Western Trips

Western Trips

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Missions in California / Mission Trail

A California vacation is not complete unless you visit one of the old missions from Spanish colonial times. If your California visit includes a road trip then you're already halfway there. The missions of California are located on what was named the El Camino Real which stretched all the way from San Diego northward to present day Sonoma County California. The history of California is not complete until one explores the history of the Christian missions.


The very first Spanish mission was erected in 1769 as a primitive shelter at San Diego by Father Junipero Serra. In fact, some historians consider Father Serra to be the first genuine Californian. At that time the region north of Baja California was called Alta California. The California coast was discovered back in 1542 by the explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo however the Franciscans didn't begin their mission building until Father Junipero Serra arrived. Explorations out of New Spain (Mexico) went northward along the Rio Grande into Nuevo Mexico (New Mexico) and Santa Fe was settled in 1610. It would be another 150 years before the first California mission was erected.

A total of 21 missions were built in California over the period 1769 to 1823. In all the Franciscan mission system in California only lasted for about 60 years which is not a long time. Starting in the 1820's the California missions were secularized which really took them away from Franciscan management. This was during the time that the Spaniards were being driven out of both Mexico as well as Alta California. When the Mexicans eventually took control from the Spaniards then the secularization increased. San Diego being the first mission and Mission San Francisco Solano (pictured long ago below right)  being the last. The last mission built was the only one built during Mexican rule. The question that often comes up is, why did the line of missions end in Sonoma California? The reason was that the area just north of San Francisco Bay marked the Alta California frontier. North of that the Russians established Fort Ross on the Pacific coast and England was occupying much of the northwest area. In fact, the Russians ventured as far south as the Farrallon Islands 25 miles west of San Francisco.

The mission featured here and which makes an excellent addition to your California trip planner is the first mission, Mission San Diego de Alcala. This mission is located 5 miles east of State Hwy 5, off State Hwy 8. The address is 10818 San Diego Mission Road just outside San Diego. The original crudely built mission was erected on Presidio Hill which also housed the Spanish troops. Now on Presidio Hill, the one time site for the mission, is the Father Junipero Serra Museum. Also an excellent additon to your California trip planner. Not long after, a new mission was built at the location mentioned above. The reason for the move was that the friars though it better to be somewhat removed from the military and a bit closer to the Indian village. This proved fatal because while the Indians were curious of the Spaniards at first, they soon turned hostile and began pilfering from the mission area. The new mission which was about 6 miles away from Presidio Hill and the troops was raided, burned and there were deaths including that of Father Luis Jayme who ironically pushed for the new mission away from Presidio Hills. Eventually the might of the Spaniard troops and their weaponry brought the Indians to bay and the mission was rebuilt with the aid of the Indians. While the friars erected their missions to aid and convert the Indians into Christianity, the going at first was not easy. Essentially you had a European culture imposing itself on the Natives who themselves had their own culture dating back centuries. In addition to conversion, the friars were engaged in secular teachings as well as organizing agricultural programs. Agriculture was important because a mission's goal was to become self sustaining.




There is an interesting story of why the California missions were built and how the Franciscans regarded and treated the Indians compared to the American far westward migration which occurred about 100 years later.

Mission work had many aspects. The first aim of the Franciscans were to convert the Native population to Christianity. Spain, and more importantly the King, felt that the first step toward civilization was to become a Christian. When the Natives were converted they would be able to assimilate with their European  rulers and become "true" citizens of New Spain. The Spanish rulers also felt that what they paid the Franciscans to establish the missions was a fraction of what the cost would be to pay an army to go to war, not to mention the loss of life as during the American Indian Wars. You could say the line of reasoning was "give peace a chance". In fact, budgets for both the missions and the friars themselves came from Spain's general war budget. There was never however a program to put the Natives onto reservations as was done in the American West. Quite the opposite, the California Spanish mission was created to be an oasis for the Indian in an otherwise wild frontier land. The Natives were encouraged to use the mission as a sort of town settlement. In addition to the conversion teachings the missions also served as a center for educating the population. Instead of throwing the indigenous population off their land, the missions sprang up in their midst and began their work of "civilizing" the locals with the intent of making them subjects of new Spain. There was not a mass Spanish migration of civilians into Alta California until the last years of Spanish rule. There were no hoards of people rushing in and taking land from the Indians. 


