Calif. mission artifact moved from railway route

Old San Gabriel Mission

Old San Gabriel Mission

The following comes from a June 20 story in the Fresno Bee.

Nearly two centuries ago, an ex-pirate built a mill that ground corn and wheat for the San Gabriel Mission, part of the chain of Spanish outposts in California dating to the 1700s.

The mill is long gone but on Thursday, crews moved a 15-ton piece of that history from the path of a railroad trench to save it from destruction.

A 20-foot stretch of the brick, stone and mortar millrace that fed water to the mill will go on display at the neighboring Plaza Park, with flowing water recreating the sight and sound of what once was considered high technology.

“It’s nearly unique in California, being as early as it is. It’s one of the first properties related to the industrial revolution in California,” said John Dietler, lead archaeologist for the project.

Spain built 21 Roman Catholic missions in California during its colonization in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many relied on ditches to bring water from rivers, springs or creeks.

“The story of the European colonization of Southern California really hinges around the control of water,” Dietler said.

The San Gabriel Mission, about nine miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles, was a wealthy community that had thousands of cattle and acres of wheat, barley and corn, tended by native labor.

“Most modern historians consider it to be forced labor,” Dietler said. “They entered the missions voluntarily, typically, but then they weren’t allowed to leave.”

Enter an apprentice shipwright from Boston named Joseph Chapman, who was captured with a pirate crew that was raiding coastal ranchos. Imprisoned in the Santa Barbara area, he was freed after converting to Catholicism, marrying a Spaniard and becoming a builder, Dietler said.

Chapman designed and oversaw construction of a New England-style grist mill for the San Gabriel Mission, a device that was “revolutionary for its time and place,” Dietler said.

Built by native labor and completed in 1823, it channeled water from San Gabriel Valley foothill springs. Closed in 1834 under Mexico’s rule, the mission deteriorated for years before it was returned to the church. The remains of the mill were bulldozed for a housing development in the 1940s, although its foundations remain under a street, Dietler said.

In 1998, San Gabriel Valley governments formed the Alameda Corridor-East Construction Authority to renovate rail lines in the region to reduce traffic congestion. Plans included lowering rail lines into a 30-foot trench near the mission.

An archaeological survey of the route began in 2009. At the time, the only trace of the millrace was “a couple of rocks sticking out of the ground and some bushes,” Dietler said….

To read the entire story, click here.




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  1. The original article is from the Fresno Bee. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that they have to remind the reader that, “Most modern historians consider it to be forced labor,” Dietler said. “They entered the missions voluntarily, typically, but then they weren’t allowed to leave.”

    I would say that the words “most” and “modern” should be a clue to the bias. What I never seem to hear, is how after Mexico took possession of California which by then was financially wealthy due to the efforts of the padres and the natives, the Mexican politicians immediately “secularized” the missions raiding them and tricking the natives into signing over their “Ranchos” to the friends of the politicians.

    Remember, California had been part of New Spain since the 1500’s just as modern day Mexico was, however, the Spanish crown had not been able to convince anyone to resettle in the California territory as it was seen as uninhabitable. It wasn’t until after the missionaries, aided by the relatively few natives who were living in California, had made it prosperous that entrepreneurs and other settlers started taking interest in it. After the USA took possession of California from Mexico the US congress and President Lincoln reversed some of the “illegal” transfer of property. Sadly though, there was not much of it left to return. The missions got back their churches, but little else. The natives ended up more impoverished than they had been prior to the padres arrival. In the end, many of the natives were reduced to working as ranch hands on the same ranchos, which they themselves had owned and made prosperous through their own hard labor, before they had been deceptively taken from them by the new ranch owners.

    I read in a book published in the 1950’s that the Mexican government still owed the California Missions money which had been set aside in a trust by Spanish citizens to help support the missionary efforts in California. Once the Mexican government had control of the trust money, they kept it for themselves.

    • Abeca Christian says:

      Tracey good comments…I enjoyed learning about history through your eyes here….

    • R.B. Rodda says:

      You need a history lesson.

