- Lands Never Trodden: The Franciscans and the California Missions by John J. O’Hagan
The historiography on the California missions is vast, vibrant, and in many instances polarized between pro-missionary factions that praise the Franciscan friars as civilizing agents and those who accuse them of genocide against the indigenous peoples. The controversy lies on the missionaries’ treatment of the native peoples as much as the interpretative tone of the colonial milieu behind the mission system. Amateur historian John O’Hagan’s Lands Never Trodden belongs to the first group. O’Hagan describes the history of each one of the missions until the present as well as the missions’ architecture and art. Although the book is mostly descriptive and synthetic, a recurrent theme throughout the book is the friars’ motivations to establish the mission compounds. According to the author, we can only comprehend Franciscan missionaries and assess their deeds through their own European contemporary standards; thus, any modern judgment is anachronistic and partial. His goal is thus not to lay new ground but to make the history of the missions accessible to a general audience. Although there are some interesting sections, the author’s zeal to justify the Franciscan evangelizing enterprise, some historical errors, and his scanty source selection ultimately limit its value for academic scholars and the general audience.
The book is thematically divided with three introductory chapters and a chapter for each one of the twenty-one missions. O’Hagan reveals his fondness for the missionaries early on. Friars stood out for their “faith, fanaticism, devotion to duty, and unremitting labor” (p. 3), “dedication, understanding and love” (p. 5). Franciscan [End Page 634] missionaries to California were unique “people who faced and met the daunting challenges of creating civilization from an untamed land” (p. 5). As champions of culture and civilization, they brought temperance and justice to a violent land. Corporal punishments existed in the missions, he acknowledges, but they “were largely in accord with the then-existing views and moral standards” (p. 5). As the case of neophytes and school students in our educational system were undistinguishable, O’Hagan astonishingly justifies that “[c]orporal punishment is still legal in public schools in twenty states” (p. 6). These are but a few examples that show the tone of the book. On the other hand, the author not only ignores natives’ own standards and cultures but also claims that “Stone Age” California natives were naive, gullible, and unsophisticated (p. 18). Factual errors abound. For example, O’Hagan states that Jesuits and Dominicans preceded Franciscans in the Americas (p. 23).
The bulk of the book is a descriptive history of the twenty-one missions. Each chapter includes a historical account of a mission from its foundation through secularization. The author then describes the less-known vicissitudes of each mission until the present to finish with an interesting last section that explains the religious iconography and architecture. Vivid anecdotes ranging from love stories and the sea otter trade to the first documented surgical procedure in California fill each chapter. In a less laudatory tenor, O’Hagan acknowledges that disease and harsh conditions wrought havoc to mission indigenous populations, although Spanish colonialism and a few rotten apples are to be blamed, not the missionary enterprise itself.
O’Hagan relies on a handful of known classic works by Hubert Howe Bancroft (1880s), Franciscan friars Zephyrin Englehard (1890s–1920s) and Maynard Geiger (1950s–60s), as well as mostly Franciscan primary sources. It is surprising that O’Hagan overlooks recent scholarship on the California missions, some even listed in the bibliography. Better peer review and copyediting would have improved the text and saved the author from partiality and factual errors that otherwise diminish the book’s value for the general readership that it is intending to serve.