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Indians and Spaniards at Ystagua: trade, disease, violence

By Fred Dickey

Oct. 31, 2016

Long forgotten and once located under what is now a busy freeway interchange in Sorrento Valley, the village of Ystagua was home to 200 Kumeyaay Native Americans. In last Monday’s column, scholar Richard Carrico of San Diego State University told us how they lived in 1700.

Ystagua was peaceful and prosperous within its environment, something like Tahiti might have been before the famous “Bounty” and other ships dropped anchor.

Then, some strange men dressed in iron showed up on an otherwise ordinary day in 1769 and made it the day Ystagua began to die.

(The phonetic pronunciation of Ystagua is “estawa.”)


Perhaps they were first seen by women looking up from weaving yucca leaves or leaching acorns. Or maybe they were seen by men returning from clamming at the nearby lagoon.

One glance and the Kumeyaay were unimpressed. What they saw walking into the town clearing were a group of men recently off of a many-months journey in vermin-infested ships. They were dressed in ragged, filthy clothing. Most were sick. Some carried death hidden in their bodies.

They commonly had scurvy, a disease that imprints its repulsive marks on the body like tattoos. They stank, they had ulcerated faces, their teeth were falling out. And when they opened their mouths, the odor was a dog’s breath wind in the faces of the scrubbed-clean Indians.

Hello, Spaniards.

Despite common belief, the Kumeyaay were not blown away by these strange “gods” from, maybe, heaven. Hardly. They knew about Europeans, who had first come to the Southwest in the mid-1500s with Coronado. The explorer did not make it to what is now San Diego, but word gets around.


Richard Carrico is the author of “Strangers in a Stolen Land,” about San Diego’s indigenous peoples.

He says the Kumeyaay were not an excitable people. They just studied these guys and figured things out.

“They liked their ships with the big sails. They thought those were bad-ass canoes, and they liked their leather jackets, and they liked their metal swords, and they really liked cloth because they didn’t see a lot of that. The fire sticks really impressed the villagers. They thought those were fearsome.

“But the Kumeyaay processed information in very interesting ways. Of course, you have a fire stick because you've got a big canoe, and you also have cloth and leather. So, of course, you have a fire stick.”

Stands to reason.

They didn’t figure on the smallpox, the measles and the sexually transmitted diseases. Those you couldn’t see, but they were already on the way.

The Spaniards, led by Gaspar de Portola, had landed in San Diego Bay earlier that year. It took a while to make the 20 miles up to Ystagua. There were other villages to visit along the way. However, they finally heard that the springs a couple of hours up the road offered fresh water and were near a nice town called Ystagua.


The Kumeyaay were a stone-age people.

(Some people wince at that, but it only means they did not work metal for weapons or utensils.)

Without metal devices, they lusted after the knives and tools the Spaniards dangled in addition to the cloth. In return, they offered pots, baskets, and — hallelujah! — fresh fish, meat and vegetables.

Pretty soon, though, with the trading done, the Kumeyaay, being jealous of their space, began to look at these pigpen guys and think, “Are we done here?”

The Indians quickly figured out these guys weren’t going home. They were like brothers-in-law on the couch.

The seeds of conflict were planted early.


Now, you start with young guys fresh (“fresh” — perhaps not the right word) off a long voyage. What do you think might be on their minds, to say it delicately?

Right. Carrico sets the stage: “You're a Spanish soldier and you see this topless woman. She seems to be flaunting herself, and she's giggling, and she seems to like you. You give her some trade beads and — this is not going to go well.”

Because the Spanish came from a more buttoned-down society, they misread the sexual innocence of the Kumeyaay women who had no fear of sexual abuse and rape. When that changed, hatred was born.

There was an early outbreak of violence as the Indians attacked Father Junipero Serra and his party at the foot of Presidio Hill near present-day Old Town shortly after they arrived. The attack was thwarted, but it portended things to come. Soon after, Serra moved north.

Then the Europeans’ diseases hit and the Indians sickened and many died. Not knowing about contagion, the despairing and confused people didn’t know where to turn.

Carrico says, “I believe the Kumeyaay started thinking that maybe their god, their spirit, wasn't as strong as they thought, and the European god was stronger. When the Spaniards built a modest mission on the site of the later historic one, they now had a place where the Indians probably assumed the new god lived.

