Soledad Mission and the Esselen

Soledad MissionWe took a quick trip down to the central coast of California this week to visit family. Since the fast drive down is not very exciting, we decided to stop at the Soledad Mission to get off the beaten path for a little while.

The full name of the mission is La Misión de María Santísima, Nuestra Señora Dolorosísima de la Soledad. It was founded in 1791, the thirteenth of the twenty-one missions the Spanish explorers established in California.

chapelThe church is long gone, having been destroyed by floods in 1824. A chapel to Our Lady of Sorrows, built in 1832, has been restored, and there are plans to try to rebuild the church. Alongside the chapel are a gift shop and small museum.

They grow olives on the property and apparently this was one of the first places to grow grapes and process them into wine. However, the mission is located in the Salinas Valley – between two ranges of low mountains – and was subject to a lot of flooding.

I have visited various Roman Catholic missions established by the Spanish over the years, but this is the first time I ever visited one that included a small exhibit of artifacts and a little history of the original inhabitants of the area, the Esselen. While the details are vague, the exhibit does at least hint that the mission was not a boon to the Native Californians.

Spanish exploration of California was devastating to the indigenous population. The Esselen and others along the coast were sophisticated hunter-gatherers who managed the lands around them and adapted to the floods and other regular changes. The Spanish forced them into their religion and agriculture based on European experience, which did not work well in this region. And, of course, the explorers brought disease and violence.

Though I often find old mission chapels to be a place of peace and contemplation (even when they include religious art showing horrific events), the history that accompanies them disturbs that sense of peace. I’m sure some of the missionaries were sincere, but the harm they did was still severe. And, of course, the purpose of the Spanish expeditions had much more to do with greed than it did with God.

The notes on the Esselen in the museum said that little was known about their religious practices, but that they appeared to believe that plants and animals had consciousness just as humans do. I suspect there are descendants of these people who know much more about the beliefs and practices of the Esselen than this little bit of information, but it does make me think.

Soledad missionGiven the challenges posed by climate change and our growing awareness of the consciousness of other animals as well as the importance of biodiversity in both plant and animal life, it seems to me that we would be better served if we approached the world with a greater understanding of the consciousness of all living things.

Chapels are nice places, but as John Muir and others have discovered and reported, one can also find feelings one can call religious in the wild. I am told that some of the Esselen escaped the mission at Soledad and moved up into the Ventana Wilderness (where we recently backpacked). I suspect they were happier than those who remained behind.

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Soledad Mission and the Esselen — 3 Comments

  1. I’ve often wondered whether the horrendous behavior of the Franciscans toward the First Peoples of California was the result of utter culture shock and what I call “wilderness shock”. They were taken from the highly refined cities of Spain and Italy and dropped down in the middle of what must have looked like nowhere. Psychological disintegration could well have been the result.

    • I’m sure that had some bearing — Soledad must have looked like nowhere to them. But I’m sure they also saw the Esselen and other Native Californians as lesser beings than themselves, and did not make any effort to learn from them how to survive in this area — a mindset we’re still paying for today.