In the 1830’s, a young man named Pablo Tac wrote about his experiences growing up at Mission San Luis Rey. It is one of the only firsthand accounts written by a Native American who lived at a mission.
Who Was Pablo Tac?
Pablo Tac was a young Luiseño Indian man born at Mission San Luis Rey in 1822. His mother and father were native people who had converted to Christianity before Pablo was born, so Pablo’s entire life had been spent on the mission. In 1832 he and another young man from the same mission, Agapito Amamix, began a long voyage to Europe. Their goal was to enter the seminary and become priests in the Catholic Church. They first made their way to Mexico City with Fr. Antonio Peyri, a Franciscan priest who had overseen Mission San Luis Rey for more than 30 years.
In his text, Pablo talks about “the Fernandino padre,” the Franciscan missionary priest in charge of the mission. The priest he is speaking about is probably Fr. Peyri, who was immensely popular among the native people of San Luis Rey, and who left an enormous mark on that mission and its surrounding area. To this day, Pablo, Agapito and Fr. Peyri are commemorated at both San Luis Rey and at Mission San Antonio de Pala, which started as an asistencia of San Luis Rey.
After spending almost two years in Mexico City, they traveled to Rome. While in Rome, Pablo wrote and dictated a number of documents about life and customs of his people, the Quechnajuichom (also known as the Sanluiseños or Luiseños), whose home territory was north of what is today San Diego. He recounted stories about life before the coming of the Spanish, as well as the ordinary goings on of the mission. He also wrote down a grammar of the Luiseño language, the first such grammar written by an indigenous person.
Sadly, Pablo died at a young age, most likely as a result of an epidemic that hit Rome in 1841. His writings are extremely valuable, because of the glimpse they give us into the early days at the missions from the perspective of a native person. If Pablo had lived longer, who knows what else he might have written?
California Mission Life Firsthand
Pablo Tac’s narration is one of the very few accounts of life at a mission written or dictated by a native person who grew up there. As you will notice, he talks about how mission life is organized according to the Hispanic patterns of he time, with officials like alcaldes, while preserve certain native customs like hunting. Pablo’s account is full of humor and personal touches, offering us insights into daily life, such as the smoke that easily fills a house at lunchtime if the door is shut!
Daily Life at Mission San Luis Rey
In the brief excerpt below, Pablo talks about the different people who live at the mission, their tasks, and the food grown and harvested there. He also describes a day in the life of a Luiseño family like his own, including the taking of the midday meal together. Pablo also gives us a depiction of an elderly Luiseño man who goes out to hunt rabbits for his family. In this way, Pablo shows us how converted Indian people adapted to their new lifestyle by supplementing mission-grown foods with their traditional hunting and gathering techniques.
The passages below are translated from the version of Pablo’s account published by José de Onis in 1959 in Las misiones españolas en los Estados Unidos (The Spanish Missions in the United States). Onis’ book included an English version of Pablo’s account translated by Minna and Gordon Hewes. Though Onis’ book is out of print, a large portion of the Hewes translation can be found in Lands of Promise and Despair, edited by Rose Marie Beebe and Robert Senkewicz. My translation below differs slightly from the Hewes version, and I have also re-formatted it to improve readability.
Excerpt from Pablo Tac’s Account
The Franciscans Come to Our Country
“The Franciscan padres I speak about here are called ‘Fernandinos’ in Mexico, because the college or residence where they live is called the Convent of San Fernando Rey de España [St. Ferdinand, King of Spain]. These padres came to Alta California, and one of them came to our country, which we call Quechla. That is why we call ourselves quechnajuichom, which means those who live in Quechla, when we are at peace. Because there was always war, always strife day and night, with those who speak another language. It seems that our enemies were those that are now called Dieguiños by the Spanish, and quichamcauichom by us. This means ‘the Southerners.’ ”
Quechla: The Most Important Luiseño Village
“We have said that Quechla was the most important of the villages since this was the first place of the Fernandino padre, and the mission itself. Around it there are located the other outposts and ranches of the mission San Luis Rey de Francia. To the east there is Rancho San Marcos, the country called Pala, and the other ranch. Toward the north there is Temeco, Usva and a ranch.”
Who Lives at Mission San Luis Rey
“At Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, the Fernandino padre is like a king, with his pages, alcaldes, foremen, musicians, soldiers, orchards, ranches, livestock, horses in the thousands, cows and bulls in the thousands, oxen, mules, donkeys, 12,000 lambs, 200 goats, etc. There are pages for himself and for travelers: Spanish and Mexican, English and Americans. There are alcaldes to help him govern all the people of Mission San Luis Rey de Francia. There are foremen in the far away villages, almost all of them Spanish. There are mission musicians for festival days, and all the Sundays and feasts of the year. With them are the cantors, all neophyte Indians. There are soldiers, so that no one harms either Spanish or Indian, and there are ten for all, and they are on horseback.”
Gardens and Food
“There are five gardens for everyone and they are very large. The Fernandino padre drinks very little, and since they make wine from the gardens, and he knows the habits of the neophytes very well, he does not want to give them any wine, but sells it to the English or the Anglo-Americans, not for money, but for clothes for the neophytes, linens for the church, hats, rifles, plates, coffee, tea, sugar and other things. The harvest of the mission is tallow, feed, leather, suede, bear skins, red wine, white wine, brandy, olive oil, corn, wheat, beans and also bull horns that the English take by the thousands to Boston.”
