Native Americans of San Fernando Rey

"The Indians who occupied most of present day Los Angeles County were, after the Chumash, the wealthiest, most populous, and most powerful ethnic nationality in aboriginal southern California." They spoke "one of the Cupan languages in the Takic family." 1.

These natives lived in over 50 villages, each of which held from fifty to two-hundred natives. They were physically hardy and were for a time considered "white Indians" because of their light skin color. The natives were skilled at hunting and fishing.

California Indian Spearing Salmon

California Indian Spearing Salmon thought to be drawn by C. Nahl.
From Hutchins California Magazine, 1860.

In the mission era, these Indians came to be called Gabrielino (after the first mission in the region, San Gabriel). After the founding of San Fernando in 1797 (26 years later) the Native Americans who became neophytes there were referred to as Fernandino. Mission records show that natives from other tribes in the Takic family such as the Tataviam became neophytes at the two Los Angeles area missions.

The Native Americans in this region were converted in large numbers in the 1780s. Before the century was out the native villages had largely disappeared for a number of reasons: the Indians had joined one of the missions, were working for settlers, had died from European diseases or had fled to the interior.

The final years of the Los Angeles area missions were troublesome. Raids by the soldiers to recapture escaped neophytes and "recruit" Indians that were not converted increased. After the Mexican takeover of California and ultimate secularization of the missions, San Fernando became a pawn in provincial power struggles and the appointed administrators were often corrupt. There were still about 400 Indians left at the San Fernando Rey in 1838-39 but their life was not pleasant. When Fr. Franciso Durán, the last Father President of the California Missions, visited San Fernando in 1838, he received many complaints from the neophytes, but there was little he could do.2

Father Duran Hearing Complaints

Father Duran Hearing Complaints at San Fernando
by A. Harmer

Soon, most of the mission lands and buildings were appropriated by government officials (including Governor Pio Pico) or sold. The mission Indians that survived disappeared into the general population.

In the 20th century, descendants of the Los Angeles area Native Americans initially called themselves the San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians. They are referred to today as the Gabrielino/Tongva or Tongva Indians, which was recognized as a distinct tribe by the State of California in 1994, and has been seeking federal recognition for several decades. Their official website is: http://www.tongva.com for more information.

  • 1. "Gabrielino" by Lowell John Bean and Charles R. Smith pp. 538-549 in Volume 8, CALIFORNIA, in Handbook of North American Indians, Smithsonian Institute: Washington D.C., 1978
  • 2. San Fernando Rey: The Mission of the Valley by Fr. Zephyrin Engelhardt, O.F.M., Franciscan Herald Press: Chicago, 1927