Johann Jakob Baegert’s Ethnographic Descriptions

Some of the most important primary sources of ethnographic information regarding the native cultures of the peninsula in early historic times come from the letters of Johann Jakob Baegert and the book he authored titled “Observations in Lower California”.

Baegert was a Jesuit missionary in charge of a Catholic mission among the Guaycura nation in the south-central portion of the peninsula. In his writings, Baegert describes the native Californian cultures and lands using broad generalizations. Modern historians are quick to point out that, compared to most Jesuit missionaries, Baegert traveled very little and his firsthand descriptions come from a very limited geographic area. As a result, his broad generalizations should usually be understood to relate specifically to the Guaycura culture and the exceptionally arid south-central area of the peninsula.

Baegert’s book and letters are very interesting to read. He is openly cynical and doesn’t pull any punches when he describes the natives:

As a general rule, it may be said that the California Indians are stupid, awkward, rude, unclean, insolent, ungrateful, mendacious, thievish, abominably lazy, great talkers to their end, and naive and childlike so far as intelligence and actions are concerned. They are an unreflecting people, without worries, unconcerned, a people who possess no self-control but follow, like Animals in every respect, their natural instincts.

Nor was he particularly fond of the lands of the peninsula:

If I wished to describe California (of which it has been said in jest that of the four elements it received only two: air and fire) in a few words, I could say with the prophet in the Sixty-second Psalm that it is a waterless desert, impassable because of rocks and thorns…Except for her pearls, her two and a half kinds of fruit, her almost permanently blue sky, and at least in the shade, her not too hot and never too cold air, California has nothing which deserves to be praised and esteemed or needs to be coveted by even the poorest of inhabited lands of the globe.

When you read Baegert’s works, you will realize that the two quotes I just gave are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to his cynicism. Many of his statements are rude and cruel by today’s standards. Unfortunately, it is easy to get distracted by his dramatic metaphors and mean-spirited statements about the natives.

What prompted him to write so dramatically? The answer is simple. Baegert’s book was written as a defense of the Jesuits, who were expelled from the new world by the king of Spain while Baegert was serving in the peninsula. High among the allegations against the Jesuits were claims that they were living like kings and becoming rich off of the Baja lands which were purported to be rich in pearls, gold, and silver. While there is no doubt that under Spanish rule, many new world cultures and were subjugated and exploited for riches, this was not the case in Baja California. Baegert knew firsthand that life as a peninsular missionary was undignified, uncomfortable, and devoid of riches. His book was written in an effort to demonstrate to the accusing world that the accusations against the Jesuits in Baja were false and that they had been treated quite unfairly.

Fortunately, if you can look past his drama, his defensive arguments, and his frequent contradictions, you will find the content of his book richly rewarding. It contains detailed ethnographic descriptions of a specific culture living in a finite area written by a man who lived with them day and night for many years and who had learned to understand and speak their native tongue. While there are other original ethnographic descriptions of various tribes in the peninsula, Baegert’s work is different and unparalleled in many respects.

With this background in mind, I want to use the remainder of this article to tease out some important information from Baegert’s writings and relate them to our model of the Book of Mormon lands.

Baegert shows us that grapes suitable for wine were native to the peninsula, substantiating descriptions from the Book of Mormon:

I also found wild, red berries. The woody parts, the leaves, and the fruits differ only from the cultivated ones in that one can recognize it by its wild stem. It would not be any trouble to squeeze juice out of this fruit and make a wine out of it if no other source were available.
(Letters of Jacob Baegert, 1749-1761, Jesuit Missionary in California; Translated by Elsbeth Schulz-Bischoff; p134)

He also describes how well grapes grow at the missions:

It is not necessary to buy sacramental wine elsewhere. The land produces it, and without doubt it could become an excellent and generous product if cool celars, good barrels, and skilled vintners were available, because the grapes are honey-sweet and of superior flavor. Five missions have vineyards. The juice is merely pressed from the grapes by hand and stored in stone jars.
(Observations in Lower California; Johann Jakob Baegert; 1772;p130-131)

He describes food preparation techniques:

many of the native trees and bushes bear wild fruit, similar to our rosehip hedges. The Indians gather these fruits, which they consider good, and throw them into a bowl made of turtleshell. Then they crush and mince them and fry them on hot planks-first I thought everything was full of charcoal-and then pop them into their wide-opened mouths, the same way they do with many roots.
(Letters of Jacob Baegert, 1749-1761, Jesuit Missionary in California; Translated by Elsbeth Schulz-Bischoff; p134)

