How Did the Chumash Indians Help Start the Santa Barbara Mission?


The Early Chumash

Before the arrival of the Spanish in California, the Chumash Indians lived along the coast from Malibu to San Luis Obispo, as well as in part of the San Joaquin Valley. They were hunters, gatherers, boat builders and fisherfolk who lived in dome-shaped dwellings that could accommodate up to 50 inhabitants each.

As the centuries passed, the Chumash gathered in villages made up of a number of the dome-shaped dwellings and formed a more stratified society, including chieftains, shaman-priest-astrologers, skilled craftspeople and laborers. Yet the Chumash remained essentially nomadic, as the villagers would live in one place and then pick up and move the entire village when the need arose.

The Spanish Arrive

In the late 1700s, the Spanish Crown tasked the Franciscans to establish missions in California to help solidify Spain's claim to the territory, encourage settlement and Christianize the natives. Mission Santa Barbara was the 10th of these California missions, founded in 1786 by Father Fermín Francisco de Lasuen. The mission's site was near a Chumash village called Siujtu, close to the Pacific coast, and in the vicinity of as many as 40 other Chumash villages on the mainland and other villages on the Channel Islands off the coast. In its early days, Mission Santa Barbara was in the heart of Chumash territory.

The Chumash Help

The Franciscan fathers laid out plans for the new mission, and they and the soldiers who came with them began work on the first buildings. "They would encourage local Natives to help them," writes Tricia Anne Weber at "Many often did; they were fascinated by the tools and gifts that the Fathers had brought with them."

In time, Native American neophytes--Indians who came to live near the mission and converted to the Catholic faith--became the backbone of the mission's labor force, working on building Mission Santa Barbara's adobe buildings. The Chumash thus formed a major part of the workers who built the church, the priests' residences, workshops and houses for themselves. Eventually, there were about 1,500 neophytes living in more than 250 adobe houses at the mission, where they farmed the land and raised livestock, besides being builders.

The Price They Paid

Unfortunately, disease arrived with the Spanish and decimated the Chumash population. After Mission Santa Barbara and the other Spanish missions were secularized in the 19th century, the remaining Chumash lost most of their lands to Mexican and then U.S. settlers. A small number of their descendants still live in the area, including the federally recognized Santa Ynez Band at the Santa Ynez Reservation in Santa Barbara County.

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