Prior to the mid-1800's, European settlers in what is now the southwestern region of the United States were primarily Spanish. The Spaniards instituted the mission system in the region, ostensibly to convert the Indian population to Catholicism. In reality, what the native Indians amounted to in the mines and fields of Spanish America was a captive labor force. Along the west coast of North America, agricultural settlements were created in an attempt to develop and exploit Spain's colonial holdings in the region. These settlements became missions in the hope that the Indians would provide the labor to develop the coastal settlements into thriving trade centers for the Spanish (1). Disease, political pressure, minerals and changes in the balance of world power would combine to change the California landscape forever.


Whenever European colonialism and its impact on native populations is considered, it must be remembered that the decimation caused by European diseases was as deadly a weapon of conquest as were the gun and cannon. During the 200 years of Spanish ascendancy on the North American continent alone, millions of Indians died from exposure to exotic diseases brought by Europeans. Between the years 1500 and 1800, hundreds of thousands of Europeans came across the Atlantic into North and South America and around the tip of Africa into the Far East. Wherever they went, they spread European diseases to the populations that they encountered. Because crowded life in cities had been such a predominant factor in European history before this time, many viruses and bacteria that caused disease had been well established in European life. Immunities to these diseases had evolved over time and sicknesses such as chicken pox and measles, while dangerous, were not generally considered dread diseases and plagues. However when introduced into a previously unexposed population, these diseases and a host of others wreaked havoc on populations all over the world. This is why the distinction should always be made of whether one is speaking "pre-contact or post-contact" with Europeans.

A graphic representation of this decimation within the Anza-Borrego region comes from Vallecito station, originally known to the Indians as the village of Hawi. A priest took an informal census of the village on the south of the mesquite forest at Vallecito in 1860, almost one hundred years after de Anza's first contact with the region. He counted about 100 individuals. Twenty years later there were 30 Indians left. By 1900, only one old man at Vallecito said he had been born at Hawi (2). Of course, this example takes place very late in the era of colonization, and it is not stated what percent of the population actually died of European disease, nor does it take into account the population statistics for the village between 1760 and 1860, nor does it even mention those who moved to other locations. However, this virtual extinction in 40 years of an entire village, with roughly a thousand year history of pre-contact habitation, is representative of the rapidity with which native populations were decimated simply by contact with Europeans.

Spain's conquest of North America had its beginnings with Columbus in 1492. By 1768, Spain had controlled the western coast of North America for 200 years. The land was rich and fertile, and had access to the open ocean with a few natural harbors such as San Diego and San Francisco Bays. However, by 1768 Russians, British and other Europeans were developing trade routes along the west coast, and this activity threatened Spain's stronghold on the region.


The third Bourbon King of Spain, Charles III, dreamed of a coastline of Spanish harbors along the Pacific coast of California (3). . He knew thatin order to accomplish this that farms and other developments would be needed for the production of the essentials of civilization. Charles had these agricultural outposts built approximately a days' ride apart along the coast. In this manner, goods and information could be traded easily between settlements, which in turn would facilitate growth of the colony in general.

There was one fatal flaw in Charles' dream, however. In the entire vast region that Spain controlled, there were only a few thousand Spaniards, and most of them were in lower, "Baja" California and Mexico. By converting these agricultural outposts into missions where Indian natives could be taught Christianity and European culture, it was hoped that the labor shortage might be solved, as well.

Unfortunately for the Indians, this was not entirely the case. After initial, not altogether friendly contact with the friars, Indians reluctantly moved onto mission lands only to find that their labor there was neither voluntary nor easy. In addition to virtual enslavement, because of their polytheistic religion, dark skin and foreign cultural habits, the Indians were viewed as "heathens" or worse by the Spanish. This led to marginalization and oppression that resulted in a miserable way of life for the mission Indians (4).


