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HOUSTON INSTITUTE FOR CULTURE | www.cultural-crossroads.com

A HISTORY OF CALIFORNIA MISSIONS
By Michelle Ong

Fortún Jiménez led the first expedition to California in 1533 under Hernán Cortés's orders. The expedition reached Baja California, but Jiménez and his crew were killed while attempting to land. Survivors of the expedition told Cortés the natives they encountered had large quantities of pearls. Cortés led an expedition to the bay where the crew perished, hoping to find the pearls and other riches. He established a colony named Santa Cruz near present-day La Paz but was forced to abandon the colony due to native hostility and difficult geography. Ruy López de Villalobos led another expedition, formally claimed Alta California for the king before journeying up the coast to Oregon's border.

New Spain renewed its interest in California with the need for a port to conduct trade with Asia, avoiding the storms and pirates near Baja California. Portuguese Sebastián Rodríguez Cermeño led a ship headed for Manila to explore the Californian coast on his return voyage in 1594. He anchored at present-day Drake's Bay, then headed down the coast, but lost his cargo in a storm. Sebastián Vizcaíno led another expedition to chart the California coast in 1596. Storms impeded his exploration, delaying the expedition until 1602. Vizcaíno charted the California coast north to Cape Mendocino.

Like in Texas, Spanish authorities left California unsettled and mostly unexplored until news of Russian settlements near California reached Madrid. Russian settlers had crossed the Bering Strait and established forts and outposts as far south as the Farallon Islands. The Spanish finally decided to explore and settle Alta California, to prevent Russian expansion.

The Jesuits

New Spain's viceroy attempted to increase interest in California by granting licenses for pearl fisheries, which proved unsuccessful.

By the late 1670s, Jesuits established missions in Baja California. An expedition in 1683 landed at La Paz to commercially develop and establish missions in Alta California. The expedition left due to a controversy and sailed to San Bruno. The Jesuits established a mission there but a lack of supplies and failed production of crops caused them to abandon the mission in 1685. Juan María de Salvatierra and Francisco María Piccolo established a fort and church, known as Loreto, in 1697. By 1734, there were thirteen Jesuit missions in Baja California.

The Franciscans

In 1767, the King of Spain expelled the Jesuits because of their growing political power, and appointed the Franciscans to continue the missionary work in Baja California. In 1768, José de Gálvez, the viceroy of New Spain's aide, chose Junipero Serra to lead an expedition to establish the first missions in Alta California and staff the former Jesuit missions. By 1784 ten missions had been established.

Mission San Juan Capistrano
Mission San Juan Capistrano.

Fermin Francisco de Lasuen succeeded Serra and established eight missions from 1785-1803. Other missions were founded by Estevan Tapis, Vicente de Sarria and José Altimira.

In Baja California, the Dominicans took over the missions in 1773. They continued to establish more missions in the land between the Baja and Alta California missions.

Mission Life

Most Indians died from diseases the Spanish carried, damp weather, malnutrition and excessive labor. Some Franciscans believed the epidemics were God's punishment and often did not medically treat the sick.

Those that joined the missions learned manual skills like weaving, adobe brick making and leather manufacturing. But none were allowed to leave the mission, and if an Indian attempted to flee, he or she was recaptured and punished for escaping.

Franciscans allowed elected Indian leaders, alcaldes, to manage and discipline the Indians. Traditional chiefs and shamans also continued to influence mission Indians. Alcaldes frequently led rebellions and resistance movements against the missionaries. Most Indians would flee, some would steal livestock and a few attempted to murder Franciscans.

Missions sustained themselves with agriculture, ranching, and selling surplus goods to the military and settlers. Missions grew wheat, barley, corn, and other fruits and vegetables. Irrigation systems were constructed to increase production, but drought or heavy rain affected each year's harvest. Ranching became an important industry. Each mission controlled large herds of livestock that provided food or were used to produce leather, textiles, soap and candles.

Missionaries would sell surplus goods to the military and settlers. During bad harvests, the amount sold to the military would remain the same, reducing the amount available for the Indians. Food, seeds and products were sold to local settlers. The military and settlers would also rent Indian labor from the missions. The missionaries did criticize the soldiers for mistreating the Indians and claimed the mistreatment caused native uprisings and resentment.

Men and women each had allotted tasks in the mission. Men would care for livestock, fished, collected plant foods, and made goods from various materials such as stone. Women wove baskets and clothing and continued traditional duties like caring for the children.

Secularization began in 1826. In Baja California, secularization proceeded slowly with a mission only secularizing when the missionaries retired. Most of the church land was stolen or sold to Mexican and Anglo-American settlers. Indians lost all their possessions and abandoned most of the missions to live in towns, becoming temporary workers.

San Diego de Alcala

In 1769, Serra established the first mission near Monterey Bay, naming it San Diego de Alcala. A cross was erected at present-day Presidio Hill, the padres held mass, and hung bells from trees to summon local Indians to present gifts to win their confidence. This ceremony was repeated in the establishment of subsequent missions.

Local Indians resented the Spanish and attacked the settlement within the month. Spanish soldiers frequently raped Indian women, causing local Indians to again attack San Diego in 1771. By 1774, a church was built and sixty Indians were baptized, but Indians remained hostile. On November 5, 1775, the church and other buildings were pillaged and burnt down, with local natives attacking the priests and soldiers. The priests fled to live in the presidio for two years.

The mission gradually became successful, with a large dam in the 1790s and an adobe church by 1813. The mission was composed of numerous buildings surrounding a large square courtyard with a length of forty yards. After secularization, the US army used the mission as a horse stable for twelve years.

In 1976, Pope Paul VI gave the church certain ceremonial privileges and it has been active since then.

San Juan Capistrano

San Juan Capistrano was first established in 1775, but abandoned after a violent uprising in San Diego. Father Lasuen and Father Serra returned to San Juan Capistrano in 1776 and formally founded the mission on November 1, 1776. In 1777 an adobe church was built.

The mission was prosperous for over thirty years. In 1835, after secularization, the mission continued producing hides and tallow. It was restored in the 1890s and again in the 1920s and still stands today as one of the most beautiful missions in California.


Dates of Spanish Missions in California


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