Tri-Cities Voice Newspaper - What's Happening - Fremont, Union City, Newark California

February 21, 2006 > A cultural heritage

A cultural heritage

by Vidya Pradhan

When you travel in the busy and sprawling city of Fremont, it is hard to believe that not so very long ago these lands were populated by tribes of Native American Indians. At the heart of the city's cultural heritage are the adobe walls of Mission San Jose, which stand as a memorial to the Spanish colonialism of the Southwest. Walking into the cool and serene interior of the beautiful church takes you back to a wilder and more uncivilized time when explorers and missionaries from Spain first traveled the western coast of the United States. The original adobe construction popularized by the Spanish can also be seen in what is now the Mission San Jose Museum and gift shop.

Franciscan missionaries, who were the principal missionary order in the vast Spanish colonial empire, had the dream of founding missions along the California coast. The idea was to establish a "chain" of missions in which each link of the chain would be a day's ride apart on horseback. By 1796 there were 13 missions along the California coast from San Diego to San Francisco. El Camino Real had become a well-traveled road joining the north and south, yet there were numerous lonely stretches where travel was dangerous due to attacks from the indigenous tribes.

Five more missions were authorized and in 1795, a strategic spot was chosen on the route that connected Los Angeles with San Francisco and Mission Pass to the gold fields.

Founded June 1, 1797, Mission San Jose became first of the five new missions. In June of that year, Father Fermin Francisco de Lasuen blessed a cross at the site and dedicated the mission to Saint Joseph, or San Jose in Spanish. The site chosen for the only mission on the east side of San Francisco Bay had been inhabited for countless generations by the Ohlone Indians. Their village at this site was known as Orisom. The Ohlones lived close to the land in harmony with nature, taking what they needed for their sustenance. Their food included seeds, roots, berries, acorn meal, small game and seafood. With the establishment of the missions, they were introduced to a new way of life by the Franciscan missionaries.

A typical day in the mission would start with the natives being given Catholic instruction. Then the men would do a variety of jobs taught by the padres. They learned to cultivate plants and also to build adobe houses, tan leather hides, shear sheep, weave rugs and clothing from wool, make ropes, soap, paint, and other useful articles. Women were taught dressmaking, knitting, weaving, embroidering, laundering, and cooking. Natives were encouraged to give up their practice of hunting-gathering to live settled lives filled with prayer and purposeful labor. In the early years of the mission it was hard to attract any locals to join the mission. The natives were reluctant to give up their easy-going lifestyle to one that appeared to be filled with stricture. In the first year, the mission had only 33 recruits, or neophytes.

In 1805, Father Fortuni and Father Duran worked hard to attract the Indians by offering to teach them skills as weavers and craftsmen. Gradually the numbers grew and by 1830 there were nearly 2,000 Indians living at the mission.

Mission San Jose became one of the most successful missions of California. Strategically placed at the base of the Fremont foothills, the mission thrived due to fertile land, abundant water and excellent location, and served as one of the first points of contact between early European settlers and the indigenous Ohlone Indians. The mission owned large tracts of land extending as far as modern day Berkeley and Livermore. Thousands of cattle roamed the mission ranges. Acres of wheat and other crops were planted and harvested under the direction of the padres. Father Duran, who also served as the President-general of the missions for many years, was also instrumental in establishing a musical culture at the mission.

A tour of the mission gives a glimpse of mission life 200 years ago. The tour begins in the gift shop, housed in the original monastery. The doors are low, reflecting the size of the padres and Indians in those days, and the thick adobe walls keep the rooms cool in the summer and warm in winter. An audio-visual room shows visitors a video of the history of the museum. During the Gold Rush, this building was used as a store, making a few traders fortunes in potato sales!

Another room reflects the musical culture of the mission. A violin of that era has been lovingly recreated. Father Duran established an Indian orchestra with 12 - 15 violins, five bass viols and one flute. The padre's room is faithfully recreated. Franciscan Missionaries held true to their vows of poverty, obedience and chastity and even knotted belts over their plain gowns three times as a constant reminder. The room has a spare rope bed with a desk and chair and a small trunk for the padre's possessions.

Another room displays the contrast between the life of the Indians and that of the Spanish conquistadors. The Indians wore clothing and carried articles made of reeds and grasses, using utensils made of shells. In sharp contrast are ornamental robes and mantillas of the Spaniards and glass dishes they used. Some of the stone tools and vessels used by the Indians for their daily food preparation of "atole," a porridge made with acorns, are also available for viewing.

The history of the mission after secularization is also displayed at the mission. In 1834, a decree of secularization by the Mexican government removed the missions from the administration of the padres and brought the mission system to an end. Jose Vallejo was appointed administrator of the mission. From all that is known, he appears to have been corrupt, and within three years, all mission lands were divided into ranches and sold. The native people at the mission were displaced and fled, many of them dying of disease and starvation. Objects from the ranches from this period of mission history can be found at the mission.

In 1848, California was ceded to the United States. During the Gold Rush period, the mission was converted into a place of lodging and the monastery became a general store. It became an important provisioning point for miners on their way to the gold fields. The beautiful adobe church is a faithful reproduction of the one completed in 1809. In 1868, the Hayward earthquake largely destroyed the original adobe church. A wood frame church was built over the existing foundation.

The town of Mission San Jose was incorporated into what became the city of Fremont in 1956. Plans to reconstruct the church were made in 1973. In 1982, the wood-frame church was sold and relocated to San Mateo. Construction of an adobe church based was started and the first part of the restoration was completed in 1985. The result is a simple and elegant structure true to the vision of the Franciscans who built the original one. Over 150,000 adobe bricks were cast for this project but in addition to the mud, straw and manure, asphalt was added to strengthen the bricks. Historic inventories were used to provide authentic fittings for the interior of the church. The four bells in the bell tower are all original.

While the restoration of the church is complete, more needs to be done to finish the mission and make it a true museum. A large section between the church and the current museum is missing, and it is the hope of the restoration committee that the missing segment can be authentically recreated, providing better facilities to house displays and a non-stop audio-visual presentation for the education of visitors. Mission San Jose currently draws an estimated 60,000 visitors per year; about 10,000 fourth-grade students visit as part of their study of California history.

Phase III of "Mission Magic" will continue the work of restoring a vital part of Californian history. A black tie optional event with no-host cocktails, a dinner, a silent auction/raffle and music with dancing will be held in May. Tickets for a table of 10 will be $1000 and individual tickets will be $100 per person. For more information on this event, please contact Elaine Grimmer at

Mission Magic
Friday, May 5
Marriott Hotel
46100 Landing Parkway, Fremont
(510) 657-1797 ext. 103.

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