were unlikely to seek or sanction revenge against the Kumeyaay. Serra stoically wrote, "...after the missionary [Luis Jayme] has been killed, what can be gained by campaigns." Instead they sought to forgive the insurrectionists and rely upon the power of prayer rather than the might of the sword. In particular, Serra's and Lasuen's efforts to gain a pardon, or at least reduced sentences for the rebels stand out.

By contrast, Lt. Ortega and Captain Rivera took a decidedly more secular militaristic approach. To these men, the Kumeyaay were killers, thieves, and insurrectionists against the Spanish crown. While perhaps believing the devil may have played some role in the sacking, these professional soldiers saw the culprits as military adversaries and warriors, not misguided souls. Their task, after the sacking, was to ensure the safety of the garrison and of the missionaries without regard for the souls of native insurrectionists. Ultimately, the higher authorities compromised between execution and pardons. More than one year after the insurrection, thirteen alleged leaders remained imprisoned at the presidio jail. Several of these were later exiled, probably to Loreto, Baja California.

In the years immediately following the insurrection, the response on the part of the Kumeyaay varied. Several villages severely limited their interaction with the mission while others entered more fully into the Catholic world. Tensions remained high throughout the late 1770s as rumors of impeding attacks circulated on a regular basis. In August 1776, a Christian Kumeyaay, Joseph Maria told the commandant that the villagers of Meti and La Punta were arming themselves again and planning another attack. Investigation by Sergeant Carrillo found the village of La Punta at the end of San Diego Bay abandoned and he was told by a visiting Kumeyaay that some villagers were in the Sierras making arrows. The reason given for them arming themselves was that they feared the soldiers would come and capture them as they had the brother of La Punta's kwaipai. Nothing more came of the Meti and La Punta incident. Two years later a more volatile situation arose when leaders of the rancheria at Pamo, near present-day Ramona, threatened the presidio and taunted the Spaniards to come into the hills and meet their death. Presidial force made a preemptive strike on Pamo killing several people, burning others to death, and capturing the cabecillas. The mid-to-late 1770s reflected a decade of tension, turmoil and death as the two cultures clashed.


... historical and ethnohistorical approaches to Native American reactions and responses to European colonization can be categorized as a "romantic" school of thought or as a "rationalistic" school. In broad terms, the difference in the two approaches is that the romantic school maintains that each culture responds in ways unique to that culture and in ways that were particularistically proscribed by culture norms. Inherent in this view is that Indians may or may not have responded in a reasonable or rational manner, i.e., the responses are rigidly bound to tradition, mysticism, and deeply imbedded reactive mechanisms. By contrast, the rationalistic approach states that while culture is intrinsically the sieve through which societies filter their actions and reactions, culture is ultimately driven by more or less rational thought and reasoned approaches to a given problem. The rational approach does not deny the cultural relativistic view that has gained such a foothold in anthropological and historical thought, it tempers it by seeing commonalities in human responses. When the Kumeyaay's actions are seen through a rationalistic lens, the sacking of Mission San Diego represents a reasonable and pragmatic solution to the problem of Spanish intrusion.

The Kumeyaay reaction to Spanish colonization and Catholic conversion took many forms but seems to have been based fully in rational thought within the context of their world view. The actions of the insurrectionists were not forged on the hot anvil of ancient strictures or blind belief. Unlike the beliefs of some of the tribes of the Eastern seaboard and the Southeast who were contacted in the early periods of European exploration and colonialism, there is no evidence that the Kumeyaay ascribed supernatural powers to the Spaniards of San Diego. As worldly as the Kumeyaay were, the Spaniards did not represent the resurrection of some lost deity nor were they seen as immortal. In spite of the efforts of the Spaniards to secretly bury their dead, the Kumeyaay took note not only of the deceased, but of the sickly composure of the living. The tired, scurvy ridden sailors and dusty, threadbare men of the overland march from Loreto in 1769 did not engender awe or evoke a mood of spiritualism in the Kumeyaay.

While there is little doubt that initially, at least, the Kumeyaay were impressed by the technology of the intruders and coveted some of the material goods possessed by the Spaniards, the perception seems pragmatically based and not reverential. This is not to say that at least some Kumeyaay, particularly the religious leaders, did not impart mystical powers to the priests or fear the Christian God. The caution and fear exhibited towards the priests and their strange religious practices was rational and reasonable by virtually any standard.

The insurrection reflects the Kumeyaay, or perhaps more correctly largely the Tipai, response to the Spaniards' inappropriate actions. The revolt was not just a military action or a spiritual quest. The sacking was a rational, and calculated reaction to increased conversions, rapes, thefts, transmittal of diseases, and fear of forced imprisonment.

If one perceives the sacking of the mission and the killing of Father Jayme in this light, the insurrection literally makes sense. The mission and its inhabitants were viewed as symbols of evil and dark mysticism inconsistent with (and at odds with) the Kumeyaay spiritual world. While some historians seem bewildered by the Kumeyaay failure to attack the nearby presidio, it seems probable that the presidio, which was weakly garrisoned, was not the target. In this sense, the insurrection was an unqualified success -- Luis Jayme, the evil practitioner of the strange religion was killed, the sacred objects were removed and distributed across the land, and a cleansing fire swept across the dreaded mission grounds.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What does this article tell you about how well the Spanish were prepared for Indian uprisings in 1775? If they were prepared, how and why were they prepared? If not, why do you believe they were not?
  2. What did you learn about the reasons for the Indian uprising at Mission San Diego? Were any of these reasons surprising? Why or why not?
  3. How did the Spanish react to the uprising and what were the reasons they gave for its outbreak?
  4. Which of the 8 course themes listed below are illustrated by your understanding of Indian resistance at the missions?

The full article is available at