Western Trips

Western Trips

Friday, February 3, 2012

Mission San Juan Bautista / The California Spanish Mission Trail

mission san juan bautista
Touring the Spanish missions on the historic California Mission Trail has always been one of the most popular and educational things to do in California. It's a California road trip like none other. The Spanish missions essentially tell the story of California's history from the very beginning. What is now the state of California was in the 1600's and beyond the province of "Alta California". Among other things, what the Spanish mission system did was solidify it's grip on this new land to the north of New Spain, present day Mexico. The story of the missions is the story of California.

Mission San Juan Bautista

The mission of San Juan Batista is located at the town of San Juan Bautista, located just a few miles east of US Hwy 101 between Gilroy and Monterey California. This area is passed by when taking Hwy 101 south to the Monterey Peninsula and Carmel making it a perfect side trip and photo opportunity for tourists during their California road trip vacation. In addition to the historic Spanish mission and grounds, the town of San Juan Bautista features historic structures, great dining places and many interesting shops. It's a California road trip side stop that is very well worth your time.

Building the Spanish Missions

san juan bautista mission bells
 The building of Spanish missions goes back to the year 1769 with the founding of the first mission in present day San Diego. The Alta California mission building was spearheaded by Father Junipero Serra. Shortly after the mission in San Diego was established, Father Serra traveled further north to help found another mission in Monterey California. Monterey would go on to be the base for governance in Spanish Alta California. The original mission established in Monterey would soon be moved at the request of Father Junipero Serra to it's present day site in Carmel California, just a few miles south.

In the year 1797 there had been thirteen Spanish missions built in California. The goal of having them erected one days journey apart had not been accomplished. To help fill in this gap, Mission San Juan Bautista was founded on June 24, 1797. Mission San Juan Bautista is a short distance north of Monterey California and back in the late 1700's was a one day journey away. It was and is the largest of all twenty-one missions built in California. When the San Juan mission was built, San Juan's Native American population grew rapidly. By the year 1803 there were some 1,036 Indians living at the mission. Agricultural activity was growing rapidly as well. In 1803 there were an estimated 6,000+ head of livestock including cattle, sheep, horses and mules. Wheat, barley and corn production totals were
very large.

Secularizing the Spanish Missions


san juan bautista
 As with most of the old Spanish missions, Mission San Juan Bautista went through many changes. Like all of the missions, their property was seized by the Mexican government following their successful revolt against Spanish rule. The church was secularized in 1835.An interesting fact concerning the Spanish missions was that even though the new Mexican government secularized the existing missions when they expelled the Spaniards from North America, the last mission built, in present day Sonoma California, today's wine country, was actually constructed under Mexican rule. Most historians contend that the impetus for the Sonoma mission was military in nature. Sonoma was the northernmost mission built and was near to the Russian fur trading settlements along the Pacific coast at Fort Ross. In fact, the Mexican General Vallejo was headquartered in Sonoma with a regiment of the northern California Mexican military.

In 1895, the present mission buildings of San Juan Bautista Mission and 55 acres were given back to the Church by decree of the United States government who had taken over California following the Mexican American War.. San Juan Bautista Mission has the distinction of having the only original Spanish Plaza remaining in California. What remains of the quadrangle is the convent wing which is to the immediate left of the chapel. Another quite interesting distinction for Mission San Juan Bautista is that it has had an unbroken string of pastors ever since it's founding in 1797.

spanish mission
 San Juan Bautista Mission happens to be located directly on the San Andreas Fault in the San Juan Valley. Although its location right on the fault was actually considered less dangerous than other sites, it was responsible for many shaky days and nights.

 In October 1798 the shaking was so severe that the missionaries had to sleep outside for the entire month. The earth shook as many as six times on one day alone. The results were huge cracks in both the buildings and the ground. When in the year 1800, the shaking and damage was so bad, the missionaries went ahead and enlarged the church, and added other facilities whilein the process of making the needed repairs. From 1803 to 1812 the Native Americans then residing at the mission constructed the quadrangle complex. This included a 190 foot long church and a  corridor of 20 arches, all of which was constructed of fired adobe brick.

History of San Juan Bautista

Another unique distinction of the San Juan Bautista Mission is an  English barrel organ. The organ reportedly was acquired in 1826. The crank operated organ was quite a novelty. There are many stories attached to this instrument. Apparently it arrived from Monterey sometime in the late 1820s. Many believe it was given to the mission by the British explorer Vancouver. The organ was manufactured in London.  Inside are 17 wooden pipes and 29 metal pipes which sound when the crank is turned.

A number of legends grew around this organ, one of which gave it unusual powers and linked it with the founding of the mission. A popular story has circulated about the powers of this particular organ. An issue of Sunset Magazine wrote a story about the organs effect on a tribe of Tulare Indian warriors. The story states that a group of warriors descended on the mission one day, and the people at the mission ran for cover. The padre however did not panic. He managed to carry the organ outside the mission and began cranking. The missionaries caught on and began to sing with the music at the top of their voices. Supposedly the Tulare warriors were so entranced that they laid down their weapons and demanded to hear more music. This stopped the planned attack right in it's tracks. Truly an amazing story and good thinking on the padre's part.

san juan mission
The mission population ebbed and flowed during the first few decades of the 1800's. The highpoint seemed to be reached in the year 1827. The report filed with the government that year listed some 6,500 head of cattle, 502 mares, 250  horses, and 37 mules. These were kept on several mission ranchos nearby. The parish records list 42 diffferent Indian tribes belonging to Mission San Juan Bautista. Incredibly, they spoke 29 dialects and 13 different languages. There are 4,000+ Native Americans buried in the mission cemetery beside the northeast wall of the mission church.


When Mexico won its independence from Spain, it simply couldn't afford to maintain the mission system. In 1834 the Mexican government put an end to the mission system. It sold the lands. A year later in 1835, the Mission San Juan Bautista was made a second class curacy.and operated under a civil administrator. At that point the mission essentially became a pueblo. Of significance is that the mission continued to operate as a church and kept it's congregation and still functions to this very day. This was not the case with several other California missions after Mexican secularization.

An Historic Site Today

california spanish mission
Amazingly enough, Mission San Juan Bautista had a rebirth and today is a historical site of pure excellence.

The visitor today will see the plaza on which is a hotel, a stable and two adobe mansions. All of these are of the same appearance they were 100 years ago. You will be able to view the Plaza Hotel,  the old Castro House, the wagons of the livery stable and other structures. These were acquired by the state of California in 1933. Hidden steel beams were put in by the state for earthquake protection and the old monastery wing houses a museum. The  museum rooms today were the old padre's living quarters. and they also functioned as the work areas for the Native Americans. Right after the 1906 earthquake these rooms were also held for mass.

I enjoyed my visit to this very historic site along California's old El Camino Real and I believe you will also. Many people who visit the San Francisco Bay area during their California vacation also take a short road trip to the Monterey Peninsula. If you have the opportunity for such a trip  would definitely recommend a stop at both the Mission San Juan Bautista and the beautiful and historic mission in Carmel.

(Article and photos copyright Western Trips)


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