Lompoc, CA

Lompoc Local History: The Chumash Revolt and the Battle of La Purisima

AJ White

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Alexander Harmer

Did you know that nearly 200 years ago a battle took place in what is now the quiet, central coast town of Lompoc, California? On March 16, 1824, musket fire, cannons, and cavalry raged for over two hours as 500 Chumash warriors and Mexican soldiers fought for control of La Purisima Mission in northeast Lompoc. By the end of the day 17 people were dead, many more were wounded, and Mexican authorities regained control of the mission. But this event was just the peak of a larger movement that lasted for months, involved three different missions and multiple California Indian tribes, and ended up being the largest and most successful uprising in California’s mission history.

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AJ White

There are several ideas for what caused the revolt: one is that rumors of forthcoming violence were spread among both the priests and soldiers as well as the Chumash and that in this environment of fear a Mexican soldier shot a Chumash man and initiated the revolt, another that a Chumash page was brutally tortured and burned to death, but the most frequently cited cause is that Chumash boy from La Purisima Mission came to Santa Ines to visit a family member who was being held in a jail cell. A Mexican soldier denied him entrance and the boy said something to the effect of “oh really did the king tell you that?” In response the soldier had the boy whipped for insolence. The whipping was brutal and public enough that it started the rebellion. On this first day much of the mission was set on fire and four Chumash men and one Mexican soldier were killed during the struggle and from the fire.

The next day a detachment of soldiers from Santa Barbara’s presidio forced the rebels at Santa Ines to flee to La Purisima in Lompoc. While the uprising was occurring at Santa Ines, the Purísimeños successfully took over the entire mission grounds and captured the soldiers, their families, and the mission’s priests from their quarters. The rebels allowed their prisoners to leave peacefully after several days and they were soon joined by the Ineseños from Santa Ines, swelling their numbers to over 1000.

For the first time since the establishment of the mission decades earlier indigenous people living at La Purisima had total control over their lives and their land, a remarkable achievement in California history. While the Chumash at La Purisima had control of the mission they anticipated Mexican authorities would return and they erected palisade fortifications and cut holes in the adobe walls of the church where they could shoot their weapons. They were also prepared with some formal military training as a strange result of piracy on the California coast.

Six years earlier in 1818, Argentine pirate Hippolyte Bouchard occupied Monterey for six days and looted Mission San Juan Capistrano. With the fear of piracy on their minds, priests organized military training for mission Indians to try to resist future attacks. This backfired during the Chumash Revolt by providing arms and training for the Chumash to use against the mission system.

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The Mexican attack finally came on the morning of March 16th. The Mexican force from San Luis Obispo was comprised of 109 infantry and cavalry and a four-pound cannon. The fight lasted for over two hours before the one priest who remained at La Purisima on his own accord emerged to arrange a truce. Although the mission Indians had a numerical advantage with nearly four times as many fighters, the Mexican force was made up of professional soldiers with advanced weaponry.

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When the battle was over, the troops seized 16 muskets, 150 lances, many bows and arrows, and two cannons from the rebels. Although the cannons sound impressive, they were small, one-pound ceremonial cannons used by the missions and relatively ineffective for warfare. Additionally, with only sixteen muskets the Mission Indians were at a technological disadvantage. Considering these limitations, the Chumash were able to fend off the Mexican army for several hours using mostly bows and arrows. It came at a high price, as 16 Chumash warriors died that day with many more wounded against one death in the Mexican ranks.

Following the battle seven leaders of the rebellion at La Purisima were executed. The military regained control of the mission and a blanket clemency granted in May brought back many mission Indians to La Purisima and Santa Ines. Things had mostly returned to the status quo ante bellum. However, not everyone returned to the missions.

Many Chumash individuals, particularly from Mission Santa Barbara, joined Yokut groups to the east. A member of the Joseph Walker trapping party in the 1830s recorded encountering a Chumash group with mission candle sticks and other gold and silver items living in the Southern Sierra Nevada Mountains over a hundred miles away from the nearest mission. So to some the Chumash Revolt provided lasting freedom.

There’ve been many ideas put forward as to why the Chumash Revolt occurred. One is that the decline of the mission system created terrible conditions that forced mission Indians to revolt. In the late 1700s California missions had the support of Spain, but following the beginning of the Mexican War of Independence in 1810 Spanish ships no longer brought supplies or paid the mission’s soldiers. The missions had to be truly self-sufficient, meaning that native labor was crucial to the mission’s success. However, as time went on many mission Indians died to disease from cramped quarters and low immunity to Old World illnesses, forcing the survivor group to work longer hours to maintain a similar level of productivity. As Father Vicente Sarria wrote in 1824, “For the troops to be fed and clothed it must be at the expense of the Indians who, in turn, cannot be fed or clothed” (Beebe and Senkewicz 1996:280). Padres lost control over soldiers and random theft, beatings, and rapes of native peoples became widespread. Although multiple stories on the proximate cause of the start of the rebellion exist, they all involve violence against a native person from a soldier.

