The best and most interesting method of obtaining historical information is the biographical. This is equally true whether the reader is studying a particular period relating to his own country or is taking a broad survey of universal history. Biography, especially when supplemented by extracts from original sources, leaves upon the mind a more definite impression than any other form of historical writing, with the one great exception of autobiography, of which unfortunately there is too little.
When, therefore, I desired certain information relating to the central and dominant figure in California during the early period of Spanish occupation, I turned to Francisco Palou's biography of Fray Junipero Serra. This work, together with his Noticias de la Nueva California, is today the standard history of Spanish California, and constitutes the source from which every historian of that state draws his facts for the years 1769 to 1785.
While Palou's account of his friend's life and labors on the Pacific coast is of great interest to the student of California history, it is perhaps not too much to say that his book makes but dry reading for the average person. There can be little doubt that the admiration and love Palou entertained for Junipero induced him to chronicle his life with the sole view of procuring for him recognition in the church as one of her saints; hence the prominence accorded the religious aspect of Junipero's life, the detailed narration of miraculous happenings in his career, etc., which detract for the general reader from the historical interest of the book.
Although every work on California since Palou's days necessarily contains references to Fray Junipero Serra, no other biography of him has been written. It was to supply this lack, and also because Palou's biography has to my knowledge never been translated [Since this was written, a translation of Palou's Vida has been published], that I undertook to write the present work, not, however, without many misgivings as to my ability to do justice to the subject. The national, and not merely local, interest of Junipero, as the preserver to Spain (and thereby indirectly to the United States) of the Pacific coast, from San Francisco to San Diego, becomes evident to all who read the history of California.
Just in so far as our importance as a nation is affected by our coast line, does the nation owe a debt to Junipero Serra. Even Mr. Hubert Bancroft, who in his invaluable History of California but faintly disguises his dislike of the friar, says: "It did not require Palou's eulogistic pen to prove him a great and remarkable man."