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Toypurina

California's Joan of Arc

Portrayal of Toypurina

No actual image of Toypurina exists. Rather, we portray her here through the image of a young California Native American woman.


After 14 years, 850 native people from the Los Angeles region were said to have been enticed and, in some cases, forced under the rigid control of the Spanish mission of San Gabriel Arcángel. There, they were baptized into the Catholic religion as neophytes and “civilized” by being stripped of their culture, language, and religion. They were then forced into a harsh life of submission, labor and piety to support the mission and its religion and, ultimately, Spanish domination of California.

Not long after the mission was established in 1771, a Spanish soldier stationed at the mission sexually assaulted the wife of a native chief and, when the enraged chief tried to kill the soldier believed to be guilty, the chief ended up himself being shot and killed and his head set upon a pole as a warning against confronting soldiers. Father Serra, head of the Spanish missions in California, complained bitterly of the horrid behavior by soldiers toward neophyte women and even boys at the missions. Soldiers introduced venereal diseases that tragically spread among neophytes. Soldiers were supposed to protect padres, not abuse converts. His grievances, however, long fell on deaf ears. Native women outside the missions were even less safe as soldiers ventured on “patrols” to deliberately find native women to assault. Native men who tried to intervene faced the same fate as did the earlier chief.

By the fall of 1785, neophytes at the Mission San Gabriel were fed up with abuses and the prohibition against attendance at important annual Indian mourning dances and rituals in home villages. The rituals were meant to help deceased loved ones transition into the next world and, by not being able to dance for them, neophytes believed their loved ones were victimized. Spanish law furthermore made neophytes wards of the padres, as if they were children and, although this was ostensibly for their protection, it gave padres considerable heavy-handed (and often abusive) control over every aspect of neophyte life. One neophyte, Nicolás José, had reached his breaking point. He had been among the first adult males baptized at the mission and, by 1785, had been there for more than ten years. He had earlier risen in status to became the mission’s first alcalde (overseer), but lost that position and was punished after padres discovered that he was providing women for the soldiers. Besides the prohibition against attendance at Indian rituals, José may also have resented this humiliating downfall and punishment. He decided to seek help from a prominent shaman, Toypurina, whose magic was believed to be powerful enough able to overcome padres and soldiers. In keeping with a custom of offering a gift for a shaman’s help, he gifted her with beads.

Toypurina was a 25-year-old medicine woman from Japhivit (or Jachivit), a native village located in the area. She was a descendent of chiefs and shamans and herself a highly influential shaman and she was the sister of the chief of her village. She saw her people’s growing anger at the interlopers and how the Spanish seemed to bring only humiliation, pain and death. She saw her people’s helplessness as increasing numbers were entrapped in harsh indentured servitude at the mission and how it absorbed more and more villages. She saw the fear of Spanish soldiers among native women and the fear among native men who felt powerless to protect them. She saw their land absorbed and food sources destroyed by the expanding mission’s livestock operations. Toypurina’s magic seemed powerless not only against these abuses, but also against the Spanish diseases that brutally inflicted her people. Now, indicating this nightmare to be permanent, the Spanish established a settlement nearby, the Pueblo de la Reina de los Angeles. When José finally approached Toypurina, she was likely very ready to fight back. Agreeing to help him, she rallied her village and other nearby villages for a fight. She assured them that her magic would either kill or put the padres and soldiers sleep, either way rendering them powerless. Probably feeling confident in the justice of their cause and the ultimate power of her magic, she apparently felt emboldened that this was their moment.

On the moonless night of October 25, 1785, Toypurina, along with her own village chief and brother, Temejavaguichia and chiefs Temejasaquichi (also spelled Tomasajaquichi) of the village Juvit and Ajiyivi (also spelled Aliyivat) of the village Jajamovi, their bow-armed warriors, and chiefs and warriors from at least three other villages, descended upon the Mission San Gabriel. They planned to meet José there who would guide them to the quarters of the padres where they would verify the padres to be magically asleep or deceased. Without the magic of the padres, the attackers believed the soldiers would be easily overcome and the neophytes freed. Toypurina, herself unarmed, was there to bring her magic and encourage the attackers. Unfortunately for them, a soldier, José María Pico, who knew the native language, had earlier overheard a neophyte discussing the planned attack. Pico, incidentally, was the father of Pio Pico (last Mexican Governor of California) and Andres Pico (last commander of Mexican forces opposing the American invasion of California in the U.S.-Mexico War). Pico informed the corporal of the guard, José Maria Verdugo, who then concocted a counter plan. By the night of the attack, soldiers were prepositioned and the padres safeguarded in the chapel. As planned, José met the Indian attackers and led them into the mission compound to the padres’ quarters. What the attackers did not know was that the two “padres” found prone in there were actually soldiers disguised as padres. The “padres” suddenly sprang up screaming, frightening the attackers and, as more soldiers suddenly appeared with their much-feared firearms, the attackers were thrown into panic. Most fled, but 21 attackers were captured, including Toypurina, José and the chiefs Temejasaquichi and Ajiyivi. They were jailed at the mission to await trial.

