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Murder in the Mission

Untangling an 18th-century tale of revenge

If it’s true, as the adage has it, that history is a lie mutually agreed upon, then nowhere is this more evident in the history of Mission Santa Clara than “The Father Peña Affair.”

Fr. Tomás de la Peña founded Mission Santa Clara de Asís in 1777. Nine years later, he was on trial for murder. The victim: a Native American laborer at the Mission, a man called Sixto. Cause of death: He was beaten with a hoe, said accusers.

There was no doubt Sixto was dead. But at stake was whether he had died from injuries supposedly inflicted by Peña—or whether he had simply fallen victim to a fever. Further tangling the web: cultures in conflict, men who didn’t speak the same language, and a thief with a score to settle.

A situation ripe for conflict

In May 1786, missionary Fr. Diego Noboa, head of Mission Santa Clara, sent a letter to the president of the missions of upper California, Fr. Lasuén, reporting that Peña had been accused of murdering Sixto. Lasuén assumed Peña was innocent, but nevertheless he traveled to Mission Santa Clara to perform a full inquiry. The legal proceedings lasted all spring and summer.

Why assume Peña was innocent? The identity of the prime witness: Plácido Ortiz, who had been one of the most powerful men in the mission community before being found guilty of stealing from the mission storehouses. Many of the men who attested to his version of events were his friends, relatives, and accomplices.

Another witness was a teenaged relative of Sixto, who initially told Lasuén that Peña had struck his victim with a hoe and with rocks. Later he admitted, “I did not see it. Plácido told me that I did see it.”

But it was more complicated than that. Peña had been asking to leave Santa Clara since 1782, when a letter written by Fr. Junipero Serra described Peña as suffering from “melancholy.” His colleague Fr. Murguía, who had been with Peña at the Mission since nine days after its founding, had died in 1784. In Situating Mission Santa Clara, Russ Skowronek writes that Peña was often “at odds” with the locals and the military representatives in the area.

Although the letters from Lasuén about the proceedings do mention several rumors about Peña mistreating the locals and disrespecting the soldiers, no complaints ever materialized on the record. Complaints about Ortiz, however, were not hard to come by.

A soldier reported that the lieutenant questioning the local Clareños asked leading questions and may have rehearsed with them; it was, after all, “well known that that Indians can be led by deep-seated malice” (according to Lasuén). Peña had reprimanded a soldier in the past for striking one of the Clareños, contributing to mutual dislike. And the lieutenant, one of the first to repeat the story about Peña to Noboa, was also friendly with Ortiz.

Of course, those who Lasuén found to testify on behalf of Peña were all described as upstanding, honorable, God-fearing, and conscientious. (He is tentative about one guard, though, who only “since his marriage has shown good character and good judgment.”)

The language barriers only complicated matters further. The Mission had not been established so long that its inhabitants could become very fluent in Spanish, the native language of the missionaries. Nor had the priests made much effort to learn the local tongue, so they relied on interpreters, including Ortiz, to speak with the Clareños, or questioned them in rudimentary Spanish, taking their responses as true.

Resolved but not solved

The true cause of Sixto’s death was never settled; he may indeed have died of a simple fever as Noboa initially testified, no foul play at all.

As for the charges against Peña, they were ultimately dismissed. He remained at Mission Santa Clara for several more years, filing annual informes with Noboa until 1793.

—Sarah Stanek

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