Comprehensive Picture of Junipero Serra Emerges in New Biography

Book by UC Riverside historian Steven Hackel examines life and legacy of California missions founder

Hackel and painting

Steven W. Hackel’s new biography examines the life and legacy of Junipero Serra. This painting by Ferdinand Deppe, “Mission San Gabriel, c.1832,” is part of the Serra exhibition at the Huntington Library, Art Galleries, and Botanical Gardens.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Pioneer. Religious icon. Colonial imperialist.

Junípero Serra, the Franciscan priest who founded the mission system that led to Spain’s colonization of California and the decimation of the state’s Indian population in the 18th and 19th centuries, defies easy categorization. But it is clear that the saintly image imparted to generations of California schoolchildren is incomplete, according to Serra biographer Steven W. Hackel, associate professor of history at the University of California, Riverside.

Hackel’s new book, “Junípero Serra: California’s Founding Father” (Hill and Wang) — which coincides with the 300th anniversary of Serra’s birth — chronicles the life and legacy of the Franciscan missionary, and depicts an experience of colonization that differs significantly from that of the original 13 colonies.

The biography “surpasses anything ever written about the West Coast’s most potent and controversial ‘founding father,’” according to Yale history professor Jon Butler. Ilan Stavans, editor of “The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature,” called Hackel “a courageous biographer” whose portrait of Serra “doesn’t shy away from controversy: it is as evenhanded as it is humane. It proves, yet again, that this nation wasn’t built only by Puritans; it was also shaped by Spanish conquistadores, explorers, and missionaries whose choices continue to define us in countless ways.”

book jacketHackel’s book is the first to fully examine Serra’s early life in Mallorca, an island off the coast of Spain, and how the Franciscan’s experiences there influenced policies and actions in New Spain that make him a polarizing figure in California history.

“It was important to me to learn much more about his life before he came to California, and to understand who he was when he got here and the effects of his policies on Native peoples, Hackel explained. “He is one of two Californians in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol, and that gives him a certain relevance.”

Serra was well-known as a devout Franciscan, teacher of philosophy and skilled administrator when he arrived in Mexico in 1750. Nineteen years later, at age 55, he founded the first of 21 missions in Alta California.

“It was not an accident that he was sent here,” Hackel said. Influenced by stories of other Franciscan missionaries and their contact with indigenous populations, Serra left Mallorca to work with Indians who had not previously converted to Catholicism.

“He did not find that in Mexico,” Hackel added. “That’s why he wanted to come to California. It was a chance to fulfill his ambition of being a missionary to Indians in the New World.”

When Serra died in 1784, around 6,000 Indians had been baptized at the nine missions established by him or under his auspices. By the time the missions were secularized in the early 1830s, more than 80,000 Indians had been baptized between San Diego and north of San Francisco, but almost 60,000 had been buried, nearly 25,000 of whom were children under the age of 10, Hackel said.

A scholar of California history, Hackel spent much of the last decade translating and examining letters, diaries and other documents to create a more robust picture of Serra. Some of his discoveries were surprising.

For example, extreme poverty on Mallorca coupled with ethnic diversity and a history as a center of learning paint a complicated and sophisticated picture of the island where Serra grew up. The missionary’s experience as an itinerant priest traveling around Mexico ministering to Catholics — not Indians —has been largely unknown as well, as was his work for the Spanish Inquisition in Mexico.

Palou image of Serra

Francisco Palou, “Relacion historica de la vida y apostolicas tareas del venerable padre fray Junipero Serra” Courtesy of the Huntington Library. May not be reproduced without permission.

“Serra looks different if you see him as 55 when he gets to Alta California,” Hackel said. “It’s more understandable why he was a skilled administrator, and why he got so frustrated when he didn’t get his way. In much of his life in Mexico he had been frustrated by soldiers, settlers and Indians who hadn’t taken to Catholicism the way he thought they should. “

Hackel said he was especially surprised to discover the degree to which Serra’s life was “lived in emulation of others.”

“He was the first Franciscan to come to California, but he didn’t innovate in his beliefs or practices. He lived as other Franciscans had lived. He was very influenced by Franciscans who had lived generations before and by the way others had dealt with Indian peoples. He saw them as heroic figures.”

Like other Franciscans, Serra believed that anyone practicing a religion other than Catholicism was to be converted or removed, Hackel noted.

Until World War II, Serra was widely regarded “as a torchbearer of civilization,” he said. That changed after the war with greater interest in California’s Native American past, scholarship on the Indian experience, and Native American scholars questioning the mission experience and its impact on Indians.

“All of these forces peaked when Serra was beatified in 1988 and he began to be regarded as either a saint or a ruthless colonizer who laid waste to California Indian life,” he added.

Hackel takes a more nuanced view and aims to explain how different California’s Spanish colonial history is from that of British colonial history in North America.

“When we talk about American colonial history, it’s not just about John Winthrop and Capt. John Smith,” he said. “California was settled by Spaniards and Mexicans with very different notions of colonization. Serra was not out to invent self-governance. He was out to create Spanish governance in California.”

Hackel is the author of the award-winning “Children of Coyote, Missionaries of Saint Francis: Indian-Spanish Relations in Colonial California, 1769–1850.” He also directs a project in digital history, the Early California Cultural Atlas, and is co-curator of the exhibitJunípero Serra and the Legacies of the California Missions” at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino.

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