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Prior to the arrival of the missionaries, some 550 indigenous Acjachemen peoples lived in this area of their homeland.
By 1790, the number of Indian reductions had grown to 700 Mission Indians, and just six years later nearly 1,000 "neophytes" (recent converts) lived in or around the Mission compound.
1,649 baptisms were conducted that year alone, out of the total 4,639 people converted between 17.
More than 69 former inhabitants (mostly Juaneño Indian marked graves in the Mission's cemetery (campo santo). John O'Sullivan, who recognized the property's historic value and working tirelessly to conserve and rebuild its structures, are buried at the entrance to the cemetery on the west side of the property, and a statue raised in his honor stands at the head of the crypt.
Fray Gerónimo Boscana, a Franciscan scholar who was stationed at San Juan Capistrano for more than a decade beginning in 1812, compiled what is widely considered to be the most comprehensive study of prehistoric religious practices in the San Juan Capistrano valley.
Religious knowledge was secret, and the prevalent religion, called Chinigchinich, placed village chiefs in the position of religious leaders, an arrangement that gave the chiefs broad power over their people.
The bulk of the population occupied the outlets of two large creeks, San Juan Creek (and its major tributary, Trabuco Creek) and San Mateo Creek (combined with Arroyo San Onofre, which drained into the ocean at the same point).
The highest concentration of villages was along the lower San Juan, where Mission San Juan Capistrano was ultimately situated and is preserved today.
Relatively much is known about the native inhabitants in recent centuries, thanks in part to the efforts of the Spanish explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, who documented his observations of life in the coastal villages he encountered along the Southern California coast in October 1542. For the present-day parish church located at the mission, see Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano.For the mission of the same name in Texas, see Mission San Juan Capistrano (Texas).Pre-contact Acjachemen built cone-shaped huts made of willow branches covered with brush or mats made of tule leaves.Known as Kiichas (or wikiups), the temporary shelters were utilized for sleeping or as refuge in cases of inclement weather.
The Acjachemen resided in permanent, well-defined villages and seasonal camps.