Mar 12, 2011

The Swallows of Capistrano

I have always been intrigued by the swallows that return to Mission San Jan Capistrano every March 19 – or are suppose to. My interest is due in part because it happens on my birthday so when John and I were in California we made a point to visit the mission which is located near the coast between San Diego and Los Angeles.

The guided tour starts with a history of the Acjachemen, the Native Americans who had lived for more than 10,000 years in the area that is now Orange County. Basically, they were hunter-gathers who lived in dome-shaped houses called kiicha made of natural material. Large grinding stones and other artifacts are on display at the mission.

The mission was the seventh of twenty-one missions to be founded in Alta California as part of Spanish territorial expansion in North America. Unlike the British on the East Coast, who brought people from their homeland to form colonies, the Spanish believed they could transform the Native people into good Spanish citizens with the missions as a center of learning and training. The Spanish government and Catholic Church wanted to convert the people to Christianity and train them in a Spanish or European lifestyle, so that they would eventually live in towns and pay taxes like good Spanish citizens. Founded in 1776, the Mission San Juan Capistrano is home to the oldest building still in use in California, namely the Serra’s Chapel built in 1782. The Native Americans were intrigued by the glass, cloth, horses, guns, and other new items the Spanish introduced into their culture. Many of the Native Americans moved to the mission and were baptized into the Christian religion.

Each mission had five or six soldiers, two missionaries, plus the Native Americans. The mission became a busy place with people making the adobe bricks needed to build the mission, raising food to feed everyone, tanning hides, making tallow, blacksmithing, weaving and all the other occupations needed to support the growing community. Slowly it became a typical community similar to many the Spanish created in the Western Hemisphere. After the tour we wandered around the mission. The museum has numerous interesting displays offering further insight into the Spanish era. Period rooms show the living quarters and kitchen of the time. Today the central garden is serene and lovely but at one time it was bustling with activity.

For over 30 years, Mission San Juan Capistrano grew in area and population. By 1806, Mission San Juan Capistrano had a population of over a 1,000 people with over 10,000 head of cattle, and a completed architectural gem, The Great Stone Church. In 1812 an earthquake caused the Great Stone Church to collapse and that along with a variety of other factors led to the mission’s decline. Over the years things changed - the Native Americans lost their identity, the Spanish lost their territory, and the swallows found other nesting areas.

The swallows still return to the San Juan Capistrano area but not in the numbers that they did in the past and almost none return to the mission. Attempts to lure them back to the mission have not been successful. Urbanization has led them to build their nests in other spots in the area but March 19, the day they are scheduled to return, still draws throngs of people in hopes of seeing the birds.