The mob has been toppling statutes of Junípero Serra in California because he purportedly “enslaved” and committed “genocide” against indigenous people. There is no indication that the mob is interested in having a discussion about whether these allegations are true. But in theory our government and church leaders should be interested as they deliberate on whether to “voluntarily” remove memorials of Serra from public display. So let’s examine each of these claims in turn.


Were the neophytes at the California missions slaves either under Spanish law or in fact?

As an initial matter, Serra did not “force” the indigenous people to join the missions. A visitor to Mission San Gabriel in 1776 observed that “[t]he method of which the fathers observe in the conversion is not to oblige anyone to become Christian, admitting only those who voluntarily offer themselves for baptism.”

Spain had in fact banned Indian slavery in the New World as early as 1542, more than 200 years before Serra ever stepped foot in California. Under the “Laws of the Indies”, it was strictly forbidden for any subject of Spain to “take, apprehend, occupy, sell, or exchange as a slave any Indian.” This legal prohibition of Indian slavery was binding in California until the 1820s, when Mexico gained its independence from Spain.

Under Spanish law, the neophytes at the California missions were considered “wards” of the missionaries (in much the same way that minors are considered “wards” of their parents nowadays). Although this legal relationship was present within mission systems throughout New Spain, it was first established in California through the efforts of Serra. In his famous legal brief, the Representación, Serra convinced the viceroy of New Spain to remove the neophytes from the jurisdiction of the Spanish soldiers and to place them under the protection of the Franciscan missionaries.

This decision had important legal consequences. As historian Francis Guest explains: “The status of the neophytes in the California missions as wards of the missionaries had the important effect of providing them with legal protection from possible abuse and ill-treatment at the hands of soldiers and other gente de razón.” For example, the status of neophyte females as minors gave them protection against licentious soldiers who might otherwise have lived with them in a state of concubinage.  The procurement of these protections is one reason why the Representación has been called a “Bill of Rights for Native Americans”.

The neophytes in the California missions were not “slaves” of the missionaries any more than minors are “slaves” of their parents under current law. If a minor runs away from home nowadays, he or she will be returned by the authorities, notwithstanding the minor’s desire to leave. In the same way, neophytes who fled from the missions were usually brought back there by Spanish soldiers or by the missionaries themselves. Such a relationship is susceptible to various criticisms, but the factual aspects of that relationship do not correspond to any legal or common sense understanding of slavery.

In its primary sense, slavery is a legal or economic system in which the principles of property law are applied to human beings, allowing them to be owned, bought, and sold. In California, no indigenous person was ever owned, bought, or sold, whether by a missionary or by anyone else. Unlike slaves, the natives who worked at the missions during Serra’s lifetime consumed the fruits of their own labor as opposed to having their labor exploited for the sake of profit. And unlike slave plantations, the mission territories on which the natives labored belonged to them by law and, through the legal process of secularization, were destined to be restored to them. As Professor James Sandos of the University of Redlands has explained, “neophytes were assuredly not slaves.”


There can be no dispute that, during the California mission era, many indigenous people died as a result of the introduction of European diseases for which they had no immunity. But is this sad decline in the native population tantamount to genocide?

In 1948, the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defined “genocide” as an act, such as killing or causing serious bodily injury, committed “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”.

Serra clearly did not intend to destroy the indigenous people of California. As he once put it: “We have all come here and remained here for the sole purpose of their well-being and salvation. And I believe everyone realizes we love them.” The deaths of the natives due to disease was, in fact, contrary to a fundamental goal of Spanish government. The Spaniards wanted to establish the natives as autonomous landowning subjects in order to settle their frontier in California and to stave off encroaching foreign powers. Far from being intended, the deaths of the natives undermined this very goal.

There were no large scale epidemics at the California missions during Serra’s lifetime. According to Professor Steven Hackel, at the time of Serra’s death in 1784, “these missions, by and large, were healthy settlements.” This means that Serra not only did not intend the deaths of the natives—and therefore did not commit genocide—he did not even have the opportunity to respond to the unintended epidemics which broke out in later years after he was gone.

Somewhere between the incendiary accusations of “slavery” and “genocide,” there are in fact legitimate discussions to be had concerning the legacy of Serra and the California missions. None of these historical considerations matter to the mobs who are toppling statues of Serra, though. For them, it was all slavery and genocide, plain and simple. But once you understand that such allegations cannot stand up under the historical facts, then you can begin to understand that history had little to do with all of this in the first place.

The above story is by Patrick Laurence.