Indian Family Housing at Mission San Juan Bautista

Glenn J. Farris
Senior State Archaeologist

Mission San Juan Bautista, in California's Coast Range between Missions Soledad and Santa Clara, was founded over 200 years ago on June 14, 1797. Although the Church and Convento of the old mission is owned by the Catholic Church and still in operation as an active parish, portions of the outlying areas around the mission are owned and operated by the California Department of Parks and Recreation. One section of the San Juan Bautista State Historic Park (SHP) was known to have had stone foundations under a surface of hard, adobe soil. In 1961, archaeologist John Clemmer dug some test pits and prepared a short report concerning stone foundations and a trash pit he had found. He rightly suggested that it may have been the mission era Neophyte Indian Village, but could say little more about the structures.

In 1991, the author led a short test excavation project intended to evaluate the extent of the foundations. Through the great good fortune of recent rains, the soil was softened enough to allow the use of a steel hand probe to penetrate the normally rocklike adobe soil and "feel" out the foundations. By systematically marking the various outer foundation walls and inner cross walls, it became apparent that there were two buildings over 200 feet long. One of them was 216 feet long by 20 feet wide while the other was 222.5 feet long by 37.5 feet in width. In order to get a cross section of the two structures as well as the intervening 38 foot space, a backhoe was used to remove overburden and provide a 2 foot wide window. When foundations were encountered, we began digging by hand. Apart from a small crew of State Park archaeologists, we were fortunate enough to have the help of volunteers from the Santa Cruz Archaeological Society .

Once we had determined that the smaller structure had 11 rooms and the large one 22 rooms, I reviewed the mission's annual reports and found that in 1824 there was mention of 22 rooms being completed as housing for the Indian families. It would seem to firmly date at least one of our buildings. The smaller one is less certain, but may associate with a set of 10 rooms mentioned in the 1821 annual report. The rooms are generally 17 feet long by 14 feet wide with a firepit in the center. The outer wall foundations were 36-40 inches in width, indicating that the wall was probably at least a vara (33 inches) wide. Such Indian family housing structures have been studied at two other state parks, La Purisima Mission SHP and Santa Cruz Mission SHP. In each of these missions, similar structures were being built during this same early 1820s period. The Santa Cruz Mission Adobe is especially important because large portions of the standing building have been preserved and are now restored to an approximation of their original form. The nearness of Santa Cruz and San Juan Bautista further make the analogies between these two structures particularly meaningful. An isometric view of a room in the Santa Cruz Mission Adobe gives us a reasonable image of what might have been found at San Juan Bautista.

There were not a large number of artifacts found, but they were of a number of categories. Two complete pestles for pounding food seeds (principally acorns) were discovered just outside of room B-17. Many of the artifacts suggested levels of acculturation on the part of the Indian population, who were, after all, being trained to be citizens of the newly independent Mexico.

At the same time, items of personal ornamentation reflected traditional tastes including a chione pendant and an olivella shell bead, as well as acquired tastes indicated by the glass trade beads. A phoenix button may also have been used as an ornament.

European tools were represented in the form of portions of a footed cast iron pot, two iron knives, a 10-inch long ramrod from a muzzle-loading pistol, part of a pair of iron scissors, and a brass thimble. There were also a variety of ceramics from Mexico, England, and China represented. Although most of the ceramic pieces were very small and thus hard to identify particular patterns, among the English transferprint pieces were several in a brown design whose design name and maker is yet to be determined. Ceramic pieces with this same pattern have so far been identified from Old Town San Diego and from the Cooper-Molera Adobe in Monterey. In a remarkable coincidence, a piece of this pattern found in 1991 cross-mended with a piece found by Clemmer in 1961 even though it appears that the 1991 piece was two rooms over (A-9) from Clemmer's find in room A-7.

As the breakaway Mexican nation developed its own notion of citizenship, which was extended, on paper at least, to the Indians, it seems likely that there was a move in the missions to reward their Christian Indians who had been with them longest with appropriate European style housing. I believe that this was the impetus to this sudden wave of construction in the three missions mentioned above. However, as we saw with the aftermath of the Civil War in the United States, the formerly subjugated people enjoyed only a brief period of exhuberance and expectation before the dominant class re-imposed its authority and reduced them once more to the lowest rung of society. So, too, did the Indians in California return to their former position or even worse.

By focussing on the Indian family habitations that were found at every mission complex, we are able to consider more clearly the broader picture to be found in this attempt at an imposed communal, self-sufficient and highly paternalistic form of society. One must remember that the ethnic makeup of most missions was two resident priests, a military guard (escolta) made up of a corporal and five common soldiers, and a large contingent of Indians (often 1000 or more). In examining this Indian family housing, we can reflect on the life of the subjected majority of this new society.

Click on the thumbnail below for the full-size image.

 View of Mission

 Location map

 Foundation search 

 Plan map

 Artifact screening

 Foundation profile

 La Purisima Mission

 Family housing

 Map drawing

 Pestles

 Pendant and shell bead 

 Pieces of a cast-iron pot

 Knives and muzzle

 Ceramics

 Artist recreation