Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Learning About California's history at San Juan Capistrano

When we were in California we visited the Mission San Juan Capistrano. The Native Americans were the first people in what is today California, then the Spanish arrived from the country of Mexico. Even today the influence of the Spanish culture is obvious in California. New York State and the East Coast were mainly settled and influenced by the English and their culture.

While Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and other famous Americans were writing the Declaration of Independence and fighting for freedom from England the Spanish were creating missions in California. The Spanish sent missionaries and soldiers to California to Christianize the Native Americans.

The Mission San Juan Capistrano was founded in 1776. The Serra’s Chapel, the mission church was built in 1782. It is the oldest building still in use in California. Our tour guide, Tony, started with a history of the Acjachemen, the Native Americans who had lived for more than 10,000 years in the area. Basically, they were hunter-gathers who lived in dome-shaped houses called kiicha made of natural material. Tony pointed to a rock with holes in it and explained, “This is where the Achachemen would grind shelled acorns into a flour used to make breads. They would eat all animals from mice to bear.”

When the Spanish arrived everything changed for Native Americans. Each mission started with five or six soldiers and two missionaries. The Acjachemen were fascinated by the glass, cloth, horses, guns, and other new items the Spanish had with them so many of them moved to the mission. They were baptized into the Christian religion.

The mission grew into a busy town. There were very few trees so the people made adobe bricks to make their buildings. At one time there were so many people living in the mission they had to kill 100 cattle a week for food but they used everything. The fat was boiled down to make candles, soap and creams. Even the manure was mixed with the clay to make the adobe bricks. Today the mission has beautiful gardens and is a quiet place so it was hard for us to imagine all the activity that must have been part of the everyday life at the mission. Many of the rooms were set up the exact way they were in the 1800s.

The church was important part of the mission. Each mission had bells just like churches do today. The bells were necessary because most people did not have clocks or watches so the bells were a way to let everyone know when it was time to get up, eat, and go to church. Gold was discovered in 1848 and in 1849 people from all over the world rushed to California hoping to strike it rich. California joined the United States in 1850.

The Mission San Juan Capistrano is famous for the swallows that return to the mission on March 19, the mission’s saint day. Today the swallows still return but not in the large numbers that they did in the past. The area around the mission is now a city so the birds have found quieter places to build their nests. On March 19 many people visit the mission to see the birds that do show up.

We really enjoyed our tour especially because we made a new friend, Cody Groom. He is in the fourth grade. In California all fourth graders have to visit one of California’s 21 missions. He had a list of questions to answer and when he returned home he had to write a report. It was fun learning about the Mission San Juan Capistrano with Cody. This is our report.