      * First, get over your “modern” bigotry. Not all contemporary scholars (not by a long shot) believe that the California Natives were treated poorly by the Franciscan clergy and their secular support.

      * New Spain had absolutely no control over what is now the State of CA prior to 18th century — even afterwards it had next to none. This was due to limited Spanish resources. Spain’s efforts beginning in the late 18th century were driven largely by a growing Russian influence coming down from the north. When the USA took Alta California, the Republic of Mexico did next to nothing.

      * The population in CA did not grow due to the efforts Franciscan missionaries. Very few moved north to Alta California, although many natives did die from disease and changing living conditions. The population finally exploded in 1849 with the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill.

      * The native populations impacted by the Missions were largely annihilated long before secularization. The number of natives that died while in the charge of the missionaries is truly disturbing. Unlike the Jesuits in Baja, CA who lived among the indigenous people and allowed them to come and go as they wished, the native peoples under the Franciscans were indeed garrisoned.

      The Church/state was very poorly equipped/prepared to take on the task of evangelizing and securing Alta California. Their ignorance (this is NOT Europe) and lack of resources (but not their intentions) took a terrible toll on the native population.

      * Your 1950’s book citation is laughable. You’re speaking of the ”Fondo Piadoso de las Californias” — the Pious Fund of the Californias which has to do with the Jesuits (not the Franciscans) in Baja (not Alta) California before they wee formally expelled from New Spain and replaced by the Franciscans. This matter has been formally adjudicated on an international level. Sorry, but no intrigue here.

      * One has to wonder how things would have went if the Jesuits had not been expelled from New Spain? What if they could have continued their mission chain from Baja into Alta California? Most people with preconceived notions never consider this question.

      • R.B. Rodda, I will do my best to address the issues you have with what I said. Point #1, I never meant to imply that “all” contemporary scholars believed Franciscan missionaries mistreated the natives. My issue came with the fact that this article and many other “contemporary” articles of today like to say that “Most modern historians consider it to be forced labor”. Maybe I should have placed my emphasis on the word “most” instead of “modern”. The important point here is that the writer of this article seems to imply that he/she would like the reader to come away with the conclusion that there is pretty much a consensus among scholars that the natives were enslaved by the missionaries.

        Point #2 Spain did claim California territory as theirs as far back as the 1500s. This is not debatable. They however, as you pointed out, did not do anything with it until they realized that Russia was showing an interest in it. I did not address Mexico’s response to the US obtaining California.

        Point #3 What I said was that prior to the Missions, Spain had tried to entice people to emigrate to California from the more populous areas of modern day Mexico. They had been unsuccessful in this effort as California lacked basic resources. The missions, however, created aqueducts, brought and raised large herds of cattle, planted vineyards, olive groves, orange groves, etc. These developments made California desirable to at least some immigrants who were not interested in settling it before. Yes, the gold rush did attract more settlers to California, however, this does not negate the fact of California’s transfer of valuable ranches to non-native individuals. I would argue that had the missions not been first instituted, the “gold rush” would have probably never happened in California. Either way, by 1870 the population of the entirety of California was only around a half-a- million people. This is even after the initial population explosion brought on by the gold rush.

        #4 The native population was already relatively tiny prior to the padres arrival. This relatively tiny population is one of the reasons Spain did not initially put the resources into Christianizing the area. Much of the decimation of the native population after the padres arrival was due to them coming in contact with diseases which they did not have prior immunity to. As sad as this fact is, people did not understand these things in those days, and even if they would have, they did not have modern medicine to deal with it. I can only imagine that this sort of disease transfer is the story of human history. Either way the California missionaries pretty much ignored the natives in the extreme interior of California because they were know to be too savage. As a result these natives would have been “free to come and go as they pleased”.

        #5, Whether or not the book I have is “laughable”, I can’t say. I have studied much of California history and as you well know not all historians agree on everything. Anyway, on the surface it would not make sense to me that there was a “pious fund” only set up for the Jesuits in Baja California and not the Franciscans for Alta California. Maybe if you could give me your resource, I could compare it with mine. Also, I never said that it was an ongoing issue, only that since the 1950s it was. Since you seem to know, could you tell me in what year this matter was “formally adjudicated on an international level”? I would love to know this information.