During America's push westward, the Indians were driven from the land and put on reservations. Europeans arrived in America decades later and many headed west to stake their claim on land previously held by Native Americans. When gold was found in Montana and the Black Hills, the situation on the American frontier grew worse.  A very different approach than what the Spaniards attempted 100 years earlier. To be sure, there was violence during both eras but the magnitude in Spanish California was nothing near like the Indian Wars in the American west during the last half of the 1800's. There were no Battle of the Little Bighorn, Fetterman Massacre or 25 year long Apache wars.

The California and southwest map on the left gives you some perspective of Alta California and the Spanish territory of Nuevo Mexico, now the state of New Mexico. Bureaucracy in New Spain was legendary and decisions were enacted and sent out at a snails pace. The overall authority for Alta California resided with the Viceroy back in Mexico City. The building of the missions were part of Spain's policy of exploration and settlement carried out jointly by the military and the religious factions. While the Spanish settling of Alta California was a joint effort, the Franciscans worked to distance themselves from the military. The reasoning was that the military intimidated the Natives and the friars felt they could make better inroads operating separately. Even so, the Franciscans would not hesitate punishing Natives who they felt were stirring up trouble. The punishment meted out by the friars sometimes provoked Indian backlashes.
While history tells a story of gentle and caring friars, the truth was that they were not totally absent from handing out corporal punishment. Kind of a "speak softly and carry a big stick" approach.


Not long after the mission secularization began in the early 1800's, the Spaniards had to withdraw due to the successful Mexican Rebellion and after that occurred the Mexicans really didn't support the missions at least in the way the Spaniards did. What remains now are both rebuilt missions and in some cases their ruins. As I mentioned, the last mission built in Sonoma County was the only one built under Mexican rule.


When the American's entered California in droves in 1849 due to the Gold Rush and then after California statehood in 1850, the missions in California took on a culture of their own. The newly arrived immigrants created  a romantic aura regarding the whitewashed missions with their red tile roofs. This is what many think was the beginning of the missions as a tourist destination. After all, the new population needed some kind of historical perspective for their new home and the beautifully decorated missions became a part of that.


If you have the time while vacationing in California, it's quite interesting traveling north from San Diego and visiting each one of the old Spanish mission sites. Many are functioning and provide religious mass to the local population. Each one has a story to tell and I'm certain you'll get some great pictures. It is a big part of California history. There is a lot of reading material on the California mission system and information on California mission exploration. Much material relates on the work of the friars which also answers the question of how to be a missionary in a wild frontier land. Another related story that's very interesting is the Pueblo Revolt in New Mexico.

Below is a list of the twenty-one California Spanish Franciscan missions and the dates they were founded.


San Diego de Alcala, July 16, 1769
San Carlos Barromeo de Carmelo, June 3, 1770
San Antonio de Padua, July 14, 1771
San Gabriel Arcangel, September 8, 1771
San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, Sept 1, 1772
San Francisco de Asis, October 9, 1776
San Juan Capistrano, October 9, 1775
Santa Clara de Asis, January 12, 1777
San Buenaventura, March 31, 1782
Santa barbara Virgen y Martir, December 4, 1786
La Purisima Concepcion de Maria Santisima, December 8, 1787
Santa Cruz, August 28, 1791
Nuestra Senora de la Soledad, October 9, 1791
San Jose, June 11, 1797
San Juan Bautista, June 24, 1797
San Miguel Arcangel, July 25, 1797
San fernando Rey de espana, September 8, 1797
San Luis Rey de Francia, June 13, 1798
Santa Ines Virgin y Martir, September 17, 1804
San Rafael Arcangel, December 14, 1817
San Francisco Solano, July 4, 1823

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