Remembering the 1824 Chumash Revolt

Mexican soldiers advancing toward La Purísima Concepción Mission during the Chumash Revolt of 1824. Painting by Alexander Harmer. (Source: wikimedia)

By Nigel

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. 

Mission Santa Ines circa 1912 (wikimedia)

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.


Written by Anonymous

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  1. Nigel,
    Thank you for some much truth of our gilded history. I have heard the there are plans to change the name of Indio Muerto Street, but what about Valerio? Wasn’t he a “bad Indian”. Who refused to come in and was shot and killed trying to escape Painted Cave, where he was hiding”
    The Phantom

  2. I wondered what became of the Chumash that lived here and toiled at the Mission. I thought
    disease and the European diet had taken them. We know of course that Juana Maria ( Island of the blue dolphins) was brought back from one of our Channel Islands, died and is buried at the Mission Cemetery. Very interesting. I now understand who the Barbareno are, their ancestors were activists of the Mission Era.
    Stones were quarried there by the Chumash for the establishment of the Old Mission Santa Barbara and the water came from the Mission Creek that runs thru Rocky Nook park.
    Our Rocky Nook Park which is a Santa Barbara County Park is up for Historic Landmark status.
    Please contact Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors to let them know you want this area preserved for generations to come and to support It’s landmark status. This area is at risk for a City’s project to widen the Mission Canyon Corridor possibly infringing 19.5 feet into Rocky Nook Park as well as Jeopardizing the Historic Mission Creek Bridge.

  3. It is important that we know/remember/be reminded of these historic incidents. But I am mildly bothered by the author’s personalization (“we were wronged,” “we were pissed off,” etc.). I am unclear as to the author’s ethnicity but after so many generations it seems he is holding onto to grievances that may not affect him or her at all. Does the author have information relative to his or her experiences today? Remember that the Mexican government at least made the promise (eventually sort of kept) of abolishing racial classes. Remember also that the Texan’s fight with Mexico was because the Anglo Texans wanted slavery in their new “republic” but the Mexicans would not allow slavery to exist.

  4. What a myopic and privileged statement, RHS. Cultural history – even “after so many generations” – absolutely affects the present-day descendants. That is such a stunningly ignorant stance that I literally don’t know how to even begin to explain it to you.

  5. Very interesting history, Nigel, thanks! The accompanying print, too, reminds me of what an armed camp Santa Barbara was for much of its post-contact history, first with the Presidio, then the US conquest and occupation. I liked your discussion of how being modern Chumash generally means having Spanish ancestors as well as a complex mix of cultural histories. I agree that the Santa Ynez uprising should be more widely taught and known as California history; I think there’s been a strong bias against really learning anything substantive about the Spanish and Mexican periods (partly jingoism and partly that all the written records are in Spanish) but that is starting to improve, and hopefully upcoming generations will have a much broader knowledge of our state’s history.

  6. Therealebe. You imagine so much in your response. Do you have any information to support your claims? Did you read what I posited? Are you just a knee-jerk response to an imagined insult? If the author is a descendant it would be valued for that information to be shared. But looking for grievances is not a fruitful endeavor. And what the grievances are is unclear in any case: The Catholic Church? Yes they were awful. The Spanish invaders? Yes they were awful. The Mexican government? Who to blame????? What is expected when blame is attributed????? Do the Chumash need more casinos?????

  7. Nigel, thank you so much for your insightful article. You must be an “Old Sage” who has struggled throughout your life with many difficulties. You have handled it well. Too much history of the Chumash comes from those who are so “diluted” that only a small portion of their heritage can be directly traced back like your lineage. It is amazing that some of those claiming to be Chumash are not, and actually have “European” mothers/fathers, and even grandmothers/fathers!!

  8. Not clear what the article is saying other than to report that the native population rebelled against the Catholic Church and their protectors. But by the time the Mexican government had taken over the Catholic Church was in decline. In fact a major reason for the Mexican revolution was to throw off the Church’s greed and judgmental behavior. So while the Mexican government may not have had interest or resources to protect the natives, they at least recognized a duty to do so. They also refused to allow slavery in the Republic of Mexico. A few years later the Anglos in Texas started an insurrection against Mexico to create the Republic of Texas with the major and specific purpose of allowing slavery to continue there.

  9. The Chumash, before contact, had a wide area in which to hunt, gather, fish, recreate and trade. After contact their land was used for animal husbandry and European style agriculture. The Chumash were not permitted to burn their traditional areas for increasing their native vegetation seed supply. Land ownership ensued by the Presidio soldiers and immigrants. The Chumash did not get their native lands back as promised when Mexico became independent. The land grants were enormous. If a Chumash person happened to marry a Spanish or Mexican land owner they could “own” property but their original way of life was gone. The Chumash who had not changed to and pretty much adopted European ways after 1824 when Mexico took over and after California became a state in 1850, had to move away and co-mingle with other tribes such as in Kern Co. who still could practice their native ways or they became employed as ranch hands, maids and maybe tried to become self employed. There was racial and cultural prejudice against the Chumash so not only did they have to adapt to the immigrants’ way of life but the Chumash had to endure the difficulty of making a living no matter what they did. It is not any different than the difficulty people of color have today in the 21st century. Humanity has a long way to go to become color and culture blind and accept everyone as equals and capable.

  10. “The causes of the revolt were complex”.
    Could not disagree more. The causes of the revolution were very simple, genocide and enslavement of a people and culture who had lived there for 10,000 years. Reminds me of the old saying, “History is the lies written by the victors”.
    The whitewashing of the genocide of the California Indians continues with this article.

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