In 1785, as the newly created United States prepared to organize its historic Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, another revolution was fomenting in the Spanish-controlled territory of Alta California, 3,000 miles west. A handful of Spaniards controlled a vast swath of coastal land ranging from San Francisco Bay to what is now the California-Mexico border. The area had been home to its indigenous people, but only 16 years after the first missions were established, the number of coastal Indians had been already appallingly reduced by their contact with the Spanish intruders.
Within the missions, thousands of Indians worked and lived under brutal conditions, spawning resentment toward the Franciscan friars and the soldiers who guarded them. Since the inception of the missions in 1769, any violence toward the friars or the soldiers was promptly and harshly suppressed. Still, Junipero Serra had already warned that a combined attack from united tribelets could wipe out all the missions.
In a native society controlled by men, it was an Indian medicine woman of the Gabrieleno tribe named Toypurina who, in 1785, organized warriors to attack the missions and kill those who had invaded and now controlled her people’s land. Hers would be the only known Indian rebellion in North America to have a woman at its helm.
Toypurina was a Tongva Indian living in a village called Japchivit and was probably 9 or 10 years old when the Spanish expeditions arrived in the spring and summer of 1769 to found the first mission in San Diego. As a girl, she lived virtually free of worry. Food was bountiful along the coast and whether it was winter or summer, the coastal weather was always mild.
Two years later, the Franciscan friars founded Mission San Gabriel just east of Los Angeles, in the area where Toypurina’s Tongva tribe lived. Its members rejected being baptized, apparently aware of the unhappy fate of those Indians who had already joined the mission. By shunning the mission, Toypurina escaped the dreary routine of performing chores during the day and being locked up each night in the convento. From outside the mission compound, she watched the daily floggings of Indians who had transgressed Serra’s strict regulations. Like other non-baptized gentiles, Toypurina despised the friars and the Spanish soldiers who had destroyed her community’s easy life and doomed thousands of her people.
In the early fall of 1785, Toypurina, who had gained a reputation among the mission Indians as a sorceress, was approached by Nicolas Jose, a neophyte and a tribal member whose animosity toward the friars had increased after they restricted native dances at the mission.
Although baptized, Jose was apparently able to leave the mission on several occasions, either surreptitiously or with permission. Together the two began organizing a complex conspiracy calling for an uprising involving warriors from six surrounding Indian villages.
Under the leadership of Toypurina, an attractive, green-eyed young woman of 24, the Gabrieleno Indians would launch a surprise attack on the night of October 25, 1785, the date of the new moon in the skies over Mission San Gabriel, north of San Diego. They planned to kill the hated friars and Spanish soldiers, sack the mission buildings, and burn them. Indians at other missions would then also join the uprising with the goal to destroy every last remnant of the missions and presidios in Alta California.
Word spread quickly and quietly among the Indians. Secret meetings were held nightly to plan details of the attack, while Toypurina and other tribal members went from village to village enlisting help. Once the strategy was completed and an alliance formed, they waited patiently for the October new moon.
It is ironic that, given the friars’ general refusal to learn Indian languages, the entire plan was discovered by a Spanish soldier named Jose Maria Pico who had taught himself the Tongva language. Undetected and hidden behind a tree, he overheard two Indians discussing the plan in its entirety. Pico raced back to the mission and reported what he had overheard to Corporal Jose Maria Verdugo. This vital intelligence gave the San Gabriel friars and the handful of soldiers assigned to protect the mission enough time to call for reinforcements.
The success of the Spaniards in thwarting the attack would hinge on one critical detail that Pico had overheard: Toypurina had convinced the Indians that her magic was so powerful that when they attacked the mission, they would find the friars already dead in their bedrooms.
Verdugo quickly developed a plan that he hoped would use Toypurina’s claim of sorcery against her Indian followers. The plan called for the friars to retreat to the safety of the chapel and remain there while two soldiers, Juan Jose Dominguez and Manuel Nieto, would feign death in the friars’ room. Clad in the priests’ habits and with the hoods pulled over their faces, the soldiers would be stretched out on the floor of their chamber as if dead, their arms crossed over their chest and candles burning at their feet, head, and middle.
On the night of October 25, Dominguez and Nieto assumed their death-like poses on the stone floor. Outside, Toypurina and Nicolas Jose ran toward the mission, followed by dozens of heavily armed Indians.
