Author: Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton


The Mission San Francisco de Assisi stood at the head of a great valley about a league from the Presidio and facing the eastern hills. Behind it, yet not too close, for the priests were ever on their guard against Indians more lustful of loot than salvation, was a long irregular chain of hills, breaking into twin peaks on its highest ridge, with a lone mountain outstanding. It was an imposing but forbidding mass, as steep and bare as the walls of a fortress; but in the distance, north and south, as the range curved in a tapering arc that gave the valley the appearance of a colossal stadium, the outlines were soft in a haze of pale color. The sheltered valley between the western heights and the sand hills far down the bay where it turned to the south, was green with wheat fields, and a small herd of cattle grazed on the lower slopes. The beauty of this superbly proportioned valley was further enhanced by groves of oaks and bay trees, and by a lagoon, communicating with an arm of the bay, which the priests had named for their Lady of Sorrows—Nuestra Senora de los Dolores. The little sheet of water was almost round, very green and set in a thicket of willows that were green, too, in the springtime, and golden in summer. Near its banks, or closer to the protecting Mission—on whose land grant they were built—were the comfortable adobe homes of the few Spanish pioneers that preferred the bracing north to the monotonous warmth of the south. Some of these houses were long and rambling, others built about a court; all were surrounded by a high wall, enclosing a garden where the Castilian roses grew even more luxuriantly than at the Presidio. The walls, like the houses, were white, and on those of Don Juan Moraga, a cousin of Dona Ignacia Arguello, the roses had been trained to form a border along the top in a fashion that reminded Rezanov of the pink edged walls of Fiesole.

The white red-tiled church and the long line of rooms adjoining were built of adobe with no effort at grandeur, but with a certain noble simplicity of outline that harmonized not only with the lofty reserve of the hills but with the innocent hope of creating a soul in the lowest of human bipeds. The Indians of San Francisco were as immedicable as they were hideous; but the fathers belabored them with sticks and heaven with prayer, and had so far succeeded that if as yet they had sown piety no higher than the knees, they had trained some twelve hundred pairs of hands to useful service.

On the right was a graveyard, with little in it as yet but rose trees; behind the church and the many spacious rooms built for the consolation of virtue in the wilderness was a large building surrounding a court. Girls and young widows occupied the cells on the north side, and the work rooms on the east, while the youths, under the sharp eye of a lay brother, were opposite. All lived a life of unwilling industry: cleaning and combing wool, spinning, weaving, manufacturing chocolate, grinding corn between stones, making shoes, fashioning the simple garments worn by priest and Indian. Between the main group of buildings and the natural rampart of the "San Bruno Mountains" was the Rancheria, where the Indian families lived in eight long rows of isolated huts.

In spite of vigilance an Indian escaped now and again to the mountains, where he could lie naked in the sun and curse the fetich of civilization. As the Russians approached, a friar, with deer-skin armor over his cassock, was tugging at a recalcitrant mule, while a body-guard of four Indians stood ready to attend him down the coast in search of an enviable brother. The mule, as if in sympathy with the fugitive, had planted his four feet in the earth and lifted his voice in derision, while the young friar, a recruit at the Mission, and far from enamored of his task, strained at the rope, and an Indian pelted the hindquarters with stones. Suddenly, the mule flung out his heels, the enemy in the rear sprawled, the rope flew loose, the beast with a loud bray fled toward the willows of Dolores. But the young priest was both agile and angry. With a flying leap he reached the heaving back. The mule acknowledged himself conquered. The body-guard trotted on their own feet, and the party disappeared round a bend of the hills.

Rezanov laughed heartily and even the glum visage of Father Abella relaxed.

"It is a common sight, Excellency," he said. "We are thankful to have a younger friar for such fatiguing work. Many a time have I belabored stubborn mules and bestrode bucking mustangs while searching for one of these ungrateful but no doubt chosen creatures. It is the will of God, and we make no complaint; but we are very willing, Father Landaeta and I, that youth should cool its ardor in so certain a fashion while we attend to the more reasonable duties at home."

They were dismounted at the door of the church. The horses were led off by waiting Indians. The soldiers on guard saluted and stepped aside, and the party entered. Two priests in handsome vestments stood before the altar, but the long dim nave was empty. The Russians had been told that a mass would be said in their honor, and they marched down the church and bent their knees with as much ceremony as had they been of the faith of their hosts. When the short mass was over, Rezanov bethought himself of Concha’s request, and whispering its purport to Father Abella was led to a double iron hoop stuck with tallow dips in various stages of petition. Rezanov lit a candle and fastened it in an empty socket. Then with a whimsical twist of his mouth he lit and adjusted another.

"No doubt she has some fervent wish, like all children," he thought apologetically. "And whether this will help her to realize it or not, at least it will be interesting to watch her eyes—and mouth— when I tell her. Will she melt, or flash, or receive my offering at her shrine as a matter of course? I’ll surprise her to-night in the middle of a dance."

He deposited a gold piece among the candles on the table and followed Father Abella through a side door. A corridor ran behind the long line of rooms designed not only for priests but for travellers always sure of a welcome at these hospitable Missions. Father Abella shuffled ahead, halted on the threshold of a large room, and ceremoniously invited his guests to enter. Two other priests stood before a table set with wine and delicate confections, their hands concealed in their wide brown sleeves, but their unmatched physiognomies—the one lean and jovial, the other plump and resigned— alight with the same smile of welcome. Father Abella mentioned them as his coadjutor Father Martin Landaeta, and their guest Father Jose Uria of San Jose; and then the three, with the scant rites of genuine hospitality, applied themselves to the tickling of palates long unused to ambrosial living. Responding ingenuously to the glow of their homemade wines, they begged Rezanov to accept the Mission, burn it, plunder it, above all, to plan his own day.

