Actual History Of The Screenplay

Padre Junipero Serra and Captain Felipe de Neve, adversaries in Alta (Upper) California.

Peter Hardenman Burnett, the state’s first governor, saw indigenous Californians as lazy, savage and dangerous. Though he acknowledged that white settlers were taking their territory and bringing disease, he felt that it was the inevitable outcome of the meeting of two races.  (

“That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races until the Indian race becomes extinct must be expected,” he told legislators in the second state of the state address in 1851. “While we cannot anticipate this result but with painful regret, the inevitable destiny of the race is beyond the power or wisdom of man to avert.”



History has been kind to Padre Junipero Serra (1713-1784): founder of the California Missions, beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1987.  Pope Francis canonized Padre Serra on September 23, 2015, during a Mass in Washington, DC.

History has generally forgotten Captain Felipe de Neve (1724-1784), Spanish governor of Alta California and Serra’s political opponent. Serra, dogmatically believing his and God’s purpose were indistinguishable, thwarted Neve’s attempts to inventory mission supplies, as required by First Commandant General Teodoro de Croix, King Carlos of Spain’s emissary.  Instead, Serra sent his mission inventories to the Pope in Rome. Spain supplied the money and supplies; accounting for both went to Rome. The result was widespread over-stocking and hiding of mission supplies by the padres.

Both Serra and Neve had differing visions of the future for California Indians brought up in the missions (neophytes) who faced the end of Spanish control of Alta California, and encroachment of the “Anglos” from the East.  For Serra, God’s protection would suffice.  For Neve, security came through a return to self-sufficiency, independent from the missions.  Serra won, Neve lost, and the mission Indians were decimated.


Neve's comments on Serra:  "There is no mischief these religious will not attempt if exasperated, such is their boundless unbelievable pride.  My politeness and moderation over more than four years have not been enough to turn them from the hostility with which they engage in surreptitious conspiracies against the government and its laws.  There is no means whatsoever they would scorn.”  (Neve to Croix, March 26, 1781).    (Edwin A. Beilharz, Felipe De Neve, First Governor of California, California Historical Society, 1971, page 154)

Neve's comments on Serra:  "Serra possessed also, however, the subtlety of the serpent.  His cunning was such that at times it looked like willful deceit."   There are strong suggestions that Serra and Neve felt a real personal antipathy toward each other.  . . . If the friars insisted, as they did that the mission Indians were not ready for even the limited forms of self-government that Neve wished to institute, it may be remarked that under the system the missions used they would never become ready.”  (Beilharz, pp. 134-135)


Alta California is a fiction couched within actual historical events that took place between 1777 and 1784 in Las Californias, New Spain.  Throughout I have tried to keep Paco Palido's story, the fiction, in the foreground, not letting it get subsumed beneath historical events. 

Below are the historically accurate elements mentioned in Alta California:

  • PADRE SERRA was known for his fierce temper, subject to fits of wrath/anger. To appease himself, he frequently scourged his body. The burning his hands with candles is an actual historical incident.
  • CAPTAIN FELIPE DE NEVE, born to one of the most illustrious families of Andalucía, left for New Spain a short time after his wedding. He requested returning to Spain and his wife often, but, because of his administrative skills and new commissions, he never did see her again.  His repeated clashes with Padre Serra--funding, safety, treatment of natives, and decision on the future for the neophytes--has left Neve essentially California's forgotten man.
  • FINANCES.   The money for the expeditions--building the missions, wine, food, items for the missions, paying the soldiers, etc., etc.--came from King Carlos in Madrid. 
  • However,  all of Padre Serra's accounting for expenditures, went to the Pope in the Vatican, not to Madrid.  This proved a true bone of contention between military and religious authorities.
  • EVENTS: An attack was made on the San Diego Mission by local natives. Padre Juame was beaten to death. Dead soldiers were dumped down the well.
  • THE CHUMASH OF SANTA BARBARA proved the most difficult indigenous California tribe to overcome in the Californias.
  • The comic discussion by the young Chumash girls about Palido’s Bible indicates the God-in-time or God-in-place distinction separating the Judaic-Christian and traditional indigenous peoples' belief systems.  
  • Establishment of the Santa Barbara Mission was the “final link” in the Camino Real joining the missions in Southern and Northern California, each within one day’s walk of the next.
  • Although Serra established the site of the Santa Barbara mission, he never lived to see it completed.
  • THE END OF THE SPANISH OCCUPATION OF THE CALIFORNIAS.  The Spanish coffers were drying up because of European wars.  So, a primary question became what to do with the neophytes (baptized indigenous peoples) in the missions when the Spanish left. 
  • TWO OPTIONS: King Carlos supported Captain de Neve’s decision that the neophytes should return to their tribal ways to protect them from the oncoming whites from the east.  Padre Serra disagreed.  He argued that the neophytes should stay in the missions where God would protect them.  Serra was under orders to obey King Carlos and Captain de Neve’s decision.  How he managed to obey that order while disobeying it is pure Machiavellianism.  The result is the fictional scene with Balthazar toward the end of the screenplay.
  • ACTUAL HISTORICAL PERSONAGES.  Padres Serra and Crespi, as well as Captain Felipe de Neve.
  • Padre Pieras was the Padre at San Luis Obispo.
  • Sergeant Camacho and Corporal Francisco Cordero were actual historical figures. Stories tell of native women running from the missions to the hills when they knew the two were coming.
  • Balthazar, the “drunken neophyte” was the actual “freely-appointed” headman of San Luis Obispo, infamous for offering neophyte women for sex to satisfy his alcoholism.
  • THE END.  Serra and Neve died in the same year, 1784, a few months apart, one in Carmel, California, the other in Chihuahua, Mexico.
  • Padre Serra was troubled throughout his life by an infection from a snake bite in his leg. Eventually the leg festered was the cause of his death.
  • Padre Serra was buried in San Carlos Borromeo and is now a saint.
  • Neve, by his own choice, is buried in relative obscurity under a stepping-stope in Mexico where all may step on him.