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Collection Meeting of Frontiers

Missionary Activity in the American West

This essay was published in 2000 as part of the original Meeting of Frontiers website.

The Spanish empire sponsored the earliest missionary activity in the West, when the Franciscans established missions in California in 1541 and New Mexico in 1581. Friar Junipero Serra initiated the high point of the Spanish Catholic Church activity, founding nine California missions between 1769 and 1782, beginning with Mission San Diego.

Franciscan missions converted Indians to Catholicism--sometimes voluntarily, sometimes by force--and taught them farming and handicraft skills. They also stimulated the economic development of the region by creating ranching, agricultural, and manufacturing enterprises, which often relied on the forced labor of natives.

The first Protestants to establish missions in the Trans-Mississippi West were the Methodists, who built their first mission in Oregon's Willamette Valley in 1834. Presbyterians arrived in Oregon Country two years later. Although these first Protestant missionaries failed to convert many Indians, they did provide a stimulus for future settlement since they established prosperous farms and sent glowing reports back east about the fertile lands of the northwest.

Francisco Palou

Relacion historica de la vida y apostolicas tareas del venerable padre fray Junipero Serra. [The Life of Father Junipero Serra], Francisco Palou, 1787. LC Rare Book Collections

Like his more famous compatriot Junipero Serra, Francisco Palou was born on the island of Majorca. He entered the Franciscan Order in 1739 and studied under Serra. He came to Mexico in 1749 and, along with Serra, was assigned to the missionary Apostolic College of San Fernando in Mexico City. Palou served for decades in Indian missions throughout northwest Mexico and California. He founded Mission San Francisco, where he served many years. Palou was present at the death of Serra, and shortly thereafter began his classic biography, presented here. Palou returned to San Fernando College in 1785, where he held the office of superior from 1786 until his death in 1789.

Although Relacion Historica de la Vida y Apostolicas Tareas del Venerable Padre Fray Junipero Serra was not available to English readers until 1913, in the Spanish-speaking world the book was appreciated from its first appearance in 1787, and the author received well- deserved praise for this work about the life and accomplishments of a great Christian missionary and California pioneer. It has served as the basic reference work for a large body of literature written over the past two centuries.

After reading Relacion Historica de la Vida y Apostolicas Tareas del Venerable Padre Fray Junipero Serra in 1786, Don Juan Gregorio de Campos, Superior of the Congregation of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in Mexico City, wrote:

And how grateful should those former unbelievers and the true faithful be to Reverend Father Palou, who has so carefully and solicitously made available to us this exact account of the life of his beloved teacher. His pen becomes the organ through which his apostolic voice resounds in his story without any confusion or disharmony. The author has written with such conformity to the laws of history that he narrates all in a simple and plain style; yet it is clear and pleasing.

Typical of books of earlier centuries, the descriptive chapter headings alone provide a convenient summary of the main topics of the work. Some of the more colorful examples are:

Chapter I. Birth, Native Land and Parents of the V. Father Junipero: He takes the Holy Habit; His Activities in the Province before He Thought of Setting our for America.

Chapter II. He is Called of God to be a Teacher to the Pagans. He Asks for a Patent to the Indies and Obtains It. He Embarks for Cadiz and what Happened to Him on the Way.

Chapter XII. The Journey to California with Fifteen Missionaries to Work There.

Chapter XV. The Venerable Father Founds the First Mission Which He Dedicates to San Fernando, and then Leaves with the Expedition for the Port of San Diego.

Chapter XLI. The Arrival of the Sad News from San Diego and the Steps Taken by Those in Command at Monterey.

Chapter XLIII. Reinforcements Arrive, Bringing Favorable Orders Under Which the Reestablishment of the Mission of San Diego is Effected and the Founding of San Juan Capistrano is Accomplished.

Chapter LVIII. The Exemplary Death of the Venerable Father Junipero.

Francisco Palou's efforts kept the memory of his mentor and idol alive and undoubtedly contributed to the eventual beatification of Junipero Serra in 1988.