Even those who acknowledge that the modern world is a complicated place often think of the past as black-and-white, with good guys on one side, bad guys on the other, and not too much in between. But as any student of history is quick to learn, the past is dominated by shades of gray, and nowhere is this more true than in the rise and fall of Mission Santa Barbara, where the popularly accepted legends of brutal Spanish overlords dominating a pacifist and passive Chumash culture aren’t quite true.
“You’ve got some people who romanticize the mission period, and you get others who villify the mission period,” said John Johnson, the S.B. Museum of Natural History anthropologist who’ll be talking about Chumash life at Mission Santa Barbara in 1800 on December 4 as part of the mission’s 225th anniversary celebration. “But there is much more nuance. When you really get into the records, you can see that it’s not all black and white at all.” Johnson said that there is a “poignancy” to reading the mission period’s contemporary texts, explaining, “You get a much more humanized view of the Chumash people and all of the people involved in the drama of the time.”
Johnson will base much of his lecture on some heated correspondence in 1800 between the lead friar of Mission Santa Barbara, the commandante of the El Presidio de Santa Barbara, and the Francisan headquarters in Mexico, a series of documents that shed light on the circumstances of the era and even particular Chumash individuals. “It’s an illuminating manuscript,” said Johnson, who’s able to read such texts thanks solely to the Mission Archive Library, which is sponsoring his lecture. The library includes a vast array of documents from the mission period, including all of the De la Guerra family correspondence, baptismal, marriage, and burial registries, original maps, and the personal documents of the missionaries themselves, among other priceless texts. “These are incredible treasures,” said Johnson, a board member of the library, which is currently open to researchers three days a week.