Mount Diablo and Runaway Indians

Mount Diablo is a 3,849 foot tall mountain in the East San Francisco Bay Area. According to the Mount Diablo Interpretive Association, the name comes from a successful act of resistance by “runaway” mission Indians:

The reference to “diablo” or “devil”, can be traced back to 1804 or 1805, when a Spanish military expedition visited the area in search of runaway mission Indians. At a willow thicket near present-day Buchanan Field, the soldiers encountered a Village of Chupcan people and surrounded it. But night came, and evidently all the Indians escaped, unseen. Angry and confused, the Spanish called the site “Monte del Diablo”, or “Thicket of the Devil”.

Later, English-speaking newcomers mistakenly assumed the word “monte” to mean “mountain”, and applied the title to this prominent east bay peak. A linguistic accident thus gave California its Devil Mountain.

The Mount Diablo Interpretive Association also lists several earlier names for the mountain:

Although we know this place as Mt. Diablo today, the mountain has had many Indian names. They include: Tuyshtak (Ohlone/Costanoan), ‘Oj-ompil-e (Northern Miwok), Supemenenu (Southern Miwok), and Sukku Jaman (Nisenan).

An early Spanish name for the peak was “Cerro Alto de los Bolbones”, or “High Point of the Volvon Indians”. At one time, most of the mountain lay within the homeland of the Volvon, a Bay Miwok group.

The label “runaway” refers to the fact that once a native was baptized at a mission, they were not allowed to leave. In “Indian Labor at the California Missions: Slavery or Salvation?” Robert Archibald wrote:

Before baptism, neophytes were warned that once they had become Christians their lives would be restricted to the mission compound. […] Absence, equated with apostasy, was punished swiftly and certainly. Either soldiers from the escolta, or mission guard, or soldiers from a presidial company were assigned the task of tracking and capturing runaways. The result was a whipping administered by a soldier or mission Indian, sometimes to the point of death.

A large number of natives ran away from the missions despite these risks:

Desertion was not an occasional occurrence but rather a persistent problem. Records enumerating apostates were not kept. Consequently only an approximation can be arrived at by comparing population increase with the difference between baptisms and deaths for a stated period. The result is a figure varying somewhere between 5 and 10 percent. This number includes only those fugitives who were able to successfully elude constant pursuit. A much greater percentage made aborted attempts at escape.

Absent Indians were hunted down by other mission Indians, soldiers, or a combination of both. Escapees in concert with non-mission natives frequently made violent and sometimes successful resistance to recapture. Truancy became so common that it was customary to send presidial soldiers after the fugitives at stated intervals and round up as many as possible at one time to be sent back to their respective missions. Disaster was sometimes the result of these expeditions.

The Walk for the Ancestors report “They tell on themselves: Stories of runaways and soldiers at Mission San Miguel” shares more stories of repression and resistance.

For example, “In 1798, Father Antonio De la Concepcion Horra, one of the first padres assigned to San Miguel, authored a letter to the viceroy [ruler of New Spain] reporting on the conditions of the California missions,” in which he wrote:

I would like to inform you of the many abuses that are commonplace…The manner in which the Indians are treated is by far more cruel than anything I have ever read about. For any reason, however insignificant it may be, they are severely and cruelly whipped, placed in shackles, or put in stocks for days on end without even a drop of water. (Quoted in Converting California: Indians and Franciscans in the Missions by James A. Sandos, pg. 272)

Fermín Lasuén, Junipero Serra’s successor as head of the California mission system, protested a proposal to withdraw Spanish soldiers from Alta California in 1797 on the grounds that soldiers were required to keep converts from running away:

The majority of our neophytes have not acquired much love for our way of life; and they see and meet their pagan relatives in the forest, fat and robust and enjoying complete liberty. They will go with them, then, when they no longer have any fear and respect for the force, such as it is, which restrains them. (Quoted in American Colonies by Alan Taylor, pg. 463)

And with the destruction of their original home villages by disease and conversion and raids by Spanish soldiers, many runaways formed new communities:

“Like runaway slaves in the American South, many struck out for distant parts, then congregated in remote areas, and formed large fugitive communities. By the end of the mission era, hundreds of runaway neophytes from Santa Barbara, San Miguel, and San Luis Obispo missions had accumulated in a swampy area of the southern San Joaquin Valley, near what later became known as Buena Vista Lake. According to Padre Mariano Payeras, they reverted to their pagan state and fought off soldiers sent to fetch them back, forming what Payeras described as “a republic of hell and a diabolical union of apostates.” (Beasts of the Field: A Narrative History of California Farmworkers, 1769-1913 by Richard Street, pg. 70)

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