        #6 It appears to me that you believe that things might have turned out differently if the Jesuits had been given the task to found the “alta” California missions rather than the Franciscans. Obviously we will never know. What we do know, however, is that the normal policy of Spain was to secularize their missions as soon as the native populations were ready for it. In Mexico City and surroundings, this happened rather quickly. However, in California because of the sparsely spread out Californian population, the Franciscans correctly concluded that “secularization” would take much longer here to proceed smoothly. Spain concurred with this notion. The new Mexican government, as we know, was not concerned about the natives in this manner. One of the necessary components for a successful “secularization” would have been the availability of secular priest to establish a diocese. This availability did not exist when the Mexican government forced “secularization” on the Missions. After the Franciscans were thrown out many of the churches were left without priest to celebrate Mass. The first diocese that was finally established included the entirety of “alta” and “baja” California. An amazing task for a single bishop given the vast area included.

        • Tracy, when you say things such as “This is not debatable”, you give away many many points to your opponent, in this case Rodda the Russian. Rodda, despite his religious superficiality, does well with his argument here, showing a capactiy to understand the rhetorical process at a collegiate level. Tracy, any time you’re presenting alleged historical fact, you can’t simply support an argument by saying it is a fact because you say it is … you have to “prove” the point with evidence, commonly agreed on ideas, and so forth. Rodda does this; you don’t. You can work such magic in a high school classroom, but the smarter kids will not really fall hook line and sinker for your “it is true because I told you it is true” hogwash. They may never bother to look into it, and this is one reason many smart adults have stupid ideas. Good education is rational, not tyrannical.

          • Skai, thank you for the constructive criticism. The art of clearly explaining oneself in as few words as possible without using clichés is something I am always trying to improve on. After I push the “post comment” button, I often realize that there are one or two words or sentences I should have added or altogether kept out, but alas, what is done is done. I realize that this site is not a professional journal and as such I do, at times, become careless with my writing, whether it be grammar mistakes or word choices.

            I do find it odd, however, that you do not take exception with Rhodd’a word choice of “laughable”. Furthermore, even if his statements regarding the ”Fondo Piadoso de las Californias” were completely accurate, this would raise a very important question. If the the “Fondo” did not include Alta California as he says, then how where the missions in Alta California funded?

          • Because, Tracy, I hammer Rodda enough as it is. This argument of his is structured and executed by the book, even if he salts it with intimidating emotions. You may feel that I’m attacking you, but that is not the case as your post looks good to me. I do however paste Rodda not infrequently for his shallow expressions of Catholicism, which reveal a soul refusing to reflect on the more spiritual matters of the religion he professes. If Rodda would only jettison his tinseltown trappings, he’d do well in arguing fundamental issues.

        • Tracy-
          Do not waste your time proving the truth to those who are determined to not recognize it. They enjoy making you chase your tail in your efforts.
          Your fellow Catholics appreciate your sharing a bit of history with us.
          May God Bless you abundantly!

          • Barron, thank you so much for your kind thoughts. I do sometimes question the futility of trying to prove “the truth to those who are determined to not recognize it.” I definitely believe one needs to use discernment when deciding whether or not to debate with someone who is hard of heart. Sometimes it is a waste of time as you correctly state, but at other times, while initially seeming futile, the seeds planted may eventually bear fruit. This effort, of course, will not be fruitful without cooperation with the Holy Spirit.

            I am encouraged by some of the biographies I have read from Catholic converts or reverts, who reveal that even while they continued to appear to be as immovable as as boulders, they were none-the-less being being converted through the efforts of very patient and persistent Catholics.
            It is not always easy to resign to the fact that one’s long held beliefs are full of error.

            I find, none the less, that by debating those who are “hard of heart”, I am forced to continually learn more about my own faith which in turn strengthens it.

          • Hogwash, Baron; you are commanded by Christ to go into all corners of the world … what are you afraid of?

        • R.B. Rodda says:

          #1 — Far too many here equate with they believe to be “modern” with bad. That’s simply not accurate.

