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

From San Diego de Alcalá in the south to San Francisco de Solano, California, in the north, 21 Spanish missions 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 several missions and presidios in New Spain since 1519, the Crown didn’t lay claim to the northern coastal areas of California until 1542. Excluding Santa Fe, New Mexico, the settlement of northern New Spain was slow for the next 155 years. Settlements in Baja, California, Mexico, were established in 1697. Still, it was not until the threat of incursion by Russian fur traders and potential 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. The Crown would send several expeditions to explore the region in the next several decades.

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 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, going 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, 21 missions would be established along the California coast and 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

The mission settlements were about 30 miles apart to facilitate overland travel, about one day’s ride on horseback along the 600-mile-long El Camino Real, Spanish for “the Royal Road.” This road, also called the “King’s Highway,” is known as the “California Mission Trail” today. During the Spanish Mission period, this road was heavily utilized to transport travelers, merchandise, settlers on horses, mules, carretas (oxcarts), and 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. Ultimately, 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 to the mission compounds by food gifts, 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 into joining the missions out of curiosity or engaging 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. They were considered runaways and searched for if they did not report for their duties for a few days.

These missions aimed to spread the Christian doctrine among the local Native Americans. However, 80% of the financing of Spain’s California mission program went to the military garrisons established to keep Britain and Russia out of the area. In addition to religious instruction, the missions introduced European livestock, fruits, vegetables, agricultural industry, and plants to California. Once the missions were established, the Spanish colonizers worked to assimilate the Indians into European culture.

Mission San Diego, California by the Detroit Photo Co., 1904

Mission San Diego, California by the Detroit Photo Co., 1904

Over time, most of the missions became very large regarding the land area, but the staff was small. The Indians built the buildings under Franciscan supervision, even though they far outnumbered the priests and soldiers. The buildings used local stone, timber, mud brick, adobe, and tile materials. Typically, the church buildings had large courtyards with tall adobe walls built around patios containing fountains and a garden. Also built with Indian labor were four presidios strategically placed along the California coast and organized into separate military districts, which protected the missions and other Spanish settlements.

In 1806, more than 20,000 natives were “attached” to the California missions. However, in 1810, the California missions and presidios lost their financing as the Spanish Empire collapsed due to the imprisonment of King Fernando VII in 1808 by the French. After this, the California mission Indians came under increased pressure to produce supplies and labor. From that time, the Mission Indians produced hide, tallow, wool, leather, and textiles that were exported to the east coast, South America, and Asia, which sustained the colonial economy for the next decade.

By 1819, Spain decided to limit its “reach” in the New World due to the costs of sustaining these remote outposts. The last Spanish mission created was the northernmost settlement of Mission San Francisco Solano, founded in Sonoma, California, in 1823. In the meantime, the missions began to lose control over their lands in the 1820s when unpaid military men began encroaching upon their properties.

Carmel Mission Basilica, Carmel, California by Carol Highsmith.

Carmel Mission Basilica, Carmel, California, by Carol Highsmith.

In 1821, Mexico achieved independence from Spain, although Mexico did not send a governor to California until 1825. Even though the number of Indians under Mexican rule rose to a record number of 21,066 in 1824. In the meantime, the missions maintained authority over native converts and control of their land holdings until the 1830s.

During the period of Mission rule, from 1769 to 1834, the Franciscans baptized 53,600 adult Indians. Over the years, much debate has occurred about the priests’ treatment of the Indians during the Mission period. Many believe that the mission system was directly responsible for the decline of native cultures. Though the Spanish priests intended to improve the lives of the Native Americans to whom they ministered, they changed their customs and utilized the people to promote the wider agenda of Spain. In the process, local traditions, cultures, and customs were lost.

The Mexican government passed an act in 1833 that secularized the missions and their lands. Mexico then began to issue land grants, many of which became some of the early Ranchos of California. Many missions were used as U.S. military bases during the Mexican-American War. Afterward, most of the missions were given to the Catholic Church in 1865. Over the years, many of the missions fell into disuse and deteriorated. Some were rebuilt, while others were restored.

Mission Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, California by Carol Highsmith

Mission Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, California by Carol Highsmith.

Today, these mission structures survive and are California’s oldest and most-visited historic monuments. Except for Mission La Purísima Concepción and San Francisco Solano, which are California State Parks, all continue to be under the management of the Catholic Church.

© Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated March 2023.

Also See:

List of Missions & Presidios in the United States

Missions & Presidios of the United States

Spanish Missions & Presidios Photo Gallery

Spanish Missions Architecture and Preservation


California Missions Foundation
Wikipedia – California Missions
Wikipedia – California History