Carrico surmises that the Spanish priests fed on that fear and offered a solution: Convert. “They said, ‘You're being punished for not believing. That's why you're all dying.’ Very clever. Of course, they may have even believed that themselves.”

The Kumeyaay probably figured, “What’ve we got to lose? If becoming Catholic is what will save us, well then, that’s what we better do.”

Conversion became sort of a spiritual insurance policy. Doubtful that many saw the light because of the writings of St. Augustine. Based on mission records, an estimated 15 percent were baptized.

It didn’t take long for the invaders’ influence to be felt. Carrico describes what developed in the villages and around the newly established San Diego mission where some Kumeyaay moved.

“In Ystagua, you'd see some women and men wearing glass trade beads from the mission. You'd probably see people with syphilis on their face. You'd see corn fields, bean fields and other crops that the Spaniards taught them to grow. You're going to see a lot of sick people, and you're going to see a smaller population.”

A large majority of the Indians didn’t buy what the priests were selling. They just hung back and watched their culture start to come apart.

The name Kumeyaay has had an interesting journey of its own. Back in 1700, if you were to ask a resident of Ystagua what he called his people, he would have blinked in confusion as though, “Do we need a name?” Then, if pressed, he would have said he was of the town of Ystagua, which means “worm’s home.” Pressed to go more broadly than the village, he would have said … nothing.

The Spaniards, who went around the world passing out names, called them “Diegueno,” or “the native people of San Diego.” And that is the name that stuck for about 200 years.

Finally, in the birth of Native American nationalism of the 1970s, it was decided to seek a more authentic name than the one given by the white man. So, they came up with one that had long slumbered in their lore and that meant “people of the coast.” Thus, Kumeyaay.

The Indians who lived in the Oceanside area were given the name Luiseno, “people of San Luis Rey,” and they still seem content with that.

Personal names had a method and a rationale. Carrico gives an example: “One young woman was listed in mission baptism records as “Sinkusiyaay Sichac.” Sin being woman and kusiyaay meaning healer. So her given name was healer woman. Her clan name was Sichac, which was an important clan. Sichac means owl. So she was healer woman of the owl clan.


The priests brought Old World discipline to the mission and that was a shock. (Remember, back home, these were the days of the Inquisition where you could get yourself burned at the stake for praying to the same god in the wrong way.)

The priests were kinder than the military over at the Presidio, but that was of small comfort. Whippings were the common physical punishment. Now, that may have been business as usual for a tough sailor on a galleon, but to a placid native, it was shocking abuse.

The Spaniards, who would need little excuse to start a fight, looked down on the Indians. Carrico says, “I read those early records of Father Serra and talk was of the Kumeyaay being a docile people. They used phrases like, ‘War is almost unknown to them.’

“They had a rude surprise when the Indians rebelled and rose up in 1775. After deciding that the priest, Father Jaime, was a demon, they sacked the mission in San Diego and burned it to the ground. They killed him and two other people.”

The Spanish came close to abandoning this area, but Serra returned a year later, rebuilt the mission and began a placating regime that was kinder toward the Kumeyaay.

Altogether, Serra spent only 87 days in this area.

Carrico says, “They took a George W. Bush approach of being a kinder conservative and made attempts to make amends. It worked to a degree.”

Life gradually returned to normal in Ystagua and among the Indians of this area. Or should we say abnormal? Of course, if abnormal is the status quo long enough, it becomes normal.

Carrico says a visit to Ystagua 100 years later, in 1800, would find only about 100 people, a decline of half since 1700. It would be something akin to an American rust-belt city of today compared to 50 years ago.

Disease would have done its dirty work. Carrico says, “When I dug at the Mission San Diego in 1989, we found the first case of congenital syphilis on an Indian. It was a little boy who died when he was 8 years old. His body was ravaged by syphilis. He died around 1800. He was born with syphilis. His bone structure was just porous.”

Carrico points out a less obvious effect of syphilis, a disease that often leaves the victim sterile. He says that if a normal woman had been fertile in that time, she probably would have had three girls, of which two would survive. But this infected woman had none.

However, if those two girls (who were never born) would have each had two girls of their own, and if those girls and each girl of succeeding generations would have had two girls …. You can do the math to realize how that one disease denied normal population growth to the entire Kumeyaay people.

The European domination and cultural foothold gradually became a full-body embrace. The once reassuring hum of Kumeyaay life gradually faded, and finally could barely be heard.

Fred Dickey’s home page is

He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at

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