Father Serra - Missionary

Father Serra - Missionary
Always forward, never back

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Who Were the Other Leaders of California?

While Father Serra was elected president guardian of the California missions, other men, all soldiers, were selected to take part in the royal mission of defending Spanish territories from the British and Russians.

The first was Don Gaspar de Portolá born in Balageur, Catalonia, Spain. He entered the military at age 11 and became an Alférez or Ensign in the dragoons, infantry mounted on horses to move from place to place but to fight on foot. An interesting note; is it is believed the word dragoon came from the dragon the soldiers decorated their Wheelock muskets with. He fought in Italy and Portugal. I've had a very difficult time learning about Portolá's early years or how and when he reached Mexico. He next appears as a captain in the dragoons overseeing the silver mines of Sonora.

He was appointed Governor of the Californias by Visitador-General José de Gálvez in 1767 with the goal of first removing the Jesuits from California, something he apparently was not that glad to do. Fr. Baegert wrote that "gratitude as well as respect for his good name compels me to state here that Governor Don Gaspar Portolá ... treated the Jesuits, considering the circumstances, with respect, honor, politeness, and friendliness. He never caused the least annoyance, sincerely assuring us how painful it was to him to have to execute such a commission.

On several occasions tears came to his eyes, and he was surprised to find Europeans willing to live and die in such a country."

An interesting point here is that Don Gaspar was not the “Governor of the Californias!” He was only the lieutenant governor of Alta - or Upper - California. Matias de Aroma was appointed to the position of governor of “All the Californias” and took up residence at Loreto, Baja California in June 1969 while the Portolá expedition was on its way north. Aroma had no authority over Portolá. Aroma was bitter about the Franciscans taking over the Jesuit missions and was removed by Viceroy Bucareli because of that hostility in March 1675.

Here is a study of the character of Spaniards of birth in the 18th century. No matter his personal beliefs or favoritisms, Don Gaspar felt bound by his oath to carry out the orders of the king's representative. The Jesuits were soldiers of God and most military personnel looked to them for guidance. To have them disgraced by the orders of the French king must have been a horrible thing for Don Gaspar – and others – to endure.

However, he loyally carried out his duties and helped Father Serra and his Franciscan friars take over the missions of Lower [Baja] California.

Portolá obviously had no intention of living and dying in Baja California. He was an unmarried soldier of noble rank, born in Catalonia, and had seen service with the Spanish army in Italy and Portugal. His appointment as governor of Baja California was supposed to have been a promotion, but in the view of Fray Baegert, it amounted to exile:

    "His punishment ... could not have been more severe (except death, the gallows, or prison for life) had he sworn a false oath to the king or proved a traitor to his country ...

His field chaplain, Don Fernandez, a secular priest [I didn't understand what this meant until I checked out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Secular_clergy ], wanted to leave the country as soon as he saw that there was no one to speak to all day long and nothing to do but sit in his hermitage, to gaze at the blue sky and the green sea, or to play a piece on his guitar."

An active and devout man, Portolá proved to be an able organizer and a good leader, preferring democratic procedure to arbitrary direction, and got along well with all the missionaries. He expressed continual concern over the health of Fray Serra and doubt whether he could stand such a long and hazardous journey; he worried lest Fray Serra's infected leg might cause delays and difficulties.

But he could not prevail against Fray Serra's sense of dedication. "Despite the fact that I remonstrated with him," commented Portolá to Fray Palóu, "and pointed out the delay it would cause to the expedition if he should become incapacitated along the road, I was unable to convince him to remain and have you go in his place. When I spoke to him of the matter, his consistent answer was that he trusted in God to give him the strength to enable him to reach San Diego and Monte Rey."

We will deal with the following two – Captain Fernando de Rivera and Lieutenant Pedro Fages - in the next post.

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