Francisco Palóu

Francisco Palóu

Francisco Palóu was born in Palma, Majorca, in 1723. As a young man he applied for admission to the Franciscan order. These priests came to be known as grey friars from their habits, simple robes woven from undyed wool. They served all over the known world at the time. Whenever possible they were also to walk in imitation of Christ and the apostles, practicing humility, poverty, and austerity, and avoiding signs of pride and ostentation.

In 1740, Junipero Serra was officially commissioned to teach philosophy at the Convent of San Francisco. Two of his first students were Palóu and Juan Crespi. Palóu later wrote: "I was the object of his very special affection, an affection we always mutually shared, more than if we had been brothers in the flesh."

Serra decided to become a missionary in New Spain. He told Palóu: "The rumour is true. I am the one who intends to make this long journey, and I have been sorrowful because I would have no companion for so long a journey; but I would not on that account turn back from my purpose... In my heart I felt that inclination to speak to you as I was led to believe you would be interested." Palóu agreed and they both decided to volunteer to become missionaries. Juan Crespi also agreed to join them.

On 13th April 1749 the three men left the Convent of San Francisco and began their journey to Cádiz. The Board of Trade decided to document the physical characteristics of the missionaries. Palóu was described as: "lector of philosophy, native of Palma, twenty-six years old, short of stature, sallow skin but somewhat florid complexion, blue eyes, and dark hair."

Palóu arrived at Vera Cruz in New Spain on 6th December, 1749. The voyage took ninety-nine days. Junipero Serra noted that he had not been seasick once. On arrival, Palóu recalls that Serra "delivered a sermon that eloquently spiritualized the entire voyage, emphasizing the protecting mantle of God's providence".

Palóu was told at the College of San Fernando de Mexico, that recently four priests had died while working for the missions in Sierra Gorda, a rugged mountain area about 150 miles north-east of Mexico City. Palóu, Serra and six other Franciscans volunteered for this dangerous task. Don Denevi, the author of Junipero Serra (1985), points out: "During the eight years and three months Serra spent as a missionary in the sierra, he laboured for improvement in conditions for the Indians. He realized that the more progress the missions made economically, the more stable and successful would be his religious ministrations. Through the college, he obtained oxen, cows, asses, sheep, goats, and farm implements. Palóu, equally competent and zealous, at first served as overseer of planting and harvesting until the Indians learned how to do it themselves. Blankets and clothing sent from Mexico City were provided as encouragement for their labours... As time went on, the Indians were presented with their own parcels of land on which to grow corn, beans, and pumpkins. Some were given oxen and seeds for planting. Women were taught spinning, knitting, and sewing. Serra encouraged the Indians to broaden their commercial activity by selling their wares in Zimapan, a ming center less than fifty miles away."

According to Herbert E. Bolton, the editor of Francisco Palóu: Historical Memoirs of New California (1926): "Fray Palóu was a diligent student, devout Christian, loyal disciple, tireless traveler, zealous missionary, firm defender of the faith, resourceful pioneer, successful mission builder, able administrator, and fair minded historian of California."

On 27th February, 1767, Carlos III issued a royal decree known as the Pragmatic Penalty of 1767, that led to the Jesuits being expelled from Spain. All their possessions were also confiscated. The king also wanted the Jesuits removed from territories he controlled in the Americas. He wrote to Carlos Francisco de Croix, viceroy of New Spain, on 24th June, 1767: "Repair with an armed force to the houses of the Jesuits. Seize the persons of all of them and within twenty-four hours transport them as prisoners to the port of Vera Cruz... If after the embarkation there should be found one Jesuit in that district, even if ill or dying, you should suffer the penalty of death."

When the Jesuits rebelled against this persecution, the viceroy dealt severely with the rebels, hanging the leaders. He defended his actions by claiming that: "It is done... for motives known to the royal conscience of the sovereign, and which have to be acknowledged by the vassals of His Majesty, who have been born to obey and not to mix in the high affairs of government."

Carlos Francisco de Croix suggested to Carlos III that the Franciscans should attend to the people of Baja California. It was also agreed that the missionaries should push on quickly into Alta California in order to build a chain of missions that would stop other countries to try and colonise this territory. When asked to organise this campaign, the College of San Fernando de Mexico unanimously selected Junipero Serra, to carry out this task. Serra became president of these missions and Francisco Palóu was appointed as his deputy. Palóu also had special responsibility for the lower missions. This brought him into conflict with Phelipe Barn, who had military responsible for this region.

On 24th January 1774, Junipero Serra took 97 people from San Blas on the Santiago to Monterey. This included two doctors, three blacksmiths, and two carpenters, some with wives and children. This was as a result of the arrangement reached with Antonio María de Bucareli. Serra believed this would enable him to build a permanent Spanish community in this part of California. Serra left at San Diego and walked the rest of the journey to Monterey so that he could see for himself the progress that his missions were making. This included visits to the missions at San Diego de Alcalá, San Gabriel Arcangel, San Luis Obispo de Tolosa and San Antonio de Padua.