"I hope that I am to see every detail of your great work," replied the diplomatic guest of honor. "But at your own leisure. Meanwhile, I beg that you will order one of your Indians to bring in the little presents I venture to offer as a token of my respect. You may have heard that the presents of his Imperial Majesty were refused by the Mikado of Japan. I reserved many of them for possible use in our own possessions, particularly a piece of cloth of gold. This I had intended for our church at New Archangel, but finding the priests there more in need of punishment than reward, I concluded to bring it here and offer it as a manifest of my admiration for what the great Franciscan Order of the Most Holy Church of Rome has accomplished in the Californias. Have I been too presumptuous?"

The priests all wore the eager expressions of children.

"Could we not see them first?" asked Father Landaeta of his superior; and Father Abella sent a servant with an order to unload the horse and bring in the presents.

Not a vestige of reserve lingered. Priests and guests sat about the table eating and drinking and chatting as were they old friends reunited, and Rezanov extracted much of the information he desired. The white population—"gente de razon"— of Alta California, the peculiar province of the Franciscans—the Jesuits having been the first to invade Baja California, and with little success— numbered about two thousand, the Christianized Indians about twenty thousand. There were nineteen Missions and four Presidial districts—San Diego, close to the border of Baja California, Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San Francisco. Each Mission had an immense grant of land, or rancho— generally fifteen miles square—for the raising of live stock, agricultural necessities, and the grape. At the Presidio of San Francisco there were some seventy men, including invalids; and the number varied little at the other military centres, Rezanov inferred, although there was a natural effort to impress the foreigner with the casual inferiority of the armed force within his ken. Cattle and horses increased so rapidly that every few years there was a wholesale slaughter, although the agricultural yield was enormous. What the Missions were unable to manufacture was sent them from Mexico, and disposed of the small salaries of the priests; the "Pious Fund of California" in the city of Mexico being systematically embezzled. The first Presidio and Mission were founded at San Diego in July of 1769; the last at San Francisco in September and October of 1776.

Rezanov’s polite interest in the virgin country was cut short by the entrance of two Indians carrying heavy bundles, which they opened upon the floor without further delay.

The cloth of gold was magnificent, and the padres handled it as rapturously as had their souls and fingers been of the sex symbolized while exalted by the essence of maternity, in whose service it would be anointed. Rezanov looked on with an amused sigh, yet conscious of being more comprehending and sympathetic than if he had journeyed straight from Europe to California. It was not the first time he had felt a passing gratitude for his uncomfortable but illuminating sojourn so close to the springs of nature.

The priests were as well pleased with the pieces of fine English cloth; and as their own homespun robes rasped like hair shirts, they silently but uniformly congratulated themselves that the color was brown.

Father Abella turned to Rezanov, his saturnine features relaxed.

"We are deeply grateful to your excellency, and our prayers shall follow you always. Never have we received presents so timely and so magnificent. And be sure we shall not forget the brave officers that have brought you safely to our distant shores, nor the distinguished scholar who guards your excellency’s health." He turned to Langsdorff and repeated himself in Latin. The naturalist, whose sharp nose was always lifted as if in protest against oversight and ready to pounce upon and penetrate the least of mysteries, bowed with his hand on his heart, and translated for the benefit of the officers.

"Humph!" said Davidov in Russian. "Much the Chamberlain will care for the prayers of the Catholic Church if he has to go home with his cargo. But he has a fine opportunity here for the display of his diplomatic talents. I fancy they will avail him more than they did at Nagasaki—where I am told he swore more than once when he should have kowtowed and grinned."

"I shouldn’t like to see him grin," replied Khostov, as they finally started for the outbuildings. "If he could go as far as that he would be the most terrible man living. Were it not for the fire in him that melts the iron just so often he would be crafty and cruel instead of subtle and firm. He is a fortunate man! There were many fairies at his cradle! I have always envied him, and now he is going to win that beautiful Dona Concha. She will look at none of us."

"We will doubtless meet others as beautiful at the ball to-night," said Davidov philosophically. "You are not in love with a girl who has barely spoken to you, I suppose."

"She had almost given me a rose this morning, when Rezanov, who was flattering the good Dona Ignacia with a moment of his attention, turned too soon. I might have been air. She looked straight through me. Such eyes! Such teeth! Such a form! She is the most enchanting girl I have ever seen. And he will monopolize her without troubling to notice whether we even admire her or not. Pray heaven he does not break her heart."

"He is honorable. One must admit that, if he does fancy his own will was a personal gift from the Almighty. Perhaps she will break his. I never saw a more accomplished flirt."

"I know women," replied the shrewder Khostov. When men like Rezanov make an effort to please—" He shrugged his shoulders. "Some men are the offspring of Mars and Venus and most of us are not. We can at least be philosophers. Let us hope the dinner will be excellent."


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Chicago: Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton, "VI," Rezanov in Rezanov (New York: The Century Co., 1918), Original Sources, accessed June 6, 2023,

MLA: Atherton, Gertrude Franklin Horn. "VI." Rezanov, in Rezanov, New York, The Century Co., 1918, Original Sources. 6 Jun. 2023.

Harvard: Atherton, GF, 'VI' in Rezanov. cited in 1918, Rezanov, The Century Co., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 6 June 2023, from