The first of these missions in California was Mission San Diego de Alcala. It was founded in 1769 during an expedition led by Gaspar de Portola, who was accompanied by Franciscan Father Junipero Serra. After 30 years the mission system included 21 churches and many self-contained communities, all built and economically powered by the forced labor of the California Indians (5). Originally, the friars had thought that the Indians would labor voluntarily at the missions. Due to the oppressive conditions, however, this was not the case. The Spanish military, garrisoned at the various presidios near the missions, was enlisted by the Franciscans to ensure the confinement of the Indians to the mission lands and to pursue those that escaped .

Many stories are told of these pursuits, and there is one in particular with a local, San Diego County twist. Kumeyaay Indians near the present community of Alpine heard that Spanish troops were coming to conscript labor from the tribe. Young adults of the tribe hid in the rough backcountry around Guatay Peak and the surrounding Pine Valley area. The soldiers were unable to find anyone in the village except for some old women, and from then on that particular band of the Kumeyaay tribe has been called "Viejas", which means "old women" in Spanish (6).

In the Anza-Borrego region, far removed from the coastal mission settlements, events took a decidedly more militaristic, and violent, turn. After the friars and Spanish soldiers established the mission and presidio at San Diego in 1769, the region under Spanish control in the southwest began to expand at a faster rate. A small mission and presidio were also built at Yuma on the Colorado River, and the Spanish tried to establish a regular trail from San Diego through the Anza-Borrego region via Yuma to Sonora. The Yuma Indians had originally been somewhat receptive to the visits of Spanish military forces led by Lt. Juan Bautista de Anza during the winter of 1774-75. This enthusiasm soon faded, however, and the Yuma tribe became one of the most vicious opponents to Spanish incursion in the region. In 1781, when arrogant soldiers released their horses in the Indian's fields, the Yumas revolted and killed all the priests, soldiers and male settlers and took captive all the women and children. Later that year, Lt. Pedro Fages, who later became governor of Alta California, succeeded in rescuing the women and children and recovered the bodies of the slain priests.

It was noted at the time of the Yuma rescue expedition that Fages seemed to already know the trail over the Cuyamaca Mountains and through Oriflamme Canyon. Interestingly, several years before this incident in 1772, Lt. Fages had led a column of troops on the trail of deserters from the Presidio in San Diego, across the coastal ranges and into the Anza-Borrego region and from there north all the way to what is now San Francisco. Because of this turn of events, we are left with the legend that perhaps the first Europeans ever to cross the mountains from San Diego into the Anza-Borrego region were in fact those deserters from the San Diego Presidio, with Pedro Fages in hot pursuit. Of course, the first European through the general area was Juan Bautista de Anza and his expedition from Sonora, which crossed through the region from Yuma on the way to found the settlement of Yerba Buena on the coast. This settlement would later be named San Francisco. The Anza-Borrego Desert is named in part for this explorer.


  1. Library of Congress' web site on American Memory, California as I Saw It exhibit. Includes the full text of hundreds of historic documents relating to the history not only of California, but of the United States, as well.
  2. Photo of Cahuilla Woman courtesy of The Curtis Collection.
  3. Tamplain, Pamela. Master's Thesis
  4. A history of Spain from a Catholic perspective. Inclusive information on pre-Islamic, Islamic and Spanish history after the Reconquista.
  5. Spanish Map of California from; Wright, Ralph, B. Ed. California's Missions . Pub by Hubert A. Lowman. Arroyo Grande, CA, 1992. The California Mission Site. 24 Sept. 1998. <>.
  6. Camp Internet, Mission Era. Good resource on history not only of Channel Islands but coastal central and southern California as well. See also: Camp Internet, California Ranchos, for information on the missions during the Rancho era. For information on life in general during the rancho period, see: Camp Internet, Life on California Ranchos. Sadly, Camp Internet is no longer a free site; a fee is now charged for membership and classes. Information can be found here.
  7. Camp Internet also has an informative animated map showing the location and founding dates of the missions in Alta California.
  8. Christman, Ronald. Oral Historian, Viejas band of Kumeyaay Indians; Personal communication, Sept. 1999.
  9. For further information on early California, this is a highly recommendable site: The History of how California Became a State.