Women to Match Our Californio Mountains


by Anne Schroeder

maria-ines-coverThe Spanish women of California have been popularly portrayed by Hollywood as vapid fashionistas or dark-eyed flirts peering over their fans at smitten suitors. In fact, these women were strong helpmates in a new land. In the early 1870s, interviewers under the direction of historian Hubert Howe Bancroft set out to record the memories of many aging Spanish widows. These anecdotal stories revealed amazing recall of dates, names and events that had occurred decades earlier. Girls were reared to be vivacious and charming, and they used their charm to bring down unpopular governors and uncover plots by their servants. They defied their Yanqui invaders by hiding bandidos, the true sons of the land, under their ball gowns, or in one case, in their birthing bed.

They were daring horsewomen. They slept on stiff cattle hides and made do without luxuries because the Spanish supply ship only arrived once a year. They were surprisingly robust when it came to childbearing. In many of the early families, 20-25 children born by a single mother survived childhood. Resolute in their Catholic faith and determined to be good examples to their Indian servants, they flourished in the remote outpost of California.

Every school kid knows the story of Sacagawea, leading the Lewis and Clark expedition across half a continent with a newborn baby and a sick husband. Then there’s Pocahontas, savior of the English colony and, later, wife of John Rolfe. After she was baptized under the Christian name of Rebecca, she became the toast of English aristocracy until her death at 22. But can you name another strong Indian woman?

I set out to write a series about a California native woman from a little-known tribe of Mission Indians. The Salinans lived in an area of sagebrush, forest and bottomland with a north-flowing river that runs from the Santa Lucia Mountains of the Central Coast to Monterey Bay, through what would later be known as the Salinas Valley.

Maria Inés was conceived as a result of rape by one of the soldados taxed with guarding the Mission. She is a native “everywoman” who endured in silence while she tried to assimilate her ranchería (village) traditions and her belief in the pagan god Cooksuy and the lesser gods of rain, sun and soil, with the demands made of the new white God that the padres brought. She was taken from her family before the age of 10 and placed in a monjério, a room with other unmarried girls and women who had not found a husband. Here they were trained by a trusted Spanish señora to spin, weave, wash clothes and groom themselves modestly in order to become fit wives and productive Spanish subjects.

For Maria Inés and her Indian sisters, California became a dangerous place. The Missions were the de facto inn keepers for travelers along El Camino Real, the long wagon track that led from Baja California. Strangers stopped for hospitality every night. Her blood was strong enough that she didn’t succumb to any of the white man’s diseases that decimated most of her people.


Anne writes memoir and historical fiction set in the West, especially California, including many anne-at-cuesta-parkpublished short stories and essays. She and husband now make their home in Oregon where they share a passion for old ruins and out-of-the-way places.  If you want to learn more, ask your library to stock a copy. Maria Inés is published by Five Star Press, in hardbound in bookstores, Amazon and libraries. Cholama Moon is another novel in the Central Coast Series. Both are available on Kindle. Anneschroederauthor.blogspot.com



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9 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. So little is written of the California natives, that many people act as if they never existed. I have encountered this attitude toward the Nisenan of the Sierra Nevada Foothills, a rich and fascinating culture that has been tragically wiped out.. This is a product of both popular culture, (films and television for instance) and the fact that the native peoples of California were victims of genocide and/or were assimilated to an even greater extent than other native cultures. For this reason, I commend you in educating people about the native culture of California, which has been very under represented in literature.

    • Thank you, Brigid. I agree. We hear so much about the Plains Indians. One of the reasons that people think CA Indians disappeared is that it was easy for them to hide in the Spanish/Mexican culture of CA by marrying. I encourage everyone to request that their library order a copy so that more information becomes available about the California Indians.

  2. What an absolutely fascinating, enlightening post! I’m ordering it for my Kindle the minute I’m off here. Thanks, Heidi and Anne!

    • Thank you, Irene. And ask your library to order a copy from Five Star. They are primarily a library supply publisher.

  3. Rather than ‘it’ I should have said the book, Maria Ines.

  4. Maria Ines sounds very interesting. I am putting it on my “to read” list. Thank you to for the background about the Spanish women of California. It is always both interesting and painful to learn about the treatment of women in history.

    • Thank you, Bev. Sometimes I think I get into a rant when I start writing. Comes from being over researched and stymied when I can’t put it all into the books. So I am writing a series.

  5. Thank you all for visiting and for supporting Anne and her new novel!

  6. Fascinating history, Anne. Thanks! I look forward to reading your book. I’ll ask my library about it too.

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