California Indians Demand Cruelty to Ancestors Be Disclosed as California Mission Foundation Tries to Declare El Camino Real a UNESCO World Heritage Site

A proposal by the California Mission Foundation to have the state’s famed El Camino Real route declared a UNESCO Heritage Site is being bitterly opposed by state Indians who said it would only “honor and glorify the brutal conquest” of Indian lands.

“Our tribe and many other California Tribes impacted by the California Mission system oppose this effort,” said Valentine Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band of Costanoan/Ohlone Indians. El Camino Real originally linked California’s 21 Franciscan missions, that were a day’s horseback ride apart.

He was joined in his opposition by Antonio Gonzales, the regional representative for the American Indian Movement, who stressed that in too many cases the foundation has undermined the credibility of ownership of the “original peoples of those lands and trails.” The foundation also supported sainthood for Serra without considering the brutality that he imposed on California Indians.

El Camino Real was originally an extensive trade route used by Indigenous peoples linking the United States and Mexico long before the Spanish arrived in 1769. “Once the Indigenous peoples were conquered and dominated, the victors named the trade route “El Camino Real,” Lopez said. The name in English means The King’s Road.

It stretches through the San Francisco Bay Area linking missions there then runs south to San Diego intersecting other missions. For many years small bells were used to mark the route. Most markers have disappeared, either being stolen or vandalized. Serra founded the first nine missions but established the directive that Indians within all the compounds be imprisoned until their deaths disobeying the order by Spanish King Carlos III that the Indians be educated for 10 years then released as full fledged Spanish subjects. While Serra died in 1864, the missions followed his draconian rules until they were disbanded by the Mexican government in 1833.

More than 62,000 Indians imprisoned in the missions, perished from disease, malnutrition, torture and stress. “All were forced into the missions by Serra and the Franciscans who brutally ruled over the missions,” said Lopez. He estimates that actually more than 140,000 Indians, not counted in surveys, actually died in California. The natives, living outside the compounds, were contaminated after contracting diseases from infected mission Indians.

The Indians had no immunity to European diseases such as mumps, measles, chickenpox, colds and flu brought by the Spaniards. Once confined to the missions by the Franciscans, Indians suffered horrendous epidemics of those diseases, spread by the terrible living conditions within the mission compounds that were akin to concentration camps.

Serra was, made a saint by Pope Francis in 2015. Lopez criticized the Pope’s actions stating he had earlier apologized for the “sins, crimes and offenses and the destruction of the Indigenous peoples, culture and environments,” then made a saint of one of the great offenders against the Indians.

“This is the true history of the El Camino Real and this is the story that the California Mission Foundation endeavors to ignore, erase and deny in their efforts to declare El Camino Real as a UNESCO World Heritage Site,” stressed Lopez.

Also joining the protest was Elias Castillo, author of A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California’s Indians by the Spanish Missions. In writing the book, Castillo, relied on his discovery of preserved letters by Serra and other Franciscans in California in which they denigrate Indians, their languages, beliefs and culture. The Academy of American Franciscan History published all those letters in separate volumes. The letters, along with carefully preserved mission records, uncovered irrefutable evidence of the cruelty in which Serra and his Franciscans treated the Indians. “Unless the truth is clearly explained,” Lopez stressed, “El Camino Real should not become a World Heritage Site. Too many Indians died from the inhumanity of Serra and the Franciscans.”

Castillo’s book, hailed by Indian leaders as the first accurate and complete description of the Missions, cites letters written by Serra ordering the whipping of Indians. In another letter he describes the Indians as so savage they can only be controlled by “blows.” His successor, Friar Fermin Lasuen likens the Indians to “animals”, while the last Spanish Franciscan to head the missions, Friar Mariano Payeras, in a total turnaround, blames the constant deaths of Indians on abominable conditions within the missions. Unlike Pope Francis and other Roman Catholic hierarchy, Payeras openly admitted to the terrible conditions in the missions suffered by the California Indians. “We did as were ordered,” Payeras states in a letter to his superior in Mexico City. The Franciscan, in his letter, written February 2, 1820, laments the manner in which the Indians have been treated and warned of the Franciscans being subjected to “slander and sarcasm” for what they did to the Indians.

In 1832, the Mexican Assembly in California hailed their government’s order to dissolve the Missions, describing them as a “detestable system” that had “oppressed” the Indians.



Valentine Lopez   email:,  phone: 916.743.5833

Antonio Gonzales email:

Elias Castillo  email:



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