Additionally, morale of padres was extremely low following the Mexican War of Independence. After describing the hardships facing the California Missions, Father Sarria wrote “The result is that many of the missionaries, not wanting to be woeful spectators of the poor, unhappy neophytes' misery, anxiously request their retirement, even though efforts to find replacements have proved fruitless” (Beebe and Senkewicz 1996:282). After Mexican Independence only 15 of 35 padres at the California missions wanted to stay, many simply wanted to go back to Spain. 

It was against this backdrop of a decaying mission system that the revolt occurred, and it was most likely in some part a reaction against long hours and abuses against the Chumash. But another way to look at the revolt is in the context of the revolutionary spirit of the early 19th century. Napoleon had just brought significant upheaval to continental Europe, including Spain, and a path to Mexican Independence was clear. Radical ideas moved freely between the continents. In 1821 the Mexico issued its declaration of independence, the Plan de Iguala, which states in article 12 that “All inhabitants of New Spain, without any distinction between Europeans, Africans, or Indians, are citizens that have access to all employment according to their merits and virtues.” Word travelled pretty slowly in those days and in 1822 a Mexican politician arrived in California to proclaim the changes of independence, including the equality of Indians and the prohibition of whipping and corporal punishment. One Spanish padre wrote that the mission population had been “corrupted with ideas of liberty and emancipation” (Haas 2014:119).

With this historic context the revolt makes even more sense. The Chumash had a legal justification for rising up: they were claiming what was theirs – freedom and equality as equal citizens under the Mexican flag. How could citizens be rounded up by soldiers if they tried to escape the mission grounds without permission? How could citizens be forced to perform arduous labor for their whole life without getting paid a cent? The more you look at it, it becomes hard to separate what mission Indians faced at this point in time from slavery. As father Sarria put it, “These are the types of things that truly make our ministry exceedingly painful and even to a certain extent intolerable” (Beebe and Senkewicz 1996:282).

Given this context I think we can see the Chumash revolt as a group of people fighting for their freedom - despite three years of supposed freedom after Mexican Independence nothing had changed so it was time to claim it for themselves. It is important to point out what do not appear to be reasons for why the Chumash Revolt happened. To me it does not appear to be a desire to simply go back to the way things were before the missions. La Purisima mission was founded in 1787, some 37 years before the Chumash Revolt. Many people who would have participated in the revolt were born after the establishment of the mission and likely had spent their whole lives in the mission itself. Additionally, after La Purisima was taken many Chumash chose to stay and make it their own instead of fleeing. It also does not appear to have been motivated by any sort of blood lust as mission Indians on multiple occasions peacefully allowed Europeans to leave without bloodshed, most notably at La Purisima when captured soldiers and their families were allowed to leave in peace. The Chumash revolt represents the cultural resilience of the Chumash people and their resistance to oppression by fighting back against a much larger state right here in Lompoc. 

Sources: Beebe, Rose Marie, and Robert M. Senkewicz. "The End of the 1824 Chumash Revolt in Alta California: Father Vicente Sarría's Account." The Americas (1996): 273-283. Blackburn, Thomas. "The Chumash Revolt of 1824: A Native Account." The Journal of California Anthropology 2, no. 2 (1975): 223-227. Deetz, James. "Archaeological investigations at La Purisima mission." Historical archaeology: A Guide to substantive and theoretical contributions (1978): 160-90. Geiger, Maynard. "Fray Antonio Ripoll's Description of the Chumash Revolt at Santa Barbara in 1824." Southern California Quarterly 52, no. 4 (1970): 345-364. Haas, Lisbeth. Saints and citizens: Indigenous histories of colonial missions and Mexican California. Univ of California Press, 2014. Hudson, Travis. "The Chumash Revolt of 1824: Another Native Account from the Notes of John P. Harrington." Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology (1980): 123-126. Sandos, James A. "Levantamiento!: The 1824 Chumash Uprising Reconsidered." Southern California Quarterly 67, no. 2 (1985): 109-133. 

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I explore California geology, history, and archaeology - pretty much anything about the past in the Golden State!

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