He describes the gathering and use of seeds and grains:

“All kinds of small seeds belong to the second variety of food. The natives even scrape together the tiny seeds of dry hay, although much smaller than mustard seeds. They gather all sorts of pods for growing on shrubs and small trees, of which, according to Father Piccolo, there may be more than sixteen different kinds.”
(Observations in Lower California; Johann Jakob Baegert; 1772;p66)

He also describes habits that seem to match the prophesy that the Lamanites would become “dark, filthy, and lothesome” between the time that the Nephites were destroyed and the time of the restoration:

You will find something abominable among the Californians and foreign to human nature. During the season of pitahaya they collect promiscuously human excrement, pick out the small black grains which the stomach was not able to digest, dry them, grind them up, and greedily eat. I did not believe the people telling me this but when I myself saw this abomination with my eyes
(Letters of Jacob Baegert, 1749-1761, Jesuit Missionary in California; Translated by Elsbeth Schulz-Bischoff; p144)

He describes the idleness of the natives:

When the above-mentioned things (bows, arrows, and aprons) are made, all natives, big and small of both sexes, do nothing else all year long but search for food, consume it, sleep, chatter, and be idle
(Observations in Lower California; Johann Jakob Baegert; 1772;p65)

But he also gives us his opinion that they could practice agriculture and enjoy domesticated animals if they weren’t so idle:

They could easily improve their living conditions at least a little if they were more industrious and more willing to work. Here and there they could sow a handful of corn, plant pumpkins, and cotton. They could keep small herds of goats and sheep, yes, even of cattle. They could make jerkins and coats out of deerskins, which they have now learned to prepare, but nothing of this kind must be expected of them. They do not care to eat pigeons unless they fly roasted into their mouths. To work today in order to gather the fruit of their labor a quarter or half a year later seems unbearable to them.
(Observations in Lower California; Johann Jakob Baegert; 1772;p84)

He describes the fertility of the oasis compared to the barrenness of the wildernesses:

Anything at all can be planted or sown and everything will do well. The soil bears hundredfold and out-produces the most fertile regions of Europe. There is wheat, corn, rice, mellons (watermellons and also other varities) weighing twenty pounds, pumpkins, cotton, lemons, oranges, bananas, pomegranates, delicious honey-sweet grapes, and olives. The fig trees bear fruit twice within one summer. Two or even three crops can be harvested from the same cornfield in one year; the corn grows eight feet high and often bears twelve ears to a hill. I have seen grapevines in California which bore a medium-sized basketful of good grapes in the second year and had grown as thick as an arm in the third and fourth year; the new shoots attained a length of forty-five feet and more in one year. It is a pity that such humid soil is so rare and that sufficient water for irrigation is at times sixty hours away. Except for these few small oases, the poorest piece of European land (provided it has sufficient rain or other water) would be regarded as paradise in California.
(Observations in Lower California; Johann Jakob Baegert; 1772;p28)

He gives us information that might suggest that an agricultural Nephite culture could be difficult to detect in the archaeological record:

These rain-water torrents often cause a great deal of damage, since they break the dikes (which were constructed with much toil to protect a small piece of tillable land) and wash away the earth, or at least a good deal of it, so that nothing is left to the farmer or horticulturist except the bare rocks. Thus it happened that in 1763, when I visited a mission and tried to find an orchard containing fifteen or more very large fig trees and as many pomegranate trees, which I had seen more than a hundred times in the previous year, I could find neither the trees nor the land upon which they had stood only two days before my visit.
(Observations in Lower California; Johann Jakob Baegert; 1772;p21-22)

It is also noteworthy that the territories that Baegert knew best were also the areas that our model associates with several long-distance journeys. These journeys included Mosiah leading the Nephites to Zarahemla, Zeniff’s party returning to the land of Nephi, Limhi’s search party searching for Zarahemla, Ammon’s party later searching for the people of Zeniff, Alma’s party traveling back to Zarahemla, Limhi’s people traveling to Zarahemla, and the Lamanite army pursuing Limhi’s party. It is also the area we associate with the land of Amoron which was settled by the priests of King Noah.

