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  • Surviving Urbanization:The Gabrieleno, 1850-1928
  • Heather Valdez Singleton (bio)

In the early twentieth century, anthropologists and government officials proclaimed many California Indian tribes extinct because of the effects of colonization—violence, disease, and urbanization. They believed the Gabrieleno, an indigenous tribe of the Los Angeles basin, had succumbed to the pressures of missionization and urbanization. However, in 1928 over a hundred of these Indians self-identified as Gabrieleno on the California Indian judgment roll. Many of them were living in the same small geographic area where their ancestors had lived eighty years before. From 1850 to 1928, the U.S. government essentially ignored the close-knit, interrelated Gabrieleno community of San Gabriel despite pleas for federal relief on their behalf by local Indian agents. Because of apathy and misinformation, few historical documents about the Gabrieleno exist. Thus, very little research has been done on this period of Gabrieleno history, and the most comprehensive history of the Gabrieleno stops at 1850. What happened to the Gabrieleno from then until 1928, and why, is pieced together here through a detailed review of the limited archival documents that exist.

Pre-1850 Overview

The Gabrielenos are of the Uto-Aztecan language family and traditionally lived in autonomous and politically connected villages from the Topanga area and Orange County to the Channel Islands. Before [End Page 49] Spanish contact in the 1500s, fifty to one hundred Gabrieleno villages stood in this area, each with an average population of fifty to one hundred people. Chiefs often oversaw several villages. With Gabrieleno territory encompassing a variety of ecological zones, these people thrived primarily by hunting, collecting, and fishing.

European encroachments into southern California were extremely disruptive to the Gabrieleno. The first recorded contact Gabrielenos had with Europeans occurred in 1542 with the Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo expedition, a Spanish seafaring voyage through the Channel Islands. The Gaspar de Portola expedition in 1769 was the first land expedition to reach Gabrieleno territory and marked the beginning of Spanish colonization in what was called Alta California. Accompanying Portola was the soon-to-be founder of the infamous mission system in Alta California, the Franciscan padre Junipero Serra. Within two years of the Portola expedition, Serra established four missions in Alta California, including San Gabriel Mission near the Gabrieleno village of Sibagna. Beginning in 1771, Spanish missionaries recruited Indians of various Gabrieleno villages to live at the San Gabriel Mission, and over the next fifty years the San Gabriel Mission oversaw an often brutal and coercive campaign devised to destroy Indian cultures and convert Indians to Christianity. Priests employed severe punishment for behavior they deemed unacceptable. Disease and mistreatment of Gabrielenos led to at least six thousand Indian deaths at the mission, dealing a serious blow to their population. During this period, deaths far exceeded the number of births. A missionary reported that three out of four children died before reaching the age of two. In response to these devastating circumstances, Indians at the mission resisted by staging several uprisings and by running away. In 1817, the San Gabriel Mission recorded 473 Indian fugitives.

In 1824, conditions changed for the Gabrieleno when the Mexican government assumed control of California from Spain. Most significant, from 1832 to 1834 the Mexican government passed a series oflaws that secularized the missions. This policy called for the conversion of the missions into pueblos, or small towns, and for the transfer of the land title to the liberated Indian. Because of the unwillingness ofthe Catholic Church to relinquish its control over Indians and the land, of increasing land values, and of unethical land transactions by non-Indians, Mexican officials refused to implement the law, leaving Indians in a precarious position.

After the secularization of San Gabriel Mission, scattered reports indicate that the Gabrielenos pursued several options available to them. Some moved from the mission to the burgeoning pueblo of Los Angeles looking for work. They became an integral part of the pueblo's growth and labor force. Essentially, Los Angeles, founded in 1781 and heavily dependent on Indian labor, grew slowly on the back of Gabrieleno laborers.1 [End Page 50] Some Gabrielenos intermarried with other tribes, leaving their traditional homeland. However, a core group...


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