Mexican soldiers advancing toward La Purísima Concepción Mission during the Chumash Revolt of 1824. Painting by Alexander Harmer. (Source: wikimedia)
For those of you who haven’t heard, last week was the anniversary of the 1824 Chumash Revolt, which began at Mission Santa Ynez and soon spread to La Purisima and Santa Barbara. It was the largest organized rebellion to take place during the Spanish and Mexican periods of California, with as many as three hundred Mexican soldiers, six Franciscan missionaries and two thousand Chumash + Yokut people involved in the conflict overall. Two Chumash men were killed and four Mexican soldiers were wounded here in Santa Barbara.
The causes of the revolt were complex. Mexico had just gained independence from Spain, and had declared that there was no longer a legal distinction between racial groups. Gone were the days of the Casta system. People were no longer “Spanish”, “mestizo” or “Indio”. They were simply “citizens”, citizens of the new Mexican nation.
But in a manner foreshadowing the Reconstruction era which followed the end of the American Civil war some 40 years later, it seemed to the recently emancipated Chumash of the Santa Barbara area that change was slow to effect. Franciscan friars continued in their suppression of traditional Chumash culture and refused to give up their idea of Indians as “children”, viewing them as inherently unfit to govern themselves by Christian, European standards. Mexican soldiers, themselves often on the brink of insurrection, regularly meted out violence and intimidation onto the Chumash populace. Add to this a crippling economic depression caused by the newly gained independence and you have all the ingredients for a revolt.
Plans for this revolt had already been in place by early 1824, with Indians from the three missions stockpiling machetes, garden tools, and guns. But after the severe beating of a Chumash boy by a Mexican soldier at Mission Santa Ynez on February 21, the revolt kicked off early.
At this point the timeline gets a bit complicated. All three missions were, at some point in the next four months, seized by the revolting Chumash, who made diplomatic alliances with neighboring Yokuts. Mission La Purisima in Lompoc was nearly burned to the ground and sporadic battles with Mexican soldiers took place at all three missions. Here in Santa Barbara the Chumash rebels were met by a group of friars and soldiers who asked them to surrener, promising them pardon for their actions. The rebels refused and were succesful in pushing them back to the Presidio after a pitched battle.
Soon after this they abandoned Mission Santa Barbara, fleeing into the Santa Ynez mountains and forming a new community with refugees from the other two missions. They hoped to use some of the farming techniques that the Spanish had taught them to forge a new society. In this society they attempted to integrate Chumash culture with the adopted Spanish/Mexican culture on their own terms.
This new settlement was a popular idea, and in many ways it was the inevitable result of competing factors: an interest in written language, agriculture and European technology (all introduced to them by the Spanish) combined with a resentment at the loss of land, violence, cultural suppression and deadly disease (also brought to them by the Spanish). The recent declaration of racial equality by the Mexican government didn’t help either; it seemed to the Chumash that the mission system’s culture of racism and the unchecked aggression of the soldiers were directly at odds with the new laws, and they were correct. But unfortunately, matters of physical survival ended this experiment. Starvation was spreading, resources were runninng scarce and the manpower required to grow food in the Spanish style simply wasn’t there.
So on June 11th, 1824, a truce was reached, with emissaries of the Mexican government meeting with Chumash leaders and agreeing to give all Indians involved in the revolt a full pardon. They soon made their way back to the missions, where they continued to live until the collapse of the mission system in the coming decades.
As a Barbareño Chumash person living in the 21st century, this revolt has great significance to me. I am often told by non-natives that we Chumash were docile in our acceptance of European rule, that, like the romanticized “servants” of the Antebellum south, we were happy to accept colonization.
And sure, it wasn’t all involuntary. There were some genuine converts to Christianity, and I respect their decision. I also respect those who wanted to learn how to write, who wanted to learn stonemasonry and textiles, who wanted to speak Spanish so they could converse with other Indians from remote areas. And as Barbareño person I inevitably have some Spanish ancestry myself. I am a descendent of the priest Blas Ordaz, and of the infamous Francisco Ortega.
But as this revolt shows, we were wronged. We were oppressed and we were pissed off, and we didn’t just take it, we armed ourselves and fought for our rights. And keep in mind, we were a people with virtually no military history. We had lived in this valley for tens of thousands of years, and until a pirate attack in 1818 we had weathered only small, sporadic conflicts amongst ourselves. But like any other people, we were cunning and strong, and we rose to the occasion.
So hopefully some of you will be inspired by this. Know your history. Don’t just go on the mission tours and pose for pretty pictures, really think about Santa Barbara’s long backstory and take strength from the courage of the rebellious Chumash people who lived here. Because they were just like you, just like anyone else. Good people who fought for what was right and gave it their best shot.