          #2 — I don’t care what Spain claimed. Alta California was for the taking until the USA finally did. No way could Spain or the Republic of Mexico stop anyone.

          #3 — Very, very few found CA “desirable” due to the mission chain’s influence. Far more indigenous died from the effects of the missionary process then were attracted to Alta California by the changes you mention. CA’s population exploded with the Gold Rush.

          #4 — Wrong. Spain simply didn’t HAVE the resources. They couldn’t even hold onto what became the Republic of Mexico. While the native population was indeed small to begin with, it was made considerable smaller through the Franciscans’ missionary activities. While they may not have understood what was going on, they were wrong to continue to garrison the neophytes.

          #5 — Google “Jesuit Pious Fund.” It’s a fairly famous subject in California/Mexico history. Refer to Msgr. Francis Weber’s book on the subject.

          #6 — Spain and the Church did not allocate enough resources to properly evangelize Alta, California. They needed more of everything — skilled labor, law enforcement, teachers, material goods, clergy, etc. They took on a gravely important task without securing the necessary resources. That was terribly wrong.

          I suspect the Jesuit’s would have been more successful in Alta, CA simply because they did not garrison their neophytes. No all California Indians died from “disease.” Many died simply because their constitutions could not adapt to the new lifestyle

          • R. B. Rhodda,

            #3 Even though few still found California desirable until the gold rush, those few that did, claimed ownership of large areas of land in the form of ranches. Many of those “few” became the wealthy icons if California history.

            #4 While I am not completely sure of this, my understanding is that the Spanish government footed the bill for the soldiers who accompanied the missionaries. I do know, however, that the “pious fund” payed the priest salaries, as well as other mission needs such as supplies and materials, and that this “pious fund” according to the historian you site, Msgr. Francis J. Weber, was funded by charitable Spanish and Mexican Catholics using their own private resources, including money they raised.

            #5 Let me first correct something I said earlier, the 1950’s book I sited in my earlier post was actually published in 1967. The author is Msgr. Francis J. Weber. The title is “Readings in California Catholic History” here are a few quotes which may bring clarity to this subject, since you now accept Weber as a credible source and not, as you said, “laughable”:
            — “The whole Indian population from Cape San Lucas in peninsular California to San Francisco in the north was brought to Christian civilization by priests supported by revenues from the Fund.(pg. 5, paragraph 2).
            — and again referring to the Pious Fund; “The amount of something over $800,000 was reckoned as due the church at the time California came into the Union. An award by the Mixed Claims Commission in 1875 decided that half this amount should be paid to the bishops of Alta California and the other half to Baja California.” (pg. 6, 2nd paragraph)
            –“Payments were made annually for thirteen years and then discontinued. In 1902 the United States and Mexico submitted the question of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague, the first international controversy submitted to that tribunal. On October 4th, an award was made favoring the United States claim on behalf of the California bishops. By the new decision, the Mexican Government was obliged to pay the sum of $1,420,682.67 to extinguish annuities accruing between 1869 and 1902. A further stipulation placed an annual obligation of $43,050.99 to be paid perpetually. Mexico made three payments until 1914, but has made no attempt to satisfy the claim since that time.” (page 6, 3rd paragraph)

          • R. B. Rhoda, based on your opinions, I suspect that you have a romantic view of the Jesuit founded missions in Baja California as well as an over all contempt for the Franciscan founders of the California missions and the United States. I can’t help but believe that these two factors are clouding your reading of history.

            You only seem concerned for the natives who lost their lives to disease in Alta California. Are we to conclude that the natives in Baja California had immunity to European diseases? As to the issue of the forceable removal of the Jesuits from the baja peninsula by King Carlos III of Spain, the history I’ve read on this is that the Jesuit priests were rumored to have amassed a fortune and were becoming very powerful. I don’t have further insight as to whether or not this rumor was true, only that this is what prompted their removal. After the Jesuits were ousted, the king appointed the Franciscans, who expanded the missions into Alta California.

  2. Please, it’s “the 1500s” or the “1950s.” No apostrophe is required.

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