I first saw a drawing of an 1879 Mass being held in the ruins of Mission San Carlos Borroméo de Carmelo in central California while reading Steven Hackel’s 2005 book “Children of Coyote, Missionaries of Saint Francis.” In this illustration by American artist Joseph Strong, an elderly Indigenous man, whose head is covered with a shock of white hair streaming past his shoulders, stands barefoot with his legs spread. In his right hand, the old man holds a long cane that is planted on the flagstones at his feet. With the other, he holds the hand of a young Native American boy.
Hackel’s caption asserts that “little is known” about the elderly American Indian in this drawing beyond his name, “Old Ventura.” But that name rang a bell for me. I had discovered this drawing while researching my book “Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir” on a sabbatical fellowship at the University of California, Los Angeles. There I had access to microfilm of ethnographer John Peabody Harrington’s field notes, which he recorded during his work with Indigenous peoples across North America from 1907 to 1959. His original records are housed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in the National Anthropological Archives.
Harrington’s records contain rich, meticulously gathered material about Indigenous languages and culture, but his wild handwriting, invented abbreviations, codenames for consultants and eccentric organization make them a challenging puzzle for researchers. Additionally, while Harrington’s zeal is obvious so are his assumptions and misconceptions about the tenacity of Indigenous survival, the effects of long-term trauma and, often, the ways in which his obsession with gathering “facts” overshadowed the humanity of his consultants. “Underpay the Indians,” he wrote to one assistant on multiple occasions, also instructing assistants to interview elders literally on their death beds, pursuing them to the end. Harrington’s habit of going to extremes often feels like a kind of expedient extraction of natural resources, and can be painful for Indigenous researchers or descendants to read.
Still, Harrington’s notes include much information from Isabel Meadows, an Indigenous consultant who helped me solve the mystery of “Old Ventura.” Isabel’s mother, Loreta Meadows, was born at the California mission at Carmel in 1818, about 17 years before the missions were secularized. She was one of the few Rumsen or Esselen Indigenous people of the central California coast to survive missionization by Spanish and then Mexican Franciscans. Loreta gave birth to her daughter Isabel there on May 9, 1846. Isabel Meadows inherited a wealth of oral stories about her culture, family and community as well as knowledge of her mother’s Rumsen language, California Spanish, English and a limited Esselen vocabulary. Yet Isabel could not read or write in any language. “If I had known how to write, [I] would have written up the life of those Indians,” she told Harrington. Even so, she discovered the next best thing: someone who could faithfully record her vast repository of recollections.
Yet reading primary ethnographic records like these requires time, patience and luck. Harrington was anxious that other researchers not “steal” his work, using private codes and abbreviations for which he left no key. Deciphering his notes is still an ongoing effort. In addition, he often broke up or scattered Isabel’s stories in different parts of his notes, making reassembly of a narrative difficult. Isabel also provided her own challenges as she often switched between Spanish and English, sometimes within the same sentence.
Despite these obstacles, Isabel Meadows and Harrington’s extraordinary partnership allowed me to trace the outline of Ventura’s life and identify him as not only the cantor in Strong’s drawing but also my great-great-great-great uncle, Buenaventura Cantua (sometimes Soto), known throughout his life as simply “Ventura.”
I knew from mission records that my ancestor, Ventura, was born at Mission San Carlos in 1816. His parents are recorded as Dorotéa and Emerano. Isabel’s stories corroborate this. She notes, “[Ventura] lived with his mother, Dorotéa, at Pt. Lobos,” and that this same man “. . . was cantor de la iglesia, and knew how to read, and to read Latin…Ventura [also played] el tambor [the drum].”
But could I prove that this cantor, Ventura, was the man in the drawing? Fortunately, Robert Louis Stevenson (author of “Treasure Island” and “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”) was also present at that Mass in 1879. In his 1892 book “Across the Plains,” Stevenson describes the cantor as “An Indian, stone-blind and about 80 years of age, [who] conducts the singing,” adding that this man and the Indians in the choir “have the Gregorian music at their finger-ends, and pronounce the Latin so correctly that I could follow the meaning as they sang.”
Once again, Meadows’s stories make the connection. She notes that Ventura’s wife, “Teodosia agarro un puño de ceniza y le echó en la cara, pobre hombre, y lo dejó, pero se hizo ciego,” which translates as “Teodosia grabbed a fistful of ashes and threw them in his face, poor man, and left him, but he became blind.” After this, she relayed, “he went to live with his mother.” The 1860 Federal Census does indeed show Ventura living with Dorotéa.
Stevenson guesses that the cantor was “about 80 years of age” at the time. Meadows reports, “[Ventura] lived to be very old.” The Carlos Borromeo Catholic Church in Monterey records Ventura’s burial as being on July 6, 1883. This means he was 63 years old when Stevenson saw him and 67 when he passed away—astonishing in a time when life expectancy for an Indigenous child born in a California mission was on average only about 11 years.
In Isabel Meadows’s stories deep within the Smithsonian’s records, my ancestor Ventura’s life story emerges from historical chaos. Her devotion to making sure her people’s history was known was such that, at Harrington’s invitation, Isabel traveled with him around 1934 to Washington, D.C., and lived with him there, relaying information about languages and telling stories. She died thousands of miles from her community on May 22, 1939. True to his word, Harrington accompanied her body home on a train and saw that she was buried next to her mother at San Carlos Cemetery in Monterey, California.
Isabel Meadows once told Harrington, “If those Indians had not died here [at the mission], the country would be full of them here [now], telling stories.” But thanks to her commitment to preserving these stories and her partnership with Harrington, our access to some of those stories brings us close enough to hear—and honor—ancestral voices such as Ventura’s and many others.