Toypurina (profile)

California's first woman rebel, sought to reclaim native lands By Jonathan Farrell     Aug 12, 2014 in Lifestyle

San Gabriel - Move over Pocahontas, Sacagawea, there is another native American that left her mark on American history. Few know of California's first woman rebel, Toypurina. Some scholars say she should be more prominent in the history book spotlight.

"Toypurina is one of my Favorite women! She has an amazing story," said professor Rose Marie Beebe of Santa Clara University. "What you read in our book 'Chronicles of Early California, 1535 -1846, Lands of Promise and Despair,' is just the tip of the iceberg," she said. Although the book, published in 2001 is almost 15 years old, the information it shares is perhaps relatively new to most students of Early California History.

This account of Toypurina and the true-life depiction of life in Early California dispels the idyllic notion of Mission Life and travels along the El Camino Real from 4th grade history lessons.

Co-authored with her husband and fellow professor Robert M. Senkewicz, their work provides a rich detail of little known aspects of early life in California. This is especially so for all the history concerning the hundreds of native tribes that flourished in California before the arrival of the European.

"Lands of Promise and Despair - Chronicles of Early California 1535 to 1846" by professor Rose Marie Beebe and Robert M. Senkewicz was published in 2001. It offers detailed accounts from transcripts and manuscripts of the early California period that is little known to most U.S. History books.

Like this image "The person of Toypurina represents that early pre-European contact era very well," said David McLauglin of the California Missions Resource Center. "In fact, in some ways she's a bit like a 'Joan of Arc' type of figure, in that Toypurina really believed she was lead by supernatural powers to over-throw the padres and the conquistadors."

Author and historian John J. O'Hagan mentions Toypurina in his book "Lands Never Trodden." He too said that Toypurina is a fascinating figure and a case study in the sharp wit and cleaver maneuvering of a determined young woman.Yet, more details are provided about this remarkable person in the 24th Volume of The Journal of The California Mission Studies Association "Boletin" No. 2 published in 2007. In the "Boletin" six historians provide detailed essays and study highlights on not only the life of Toypurina but also of Mission San Gabriel. They detail the circumstances that lead up to the failed revolt attempt against the Franciscan padres in 1785.

And, the essays in the "Boletin" provide an account of what life was like before the Missionaries and Europeans arrived. Like most of the native tribes of California, the Gabrielinos (or Tongva) people to which Toypurina belonged were hunter-gatherers. They lived in small 'villages' of about 50 to 200 people, co-existing in harmony with nature taking only what they needed.

As O'Hagan points out they were like most natives, "pretty much a peaceful people." Yes there were times they had conflicts but for the most part, they lived a simple, natural life. While they enjoyed the bounty which is and was California, life out in the open air with nature was not always ideal. This is one reason why tribes moved from spot to spot. "When one spot got too cold or too hot, or the tribe used enough resources there, they moved on to another spot."

One way the native peoples would try to restore or replenish and cleanse camp spots was to burn the dead grass and foliage. That way new grasses and plants would sprout up next season when the tribe returned.

Each of the scholars like Beebe in the "Boletin" explained, the Gabrielinos had their own sense of religion. This is where Toypurina got her strength in the resolve to go forward with the revolt against the padres at the Mission. Initially, well respected and in a way feared, "she was a shaman," said O'Hagan. And, as a religious-spiritual leader among her people she was trained in many of the ancient customs and beliefs of knowledge passed on from one generation to the next."

In his essay, in the "Boletin" professor at Southwest University of Redlands, James Sandos, writes that as a shaman Toypurina had access to the power-elite of her tribe. And, that such a group spoke in terms and a language all its own. This was reserved only for shamans. She also understood many of the language/dialects spoken by the various tribes of the area. Her status allowed her to be taught and trained apart from the rest.

Young though she was by today's standards, her training began very early and by the time she passed through adolescence to her early 20's Toypurina was already well-versed in her role and position. Even the Los Angeles Times in its "then and now" feature published back in 2001, noted that Toypurina was "no ordinary woman."

Both O'Hagan and Beebe describe the transcripts of Toypurina's trial before the Spanish and Mission authorities. Her main reason for participating in the revolt was to reclaim the land that Mission San Gabriel was built on. When the Spanish arrived they subdued the natives, first by coercing them and then later by force. Conflicts with the Spanish usually turned bloody when the natives decided to fight back.

What had began as a seemingly miraculous founding of Mission San Gabriel as the Franciscans see it, as described by Fr. Palou, in his account of the founding day, eventually turned bitter. A banner of Our Lady of Sorrows was unfurled when the natives sought to fight with the Spanish. But the painting bewildered them and according to Palou the natives "threw down their bows and arrows." Miraculous or not, the compliance of the natives did not last. Within a brief span of time, maltreatment and disrespect for the natives became common place.

When the natives had sought to confront the Franciscans and the conquistadors with the intent to fight with bows and arrows, when the Spanish, unfurled the painting, the warriors dropped their bows/arrows. This according to Fr. Palou was what occurred at the founding the Mission of San Gabriel in 1771.

The Spanish in their zeal for the expanse of a New Spain, treated the natives like children and beat them regularly. Usually a beating or shackling in chains was done at the Mission and it was routine for a padre to carry out the corporal punishment.