Ammon’s party wandered in this wilderness many days, suffering from thirst as they traveled across the lands. The Lamanite army got lost in these lands, and once they found the priests of Noah, those priests also couldn’t help them find their way back to the land of Nephi. In contrast, Alma’s party discovered a “pleasant” land where they practiced agriculture in these same lands. Baegert describes the wilderness and oasis similarly:

the mountains and plains show nothing but smooth, polished stones of varying size, which seem to have been brought there intentionally and piled up or laid down by hand, No plant of any kind, or anything else, can be seen between these stones. Where the road leads through such “badlands,” it is possible to ride for a quarter of an hour between two parapets of such stones, which almost hide man and horse…

It is not necessary to be afraid of drowning in California, but it is easy to die of thirst. A man only needs to lose his way, which can happen easily, and he may wander whole days or even weeks without finding a drop of water. Only a few years ago, several people whose ship had been wrecked on the coast of California died miserably of thirst, because in spite of their diligent search, they were unable to find water.
(Observations in Lower California; Johann Jakob Baegert; 1772;p20)

It is not uncommon that in a whole day’s journey not one blade of grass, green or dry, can be found to feed a hungry horse…But wherever there is a piece of land provided with moisture, either by the proximity of a swamp or because it is possible to irrigate, the picture is entirely different, Anything at all can be planted or sown and everything will do well. The soil bears hundredfold and out-produces the most fertile regions of Europe.
(Observations in Lower California; Johann Jakob Baegert; 1772;p25-28)

Baegert also helps us understand that it is reasonable to believe that peninsular cultures might have little or no contact with the mainland, a finding that is consistent with the archaeological record as well:

It is not impossible that accidently the first inhabitants succeeded in getting to California by crossing the Gulf from the opposite side of the California Sea, namely, from Sinaloa and Sonora. As far as I know, however, navigation never has been practiced by the Indians of this coast, nor is it in use among them at the present time…Before the Indians had seen the Spaniards for the first time, almost three and a half hundred years ago, they, to all appearances, believed that California was the whole world and they themselves its only inhabitants, for they visited nobody and nobody visited them.
(Observations in Lower California; Johann Jakob Baegert; 1772;p57-58)

He commented on the traveling speeds and distances traversed by the natives:

The California Indians are exceedingly good runners. I would gladly have given them my three horses to eat had I been able to march as well as they did. Whenever I traveled, I became incomparably more tired from riding than they from walking. They will walk twenty hours today and return tomorrow to the place they started from without showing much fatigue. A boy offered to accompany me on a trip, but I told him that the way was very long, my horse very brisk, and that I had to hurry. Whereupon he answered quickly, “Your horse will tire, but I will not.” At another time-it was the end of December at sunrise (that is around seven o’clock in California)-I sent a fourteen-year-old boy to the neighboring mission, situated six hours from mine. About one and a half hour’s distance from his place of destination, the boy met the missionary to whom he was to deliver a letter and who was just then on his way to pay me a visit. At once the boy turned around and at about noon arrived at my house with the missionary, who was riding a good mule. He had covered on foot within five hours a distance of more than nine hours.
(Observations in Lower California; Johann Jakob Baegert; 1772;p85)

He taught us that there were resources available to seal and finish the hulls of large ships (The Chumash culture just north of the peninsula is famous for building significant seaworthy vessels out of wooden planks which were sealed with similar pitch):

One of those little dwarf trees secretes a fragrant resin, which is used instead of incense in the churches of California. Another one emits drops of a kind of pitch or wax, which is used to paint the ships
(Observations in Lower California; Johann Jakob Baegert; 1772;p31)

He observed how reasonable it would be to use local resources in exactly the same way that Captain Moroni did. Captain Moroni’s defenses were described as a “network of pickets” atop fortified walls of earth and timber. Notice how Baegert recognized the same potential:

In recompense for its slight height and less massive development, as compared with the sweet pitahaya plant, the sour variety is overly compensated by the size and viciousness of the thorns it produces. At first glance one sees nothing but thorns, and it seems as if all the branches were encased in a belt of penance with twelve rows of spikes as long as a finger. Several rows of these shrubs used as a barricade would serve as well as all palisades
(Observations in Lower California; Johann Jakob Baegert; 1772;p36)

One correlation between Baegert’s writings and the descriptions in the Book of Mormon relates to the terrestrial diet of the Nephites, despite their close proximity to seashores on the east and west. Baegert’s mission was closer to the coast that most of the areas that we identify as Nephite lands, but despite his craving for fish, it was a rare treat for him to obtain any. (Observations in Lower California; Johann Jakob Baegert; 1772;p36)

His descriptions correlate strongly with archaeological findings that the prehistoric Baja peninsula supported cultures with two distinct diets. One culture’s diet consisted almost entirely of raw meat in the borders by the seashore, consistent with the description of the diet of the portion of the Lamanite culture that lived in the borders by the seashore. The other culture’s diet consisted almost entirely of fruits, grains, vegetables, and terrestrial game, significantly consistent with the terrestrial focus of the Nephite diet.

