Twenty-one colonial-era missions traversed California stretching northward from San Diego to just beyond San Francisco. Founded by Franciscan missionaries beginning in 1769, these missions—along with four presidios (forts) and three pueblos (towns)—were central to Spain’s attempt to incorporate the Pacific Coast of northern New Spain into its enormous transatlantic colonial empire. Established in the late 18th century, just as Spain was secularizing missions elsewhere in New Spain, the California missions were cultural and institutional throwbacks and controversial from their inception. They prompted consistent and occasionally violent resistance from Native Californians. Furthermore, Europeans who visited Spanish California saw them as repressive colonial institutions. Indeed, during their sixty years of existence, the missions proved most adept at damaging the culture and shortening the lives of California’s Native Americans, the very people missionaries thought they would save by bringing them into the Catholic faith. By the time that Mexican government officials secularized the missions in the 1830s and parceled their lands and resources out to Mexican settlers, associates of the Mexican ruling elite, and a small number of Natives, California missions had shown themselves to be transformative and lethal agents of change. In the 21st century, their legacies are increasingly seen as negative, forever linked to the indefatigable and uncompromising missionary Junípero Serra, who was controversially canonized by Pope Francis in 2015.
The California Missions
Steven W. Hackel
Benjamin L. Madley
Human beings have inhabited the region known as California for at least 13,000 years, or as some believe since time immemorial. By developing technologies, honing skills, and implementing stewardship practices, California Indian communities maximized the bounty of their homelands during the precolonial period. Overall, their population grew to perhaps 310,000 people. Speaking scores of different languages, they organized themselves into at least sixty major tribes. Communities were usually politically autonomous but connected to larger tribal groups by shared languages and cultures while dense networks of economic exchange also bound tribes together. Newcomers brought devastating change, but California Indians resisted and survived. During the Russo-Hispanic period (1769–1846), the Indigenous population fell to perhaps 150,000 people due to diseases, environmental transformation, and colonial policies. The organized mass violence and other policies of early United States rule (1846–1900) further reduced the population. By 1900, census takers counted only 15,377 California Indian people. Still, California Indians resisted. During the 1900–1953 period, the federal government continued its national Allotment Policy but initiated healthcare, land policy, education, and citizenship reforms for California Indians even as they continued to resist and their population grew. During the termination era (1953–1968), California Indians faced federal attempts to obliterate them as American Indians. Finally, California Indian people achieved many hard-won victories during the self-determination era (1968–present).
Agriculture and the Environment
During the Holocene, the present geological epoch, an increasing portion of humans began to manipulate the reproduction of plants and animals in a series of environmental practices known as agriculture. No other ecological relationship sustains as many humans as farming; no other has transformed the landscape to the same extent. The domestication of plants by American Indians followed the end of the last glacial maximum (the Ice Age). About eight thousand years ago, the first domesticated maize and squash arrived from central Mexico, spreading to every region and as far north as the subarctic boreal forest. The incursion of Europeans into North America set off widespread deforestation, soil depletion, and the spread of settlement, followed by the introduction of industrial machines and chemicals. A series of institutions sponsored publically funded research into fertilizers and insecticides. By the late 19th century, writers and activists criticized the technological transformation of farming as destructive to the environment and rural society. During the 20th century, wind erosion contributed to the depopulation of much of the Great Plains. Vast projects in environmental engineering transformed deserts into highly productive regions of intensive fruit and vegetable production. Throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries, access to land remained limited to whites, with American Indians, African Americans, Latinas/os, Chinese, and peoples of other ethnicities attempting to gain farms or hold on to the land they owned. Two broad periods describe the history of agriculture and the environment in that portion of North America that became the United States. In the first, the environment dominated, forcing humans to adapt during the end of thousands of years of extreme climate variability. In the second, institutional and technological change became more significant, though the environment remained a constant factor against which American agriculture took shape. A related historical pattern within this shift was the capitalist transformation of the United States. For thousands of years, households sustained themselves and exchanged some of what they produced for money. But during the 19th century among a majority of American farmers, commodities took over the entire purpose of agriculture, transforming environments to reflect commercial opportunity.
Vietnamese Americans in Little Saigon, California
Little Saigon is the preferred name of Vietnamese refugee communities throughout the world. This article focuses primarily on the largest such community, in Orange County, California. This suburban ethnic enclave is home to the largest concentration of overseas Vietnamese, nearly 200,000, or 10 percent of the Vietnamese American population. Because of its size, location, and demographics, Little Saigon is also home to some of the most influential intellectuals, entertainers, businesspeople, and politicians in the Vietnamese diaspora, many of whom are invested in constructing Little Saigon as a transnational oppositional party to the government of Vietnam. Unlike traditional immigrant ethnic enclaves, Little Saigon is a refugee community whose formation and development emerged in large part from America’s efforts to atone for its epic defeat in Vietnam by at least sparing some of its wartime allies a life under communism. Much of Little Saigon’s cultural politics revolve around this narrative of rescue, although the number guilt-ridden Americans grows smaller and more conservative, while the loyalists of the pre-1975 Saigon regime struggle to instill in the younger generation of Vietnamese an appreciation of their refugee roots.