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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.

When Toypurina was about 14 years old, 850 native people from the Los Angeles region were said to have been enticed and, in some cases, forced into 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. Their lives became that of harsh submission, labor and piety to support the mission and its religion and 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 any attacks on soldiers. This abuse was not limited to native people outside the mission. Father Serra, head of the Spanish missions in California, complained bitterly of 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. Serra's grievances, however, fell on deaf ears. Native women outside the missions were even less safe as soldiers ventured on “patrols” to deliberately find and assault native women. Native men who tried to intervene faced the same fate as did the chief.

By the fall of 1785, neophytes at the Mission San Gabriel were fed up with abuses and prohibitions against returning to their home villages for important annual Indian mourning dances and rituals. 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 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 his humiliating downfall and punishment. He decided to seek help from Toypurina, by then a prominent shaman, whose magic was believed to be powerful enough to be 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.

Gabrieleno Indian Village Mural

Portrayal mural of a Gabrieleño Indian village. Mary Nagle Nature Center, Fontana, California.

Toypurina was a 25-year-old medicine woman from Japhivit (or Jachivit), one of a number of local native villages. She was a descendent of chiefs and shamans, the sister of the chief of her village and herself a highly influential shaman. 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 of them were being entrapped in harsh indentured servitude at the mission and how it absorbed more and more villages. She saw how native women feared Spanish soldiers and how native men felt powerless to do anything about it. She saw their land absorbed and food sources destroyed by the mission’s expanding livestock operations. Toypurina’s magic seemed not only to be no match against these abuses, but also against Spanish diseases that brutally inflicted her people. Now, indicating that this nightmare would become permanent, the Spanish had established a farming settlement nearby, Pueblo de la Reina de los Angeles. By the time José approached Toypurina for help, 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 to sleep, either way rendering them powerless. Probably confident in the justice of their cause and the 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, approached the Mission San Gabriel. They planned to meet José there who would guide them to the quarters of the padres where they would verify that the padres were magically asleep or dead. Then, without the protection of the padres' own magic, it was believed that the soldiers could be easily overcome and the neophytes freed. Toypurina, although herself unarmed, was there with her powerful magic and to encourage the attackers. Unfortunately for them, one of the soldiers, José María Pico, who knew the native language, had earlier overheard a neophyte discussing the planned attack (Pico, incidentally, was father to Pio Pico, last Mexican Governor of California and Andres Pico, last Mexican military commander to oppose the American invasion of California in the U.S.-Mexico War). Pico informed the corporal of the guard, José Maria Verdugo, who then directed a counter plan. On the night of the attack, soldiers were already 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. The attackers, however, were unaware that the two “padres” found prone in their quarters were actually soldiers disguised as padres. These “padres” suddenly sprang up screaming, frightening the attackers and, then, more soldiers appeared with their feared firearms. The attackers were thrown into panic. Most fled, but 21 attackers were captured, including Toypurina, José and chiefs Temejasaquichi and Ajiyivi. They were jailed at the mission to await trial.

A trial was convened on January 3, 1786, after Governor Pedro Fages arrived from Monterey. The defendants were Toypurina, Nicolás José and chiefs Temejasaquichi and Ajiyivi. Only Nicolás José understood any of the Spanish language, so the soldier José María Pico served as trial interpreter. The two chiefs, apparently fearful of what the Spanish might do to them, tried deflecting guilt from themselves to Toypurina and José. Temejasaquichi testified that, although admitting that he came to the mission with the attackers, actually held no grudge against the Spanish and that Toypurina had deceived him and José instigated him. He stated that he joined the attackers only because his village had decided to join in and that he, as chief, had to be there with them. Ajiyivi, for his part, testified that he had only gotten involved because he encountered the band of 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.

Sketch of Mission San Gabriel, 1916

Sketch of Mission San Gabriel, prepared by architectural historian Rexford Newcomb, 1916. Courtesy, Wikimedia Commons

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 stated that Toypurina was feared and that Indians believed her to be crafty and capable of killing 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 because of their failed efforts against the devastating diseases introduced by the Spanish.

Governor Fages, presiding over the trial, directed that the trial transcript and his report be sent to colonial authorities in Mexico City for final judgment. Until these judgements were returned, he ordered that José, Temejasaquichi and Ajiyivi be transported in chains into custody at the presidio in San Diego. With the exception of Toypurina, all others in custody were publically flogged and released. Toypurina was left in custody at the Mission San Gabriel. Fages came to believe that the young defiant woman was indeed feared but also bitterly resented by the chiefs for having involved them in this failed 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 for conversion, it may have been her realization that she was in serious danger from the chiefs. Ironically, it appeared that her best option for survival was the protection of the mission. So, for her own safety, Fages recommended that she ultimately 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 no longer be endangered.

Pedro Fages Among Indian Neophytes

Image said to be of Pedro Fages, appearing to be among Indian neophytes. Unknown date or origin. MilitaryMuseum.org

A year later, Fages finally instituted a strict code of conduct for soldiers at missions to try to tamp down 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 and given the "Christian" name Regina Josefa. However willing or sincere her conversion was, it was used by the padres to discourage dissent. Her Indian husband (who was unnamed in records), apparently wanted no part of Spanish religion. Their marriage was declared annulled by the church so that she could later enter into 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 for six years to the presidio at San Francisco de Asis (present-day Mission Dolores in San Francisco), 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 any further trouble around the Mission San Gabriel, he was assigned to a mission near Monterey for the remainder of his life. Toypurina was exiled to the Mission San Carlos Borromeo in Carmel, also far from home and family, then the mission most distant in California from the Mission San Gabriel. There, about a year later, she married a soldier, Mañuel Montero. Some speculate that she married him to escape the harshness of mission life. In any case, they ended up living 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, north of Monterey, 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 reported to have been fashioned after that of an actual young descendant of Toypurina.

Also see Original People of Los Angeles County.