Despite the fact that Baegert’s tone is frequently condescending and his words harsh toward the native population, it is also interspersed with insightful observations about the native people and their cultures. I find these comments to be rich and insightful little treasures that can teach us a lot about prehistoric life in the peninsula:

they are nevertheless divided into a great many nations, tribes, and tongues. A mission may consist of a thousand souls only, yet it may easily have among its parishioners as many different little nations as Switzerland has cantons, allies, associates, and dependencies…each native, each tribe, and each people have a fatherland, of which each is as much enamored as is any other people, yes, even more so, for, quite unreasonably, no one would under any circumstances allow himself to be transplanted fifty or more hours away from his birthplace…
(Observations in Lower California; Johann Jakob Baegert; 1772;p56)

it is possible for only three classes of people to live in California. They are: one, a few priests who are willing to leave their fatherland…Two, a few poor Spaniards born in America, who are unable to earn their daily bread in any other place and come to California to serve as soldiers or cowherds. Three, the native Californians themselves, who seem to thrive on anything and for whom it is the most delightful place on the face of the earth, either because they do not know better, or because of the innate love all men feel for the land of their birth.
(Observations in Lower California; Johann Jakob Baegert; 1772;p48-49)

The daily pattern of life of unbaptized California Indians always runs like this. In the evening, when their bellies are filled, they lie down or sit together, talking until they are tired of it or cannot think of anything more to say. In the morning, they sleep till hunger or the lust for food makes them get up. As soon as they are awake, they start to eat, if anything edible is around, and immediately the laughing, chatting, and joking is resumed. After this kind of morning prayer, when the sun is already fairly high, the men reach for their bows and arrows, and the women tie their yokes or turtle shells around their foreheads. Some go to the right, others to the left, here six, there four, over there eight or two, or sometimes just one alone. The chattering, laughing and joking continue all the way. They watch for a mouse, lizard, snake, hare, or a deer to appear. One of them tears up a yucca or some other root, another cuts off half a dozen alloe heads. They rest a little, sitting together or lying down in the rare shade if any can be found; all the while their tongues keep wagging. At length they rise again, play or wrestle to find out who is the strongest man or woman among them and who can throw his opponent to the ground. Finally they start on their way back or walk for another few hours. At the nearest water place they stop and begin singing, burning, roasting, and grinding the food they found during the day. Constantly chattering, they eat as long as something is left and there is still space in their stomachs. After more childish or indecent prattling, they go to rest again, as they did the night before. In this manner they spend the day, month, the whole year. Their talks or chatterings are about eating, childish nonsense, and all kinds of mischievous tricks.
(Observations in Lower California; Johann Jakob Baegert; 1772;p92-93)

One of the main topics of the Book of Mormon is the contrast between the literate, agricultural Nephites and the wild, nearly-naked, idle Lamanites. A very similar dichotomy is expressed in Baegert’s writings. The literate, agricultural European view of Baegert is unforgivingly harsh regarding the wild, naked, idle native culture itself, but when it came to describing the individuals in that culture, he attributed what he viewed as their evil nature to be a result of the traditions of their fathers and the nature of their environment. His description of the happiness of the people that he surrounded himself with for all those years takes a completely different tone. Out of all of Baegert’s writings, this is my favorite quote:

Although judging from what I have already said and what I shall say…one could consider the California native as the poorest and most pitiable among Adam’s children; yet, I wish to state with full assurance and without fear of contradiction that, as far as this earthly life is concerned, they are incomparably happier than those who live in Europe and upon the blessed soil of Germany, even those who appear to be living on the very pinnacle of temporal bliss. It is a fact that habit makes everything bearable and easy, and thus the California native sleeps as gently and as well on the hard soil under the open sky as a wealthy European spendthrift in his soft feather bed behind a rich curtain in his gilded room…The California natives seem to have nothing, and yet they have at all times whatever they need and as much as they need of it…they always are in good spirits, and…they joke and laugh continually. This perpetual gaiety is a clear proof that they are always contented, always joyful, which without doubt makes for real happiness. That is what everyone in this world strives and sighs for, each according to his position and ability, but only very few achieve it.
(Observations in Lower California; Johann Jakob Baegert; 1772;p49-50)

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