Turning Stones ~ George McKale

George McKale George McKale is a practicing archaeologist and Sonoma’s City Historian. He has excavated throughout California ranging from Native American sites thousands of years old to Gold Rush era locations. His passion and specialty in archaeology is the study of human remains.


One Christmas in Sonoma

Posted on December 20, 2012 by George McKale

In the winter of 1825, the relatively new mission near the base of our hills was frozen.  It was Christmas Eve morning at Mission San Francisco Solano, or so the Reverend Father thought.  He had been in pain for weeks and was concerned that he had lost track of the days.  His loss of time caused him great concern. One very old Indian, a neophyte baptized Juan Garcia and known by the neophyte community as a doctor, was awoken early by his son, personal attendant to the Reverend Father. Though all Native doctoring was forbidden, the pain was too much to bear, as the ulcerated toe was swollen and throbbing. The Reverend Father would try anything to relieve the pain.

The young mission community had little sleep, as they were still in mourning, shaken by the deaths of two young children a week prior. There was a crunch with each step he took, as the thin sheet of ice covering the grass broke, as he made his way between the Indian quarters and the mission.

Within minutes the deluge began once again, but the noise from the pounding rain did not silence the wailing from the parents and family of the dead children.  It had been going on for a week. It was such a small community that death affected everyone.  To worsen their desperation, everything was wet and frozen: clothes, food, huts, the padre’s quarters, the grass and mud surrounding this infant community, everything.

The Reverend Father lived in a rudely constructed small adobe with a thatched roof.  Water flowed easily from the rafters, falling like a waterfall through the center of the structure and cutting a small stream through the dwelling. That he managed to maintain a small fire through the night to keep warm was a small miracle.

The Reverend Father was laden with the heaviest of hearts.  The most joyous day of the year, a day to be celebrated with an inspirational mass and celebration, a day to teach the neophytes of the miracles of Christ, was destined to be dark.  Juan Garcia entered the Reverend Father’s dwelling, kneeling silently beside him, inspecting the toe with great intent and concern.  The Reverend Father didn’t say a word, but Juan Garcia had seen such expressions in the faces of others.  The Reverend Father’s eyes told him to do anything, just get rid of the pain.

All night, the Reverend Father had taken a wooden poker, placing it into the coals of the fire, periodically removing it, placing it as close to the red bulbous skin as possible.  He could feel the poison drawing to the heat, alleviating some of the pressure, but as soon as he removed the poker, the pain returned.

The Reverend Father was profoundly conflicted.  He remembered the words of fellow padre Fermin Lasuen who wrote about transforming “a savage race such as these into a society that is human, Christian, civil, and industrious…it can only be accomplished by denaturalizing them…it requires them to act against nature.” He was now asking Juan Garcia to help him with his pain using any means necessary.

The Reverend Father handed Juan Garcia a knife, motioning for him to cut the wound to drain the poisoned pus from the toe. Garcia looked at the dull knife, shaking his head while throwing it to the dirt floor. From his bag he removed a portion of a deer antler and a baseball-sized piece of obsidian.  He quickly whacked off a piece and, working quickly and precisely, constructed a small razor-sharp knife. Without warning he grabbed the Reverend Father’s foot and made three long incisions.  Blood and poison flowed freely.

After the wound bled, Juan Garcia applied a poultice, derived from boiling tree frogs, drying them, and grinding them into a fine power.  Garcia spoke words in his native tongue, forbidden by all neophytes while practicing magic.  But the Reverend Father allowed this transgression, blessing Garcia with the sign of the cross.

The next morning the Reverend Father was awoken by the sound of loud whispers from the large neophyte community hovering outside his dwelling.  A young padre bowed as he entered into the Reverend Father’s room.  “You must come right away.” The Reverand tested his toe, standing and putting pressure slowly as he walked.  The pain, so strong and debilitating the day before, was gone.

As he stepped outside, it seemed that all in this mission community had gathered before him.  The sun was just rising to the east, and the rain clouds had parted above their heads.  Arched before them, so close that it seemed one could reach out to touch it, was a rainbow so grand that it took the breath away from all who witnessed its magnificent grandeur.  Young neophyte children ran towards it with their arms outstretched, as if to catch it like a butterfly.

The Reverend Father was now certain, and relieved, that he had not lost track of time. It was indeed Christmas morning, and it came with a message.  He spoke softly on this glorious morning “Se está curando nosotros a través de la naturaleza” (He is healing us through nature).

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