Saturday, November 1, 2014
We paid a visit to San Juan Bautista to see the old Spanish mission and the San Juan Bautista State Historical Park, which were adjacent to each other.
This sleepy little town embraces the early history of California, from the late 1700s to the mid-1800s, and its transition from Spanish to Mexican to American territory. It also traces a confluence, as well as a clash, of cultures – Spanish, Mexican, Californio, American, Italian and Irish.
But first, here’s an interesting factoid for Star Trek fans. Before the Spanish came to California, Mutsun people inhabited the valley around San Juan Bautista. The Mutsun spoke a unique language, now virtually extinct. Marc Okrand studied Mutsun grammar for his PhD dissertation. He also created the Klingon language.
Mission San Juan Bautista
This mission was the fifteenth of twenty-one missions established by the Spanish along the coast of California in the 1700s. All the missions were eventually connected by the Camino Real (Royal Road) which followed routes developed by Native Americans to their hunting, gathering and trading areas. Modern paved roads that follow the Camino Real are identified by a bell hanging from what looks like a shepherd’s staff.
This mission was founded on June 24, 1797 and its church has been in continuous service ever since. In fact, on the day we visited two wedding services were held. I felt like we were intruding on other peoples’ private moments and tried to be as unobtrusive as possible.
But besides being an active church, the mission is also a museum. It was well worth the $4 adult/$3 senior admission price.
We wandered through the rooms and displays including the Architectural History Room, Mission Industries Room, Vestments Room, Music Room, La Pozolera Room (kitchen), and Guadalupe Chapel. The curators did a nice job of giving each room a lived-in look, as though the only thing missing were the inhabitants. My imagination took care of that.
The Reading Room was filled with early nineteenth century manuscripts and hymnals, some handwritten. I would have loved to settle into a chair and scan the books. Of course I couldn’t really read them because they were in Spanish and Latin. Although I took French in high school – many, many years ago – and tried to learn Spanish – operative word is tried – I doubt I’d be able to translate any of the texts.
The padre’s dining room or la refectoria, was modestly furnished. I could picture the padre and his guests having a quiet dinner and talking in low voices.
The mission forms a square around a central plaza. Beautiful gardens encompassed most of the plaza, including this incredible prickly pear. I had no idea they could grow so big.
I also came across a lovely poem on a small plaque in the garden.
The kiss of the sun for pardon,
The song of the birds for mirth,
One is nearer to God’s heart in a garden,
Than anywhere else on earth.
After the weddings were over, we wandered inside the church.
Although the church is relatively small, the altar is magnificent, with Christ and saints dramatically backlit behind the altar. At least I think they’re saints.
This was also the Day of the Dead, which runs from October 31 to November 2. During this period, family and friends build private altars to the deceased, leaving offerings such as sugar skulls, marigolds, favorite foods and drinks, and other mementos. We came across this altar dedicated to the dear departed. Neat in a creepy kinda’ way.
San Juan Bautista State Historical Park
The main elements of this small park are the historic buildings – Plaza Hotel, Castro-Breen Adobe, Plaza Hall/Zanetta House, and the Plaza Stable. We toured all four of these buildings for the amazing low price of $5 per person.
To get a feel for what these structures mean, make sure you read the signs, and there are a lot of very good ones. Without them, these are just some old buildings. With them, the buildings come alive. People were born in them, lived in them, and died in them. I tried to imagine myself in a long ago moment, to feel what it was like to be there at that time.
Originally built as a barracks and armory for the mission, Angelo Zanetta, an Italian immigrant, opened a bar here in 1856. After building a second floor Zanetta opened the Plaza Hotel in 1859.
Compared to other stagecoach stops, the Plaza Hotel was positively luxurious. A steak dinner could be had for 70 cents, a bath for 75 cents, and a room for as little as $1.00.
That’s the good news. The bad news was that while the rooms were cozy, privacy was scarce. Single travelers shared a room and often a bed.
You could alleviate any bed sharing anxiety by moseying up to the bar. But then you might have to dodge the horses roaming around the bar, their riders still affixed to their saddles. Young men would ride their horses into the bar and drink their drinks. They’d even play billiards while on horseback! Not sure if they danced on horseback though.
History lives within the walls of this house.
In 1841 Jose Tiburcio Castro built this adobe for his son, General Jose Antonio Castro, a one-time governor of California. Jose Antonio lived here with his wife and two children, Esteban and Modestita.
During the 1840s the Mexican government confiscated the mission’s orchards, pastures and herds and turned them over to private citizens like the Castros. Many of those citizens, including Juan Antonio, became wealthy and powerful.
In March 1846, John C. Fremont, U.S. Army officer and explorer also known as the Pathfinder, appeared near San Juan Bautista. He claimed only to be exploring and making maps of the area. Jose Antonio, commander of the Monterey District of Alta California, didn’t believe him and ordered Fremont to leave. Instead, Fremont raised the American flag on Gavilan Peak (now called Fremont Peak) and he and his party entrenched. Before Jose Antonio could force the issue, Fremont left. War was averted but not for long as the United States declared war on Mexico a few weeks later.
This minor event highlighted the negative effects of Manifest Destiny on non-Americans living on lands not yet acquired by the United States. Many Mexicans and Californios believed Fremont’s real goal was to conquer California for the United States. (Fremont was married to the daughter of a prominent senatorial proponent of Manifest Destiny.) True or not, possession of California passed to the United States after the war. The remaining natives, Mexican, Californio, and Indian, faced uncertainty, anxiety, and upheaval.
Entering this saga during the war is the Breen family, Irish Catholic émigrés who traveled to California with the Donner Party in 1847. The Donner Party was trapped for months in the snow-ravaged Sierra Nevada Mountains with not enough food to survive. Only 48 of 87 members of the party survived, those who lived cannibalizing those that died. Amazingly, Margaret and Patrick Breen and their seven children all survived.
When the destitute Breen family arrived here in 1847, the orchards had been abandoned. The local priest gave them a place to sleep and suggested they tend the orchard and sell the fruit. It was a start. The photo below shows a jay in a pomegranate tree in that orchard.
The Breens were introduced to Jose Antonio Castro, who gave them the use of his house rent-free.
After the Mexican-American war, Jose Antonio returned to Mexico, although his daughter, Modestita, remained.
When gold was discovered in 1848 at Sutter’s Mill, the Breen’s eldest son, John, left for the goldfields, returning in the spring of 1849 with $10,000 which he used to buy the Castro house. The Breens lived in this house until 1933, when it became part of the state park system.
Many years ago, I had driven through Donner Pass. So my path had crossed the Breen family’s path once before. History really is a web criss-crossing time and space.
Plaza Hall/Zanetta House
Angelo Zanetta, the Italian immigrant who built the Plaza Hotel, lived on the first floor of this house with his family. The upper floor was used for town meetings and dances.
The bedrooms looked as though they were waiting for their occupants to return from breakfast. Clothes were laid out on the bed. A new day had began.
Toys were set up in the playroom, waiting for the children. One of the Zanetta children died when she was seven. Had she played in this room? My mind fills in the empty space with playing, laughing, creative children.