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The Priest and the “Heathen”

By Larry Clinton, President
What follows is a continuation of the journal of Father Vicente Santa Maria, aboard the San Carlos, the first Spanish vessel to explore San Francisco Bay in 1775.   After  Frigate-lieutenant Juan de Ayala found a safe anchorage for the ship, he began dispatching a longboat to explore the nearby coastline.  Father Santa Maria records a number of distant encounters with Indians (whom he sometimes calls “the Heathen”).  Although the natives appeared friendly, hailing the Spanish sailors and leaving gifts on the beach, both groups were wary of making actual physical contact.  After a few days of sizing each other up, the captain gave permission for Father Santa Maria, two sailing masters and the ship’s surgeon to “communicate at close quarters with those poor unfortunates who so persistently desired us to do so, and by easy steps to bring them into close terms with us and make them the readier when the time should come for attracting them to our Holy Faith.”  Here are the priest’s recollections of that first encounter.
“As we came near the shore, we wondered much to see Indians, lords of these coasts, quite weaponless and obedient to our least sign to them to sit down, doing just as they were bid. There remained standing only one of the eldest, who mutely made clear to us with what entire confidence we should come ashore to receive a new offering which they had prepared for us at the shore’s edge.
“Keeping watch all round to see if among the hills any treachery were afoot, we came in slowly, and when we thought ourselves safe we went ashore, the first sailing master in the lead. There came forward to greet him the oldest Indian, offering him at the end of a stick a string of beads like a rosary, made up of white shells interspersed with black knots in the thread on which they were strung. Then the rest of us landed, and at once the Indian mentioned above (who came as leader among them) showed us the way to the place where they had made ready for us a number of baskets, some filled with pinole [maize flour bread] and others with loaves made with a distinctly sulphurous material that seemed to have been kneaded with some sort of oil, though its odor was so slight that we could not decide what it might be. The sailing master accepted everything and at once returned the favour with earrings, glass beads, and other trinkets. The Indians who came on this occasion were nine in number, three being old men, two of them with sight impaired by cataracts of some sort. The six others were young men of good presence and fine stature.
“They were by no means filthy, and the best favoured were models of perfection; among them was a boy whose exceeding beauty stole my heart. One alone of the young men had several dark blue lines painted from the lower lip to the waist and from the left shoulder to the right, in such a way as to form a perfect cross. God grant that we may see them worshipping so sovereign an emblem.
“It would have seemed natural that these Indians, in their astonishment at our clothes, should have expressed a particular surprise, and no less curiosity; but they gave no sign of it. Only one of the older Indians showed himself a little unmannerly toward me; seeing that I was a thick-bearded man, he began touching the whiskers as if in surprise that I had not shaved long since. We noticed an unusual thing about the young men: none of them ventured to speak and only their elders replied to us. They were so obedient that, notwithstanding we pressed them to do so, they dared not stir a step unless one of the old men told them to; so meek that, even though curiosity prompted them, they did not raise their eyes from the ground; so docile that when my companions did me reverence by touching their lips to my sleeve and then by signs told them to do the same thing, they at once and with good grace did as they were bid.”
The translation of Father Santa Maria’s journal, complete with illustrations and early maps of the Bay Area, is available for viewing at the Historical Society, which is open to the public Wednesdays and Saturdays from 10 am to 1 pm.

Coastal Miwoks were peaceful hunter-gatherers for perhaps half a millennium before the Spanish arrived.

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