One year short of 250 may seem like a very long time, but set against more than 10 millennia, it’s relatively brief. 

Case in point: Not long after 1769, life changed quickly and dramatically for the Acjachemen, a Native American tribe that had inhabited what later became California. During the previous 10,000 years, however, their way of life had remained exactly the same. 

The cause of this radical change was the Portolá Expedition, the first exploration by Spanish missionaries who headed north seeking to expand New Spain and bring their culture and religion to the New World. And one event 249 years ago will forever stand as a seminal moment in both Catholic and local Native American history: the first baptism of the Acjachemen people. 

Many years earlier, the Acjachemen (pronounced “Ah-HAWSH-eh-men”) lived in what is today Orange and San Diego counties. By around 1200 AD, two significant settlements had been established: Panhe, today in the southern end of San Clemente, and Putuidem, a few miles farther to the south. Small and large Acjachemen villages dotted the area. Their territory eventually grew to include what today is Oceanside to Long Beach, east to Lake Elsinore and west to San Clemente and Catalina islands. 

Like native peoples throughout history, the Acjachemen lived in harmony with the land and found uses for everything they took from their surroundings. They constructed “kiichas,” circular shelters made of branches, grass and reeds. The hunter-gatherers lived on acorns, wild berries, roots and bulbs, as well as the deer, rabbits and squirrels that thrived in the region. 

The first baptism in Alta (“New”) California didn’t take place during Father Junipero Serra’s expedition, says Msgr. Arthur Holquin, Pastor Emeritus of Mission San Juan Capistrano and the Diocese’s Vicar for Divine Worship. “While Father Serra was charged with the evangelization of Alta California, he was not part of the first expedition that left in 1769.There were two padres who were chaplains on this expedition, and one of them, Father Francisco Gomez, performed this first baptism.” 

Expedition members first met the Acjachemen tribe while searching for a place to spend one night. The priests were soon informed that two young girls were seriously ill and dying. Fr. Gomez, seeking to help the girls enter heaven, performed the baptism on July 22, 1769. The missionaries later named the area Los Cristianitos (“Little Christians”). 

Had the baptism been performed some two centuries later, it would’ve been under the watchful eyes of the United States Marine Corp. A cross and memorial are located at the actual site, off Cristiantos Road, near Camp Pendleton’s Cristiantos entrance. And in 2013, the Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens, in San Clemente, unveiled the official State Historical Marker honoring the baptism. Located near Casa Romantica’s main entrance, it was moved from Camp Pendleton, since visiting the actual site had required Marine approval. 

“What this monument represents is the biggest paradigm shift in our culture – the day the children were baptized and we became Christians,” said Teresa Romero, chairwoman of the Juaneño band of Mission Indians, in a 2013 OC Register article. (“Juaneño,” the name given to the Acjachemen people by the Spaniards, was derived from “Mission San Juan Capistrano,” founded by Serra in 1776.) 

Full story at Orange County Catholic.