The Coastal Post - November, 1997

San Rafael Mission: 1819-1834


Fear started the mission in San Raphael-fear of the Russians at Fort Ross, because they had crept as far south as Bodega. The mission was the result of a military expedition as well as Christianity.

"Hastening the move was the situation at Mission Dolores, where Indians were dying in droves in the dank climate of Yerba Buena," wrote Jack Mason in Early Marin.

Lt. Gabriel Moraga is given credit for founding the San Raphael mission, for he scouted the area. He said it lay on the water and was sheltered by hills to the north and south and west, the pasturage was lush and grapes and pears promised to do well on the valley floor. Accordingly, land for the hospital mission, as it came to be known, was good.

It was a Spanish grant. All of Marin except for Sausalito, Tiburon and Point Reyes (which was used as a buffer against the Russians) was a Spanish grant. It was the only Spanish grant given, others came after Mexican Independence, and they were called land grants.

"Mission San Rafael was the next to the last in the Franciscan chain of 21 Alta California missions" (the last was Sonoma) says Mason. "Its span was brief-1817 to 1834-but it left its imprint on history by ushering in the first white settlement north of San Francisco Bay."

On December 13, 1817, a party from Yerba Buena set out in an open boat across the Golden Gate. It consisted of Father Prefect Vincente Francisco Sarria, and Father Luis Gil y Tabara and two friars, as well as Lt. Luis Arquello, commandant of the Presidio and several soldiers. "Father Sarria on December 13 erected and blessed a holy cross and baptized a few pagans," wrote Mason.

No one knows what the mission looked like. San Rafael Mission never made any pretense to beauty. We know that the roof was tiled and that the walls were made of adobe. Most people agree that the mission contained a monastery, storehouse, and a hospital. Raphael Garcia said it was one-story high with a granary in the loft. Pedro Sais said it was two stories high. There could be a "few large girders installed throughout the building," according to Charles Lauff in the IJ's edition of 1916. Lauff maintains the interior was very plain, even the altar.

As expected, pear trees did well in the front of the mission, and in the back, a vegetable patch was fenced. The mission was on the site it now stands on, at C Street, in San Rafael. "The popular notion of a mission," Herbert Bolton wrote in 1917, "was that it consists primarily of a church, whereas it was a complete economic unit of vast importance in the history of the Western Hemisphere.

The Indians did the manual labor, 380 of them living at the mission, and thousands of unbaptized Indians were brought to the mission. "Baptized, they became the property of the church, which then taught them to carve leather, make saddles, weave baskets, shoe horses, harvest the corps and recite the catechism," wrote Mason. "They had frequent masses, although the masses were in Spanish, a language none of them knew."

Stephen J. Richards maintains in his Days of the Dons, "The Indians were well off." Franklin Tuthill thought differently. Tuthill wrote that they had little time to cross from paganism to civilization and that the project of making the Indians into valuable subjects of Spain was an "utter failure."

The Annals of San Francisco by Frank Soule, John H. Gibson, M.D., and James Nisbet, published in 1855, paints the identical picture of the aboriginal "cowering under the father's eyes like a child. Their mode of conversion as like teaching a monkey or a dog, by means of food and caresses and sometimes by kicks."

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San Rafael gained full mission status under Father Amoros in 1822. "Father Amoros had a practical side; he devised a water clock which was accurate as well as ingenious," wrote Mason. Captain Otto von Kotybue, commander of a Russian frigate in San Francisco Bay, was Father Amoros' guest in 1824. He wrote of the beautiful meadow and oaks, "a site much better chosen than that of the so-much-vaunted Santa Clara Mission."

Father Amoros was sick with heart disease and died on July 14, 1832. He was succeeded by Father Jesus Maria Mecado, who had no love at all for the Indians. The Indian trouble inevitably increased. He held on 'til one battle left 21 raiders killed and a score captured. "Gov. Figueroa stepped in to restore peace, suspended Mercato, and gave the Indians amnesty," Mason wrote. "Six months later he got his mission back, but its days were numbered."

After Mexico broke with Spain, they were bereft of money. They couldn't support the priests and finally disowned them altogether. The whole thing fell apart in 1834, when 21 Franciscan missions were secularized by the Mexican government. Mission San Raphael had operated for 17 years, now it faded away. It was now the time of the administrators, who sometimes looked after the mission population of Indians, sometimes not, and the mission slowly ran to waste.

You can imagine the picture: Adobe bricks fast returning to Mother Earth where they had started, the sunny gardens returning to ruin, the looms and tools stolen and the once-vaunted mission turning into rubble.

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