CALIFORNIA’S GABRIELINOS, by Bernice Johnston, 1962

“…The cluster of huts which stood between the orchards of Juan Domingo and one Sanchez bore no relation to the original Yangna. Where that had spread from hill to river now lay Los Angeles, officially since 1835 a ‘ciudad,’ or city, but still caled the Pueblo, the town. The segregated district to which the Indians of the community were moved in 1836 lay near the southeast corner of the present Commercial and Alameda Streets and was called by the townfolk the ‘Rancheria of the Poblanos.’

Some of the inhabitants of the ramshackle ‘jacales’ of the rancheria may have been descendants of the original Yavitam, but for the most part they were of a polyglot origin. With the secularization of the Missions a great shift of population had occurred. Gabrielinos scattered in every direction, mostly to the north, and Indians from San Diego and San Luis Rey moved into Los Angeles. Only the whispered tales of his elders would have told a child of the Missions which village had been the home of his ancestors or where it had stood, and now the bewildered and uprooted folk wandered about with little sense of tribal or village origins. The next generation would find their surviving descendants absorbed into other tribes or other racial strains, their own identities for the most part quite lost.

The ragged folk from the rancheria continued to recieve pittances for menial tasks. Labor in the vineyards was often paid in the form of ‘aguardiente,’ and those who possessed a few coins found every other door in the back streets of the Pueblo open to them as an informal ‘cantina’ where this potent grape brandy could be purchased.

Quite regularly of a Saturday night many of the aborigines who lived in the rancheria, or who could reach it from the countryside, roamed the streets of the Pueblo in some stage of intoxication. It became necessary to round them up and confine them in a sort of open corral, from which on Monday morning they were released to return to their employment. All who were clearly vagrant found themselves working out fines, making repairs on the Pueblo church by the plaza or mending breaks in the ‘zanja madre,’ the ‘mother ditch,’ which brought water from the river for domestic needs of the citizens and for irrigation of fields and vineyards.

More and more the ‘rancheria of the poblanos’ became a source of worry and irritation to the Pueblo. The Indians were, as the Council admitted, ‘accustomed to bathe for their health,’ and they saw nothing wrong in a cleansing plunge in the ‘zanja madre.’ An edict was sent out forbidding this, and bathing in the river as well, unless the place chosen was well below the intake of the ditch. This seems reasonable to the 20th Century mind but it smacked a bit of discrimintation on the part of those townsmen who were wont to divert the water around behind their own willow fences for domestic use before allowing it to proceed to homes and fields below.

Juan Domingo, that Johann Groningen who had acquired a wife from among the ‘gente de razon,’ a Mexican name and a fine vineyard, thought the time had come to annex a bit of land from the rancheria. The fence he built while carrying out this impulse was ordered torn down and he was fined; but in 1845 sentiment for eviction of the Indians had reached the point at which he was able to buy the site of the rancheria for 200 dollars. This, by coicidence, was the sum which Governor Pio Pico needed to defray the expenses of a trip north.

The new rancheria lay on the heights across the river. This place rejoiced in the title of ‘Pueblito’ and had a short and hectic career of only two years before it was leveled to the ground. During its heyday the American period began and Pueblito held a lethal fascination for the United States soldiers of the garrison left in Los Angeles when Commodore Stockton went on to Monterey. Even after the Indian village was declared out-of-bounds it remained a sore sot, and its bad reputation could only be erased by its complete annihilation.

‘From then on employers of Indian servants were to be responsible for their shelter and care,’ wrote Robinson. ‘Cooks and house-servants could run errands but had to keep off the streets after vespers. Self-employed Indians were to stay outside the city limits and in widely separated localities. Unemployed Indians were to be assigned to public works or to jail. The sum of $24 was collected to compensate Indians forced to move their huts from Pueblito.’

Keeping to themselves, quiet and aloof, were a few families of islanders the Pipimares, who lived in four huts to the south of the rancheria. Pressure was brought to have them join the other Indians in Pueblito or to have their employers offer housing. The record is silent as to what became of them and this would seem to be the last time they are mentioned as a living people. The great artisans and fishermen of the Channel Islands, the religious innovators for whome the mainlanders had felt such veneration, thus disappeared in a lasting silence.

