Spanish Missions in California


Mission San Miguel, California by the Detroit Photo Co, 1898

Mission San Miguel, California by the Detroit Photo Co, 1898


Mission La Purísima Concepción, Lompoc

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, San Luis Obispo

Mission San Antonio de Padua, Jolon

Mission Nuestra Señora de la Soledad Mary, Soledad

Mission San Buenaventura, Ventura

Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, Carmel

Mission San Diego de Alcalá, San Diego

Mission San Fernando Rey de Españam Los Angeles

Mission San Francisco de Asís, San Francisco

Mission San Francisco Solano, Sonoma

Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, San Gabriel

Mission San José, Fremont

Mission San Juan Bautista, San Juan Bautista

Mission San Juan Capistrano, Capistrano

Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, Oceanside

Mission San Miguel Arcángel, San Miguel

Mission San Pedro y San Pablo de Bicuñer, Imperial County

Mission San Rafael Arcángel, San Rafael

Mission Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara

Mission Santa Clara de Asís, Santa Clara

Mission Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz

Mission Santa Inés, Solvang

Presidio of Monterey, Monterey

Presidio of San Diego

Presidio of San Francisco

Stretching from San Diego de Alcalá in the south to San Francisco de Solano, California in the north, there are 21 Spanish missions that were established between 1769 and 1833. The founding of these missions began seven years before the American Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, and ended 25 years before gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in 1848.

California Missions Map courtesy Wikipedia

California Missions Map courtesy Wikipedia

Though Spain had maintained a number of missions and presidios in New Spain since 1519, the Crown didn’t lay claim to the north coastal areas of California until 1542. Excluding Santa Fe, New Mexico, settlement of northern New Spain was slow for the next 155 years. Settlements in Baja California, Mexico were established in 1697, but it was not until the threat of incursion by Russian fur traders and potentially settlers, coming down from Alaska in 1765, that Spain felt the development of more northern installations was necessary.

This area was called Alta California by the Spanish who soon decided to settle the region with Franciscan Friars, accompanied by Spanish soldiers. In the next several decades the Crown would send forth a number of expeditions to explore the region.

In May 1768, Spanish Inspector General José de Gálvez planned four expeditions to settle Alta California, two by sea and two by land, which Gaspar de Portolá volunteered to command. Portola and his men arrived at the site of present-day San Diego on June 29, 1769, where they established the Presidio of San Diego. Eager to press on, Portolá and his group headed north on July 14, making their way to Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Santa Barbara, and San Simeon before reaching San Francisco Bay in October. The group returned to San Diego in 1770 and De Portolá became the first governor of Las Californias.

Father Junípero Serra

Father Junípero Serra

In the meantime, Franciscan Father Junípero Serra had founded San Diego de Alcalá Mission, the first mission in California. Soon, Father Serra, Governor de Portolá, and a small group of men moved north, reaching Monterey in 1770, where Serra founded the second Alta California mission, San Carlos Borromeo. Serra went on to establish eight more missions before his death in 1784.

The Indians who occupied the region were initially resistant to the mission. In 1775, hundreds of local Tipai-Ipai Indians attacked and burned the San Diego Mission, killing three men, including Father Luis Jayme. The missionaries then rebuilt the mission as a fortress.

Until 1833, a total of 21 missions would be established along the California coast, as well as several presidios. Some of these sites would eventually become California’s major cities, including San Diego, Santa Barbara, San Jose, and San Francisco.

Early Spanish methods of transportation included the use of the carreta

Early Spanish methods of transportation included the use of the carreta

In order to facilitate overland travel, the mission settlements were located about 30 miles apart, which was about one day’s long ride on horseback along the 600-mile-long El Camino Real, Spanish for “the Royal Road”. At this time, this road, which was also called the “King’s Highway”, is known as “California Mission Trail” today. During the Spanish Mission period, this road was heavily utilized by to transport travelers, merchandise, and settlers on horses, mules, or carretas (oxcarts), along with herds of livestock.

The missionaries introduced European fruits, vegetables, cattle, horses, ranching, and technology. The missions have been accused by critics, then and now, of various abuses and oppression. In the end, the missions had mixed results in their objectives: to convert, educate, and transform the natives into Spanish colonial citizens. However, they also disrupted their traditional way of life.

California Mission Indians by Louis Choris, 1822

California Mission Indians by Louis Choris, 1822

The indigenous people were initially attracted into the mission compounds by gifts of food, colored beads, bits of bright cloth, and trinkets. Once they became part of the mission, they were instructed in the most basic aspects of the Catholic faith, they were baptized and labeled a neophyte, or new believer. Some of these Indians were lured to join the missions out of curiosity or to engage in trade but found themselves trapped once they were baptized. To the Catholic priests, a baptized Indian was no longer free to move about freely but had to labor and worship at the mission. In fact, if they did not report for their duties for a few days, they were considered runaways and searched for.

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