Saturday, June 7, 2008

"Digger Belles"

This image comes from The Argonauts of 'Forty-nine, by David Rohrer Leeper (1832-1900). Leeper left South Bend, Indiana, for an overland trip to the California gold fields in February 1949. The Argonauts of 'Forty-Nine (1894) details Leeper's journey west and his life in California: prospecting at Redding's Diggings, Hangtown, and the Trinity River; lumbering around Eureka; and early Sacramento and Humbolt Bay. Leeper shows special interest in Digger Indians, illustrating the book with sketches of tribal garb in his personal collection.

Originally, I found this image courtesy of Perseus Digital Library Project, Tufts U. However, that link seems to be broken. The entire text of the book, plus illustrations, is also available at

The description "Belle," with it's connotations of civilization and domesticated femininity invented purely to serve men, seemed to be a wide-spread joke in California - sarcasm, irony, mean-spirited making-fun of Indian women fallen on hard times. Here's another example:

Titled "The Belles of San Luis Rey."

When I searched for the photo to give you more information, I found an original for sale at with the following blurb: "WAITE, C. B. The Belles of San Luis Rey. All over 100 yeras old. Indian Women. ca. 1895, gelatine silver print, 20,4 x 12,3 cm, on mount. Photograph no 140. Slightly faded. Offered for EUR 81.75 = appr. US$ 129.08 by: KRUL Antiquarian Books - Book number: 27715"

I also found that this image had been marketed as a popular hand-tinted postcard. Note the message "Harvey" wrote to his friend scribbled around the edges. He compares these "Mission Belles" to "Mission Bells" - how easy it is to go from human being to object, and a mythologized object at that.

Obviously a popular image, I also found mention of "The Three Belles of San Luis Rey" in a review of Oceanside: Where Life Is Worth Living. By Kristi S. Hawthorne. (Virginia Beach, VA: The Donning Company Publishers, 2000. Full-color and Black/White photographs, bibliography, index, 192 pages, $34.95 Hardcover): "Hawthorne vividly describes three "Belles of San Luis Rey", elderly tour guides during the late 19th century mission restoration who told compelling stories of making the mission bricks as children. Exploitation of these native peoples continued through the Mexican and American periods, a process which Hawthorne candidly discusses."

I'll try to track down this book and see what else the "tour guides" had to say.

These images intrigue me, break my heart, haunt me. I have so many questions (and ask myself, do I really want to know the answers?)

Why is the "Digger Belle's" hair so short? Was it cut in mourning, and just growing out? If she was in or near the goldfields in '49, she was in the middle of one of the bloodiest U.S. Government-approved genocides ever documented. One million dollars was appropriated by Congress to pay bounties on Indian scalps in the goldfields. Thousands more Indians simply starved to death as their food resources were devoured by miners or trashed by gold-mining techniques. Still others, particularly women and orphaned children, were sold as slaves - yes, true slavery existed in California, and persisted until after Statehood and the end of the Civil War; most white households had at least one Indian slave, and usually several. Young girls, of course, were bought up by single men, for about $100 apiece.

Who was this beautiful woman? Was she paid to sit for the photograph? Paid in money, or food? Her fierceness, her face a mask of hardness and suspicion, burns through the photographer's lens and artist's hands.

And the "Three Belles of San Luis Rey" - who were they? what were their names, Indian or Mission? Were they really all over 100 years old, or did they just look that way after a lifetime of post-secularization? Were they paid as tour guides, and how much? They look as if they could barely walk themselves. Imagine being old during Armageddon. How did they survive?

Sometimes all you can do is sell what you've got. Your face. Your breasts. Your Otherness. Your frailty. Your story.

Or the story people with money want to hear.


  1. Hello,

    I too am curious who the "3 Belles of San Luis Rey" are..I have been told that one of them is my great great great grandmother....any information of their existence would be very helpful.

  2. Hi Deborah,

    I was reading this morning some material I photographed in the Bancroft Library yesterday—Herbert Crouch's Reminiscences from 1914-15. Saw something that reminded me of this entry. I know, its a long time ago, but thought it still might be of interest to you or Anonymous above.

    From page 8: "There were three old women living at the Rancheria [at San Luis Rey] named Tomasa, Vasalia and Cerephina, they were over 100 according to the Mission Register. Tomasa outlived the other two she was 110. They were born and brought up in the old Mission and often used to tell me how good the Padres and Mission times were. Poor old souls! They lived in the past and would say with a sigh Why did the Padres leave us and why was the Mission closed?” [sic] I used to let them have all the wood they wanted down by the river, and when lambing in the canyon I killed a sheep, would give them the offal, I used to tell them they were my padrones, my robbers, but they would say “No Crouch no! we don’t rob you, you are a very good man but very stingy.” They lived in an old Tuley shack for years and years at the Rancheria and died one after another, old Tomaso [sic] being the last. A magazine writer saw them and in his article on the Missions dubbed them the “Three Bibles [sic] of San Luis Rey.” There are pictures of them in many albums round here, and reading from left to right are Tomaso [sic], Vesalia and Cerephina. Vesalia was a bright old woman and always did the talking."

    Hope all is well,



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