The Mexican Californians had no active dislike of Indians. Though they delat with them in no spirit of equality, kept them segregated in dwellings, church services and burial places, and dealt out heavy punishments for comparatively slight offenses, they professed an indulgent regard for them as patient servants and amiable, if erring, children. Some of the North American settlers adopted this attitude, as they did many of the attitudes and customs of the ‘Paisanos’ among whom they settled in those early days of the American period, but others never looked at a California Indian with any other feeling than contempt.

The typical pioneer had fought his way across the continent, as S. F. Cook points out, ‘in bloody wars with strong, determined red-skins.’ The California tribes, as seen in the northern mining country, shy, wild seed-gatherers, comparitively peaceful, appeared to these vigorous newcomers as utterly deficient in any quality which could command respect.

In the south this opinion was confirmed. In the hungry, ill and often drunken Indians roaming the streets of the Pueblo of Los Angeles no one bothered to see the fine, if still primitive, characteristics which lay beneath the rags. In the north an actual war of extermination was fought. One writer described this as a ‘war against rabbits,’ insofar as relative strength was concerned. It helped ease what consciences the newcomers possessed to lump all of the California Indians under the epithet of ‘Diggers,’ and to repeat until it became a truism still echoed in our own time that all were alike degenerate and little above the animal in intelligence. When California became a state it was written into the law that no Indian could testify in court, even in his own defense.

On the North Americans the life of the Pueblo and of the ranchos in the country roundabout, one of leisurely pace and easy hospitality, had a strong influence. It was, in large measure, gratefully adopted as their own. That this life was based on Indian service and would join many a greater civilization of the past in oblivion, once that source of practically free labor had been destroyed, they seemed to comprehend as little as did the ‘Paisanos,’ the ‘people of the land.’

In the memoirs of one early settler we catch a glimpse of the economy of the 1860s when the great vineyards, planted largely from the parent stock of the Mission grapes, were in their heyday. The writer gave this picture: ‘There were no wine presses and the grapes were placed in huge shallow vats placed near the ‘zanja’ or water ditch. The Indians were made to bathe their feet in the zanja and then step into the vats where they trod rhythmically up and down in the grapes to press out the juice. The juice was drained off into larger vats where it was left to stand until fermentation. Then it was clarified, aged and bottled or barreled.

‘We all enjoyed drinking the pale red grape juice when it had stood just a day or two before it began to ferment. During the process of fermentation it was extremely intoxicating.’

The problem of drunken Indians vexed the officials of the new regime as it had the alcaldes of the decade before the coming of the North Americans. On Monday mornings the open-air jail contained many a faithful worker sleeping off the dire effects of his Saturday night ‘salary.’ Sheer numbers precluded the finding of enough jobs on the public works to pay fines, as had been the custom.

On August 16, 1860, the Council came up with a solution in the form of an ordinance which read, ‘When the city has no work in which to employ the chain gang, the Recorder shall, by means of notices conspicuously posted, notify the public that such a number of prisoners will be auctioned off to the highest bidder for private service, and in that manner they shall be disposed of for a sum which shall not be less than the amount of their fine for double the time they were to serve at hard labor.

The net effect of this ordinance, W. W. Robinson observes, was the establishment of a veritable slave market. Vineyardists and other employers were on hand on Monday mornings to bid for the services of the released prisoners. The amounts averaged from one to three dollars for each Indian for a week’s work. On Saturday night one third of the fee was paid to the Indian, often in the form of ‘aguardiente,’ and the balance went in cash into the treasury of Los Angeles. Horace Bell said of this practice, ‘Thousands of honest, useful people were utterly destroyed in this way.’ Robinson estimates the survival of individuals caught in this tragic cycle as limited to three years at a maximum.

J. Ross Browne, a native of Dublin, who was appointed in 1855 to be Customs Official and Inspector of Indian Affairs on the Pacific Coast, left such brilliant and satirical comments on the plight of the aborigines he visited that his works present a temptation to quote pages rather than paragraphs. Of the situation in the Pueblo he wrote, ‘The inhabitants of Los Angeles are a moral and intelligent people, and may of them disapprove of the custom on principle, and hope it will be abolished as soon as the Indians are all killed off. Practically, it is not a bad way of bettering their condition: for some of them die every week from the effects of debauchery, or kill one another in the nocturnal brawls which prevail on the outskirts of the Pueblo.'”

-Excerpt and images courtesy of HathiTrust Digital Archive, University of Wisconsin-Madison, “California’s Gabrielino Indians,” by Bernice Johnston, Southwest Museum, Los Angeles, 1962

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