How did native people live at Mission San Carlos Borromeo? What languages did they speak? What foods did they eat? How did they dress?
One of the things people often ask about is what life was like on the California missions, especially Indian life. Some of the most important accounts of native life at the California missions come from the Interrogatorio (Questionnaire) that the Spanish Government sent to the priests of the California missions in 1813.
Each mission answered the questions with more or less detail depending on the temperament and experience of the missionaries.
The padres recorded their observations of the life of the native people at the mission and often wrote down what they understood about indigenous customs outside the mission boundaries.
What follows are excerpts from the replies written the Fr. Juan Amorós about Indian life at Mission San Carlos Borromeo. He wrote his replies in February of 1814.
Fr. Amorós served from 1804 to 1819 at San Carlos Borromeo. The translation is from the book As the Padres Saw Them; California Indian Life and Customs as Reported by the Franciscan Missionaries 1813-1815, by Maynard Geiger.
Mission San Carlos Borromeo was founded as the second mission in Alta California by Junípero Serra in 1770. It is located along the Carmel River (Río Carmelo in Spanish) not far from Monterey Bay, about two and a half hours south of San Francisco.
For a general overview of daily life for native people at the California missions, read Indian Life at the California Missions.
Who was living at the mission?
Fr. Amorós refers to seven different native groups within the boundaries of the mission. These were likely village communities, rather than distinct tribes, but it is clear that the native people saw themselves as belonging to one of these seven communities.
“Seven Indian tribes live at this mission. They are the Excelen, the Egeac, Rumsen, Sargenta Rue, Sarconeiios, Guachiron and Calenda Rue. The first two are from the interior and have the same language or speech which is totally different from the other five. The latter also speak the same language…”
In addition to the indigenous people, there would also be a group of several soldiers and their wives living at the mission, as well as artisans or craftsmen, oftentimes from New Spain (what is today Mexico).
What languages did the Indians speak?
Although the padre speaks about seven different Indian groups, they all spoke one of two languages: Rumsen or Excelen (today known as Esselen). Anthropologists today prefer to speak of only two groups, based on the language each group spoke: Rumsen speakers or Esselen speakers.
“These seven tribes speak two languages: the one is Rumsen, the other Excelen. They differ entirely. Here is an example in Rumsen: “Muxina Muguiano jurriguimg igest eyh laguan eje uti maigin.” The same in Excelen is: “Egenoch lalucuimxs talogpami eje salegua lottos, taheyapami laxlachis.” Translated these two sentences mean: ‘Men who are good bowmen are esteemed and well-liked.'”
Not only did the native people of the mission speak their own languages, but they were also conversant in Spanish, thanks to contact with people from the presidio and the local port.
“But while they speak these languages the majority of them sufficiently understand and speak Spanish; the minority, though they can barely speak it, understand it somewhat. They have progressed so much in Spanish because the inhabitants of the presidio live nearby and the port is at hand. Communication with Spaniards is frequent. They play and converse with them; they buy and exchange articles; they sell wood and other small items.”
The natives at Mission San Carlos, according to Fr. Amorós, took care of each other and were attentive to those in need, sharing what they had.
“The moral virtues they practice are charitableness, a readiness to give food to anyone and sympathy to those in distress.”
Illnesses and treatments
One of the most common ways of staying healthy for indigenous people all over the Americas was the use of a temescal or sweat lodge. By causing themselves to sweat heavily, native people believed that they were helping their body to release unhealthy elements and to make them feel reinvigorated.
“The men have the daily custom of entering an underground oven known as the temescal. A fire is built within and when the oven has become sufficiently heated the men enter undressed. They perspire so freely that upon coming out they give the appearance of having bathed. It is our experience that this is very beneficial for them.”
Native women had their own special type of temescal or sauna.
“The women but recently delivered employ other methods of perspiring. They dig a hole in their huts, put wood therein and set fire to it. Many stones, a pound in weight, are put into the fire. When hot, these are covered with green herbs which form a sort of mattress. The woman who was recently delivered lies upon this, together with the baby. The mother sweats freely and the baby is kept warm. This is done for a period of six or seven days and afterwards the women are as vigorous as if they had not given birth.”
Typically three meals a day were administered at the missions. At breakfast there would be a type of corn soup called atole, which is still very popular in Mexico today. At lunch, people would generally eat boiled wheat, corn, peas, beans and vegetables, as well as seasonal fruit. At dinner they would have the same type of meal as at breakfast. Cattle were slaughtered regularly, so mission members also ate a great deal of beef throughout the year.
In addition to the communal meals offered at the mission, Indian life at Mission San Carlos meant that families would eat in their own homes. They would often go hunting or fishing or gather their traditional foods.
“As pagans they ate whenever they desired; now as Christians they are given three meals: in the morning, and at night, atole which is wheat or barley toasted and ground, dissolved in water and boiled; at noon their meal consists of peas, avas, beans, etc. However, they are free to eat in their huts and so they eat day and night…all living things except frogs, toads and owls which are the only animals they are afraid of.”
The indigenous people of the Monterey Peninsula were known to be excellent hunters, and would do so whenever they got the chance.
“They are adept in the use of the bow and arrow… In the event that one of these natives slays a bear, lion or other wild beast the hunter extracts a claw or tooth and suspends it about his neck in token of an heroic feat and bravery and thereafter he is respected.”
One Spanish ship’s captain who visited Monterey in the 1790s observed Indians from the Mission San Carlos Borromeo hunting deer. According to him, the men kept “the skins of some heads of these animals with their horns and part of the neck, and skinned with much care. Next, they fill these with dry grass, trying to conserve the shape that they had when they were attached to the head. On going out to hunt, they fit these caps over their heads.” They would then wait, moving their heads from time to time, in order to attract the deer. As the deer would approach, the men would be able to shoot them with their arrows from a close range.
Indians living at the California missions would be taught to sing hymns and chants associated with the Catholic Mass or other ceremonies. But as you can see from this statement by Fr. Amorós, they also preserved their own traditional instruments made from natural objects.
“Musical instruments…consist of a hollow tube from the elder tree. This tube is a copy of the dulcet flute but the imitation is not a very successful one. They also use a split stick like a distaff. It is used to beat time for their chants which have the same time either joyous or sad”
In most California Indian communities, it was not customary to wear much clothing. Women often wore skirts made of animal skins or plant fibers woven together. Men generally went about completely naked, except when they dressed up for ceremonial dances or other special occasions. Indians had to adjust to the idea of wearing clothing at the missions.
“For the present, clothing of the following description is procured: for the men a blanket, a garment of wool called a cotón or shirt and sendal or breech cloth commonly called taparrabo; for the women a blanket, a woolen chemise and woolen skirt.”
At Mission San Carlos, members of the native community used wool from lambs to make the material for the clothes they wore.
“Among the mission property are lambs not yet a year old from which sufficient wool is sheared. This the Indians themselves spin and weave and a suit of clothes is given them each year.”
These are only a few of the answers about Indian life at Mission San Carlos Borromeo, but they give us a basic idea about some important aspects of life on a mission.
The best way to visualize mission life is as a working farm or ranch. It was a life harder than what most of us are used to, but not an unusual one for the time.