What We Do Every Day
“When the sun rises and the stars and the moon set, the old man of the house awakens everyone and begins for breakfast, which is eating warmed up juiuis, and meat and tortillas, since we have no bread. Once this is done, he takes up his bow and arrows and leaves the house with his valiant and light steps (that is, if he is going to hunt) and goes to far away forests, full of bears, rabbits and deer, and thousands of birds. He will stay there all day, killing as many as he can, following them, hiding himself behind trees and climbing them, and afterward, he returns home happy, loaded down with rabbits.
But when wood is scarce, he then leaves home with his rope around his shoulders and his axe with companions, who can help him. When his load is full and it is late in the afternoon, he comes home. His old lady, waiting at home, makes the food.”
Jobs at Mission San Luis Rey
“If his son is old enough, he works with the men. His daughter stays with the women making shirts. And if they have sons and daughters, they stay at the mission, the sons in school learning the alphabet, and if they already know it, learning the catechism, and if they know that, in the choir with the cantors, and if he has been a cantor, to work, since all of the musician cantors, on the work day work, and on Sundays sing in the choir, but without a book, because the choirmaster teaches them to memorize everything, since he has the book. The daughter joins the single women, who all spin in order to make blankets for the Sanluiseños and the tunic of the Fernandino padre.”
“As the alcaldes pass through the villages, each one cries out what the missionary has told them, in his own language, and the whole village listens to him. ‘Tomorrow we will start sowing seeds. The workers are to gather at the chicken yard.’ He repeats these same words in every village until he arrives at his own and has something to eat and drink and goes to bed. In the morning you will see the workers head to the chicken yard and gather there, as they heard the night before.
Along with the workers goes a Spanish foreman and other neophyte alcaldes to see how people are working. If they are lazy, they urge them to finish what they have been told to do, and punish the guilty or lazy one who leaves his plow in the field and keeps on in his laziness. Work goes on the whole day, but not always. At twelve people stop working and they are brought ‘posole’ (that is what the Spanish from California call corn cooked in hot water). They eat it with zest and they are full until the afternoon, when they return to their villages. The cobblers work making saddles, saddle pads, reins, and shoes for the neophyte cowboys, foremen and Spanish soldiers. And when they finish, they bring them to the missionary to give to the cowboys. The blacksmiths make bits, locks, metal plates and nails for the church, and everyone works for everyone else.”
“At twelve everyone eats together, and they leave the old man his portion, with their clay cups, their well-woven grass baskets that let no water leak out unless it is held up to the face of the sun, their clay pans, their wood grills made for that day, and their water buckets, also made of clay. Seated around the fire they speak and eat — but too bad if they shut the door at that moment. If that happens, the smoke rises up, and since there is a lot of it, and the opening that serves as a window is also small, the smoke comes down, trying to escape through the door, and gathers in the middle of the house. Then they eat as they speak, and laugh and cry without wanting to.
After the meal is over, they return to their jobs. The father leaves his son, the son leaves his sister, the sister leaves her brother, the brother leaves his mother, the mother leaves her husband, cheerfully, until the afternoon. Before going to bed, they eat what the old man and the old woman have made during that time, and then go to sleep.”
Translation by Damian Bacich
Books About Pablo Tac
Though Pablo Tac is a fascinating figure, there is not much written about him. If you would like to know more, below are some of the more recent books that provide useful information about Pablo’s life and legacy.
Lands of Promise and Despair: Chronicles of Early California, 1535-1846.
This book contains the most of Pablo Tac’s account in English, along with a whole host of essential readings from California’s early history.
Meet Pablo Tac: Indian from the Far Shores of California. The story of Pablo Tac written especially for young people. It includes details about life at Mission San Luis Rey, as well as what it must have been like for Pablo to live at the seminary in Rome.
Pablo Tac, Indigenous Scholar: Writing on Luiseño Language and Colonial History, c.1840. This is the most up-to-date scholarly study of the life and work of Pablo Tac and his legacy.
David Rickman says
Fascinating, Damian. I would love to see this account in Spanish, especially where he describes material culture artifacts. For example, what was the Spanish word that is translated here as “saddle pads,” for example. Did he mean the saddle blanket (unlikely), or the “bastos” that attached to the bottom of the fuste (saddle tree), or was it perhaps some other word, such as “mochila” or “cojinillos.” All are very different from one another. As we’ve discussed, this is the frustrating part of seeing translations without the original alongside. Thanks, and best regards.
Dina Fernandez says
Thank you for sharing this fascinating and invaluable account of early California mission life. I’ve wondered why native peoples were fist attracted to joining the missions and adopting a new culture. It appears from Pablo’s description that refuge from their traditional enemies might be one motivation. I’ve read that later, after the introduction of livestock and crops had impacted their hunting and gathering grounds, they may have participated for lack of resources to sustain themselves. It’s interesting to learn, as you mentioned, of their adaptation to this new way of life as the “old man” continued to hunt with bow and arrows to supplement food from the garden.
Damian Bacich says
Yes, Pablo’s account is fascinating, and almost seems to open up more questions than it answers.
Fernando R Zazueta says
Damian: Fascinating that an Indian left us a record of what Mission life was like. What a shame he died at a young age. Thanks.
Damian Bacich says
It is a real shame, Fernando. Who knows what other writings Pablo Tac would have left us had he lived longer?