Vineyards around Los Angeles circa 1850. American Indians were forced to work in California's fledgling wine industry in the 1800s.

From Serra to Syrah: The Bloody Roots of California's Vineyards

Frances Dinkelspiel

When Pope Francis made Father Junipero Serra a saint at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C. on September 23, it cast light on the brutal history and treatment of Native Americans during the Mission period.

But Californians shouldn’t sit back smugly and think that violence against Indians was just a problem of the Franciscans. Serra, a citizen of Spain, may have started the trend of forcing Indians to work against their will, but the Mexicans and Americans who assumed control over California at different points in the 19th Century were worse in many ways.

I have been working in recent years on a book about California wine. The most disturbing part of my research has been the realization that Native Americans paid the highest personal price for the development of the wine business. California wine may now earn international accolades and generate $24.6 billion a year, but the industry was founded on a philosophy of greed and violence.

It was Junipero Serra who brought the first wine grapes to California. Native grapes weren’t suitable for making wine and the delivery of barrels of sacramental wine from Baja to Alta California was slow and erratic. Serra asked the viceroy of Mexico in 1777 to ship grapevine cuttings, which arrived the next year. Neophytes, the Indians who had converted to Christianity, carefully carried the cuttings from the ship, San Antonio, and planted them at Mission San Juan Capistrano in what today is Orange County. Many historians believe the first harvest was in 1782.

Winemaking soon became integral to the mission system, with 17 of the 21 missions growing grapes. The biggest vineyards were at Mission San Gabriel, around ten miles east of Los Angeles, where more than 144,000 vines were under cultivation.

As California’s first vintner, however, Serra also began a tradition in which the delicious and subtle flavors of California grapes were mixed — metaphorically but sometimes literally — with blood, sweat, and tears.

Nineteenth Century travelogues and newspaper articles are filled with descriptions of Indians stomping grapes, clad only in loincloths, the sweat from their labor trickling into the fresh juice. Winemaking was primitive, so the natives crushed grapes in cowhides suspended from four poles stuck in the ground.

The Indians performed virtually all the work to make wine, from planting vines, harvesting them, and overseeing the fermentation. Yet mission rules governing their lives were so onerous Native Americans weren’t even allowed to wander the vineyards they tended without supervision. They were also forbidden to leave the missions, marry without permission, were segregated into often-squalid same-sex barracks, denied the right to raise their children and were forced to answer to a system of bells that told them when to rise, eat, pray, work, and rest. They were whipped for transgressions small and large, from stealing to wearing a dirty blanket into church.

“They are kept in great fear, and for the least offense they are corrected,” one visitor to the San Gabriel Mission noted in 1826. “They are … complete slaves in every sense of the word.”

This is the reason so many Californian Native Americans protested making Father Junipero Serra a saint. They see him as the mastermind of a system that decimated a civilization that was thousands of years old.

But prejudice and violence against Native Americans, particularly in the fields and vineyards, continued and even intensified long after mission system was dismantled by Mexico in 1833.

As bad as the missions were, they provided a closed system that housed, fed, and cared for the natives. When the missions were broken up, the Indians were left to fend for themselves. The new elites of the state, the dons who had acquired enormous ranchos from the Mexico government, were eager to exploit their labor. The natives found themselves in a system remarkably like that of the missions, but with fewer protections. They were paid pennies a day, often in scrip or in high-alcohol aguardiente. One visitor to Rancho Cucamonga in San Bernardino County remarked in 1846 that the Native Americans living there “were evidently very poor, and lived in rude log huts … and who, in their scanty clothing, appeared the picture of misery. They stand much in the position of serfs.”

John Sutter, who owned the 48,000-acre rancho where gold was discovered in 1848, was so brutal to his Indian employees that the historian Richard Steven Street dubbed his enterprise a “feudal barony.” Sutter forced the members of the Miwok and Nisean tribes he employed to live in barracks without bedding or toilets. He locked them in at night. The unsanitary conditions bred disease and death. When natives attempted to run away, Sutter chased them and jailed them. In the summer of 1845, he even executed a rebellious worker, according to Street, and stuck his severed head over the fort gateway, leaving it to rot in the sun and serve as a warning to others.

Americans took the indenture of Native Americans a step further. They legalized it. The first law passed by the fledging California Legislature on April 19, 1850 was nicknamed the “Indian Indenture Act.” It stripped Native Americans of most of their rights and permitted vineyardists and farmers to force Native Americans to work against their will. All the would-be employers had to do was identify an Indian as a vagrant or drunk, and the sheriff would arrest him and then put him to work for as long as four months to the highest bidder. If the worker was mistreated, he couldn’t do anything, because the law prohibited Native Americans from testifying against whites in court.

Los Angeles adopted its own, stricter version of this law on Aug. 16, 1850. It was common to see the sheriff rounding up inebriated Indians on a Sunday night, sequestering them in a horse corral until morning and then auctioning off their services for for $3 a week.

“Los Angeles has a slave mart as well as New Orleans and Constantinople — only the slave at Los Angeles was sold fifty-two times a year as long as he lived, which generally did not exceed one, two, or three years under the new dispensation,” Horace Bell, a lawyer, newspaper publisher and Los Angeles Ranger wrote about Los Angeles in the 1850s. “Those thousands of honest useful people were absolutely destroyed in this way.”

All this free labor helped transform Los Angeles and southern California into the center of winemaking in California. By 1859, the land along the Los Angeles River was so verdant that the city was known as the “City of Vines.” Winemaking moved north to Napa and Sonoma counties after Pierce’s Disease, a malady spread by insects, decimated most of the vineyards around Los Angeles and Anaheim.

The American laws allowed a culture of kidnapping to thrive, too. Thousands of young Native American children were forcibly taken from their parents and sold to work. Children as young as three commanded three dollars, while older, experienced boys were sold for $80 or more. Female virgins were the most desired and could fetch $200, according to Street. Officials did little to intervene.

The brutalization of Native Americans in the fields of California eventually faded away, in large part because the native population died off. The number of Indians in California dropped precipitously, with some historians believing that there were only 30,000 in 1870, down from about 100,000 in 1850. They were killed by disease — smallpox was particularly brutal — and many succumbed to alcohol abuse.

Some Californians eventually regretted the mistreatment of Native Americans. Four months after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, on April 27, 1862, the California Legislature repealed the Indian Indenture Act. It was a case of too little, too late. Many farmers ignored the repeal, and kidnappings and exploitation continued. By the late 1860s, the era of the Native American worked gave way to the era of the Chinese worker, a trend that accelerated after the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 left thousands of Chinese unemployed.

The canonization of Junipero Serra has opened up a much-needed dialogue about the treatment of Native Americans under Spanish rule. It should also force modern-day Californians to examine how brutal treatment of natives formed the underpinnings of today’s vibrant agricultural economy, particularly that of wine. A glass of California Cabernet should never taste the same again.

Frances Dinkelspiel is the author of Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California (St. Martin's Press, 2015).

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