For Mission San Gabriel the breaking point was when the conquistadors took advantage of native woman disrespectfully and in a violent way. It just so happened that one of the women in a particular case was the daughter of the chief of the Gabrielinos. When the chief was killed while trying to defend his daughter's honor, this set in the air the long-standing resentment the natives held for not only the conquistadors but also the padres.

The Franciscans while mainly concerned with "saving souls," often overstepped the line between discipline and punishment. Even though the natives were not slaves, they were treated as servants and were expected to obey commands. If they ran away, they were brought back by soldiers. Adding to the resentment was the fact that the way of life the Gabrielinos had known was slipping away. The Spanish brought with them cattle, grains and customs that were in contrast to the hunter-gatherer way of life the natives had known for centuries.

For example as Sandos noted, the natives way of burning camp sites to promote the growth of new grasses was banned by the Spanish. Cattle ate up the grass they had fed upon and new grasses and crops were introduced. And, with the establishment of Christianity in its Roman Catholic form, the tribes were forbidden to practice anything of their own religion. Ceremonial dances were forbidden, and their complex understanding of the spirit world was dismissed as superstition or at times as devilish.

With tensions eventually escalating over time, the urge to revolt was eminent. And, Toypurina and others were anxious to attack. Word leaked out that a revolt was planned. According to official documents of the time, the revolt was squashed because a solider overheard some of the natives talking about the revolt plans and understood some of the dialect they had been speaking in. Toypurina thought her power as shaman would be able to over-power the padres. Once the Spanish learned of the plan, when Toypurina and her band climbed the walls of Mission San Gabriel, soldiers were disguised as padres waiting in the priest's quarters. When at trial, those caught along with Toypurina accused her of being the instigator, when in reality she was simply helping. Nicolas Jose, the one who sought out and paid Toypurina to help in the revolt, turned against her, as did many others.

O'Hagan had pointed out that Toypurina was clever enough to 'convert' and negotiate her survival through the expecting of her new born son, whom she had baptized into the Catholic faith. A short time later she would marry a Spanish solider and become Regina Josefa. She lived out the remainder of her life as a Californio and part of Mission society, with her final resting place not at Mission San Gabriel but over 300 miles away at Mission San Juan Bautista.

Some historians believe Toypurina was forced to convert and then live the life of a Spanish married lady. While O'Hagan and other historians like McLaughlin share some of that view, for no doubt Toypurina was caught. "It was still very amazing that she was able to express her feelings of anger at trial and manage to save herself from being put to death," said O'Hagan.

Professor Sandos praised the scholarly work of Beebe and Senkewicz. He noted hers was "the absolutely best possible translation of the trial record. Rose Marie Beebe, is the best translator of early California Spanish period. All other attempts at translating the trial record are flawed," he said.

Other historians speculate on whether or not she continued to practice her shaman skills or believe in the native religion. Even if that were true, the fact is recorded in Mission documents that she married and had three more children.

While life as a Regina Josefa, a solider's wife, was perhaps not as exciting as warrior-shaman, Toypurina, her converted life was not without sorrow. Within six months after converting to Catholicism and having her first born son baptized (the child she was pregnant with during trial), died. Infant mortality rate during those times was very high. She had fought to try to save her people from the plight of the Mission life. Yet, in the end some see it in a way that she too was a victim of the Spanish influence.

Her marriage to Manuel Montero while respected and blessed by the Church was as some historians point out, a life of banishment. For after the death of her first born infant son, as Sandos writes, "Toypurina's life, glimpsed fleetingly through the (various) Mission records, reads like an 18th Century Spanish version of a modern 'witness relocation' program."

But as he pointed out to this reporter, "she followed her husband in his assignments; she was not banished. She was, from the Christian perspective, reborn in her baptism in Christ. She then married and followed her spouse."

After leaving San Gabriel, she was then at Mission San Luis Obispo where her second son and first child born to Montero was baptized. Sadly, this son, named Cesareo Antonio died from a fall off his horse at age 31.

In addition to son Cesareo, Regina Josefa had two daughters, Juana and then Clementina. When Clementina was baptized, Regina and her solider husband were at yet another mission, Mission San Carlos Borromeo in Carmel, California.

As Sandos points out in his essay, the moving from Mission to Mission was not just a new life with Montero but a condition of the outcome from who Regina Josefa had been. Sandos also pointed out, "she feared for her life following the failed revolt, her people would not have subjected her to any kind of trial; she had already been through that in her plot to kill the missionaries from long distance and failed. 

"At that point anyone in the Tongva (Gabrielino) community was free to kill a failed shaman and all relatives of those who had been captured and punished would have wanted, and been permitted to do so in the revenge of killing her." But clearly that did not happen.

She died at age 39 receiving the sacraments of Eucharist and last rights or anointing of the sick in 1799. That was just 14 years later after the failed revolt at Mission San Gabriel.

It is hard to say if as Regina Josefa the spirit of Toypurina remained alive but hidden amid the Mission society life. But one thing is certain, she did live and was a unique and important figure of native women making a stand for their people in Early California history. For more information about Early California and Mission history visit the California Mission Resource Center web site.

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