The trial was convened on January 3, 1786, after Governor Pedro Fages was able to arrive from Monterey. The defendants were Toypurina, Nicolás José, Chiefs Temejasaquichi and Ajiyivi. Only Nicolás José understood any of the Spanish language, so the soldier José María Picoserved as trial interpreter. The two chiefs, apparently fearful of what the Spanish were capable of doing to them, tried to deflect guilt from themselves to Toypurina and José. Temejasaquichi testified that, although admitting that he was prepared to fight, he actually held no grudge against the Spanish and that Toypurina deceived him and José instigated him. He further stated that he joined the attack only because his village decided to join in and he, as chief, had to be there. Ajiyivi, for his part, testified that he had only gotten involved because he encountered the spirited attackers as they headed to the mission and he wanted to see for himself if they were actually as brave as they claimed. He denied even bringing any weapons. He pointed to Toypurina and José as leaders of the attack.

Nicolás José, on the other hand, accepted responsibility for instigating and leading the attack and that he involved Toypurina by giving her beads to recruit a band of fighters. He testified that he was angry at the padres for not allowing him to participate in the annual Indian mourning rituals. He further testified that Toypurina was feared and that Indians believed her to be crafty and able to kill them simply by willing it.

Toypurina testified that she directed Temejasaquichi to persuade the neophytes to listen to her rather than the padres. She stated that she was “angry with the Fathers and all others at the mission, because [they] are living here on [our] land.”

Historians suggest that Toypurina may also have been motivated to try to shore up the deteriorating reputation of shamans due to their failed efforts to fight the devastating diseases introduced by the Spanish.

Governor Fages directed that the trial transcript and his report be sent for final judgment to colonial authorities in Mexico City. Until judgements were returned, he ordered that Nicolás José, Temejasaquichi and Ajiyivi be transported in chains into custody at the presidio in San Diego. The others in custody were publically flogged and released. Regarding Toypurina, Fages came to believe that the young defiant woman was indeed feared but also bitterly blamed by the chiefs for involving them in this fateful uprising. In his report, he wrote that she asked to convert to Catholicism (hinting at a possible plea for leniency). Perhaps, had she actually willingly expressed a desire to convert, it may have been her realization that she was in very serious danger from the chiefs. Ironically, it appeared that her best option for survival was under the protection of the mission. For her own safety, Fages recommended that she be exiled to another mission far from the Mission San Gabriel where, as a neophyte, she would no longer be a threat to the Spanish and her life would not be threatened.

A year later, Fages finally instituted a strict code of conduct for soldiers at the missions to try to tamp down on their abuses of Indians.

After more than a year in custody, on March 8, 1787, Toypurina was baptized at the mission along with new neophytes. She was given the “Christian name” Regina Josefa. However willing or sincere her conversion was, it was used by the padres to discourage dissension. Her Indian husband (unnamed in history), apparently wanted nothing to do with the Spanish religion. Their marriage was declared annulled within the church so that she could later enter a “Christian” marriage.

In June 1788, more than two years after the trial, final judgements arrived from Mexico City. Temejasaquichi and Ajiyivi were released, warned not to cause any further trouble for the Spanish, and placed under close watch. Nicolás José was exiled to the presidio at San Francisco de Asis (present-day Mission Dolores in San Francisco) for six years, forced far from home and family, and sentenced to six years on half rations without pay and shackled at one foot. Afterwards, to keep him from possibly stirring up any further trouble around the Mission San Gabriel, he was assigned to a mission near Monterey for the remainder of his life. Toypurina, for her part, was exiled to the Mission San Carlos Borromeo in Carmel, also far from home and family and then the mission most distant in California from the Mission San Gabriel. There, about a year later, she married a soldier, Mañuel Montero from Puebla de los Angeles, near Mexico City. Some speculate that she married him to escape the harshness of mission life. In any case, they lived in Monterey where Montero was assigned to the presidio. Toypurina bore four children by Montero. She died on May 22, 1799, at the age of 39, at the Mission San Juan Bautista near Carmel and was buried there.


Bust of Toypurina

Bust of Toypurina unveiled in Hawaiian Gardens in 2014. Flanking is Chief Ernie Salas of the Kizh Nation/Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians and sculptor Rick Hill. The face of the bust is fashioned after that of an actual young descendant of Toypurina.


A commonly referenced, oft-quoted account and considered one of the most influential writings about Toypurina was the article "Toypurina the Witch and the Indian Uprising at San Gabriel" (1958), by Thomas Workman Temple II. Although colorful, the account contains a number of descriptions and statements that simply have no historical basis. We recommend the book "Toypurina: the Joan of Arc of California" (2013), by Ernest P. Salas Teutimes, Christina Swindall-Martinez, Andrew Salas, and E. Gary Stickel. To obtain a copy of the book, contact us about your interest so that we might forward this to the book's writers. Read a review here.

Bust of Toypurina