Primary Sources

Researching for a public history of the California missions has required gathering primary accounts from mission visitors, administrators, neophyte decedents, information distributed by the mission, and observing the mission’s historical presentation. The most useful primary sources I have gathered thus far include an interview I conducted with a Mission San Juan Capistrano (SJC) administrator and books sold by Missions SJC and San Fernando Rey de España.
To get insights on the mission’s memory from its administrators, I interviewed Megan Dukett—the Education and Interpretive Program Director at Mission SJC. She has worked at the mission for nearly ten years and oversees a variety of operations at the mission, including all educational programs and the mission audio tour script. Unfortunately the interview only lasted about twenty-five minutes over the phone since its the mission’s high season, but within that time I was able to gather enough information to assess her pro-mission bias. For instance, when discussing the controversy over the canonization of Fr. Serra, she explained, “it’s complicated and you have to put yourself in the shoes of the [priests] that were there.”  Her answer is one of the most common explanations used to defend the legacy of Fr. Serra. Although understanding the society and culture Fr. Serra and his contemporaries lived in, a controversial history deserves a better answer than ‘it’s complicated.’
Other sources I have found incredibly beneficial to my research are the mission biographies sold in the mission gift shops. Front and center in Mission SJC’s gift store is the Mission San Juan Capistrano: Official Commemorative Guide— a book published in 2015 written by Megan Dukett. The forty-seven page guide provides an chronological history of the mission with sections such as the Founding Period (1769-1834), Life at the Mission (1776-1834), Secularization (1834-1844), and Mission Preservation (1941-present). The book is a literal example of how mission administrators, who favor advertising the positive parts of the mission’s history, influence the history told to the public. While discussing neophyte life at the mission, the book lists disease and a change in lifestyle as the most pressing hardships Native Americans face. These two features were undoubtedly legitimate hardships and are rightly mentioned, but not elaborated on within the book. The book fails to elaborate on any potentially damning details of the latter hardship, such as how neophytes were physically punished if they tried to leave the mission without the head priest’s consent. This is an excellent example of how the public memory of the missions have yet to provide a wholistic picture of the mission’s history.
One of the most difficult parts of working with my primary sources is that useful information is rarely explicitly stated. Analyzing what is not said is equally, if not more so, important in a public history project. The absence of controversy is, after all, the issue at hand.

Questions I Hope to Answer

How have the missions influenced the public culture and memory of California?

What are the most important messages and themes presented to visitors of the missions?

Why does the story of the missions overlook the more controversial aspects of their history, such as the mass Indian graves?

How have past and present administrators shaped the history displayed at the missions?

Are the missions really an appropriate symbol of California identity and culture?

Visit to Mission San Juan Capistrano

“Memory not only conserves the past but adjusts recall to current needs.” – Kenneth E. Foote, Shadowed Ground, 5.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Mission San Juan Capistrano prides itself on being the “Jewel of the Missions.” Both past and present administrators deserve credit for revitalizing the cultural, historical, and religious significance of the mission. Father John O’Sullivan, for instance, is hailed for reconstructing the mission both physically and spiritually in the early 20th century. Two of his most important ventures included the restoration of the Serra Chapel—the last standing chapel Fr. Serra practiced mass in—and the popularization of the Legend of the Swallows.

The Legend of the Swallows is celebrated with two annual community celebrations, St. Joseph’s Day and San Juan Capistrano’s Feast Day, which respectively commemorate the return and departure of the American Swallows. The swallows are introduced to mission visitors in a welcome video playing on loop inside the museum. In the video, the swallows are quickly deemed one of the mission’s main attractions. Everyday the mission offers the “Swallows Walk and Talk Tour” to draw in guests curious about the acclaimed history and celebrated tradition of swallow migration to the mission ( The legend was constructed by Fr. O’Sullivan, who published a series of articles and a book romanticizing the spectacle of swallow migration. By presenting the swallows as unique to the mission, Fr. O’Sullivan’s efforts helped raise money for the mission’s restoration and preservation. Inspired by Fr. O’Sullivan’s message, singer and songwriter Leon René—writer of the famous song “Rockin’ Robin—wrote his hit song “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano” in 1939. The song nearly topped the U.S. music charts and earned the mission national recognition. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that the Legend of the Swallows is one of the most advertised features of the mission. However, in promoting the swallow legend, Fr. O’Sullivan inadvertently veiled the mission’s more tragic history.

