A morality play, if you will, played out 194 years ago on the soil near present day Ripon in thick riparian woodlands of which a remaining sliver still stands today at the end of Austin Road south of Manteca within the confines of Caswell Memorial State Park.
It is where a battle for justice took place with perception blurred by what side one was on.
First — mainly because his ancestors were here first — was Cucuncuhi.
Cucuncuhi was a Yokut and belonged to the Lakisamni tribe.
Next were the Spaniards who colonized Alta California with the help of the Catholic Church.
Then in 1824 after Mexico gained its independence from Spain and by extension present day California as well
Estanislao, as the Franciscan friars of the Mission de San Jose baptized Cucunuchi, led an uprising in 1827 of indigenous Californians against the Mexican government. Their stronghold was the present-day southern San Joaquin County and northern Stanislaus County, along the Stanislaus River that is named for Estanislao.
In 1821, based on mission records we know Cucunuchi, his wife, daughter and mother were “invited” by friars who ventured to this area to return with them to the San Jose mission.
We know nothing of the state of mind of those Yokuts who accepted the “invitation” to leave their community for another world. Instead, it is an action framed by self-righteous individuals who believed they were saving souls and civilizing people.
They taught Estanislao Spanish and made him a foreman of various indigenous Californians that were — even by modern-day assessments by those in the corner of the friars doing “the right thing” — semi-slaves or endured semi-serfdom.
Today apologists insist whatever wrong was done it was for a greater purpose. The “I did it for them” defense rings more than a tad hallow given it was based on the assumption there is only one way to worship and only one way to be civilized.
The Yokuts certainly were civilized even having sea shells as currency to trade with coastal peoples. As for them being taught to feed and clothe themselves it conveniently ignores the Yokuts had been doing that for centuries in harmony with California’s natural bounty.
And if the mission life was so great why did Estanislao and others escape to return to California’s interior? Could it be not only did many die while “serving” the mission whether it was from the often brutal labor that was clearly forced in more than a few instances and from European diseases, but the fact they were no longer free?
The narrative that somehow the missions were simply saving “heathens” from themselves as an excuse for punishment — a euphemism to soften beatings and instilling fear — justified what the missions inflicted on a free people is extremely self-serving.
No one in the debate raging today about Father Serra who founded the missions and therefore a system that coerced free people to change their lives to conform with the Spanish can square up why indigenous Californians would flee supposedly the good life of which they were never free to leave whenever they wished.
It may not have been Father Serra’s design, but it was clearly in the interest of the government of Spain and then Mexico to have the missions founded to help them solve “their Indian problem” so they could colonize and develop California.
Yes, Estanislao organized other Yokuts and led raids on the missions in San Jose, Santa Cruz, and Santa Clara as well as Mexican settlers near the Stanislaus River.
Ignore the Hollywood version of “Indian” raids depicting what took place outside of California. Estanislao and his men didn’t burn buildings and fields, carry off women and children, and scalp men. They drove off horses and killed them for food.
Estanislao’s departure in 1827 from the San Jose mission along with 400 other Yokuts was about being free of what would be characterized as imperialistic rule if civilization that had endured in California for centuries had been more along the line of what one would have found in Europe, Asia, the Middle East or even Africa back in the early 1800s.
To them, and rightfully so, they were dealing with invaders who had come to take the land where they had built a nomadic civilization in tune with the seasons that took them to the Sierra and Yosemite in summer and back to the valley floor in the winter.
It should be noted historians indicate not a single life was lost in the raids. Nevertheless, the Franciscan friars and Mexican settlers wanted the “Indian problem” taken care of. They persuaded Governor Jose Marino Escheandia to send the Mexican army to kill or capture Estanislao.
After three excursions by troops from the Presidio of Monterey and the Presidio of San Francisco into Estanislao’s stronghold along the Lower Stanislaus River from the grape vineyard nestled against the confluence with the San Joaquin River and present-day Ripon failed, the Mexican army assembled a larger force to go after Estanislao who had amassed 4,000 others in defense of their home.
It was led by General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo complete with modern-day weapons of the era that included a canon. They finally ousted Estanislao and his forces from the Lower Stanislaus River in 1829.
Early Californians historians who clearly didn’t see what happened from the perspective of Yokuts and other natives note that in the aftermath six Yokuts were captured. Four of them were brutally executed on the battlefield including one that died who had 73 arrows and a gunshot to the head.
How was this act of savagery addressed? An investigation into the execution of the captives ordered by the governor found a solider by the name of Joaquin Alverado guilty. His sentence was five years of additional military service.
It kind of makes you wonder how civilized the supposed “right side” was.
On May 31, 1829 Estanislao made a visit to the Mission de San Jose to ask Father Narciso Durán for forgiveness for his men as well as himself. That led to Durán’s successful requested to convince the governor to pardon all those involved in the uprising on Oct. 7, 1829.
Estanislao, long before there was a Bear Flag Revolt by “Californios” in 1846 against rule from Mexico City, fought for the independence of Californians.
It is why if a statue of indigenous Californians replaces the one of Father Serra on the State Capitol grounds toppled in July 2020 by protestors it should include a likeness of Estanislao.
This is not to take away from the beachhead for modern California civilization Father Serra created with the founding 21 missions that he likely pursued in good faith but likely was also an enabler of the Spanish government to control natives so they could attempt to colonize the land.
It is to honor a man who fought not just for California but the idea people should be free even though his life doesn’t fit the narrative of the embellished version that made fabricating one of the 21 missions a stable in sixth grade history lessons in the Golden State for the better part of a century.