Reaching the mission, Toypurina’s men effortlessly vaulted over the wall and entered the main compound. Within seconds, the band of Gabrielenos, their faces covered with war paint and armed with bows, arrows, and spears, were running to the friars’ chambers.
At the entrance to the friars’ room they quietly pushed the door open. The sight made them gasp. Toypurina’s magic was indeed powerful. The friars were dead, just as she had predicted, the funerary candles casting a soft yellow glow in the room. The Indians crept closer to get a better look. Suddenly, a shout of “Santiago!” rang through the building, signaling waiting soldiers to attack. The seemingly dead friars jumped to their feet. From dark corners and nooks, soldiers, clad in full leather armor and armed with rifles and fixed bayonets, sprang out, yelling at the top of their voices. Terrified, the Indians dropped their weapons in panic and bolted.
Most made it outside the mission walls. Others, including Toypurina and Jose, were surrounded at bayonet point and captured. Within minutes, the prisoners were being marched to a holding cell in the mission to await trial and punishment. It would take over two months after the unsuccessful attack before Governor Don Pedro Fages was able to travel from Monterey to Mission San Gabriel for the conspirators’ trial.
When he arrived in January 1786, he determined that the four ringleaders— Jose, Toypurina and two Indian chiefs—would face trial. Seven other Indians were strapped to a tree and lashed fifteen to twenty times each, then freed after being warned never again to challenge Spanish authority.
On January 3, 1786, the trial opened in the mission compound. Chief Tomassajaquichi of the Juyuvit village was brought in by three soldiers, who held him tightly as he struggled against the ropes that bound him. The chief finally quieted down after he was threatened with flogging. Surprisingly, he placed the entire blame on Toypurina. He called her a “witch” with a “serpent’s tongue” who had enticed him into joining the conspiracy, even though he had no grudge against the Spaniards.
Surprisingly Toypurina’s co-conspirator Nicolas Jose, the mission Indian had always displayed what seemed a devotion to Catholicism, so much so that he was used by the friars to witness Indian weddings, bragged that it was he who had enticed Toypurina into organizing the attack.
Jose boldly said he had no regrets about what he and Toypurina had done.Finally, Toypurina was brought in, her green eyes blazing with anger and hatred. She seethed at being in the presence of the Spaniards, and when one of the soldiers offered her a stool, she angrily kicked it across the room. She stood tall and unbowed before her inquisitors. The officials were awed by her beauty and courage. When asked why she had conspired against the padres and soldiers, she said, angrily:
“I hate the padres and all of you for living here on my native soil, for trespassing upon the land of my forefathers and despoiling our tribal domains.”
Yet, as the questioning continued her countenance softened. When the trial ended, she surprisingly asked to become a Christian and promised to mend her ways. Toypurina spent the next year in the mission presidio’s jail (her repentance apparently had softened her sentence) and was later baptized with a Christianized name, Regina Josefa Toypurina, on March 8, 1788. Officiating was Friar Miguel Sanchez, the same padre she had vowed to kill in 1786.
The onetime rebel leader was exiled to Mission San Carlos de Borromeo de Carmelo. There she married a Spanish soldier. At her wedding, a sponsor was Governor Fages himself, beaming proudly at the way in which Toypurina had changed her ways. The couple eventually moved to Mission San Luis Obispo, where they had four children and were welcomed by the Spanish families of that settlement.
Toypurina lived only fourteen years past her attempted rebellion, dying in 1789 at age 38 at Mission San Juan Bautista. In the end, the only Indian woman in North America to ever challenge the Spanish kingdom with outright rebellion died quietly, and was accorded all the sacraments of her adopted church. She lies buried in the San Juan Bautista mission cemetery.
Toypurina was not the first nor the only native to rise up against the Spaniards and the missions. From the beginning, the Indians fought back. Within weeks of the onset of the Mission era, in San Diego in July 1769, Indians attacked the encampment where Serra and his friars were ministering to sick soldiers in their party.
The attack was small, involving perhaps 20 natives angry that the Spaniards had not been forthcoming with the gifts that would traditionally have been presented by another Indian party upon arriving on their lands. The San Diego Indians surmised that they could walk away with anything they desired because the horses of the Spaniards had trampled their sown fields and were also eating the grain they depended on for their winter stores of food…