Having gone through several different eras throughout its life—the Mission Period (1769-1834), Secularization (1834-1844), U.S. Statehood and Decline (1865-1895), and Preservation (1895-1940)—the mission has developed a layered history only briefly covered at the mission today. During the Mission Period, thousands of Indians became baptized neophytes at the mission and radically changed their lives forever. While some good came out of missionizing the local Acjachemen people, the mission’s exhibits fail to recognize the more controversial aspects of the mission process. For instance, in the two rooms dedicated to the life and culture of the Acjachemen, only one museum label discusses native hardships. The label mentions how native food shortages and the spread of disease resulted from missionization, but in limited form and without mention of the complex relationship between Franciscan and neophyte residents of the mission. Once the Acjachemen entered the mission, they were dominated by Franciscan authority and had little control over their own lives. Neophytes were also strictly prohibited from ever leaving the mission.

Changes and Challenges for the Acjachemen People

The romanticized history of the swallow migration dominates the narrative at San Juan Capistrano. An annual parade, daily “Swallows Walk and Talk” tours, and various signs throughout the mission all commemorate the tradition. The mission also displays an overwhelmingly positive image of the Spanish Franciscans. At the same time, a mass Indian grave in the mission cemetery houses the bodies of approximately 3,000 mission Indians. The mission placed a cross statue overlooking the grave of Fr. O’Sullivan and a single plaque to honor the fallen neophytes. The little attention given to the massive burial in comparison to other features of the mission is representative of how the public memory of the mission has been perhaps undeservingly complementary of such a complex history.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.



Ever since Helen Hunt Jackson published her best-selling novel Ramona in 1884, California’s Spanish past changed forever. Jackson’s depiction of Spanish Franciscan missions in an idyllic sun-kissed landscape laid the foundation for the romanticization of California’s regional identity. The prevalence of revival style architecture and the veneration of Father Junipero Serra, founder of the California missions, reveals only two of the ways the mission system has influenced both the physical and psychological culture of California. However, the public memory of the missions has justifiably been attacked by journalists and historians over the past several decades, such as in Elias Castillo’s A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California’s Indians by the Spanish Missions. In addition to various historical works similar to Castillo’s, Fr. Serra’s recent admission into sainthood was met with outrage from several Native American groups in California, who claimed Serra’s missions instigated a cultural genocide.

Needless to say, the memory of the California missions is controversial. Throughout the next few months, this blog will provide updates on my analysis of the public memory and legacy of the mission system. Today the missions serve as tourist attractions for those who wish to gain a more comprehensive understanding of California’s Spanish roots. However, throughout the twentieth century, the missions have been reconstructed  by preservationists—the most famous being Charles Lummis—not only physically, but also culturally. Building off of the foundation of romanticism laid by Jackson’s Ramona, the “mission myth,” a term used by modern historians, has veiled the public’s view of the physical and cultural abuses many Native Americans experienced at the Franciscan missions.

Twenty one missions were established along California’s coast from San Diego to San Francisco, which spans well-over 500 miles. To provide a more in-depth analysis of California’s mission memory, this study will narrow its focus and primarily examine two missions: San Juan Capistrano and San Fernando Rey de España. Visiting both missions will be one of the ways I gather resources and information utilized for research. Not only does this entail observation of museum labels, sculptures, and tours offered, but also the purchasing of books sold in the mission gift stores, especially those recommended by mission administrators.