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A timeline for adults…and 9 year-olds.

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Santa Clara students and faculty collaborate on a groundbreaking project documenting early Mission life that spans disciplines and almost a decade of work. And it’s now a model for every mission in California.

Every year, California fourth-graders preparing their Mission projects go in search of inspiration and information. Budding anthropologists check out picture books and history tomes from the library, buy prefabricated models from the craft store (complete with tiny Franciscans and native Californians), and write meticulous reports on one of the 21 missions along El Camino Real.

As Russ Skowronek learned, it’s a bit more difficult for grown-up anthropologists than it is for 9-year-olds.

Even though the University Archives possess a wealth of original documents, artifacts, and records that the Jesuits inherited with Santa Clara College, the closest he could find to an official history of Mission Santa Clara de Asís pre-1851 was an unfinished manuscript. But Skowronek, associate professor of anthropology and the University archaeologist, was able to address the problem in a particularly Santa Clara way: He got the whole campus involved.

Situating Mission Santa Clara (Academy of American Franciscan History, $35) covers the pre-college years of the Santa Clara Mission, and the final product was made possible thanks to contributions from faculty in history, anthropology, Spanish, art, and sociology, and anthropology students over the past nine years.

The volume is a compilation of primary documents, such as the annual informes—reports sent from the Mission to Catholic superiors—along with regular tallies of the goods and livestock at the Mission, accounts of visitors, and personal correspondence, connected by short contextual narratives. It is the first time these documents have been reprinted in their entirety and collected chronologically.

To be put to use, all this material needed to be translated, mostly from Spanish—which was done by faculty in the modern languages department; transcribed from longhand—the task of the first students in the Anthropology 146 class; then verified against the original Spanish documents in the University Archives—the work of co-editor Elizabeth Thompson ’00, an anthropology major with a minor in Spanish Studies, who now works for the SCU Career Center coordinating the Let Your Life Speak program.

“She provided the glue at the beginning,” Skowronek says. For her part, Thompson remembers a lot of hours spent sitting in the basement of the old Orradre Library, comparing translations of the informes.

Because her family has lived in the Bay Area for several generations and owned ranch land, Thompson was particularly interested in the accounts of daily agrarian life in the 1800s.

Her work in anthropology and the campus archaeology lab also left her with a collection of campus trivia.

Branded: the mark for cattle belonging to Mission Santa Clara. Courtesy SCU Archives

“We would research things like how many tiles were on the roof of the Mission buildings,” she recalls. (For the record, more than 15,000.) “But then we learned what you could extrapolate from that data.” Such as: the number of laborers, the raw materials, and skills needed to create the tiles, and how long such a project would take to complete, and what that meant about Santa Clara’s status among the missions.

From its founding by Franciscan Father Tomás de la Peña on Jan. 12, 1777, through four different mission sites in the Guadalupe River valley, to March of 1851 when Bishop Joseph Alemany turned what remained of the Mission grounds over to the Jesuits to found their school, Santa Clara was always a very successful mission. The profits of the legendary orchards and sale of livestock were, for the most part, all reinvested into the Mission, which thrived and grew each year, as demonstrated by the tables and the accounts in the informes. The mild climate and rich environment that makes this such a wonderful site for a university also made it an excellent place for agriculture and animals.

Though religion was always a factor, Skowronek sees the goal of the California missions more as another kind of conversion: “People are transformed into tax-paying citizens, who live in one place and who are loyal to the crown.” Their diets change, and so do the technologies to cook and prepare the food. They adapt the style of their clothes and their houses. All of the skills to support this new lifestyle needed to be taught to the Clareños. So if one thinks of the missions as a kind of trade school, he says, this site has been a place for education in a Western sense for 230 years.

In November 2006, at the book’s release, a group of California archaeologists, scholars, and mission curators joined in a panel to celebrate what Skowronek and his many collaborators had accomplished. Andrew Galvan, the curator of Mission Dolores in San Francisco, called the book “a model that every mission in Alta California should have.” He gave Skowronek a necklace of beads from the 1790s, made by one of his ancestors who was baptized at Mission Dolores—which Skowronek wears to this day.

“It took me 14 years to find this stuff,” Skowronek says. “I don’t want anyone to ever, ever, ever have to do that again, myself included. It will be a whole lot easier to write a Mission history now.”

His straightforward timeline is accessible even to fourth-grade students and their teachers. Which is a good thing, not only for future archaeologists and anthropologists. After all, today’s fourth-graders are the class of 2020.

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