The Spanish Empire first came into contact with Native American in Northern California in the 16thcentury – and that contact was to be the primary European contact for centuries. Here, Daniel L. Smith (site here)looks at early encounters between the Spanish and Native Americans – and considers how they impacted later 19thcentury settlers to the area.

You can read Daniel’s past articles on California in the US Civil War (here), Medieval jesters (here), and How American Colonial Law Justified the Settlement of Native American Territories (here).

Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, a 18th century Spanish naval officer who visited Northern California.

Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, a 18th century Spanish naval officer who visited Northern California.

Not So Positive of Encounters

Northern California is a scene of majestic redwood forests, beautiful rocky coastlines, and lush inner-landscapes that can only be imagined today. The land known to us today as Humboldt County, for example, had been home to indigenous peoples for some time prior to the arrival of Europeans.[1]In pristine Humboldt, over a dozen tribes made up the encompassed swath of land from Klamath to the Eel River on the coast, which ranged inland to include Weaverville and Shasta. All tribes of Northern California, like all civilizations, have cultural tendencies that are all based around religion, resources, customs, and family (religion and family – which surprisingly many intellectuals tend to leave out of contemporary texts in terms of historical importance to events).[2]

To understand California’s beginnings is to understand that according to Europe and the rest of the non-indigenous world, California was a Spanish territory.[3]It was in 1587 that Conquistador Pedro de Unamumo was given orders from the Spanish monarchy to explore the coasts of California. At the time, however, the Spanish crown believed that California was its own unique island.[4] Some centuries later, on June 11, 1775, two Spanish Naval conquistadors, Bruno de Heceta and Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, landed on Trinity Head Point where they placed the Catholic cross and immediately his landing party was rained on by native arrows.[5]

Back to Unamumo, who would end up pulling into the area of Morro Bay where he led an armed landing party of 12 men, accompanied by a priest. When attempted contact was made, the landing party was showered on with arrows and spears. Five of the men were wounded – two were killed.[6]It was at this point Spanish officials ordered explorers not to leave the safety of their ships, or cargo. Colonizing Spaniards were in California for economic as well as political and religious purposes; however, it seems that Spanish explorers at the time were there for the Spanish monarchy’s intentions.


Culture Shock

Leaders such as Christopher Columbus or William Bradford are a polarized example to the opposite of the Spanish conquistadors personal intentions at that time. There was a lot of complicated quasi-relationships between the Spanish and the indigenous natives of California. Due to policies implemented by Spanish authorities, the ultimate result of the Spanish Empire would be a general cultural oppressionto the indigenous tribes of California. This oppressionwas the result of the Jesuit Catholic missions, including political officers appointed by Spain and their policies towards the indigenous natives of California.[7]These natives were not asked to convert; they were forced into the Catholic mission system. 

Once on mission grounds, it became a cultural shock to the indigenous people who had the unfortunate chance of being pushed into this system. To get a better inside look at the reality of Spanish California missions is to understand their goals. It was to create temporary institutes to ‘civilize’ the natives by giving them a proper education, as well as providing experience in European skillsets of labor, and knowledge of their political and social customs. The next phase of the process was ‘gente du razon’or – a civilized people of mixed native and Spanish ethnicity. In the end, the Spanish would dissolve the missions after the natives were civilized, allowing the native converts to manage the mission lands. Further, the natives would become tax-paying Spanish citizens.[8]

The Spanish authorities would then secularize (remove the religious purposes of the institute) the lands the mission was on – ultimately forming a “vassaled-in,” but unincorporated part of Spanish-colonial society. The intended Spanish plan for the mission systemwould end up collapsing on itself. When the natives of the missions did not renounce their customs and traditions for strict Catholicism, they were punished with intensity. Anytime a native broke any religious, work, or fleshly rules laid out by the mission, Catholic authorities would administer punishment for even a minor incident. [9]


Just Before The Rush For Gold

Extra manual-labor, less food provisions… or worse: shackled in chains, whipped, and held in prison-like confinement. As time moved forward, the economic policies of the mission would etch out a permanent mark on the landscape of Northern California. This showed the threat of native defiance that would put a “brake” on further Spanish exploration… a certain evidence of substantial native hostility;both during Europeans’ first contact and during the American pioneer-renowned westward expansion. Indeed, the Catholic missions’ economic and religious purposes would serve to negatively affectthe early-settlers of Northern California from the mid-nineteenth century.[10]

Now, some historians would argue that because there was no “official” established Catholic mission in Northern California, that it did not affect the regional native populations. I claim to rebuke that theory with this theory: Native American tribes were notoriously quick to relay important societal events via intertribal communication; such as word of mouth and messages.Indigenous tribes had knowledge of Europeans and knew tribal events east of the Rocky Mountains, as well as in Southern California. 

Prior to the discovery of gold dust by James W. Marshall on January 24, 1848, there was minimum contact between indigenous Northern Californians and peoples of Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, or Caucasian ethnicities.[11]They say first impressions are important; it seems the Spanish Monarchy laid out a poor impression and welcoming mat for the incoming settlers of the mid-1800s of European descent. American settlers pioneering to the West had information on what to prepare for and how to do it – and a lot of them barely had enough money to afford the wagon by itself. Being knowledgeable to surviving what was to inevitably come in their travels was the key to a successful arrival.


What do you think of the author’s arguments? Let us know below.

Finally, Daniel Smith writes at

[1]Ziegler, Herbert, and Jerry Bentley. Bentley, Traditions & Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past, 6th ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2014. p. 34.

[2]Smith, Daniel L. Our America: Our Life & Our Culture. Eureka, CA.: Independent, 2018. p. 48.

[3]Ellison, William H. "Indian Policy in California." 21, no. 1 (Fall ), 2-3.

[4]Sedler, Kathy. "History of Humboldt County, California." Historic Record Co., Los Angeles, 1915. Ch. 5, Para. 1.

[5]Tovell, Freeman M. (2008). At the Far Reaches of Empire: The Life of Juan Francisco De La Bodega Y Quadra. University of British Columbia Press. pp. 22–23. ISBN 978-0-7748-1367-9.

[6]Sedler, K. "History of Humboldt County, California”  Ch. 5, Para. 6.

[7]Ellison, William H. "The Federal Indian Policy in California, 1846-1860." The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 9, no. 1 (1922): p. 33.

[8]Olson-Raymer, Geyle. “The Discovery, Exploration, and Founding of Spanish California.” HSU – Dept. of History. Last modified Dec. 31, 2014. Print – p. 1-2.

[9]Ibid. p. 3.

[10]Hittell, Theodore Henry (1898). History of California; Vol. 3, Book X, Chap XII – Treatment of Indians (cont.)San Francisco, CA: J.N. Stone. Pp. 912-17.

[11]Sedler, K. "History of Humboldt County, California” Ch. 5, Para. 9

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones
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