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Journal of the History of Sexuality 16.3 (2008) 391-415

Conjugal Violence, Sex, Sin, and Murder in the Mission Communities of Alta California
Brian T. McCormack
Independent Scholar

On the evening of 16 November 1811 Fray José Pedro Panto (1778–1812) retired for the evening to enjoy his evening meal at Mission San Diego. After consuming a small portion of his dinner, he noticed that his soup tasted unusually spicy and bitter. He also noticed that it contained a white, cloudy powder. The concerned friar drank a glass of tepid water and proceeded to vomit for a "very long half hour." Afterward, Fray Panto asked Corporal Antonio Guillén and Sergeant Mariano Mercado to examine the soup. They also noted the soup's bitter and peculiar taste.1

Civil proceedings conducted by Spanish authorities in the weeks following brought many of the circumstances related to this event to light. The authorities identified Nazario, Fray Panto's servant, as the primary suspect. During the proceedings Fray Panto testified that he was not aware of what had provoked his servant's actions. Nazario was not a mission neophyte who possessed a "bad heart," he stated. On the contrary, he considered Nazario to be a passive and peaceful Indian. Sergeant Mariano Mercado gave additional testimony that confirmed Panto's favorable impressions of Nazario, adding that Nazario had never injured any of his previous masters. But he did reveal that Fray Panto had given his servant twenty-five "lashes" (azotes) days earlier. He did not believe such a "light" punishment would have caused any resentment toward the friar, Sergeant Mercado added.2 [End Page 391]

When presented with an opportunity to speak, Nazario gave a much different account of his experience of servitude under the friar at Mission San Diego. He acknowledged he had in fact poisoned his "master." He defended his actions on the basis that he was the victim of Fray Panto's frequent and severe floggings. In response, Nazario recounted, he poured a small amount of "herb powder" (yerba) gathered the previous day into Panto's soup "for the purpose of seeing that, if by poisoning the friar, he would stop punishing [me] so severely."3

This essay analyzes a cross-section of ethnographic data relating to Native abuse, conjugal and sexual violence, and homicide located within the civil and ecclesiastical records of colonial California. Provoked by the everyday intimacies and constraints of colonial rule and the gender strategies of rule and embodiment imposed by the Franciscan mission regime, California's Native inhabitants committed a myriad of forms and acts of political and sexual violence. Such records inform our understanding of indigenous life, incorporation, and the gendered experiences of Native subordination and denigration under Spanish rule within this remote region of Mexico's far northwestern frontier. These events and the records they produced also further our insight into the ambivalent reception offered by the region's inhabitants to Spanish settlement and the efforts of Franciscan missionaries to convert them to Christianity. Finally, the Native testimony located within these cases suggests how Spanish colonial rule and Franciscan evangelization transformed Native thought, identity, and behavior relating to sexuality and marriage in colonial California and the extent to which Native inhabitants of the region internalized or resisted such religious and cultural impositions.

Sex and Conquest in Alta California

The principal historical theme for nearly all the indigenous peoples of coastal Alta California following the onset of Spanish colonization was their gradual displacement from a mosaic of culturally and linguistically diverse Native villages, or rancherías, and their eventual incorporation into the emerging colonial order. Between 1769 and 1823 the Spanish Crown established a chain of twenty-one Franciscan missions and four presidios (frontier military forts) across a stretch of coastal and nearby inland territory of California, extending from San Diego to San Francisco, inhabited by about sixty thousand Native inhabitants. In the ensuing years, Native villagers suffered a devastating demographic collapse resulting from the spread of...


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