Serra arrived back at Mission San Carlos de Borromeo on 11th May, 1774. He was greeted warmly by Francisco Palóu and Juan Crespi who were now both stationed in Monterey. When he left, there had been twenty-two baptisms since the founding of the mission; on his return, the total was one hundred seventy four. Serra was extremely happy about the progress that had been made in his absence.

In a letter he wrote on 24th August, 1774, Junipero Serra explained that: "Every day Indians are coming in from distant homes in the Sierra... They tell the padres they would like them to come to their territory. They see our church which stands before their eyes so neatly; they see the milpas with corn which are pretty to behold; they see so many children as well as people like themselves going about clothed who sing and eat well and work." Serra wrote that he was especially pleased with the impact the missionaries were having on the children: "The spectacle of seeing about a hundred young children of about the same age praying and answering individually all the questions asked on Christian doctrine, hearing them sing, seeing them going about clothed in cotton and woolen garments, playing happily and who deal with the padres so intimately as if they had always known them."

In 1774, Fernando Rivera Moncada carried out an expedition to San Francisco Bay. Palóu went with him and on 4th December, planted the cross on Point Lobos, which looks over the Golden Gate and Pacific Ocean. He was the first priest to ever reach that point.

Juan Bautista de Anza arrived in San Francisco on 28th March, 1776. Anza returned to Mexico and left behind José Joaquín Moraga to establish the Spanish settlement in the area. The Mission San Francisco de Asís, a log and thatch church was completed on 29th June, 1776. The mission was composed of adobe and redwood and was 144 feet long and 22 feet wide. Francisco Palóu returned to San Francisco and was was placed in charge of the mission that had been dedicated to San Francisco de Asis. The surrounding houses, a pueblo, became known as Yerba Buena. It was named after a sweet-smelling minty herb that grew wild in the area.

Junipero Serra visited Mission San Francisco de Asís at San Francisco for the first time in September 1777. It gave him the opportunity to meet up with Palóu. Afterwards he wrote: "Thanks be to God. Now Our Father Saint Francis, the crossbearer in the procession of missions, has come to the final point of the mainland of California; for in order to go farther, ships will be necessary." The following month they were together at the Mission Santa Clara de Asis, a mission that had been established earlier that year. Palóu wrote that Serra was not in good health: "He arrived in such a condition that he could hardly stand. Nor could it be be otherwise since he had walked seventy-one miles in two days. When the officers and the surgeon saw the inflammation of the leg and the wound of the foot, they declared that it was only a miracle that he could walk."

Junipero Serra returned to Mission San Francisco de Asís at the request of Francisco Palóu and he confirmed 189 people at several ceremonies in October and November. He was also told that over over a hundred Native Americans had been baptised in the mission. He was overjoyed by this success but this turned to distress when he heard news that Antonio María de Bucareli had died and that war had broken out between Spain and England.

Despite suffering from severe leg and chest pains, Serra continued to make visits to the missions in California. In September, 1783, he sailed from Monterey to San Diego on La Favorita. On his arrival he had a meeting with Fermin Francisco de Lasuen. He admitted to his friend that he could hardly walk or breathe. Yet he continued to baptise, marry and confirm all those who wanted his services.

Palóu decided that he would spend his time looking after Serra in Monterey. During this period the two men discussed publishing a book about Serra's adventures, in order to stimulate interest in the activities of missionaries. Serra died on 28th August, 1784, at the age of 70, at Mission San Carlos Borromeo. Palóu, later wrote: "After a short time I returned and approached his bed to see if he was sleeping. I found him just as we had left him a little before, but now asleep in the Lord, without any sign or trace of agony, his body showing no other sign of death than the cessation of breathing; on the contrary, he seemed to be sleeping."

With Serra's death in Carmel, Palóu became the acting "presidente" of the Upper Californian missions. However, his own poor health meant that it was Fermin Francisco de Lasuén who eventually replaced Serra. Palóu now retired to the College of San Fernando de Mexico. He now concentrated on writing the standard history of the California missions from 1767 to 1784. Palóu's book, Life of Father Junípero Serra, was published in 1787.

Francisco Palóu, died at the age of 66 in 1789.

Primary Sources

(1) Board of Trade (April, 1749)

Father Francisco Palóu, lector of philosophy, native of Palma, twenty-six years old, short of stature, sallow skin but somewhat florid complexion, blue eyes, and dark hair.

(2) Herbert E. Bolton, Francisco Palóu: Historical Memoirs of New California (1926)

Fray Palou was a diligent student, devout Christian, loyal disciple, tireless traveler, zealous missionary, firm defender of the faith, resourceful pioneer, successful mission builder, able administrator, and fair minded historian of California.