Pacific Postcards

Drawing from History: Remnants of the Past

The earth is constantly in a never-ending state of change. In the past decade, we’ve seen so many events that have changed the course of history, especially as the Earth stood still in the past year. While it’s important to keep moving forward, we must never forget the past. Because sometimes looking at the past can help us understand how many things came to be. It’s this curiosity that filled the mind of the men traveling to California in the mid-nineteenth century. One man in particular, Edward Vischer, spent most of his time in California recording just about everything that caught his attention. One drawing of a mission in ruins captured an interesting aspect of a certain era in California. Whether he realized it or not, the drawing shows us the aftermath of the failed Spanish attempt at colonization in the Pacific and how the Europeans were finally able to curiously explore the Coast for the first time.  
Around the late 16th century, Pacific exploration was mainly caused by the European’s interest in trade with India and China. Joyce Chaplin describes this expansion in her article “The Pacific before Empire”, saying that “...Spain, the first European claimant to the Pacific, strategically claims the ocean’s edges, at places to maximize profit.” (Chaplin, pg 7). Spain claimed areas around the Philippines, South and Central America. There were outposts all along the West Coast that were then closed off from other European travelers, giving Spain an advantage over the land it conquered. Even centuries on after, during the Maritime Fur Trade in the 18th century, Spanish conquest continued up the coast. This led to important moments in Pacific history such as the possession of Neah Bay in 1790. With outposts being built up around the Pacific Northwest, it’s evident that the Spanish empire has had a strong hold along the coast for many decades leading up to the 19th century. They restricted many travelers from coming ashore and studying the life around the West coast for many years. 
The drawing, “Rear view of the ruins of the Mission of San Carlos, from the seaside”, was created around October of 1867 as a way to document what Edward saw when visiting California. Vischer had spent most of his early years on trading vessels moving across the Pacific. It was his visits to Santa Barbara and Los Angeles in 1842 however that helped him realize how much he enjoyed California, leading to his decision to stay in San Francisco up until his death in 1878. While he’s known mostly commonly for his art, he really didn’t start painting and drawing until his later years in 1859. He had the skill to sketch or paint a scene right on the spot and spent his time drawing mostly things that interested him, like the landscapes, mining operations, and the ruined missions. 
The drawing shows the mission, which looks to be in good shape in the front but is falling apart in the back. We can also see some animals laying in the foreground. Also known as Carmel Mission, the Mission of San Carlos was founded on June 3, 1770, almost a century before Vischer’s drawing. This was the second of twenty-one missions built by the Spanish during colonization in Alta California (Upper California). The missions were set up with the intention of converting the indigenous people and preparing the land for colonies to come. Some forts were also built to protect the missions from any natives against the Spanish Empire’s rule. Father Junipero Serra was in charge of the Carmel Mission, where he would stay up until his death in 1784. Father Serra, like many missionaries at the time, was criticized by Europeans for their treatment towards the native people in California. Adelbert von Chamisso of the Rurik expedition described how “the California natives lived ‘in a subjugated condition’ under the ‘yoke’ of Spanish colonialism...” (Igler, pg 141). But even if Father Serra is seen as a controversial figure for his role in the “colonization” of the natives, he was still successful in the baptism of many. In the next decade more buildings would be constructed around the mission. While it seemed like things were looking up for Spain’s new empire, history had other plans. 
In 1821, after a decade of fighting, Mexico got its independence from Spain. Alta California became part of Mexico, meaning they now owned the mission system. But since they didn’t have the money to maintain the missions, the government decided to secularize them in 1834. This caused many of the native converts and fathers to leave the buildings which in turn led to the deterioration as time progressed. Even in 1848 when the United States acquired California from Mexico, the mission was neglected, continuing to fall apart and return to the Earth. Of course, not before Edward was able to sketch the ruins of the San Carlos Mission. 
The drawing also shows some animals laying in the foreground. The details, whether Vischer realized it or not, already hint at a couple components to the early observations of California. It’s important to note that the mission is depicted “from the seaside”, since many looked out from California at the new potentials for trade across the Pacific. It shows us that Vischer took more interest in the California environment surrounding him. The animals also show us something that is brought up by David Igler in his book, “The Great Ocean”. Decades earlier, the scientific crew of the Heros mention the sheer amount of wildlife in California. Igler states that “Plentitude, variety, size and abundance – nature's bounty in Alta California stunned the Heross naturalists...” (Igler, pg 147). Many people who came to California had this sense that there was this new land filled with never-ending resources. But just like the abandoned Mission of San Carlos, there was a story behind this assumption. California was once home to many tribes along the coast, using the resources around them as part of their day-to-day lives. But as mentioned earlier, the future cannot be predicted. Igler mentions to the reader that “Spanish colonization had altered this hunter-prey dynamic, especially around the coastal missions where Indian populations plummeted due to introduced diseases.” (Igler pg 147). Disease was not an exclusive problem to the indigenous people of California. Throughout the late eighteenth century, many tribes throughout the Pacific and along the coast had suffered from diseases that were brought by European travelers. The epidemics had long lasting effects on everyone, not only bringing down populations within certain tribes but also making it hard for others to grow decades afterwards. While the issue was known by many captains, there wasn’t much effort in helping out. While the naturalists aboard the Heros saw a land of abundant and unlimited resources, they failed to understand that the land, while new to them, had actually had a history before their expedition. 
Life always goes on and history is always changing at the start of everyday. Which is why it is important to remember and document the past. Edward Vischer’s drawing not only shows us the aftermath of Spanish attempts of colonialism in the Pacific, but also the curiosity of many European travelers who were finally given the chance to experience the west coast for the first time. With that being said, there’s always new people on this Earth, generation after generation, bringing with them the eagerness to explore the worlds around them. This feeling of exploration will always be an important factor in moving forward in humanity and is something we must always value. And while sometimes the past can be cruel, it can help us learn and make sure we don’t make the same mistakes in the future.  
Igler, D. (2017). The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush (Illustrated ed.). Oxford University Press. 
Chaplin, J. (2014). The Pacific before Empire, c. 1500-1800 
Palgrave Macmillan. 
The Claremont Colleges Digital Library 

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