The Missions of Old California

On January 12, 1777 Padre Thomas Peña, under the direction of Padre Junípero Serra, officially founded Mission Santa Clara de Asís, the eighth of California’s twenty-one missions. Located along El Camino Real, the Royal Road, these missions stretched up the California coast from San Diego to Sonoma, a distance of about seven hundred miles. When the chain was completed each mission lay about one day’s journey by horse apart from the next.

Mission Santa Clara de Asís…Santa Clara County, CA. Photocopy of 1861-1885 painting by Oriana Day in de Young Museum, San Francisco. Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey. Prints & Photographs Division

Each of the twenty-one missions, founded between 1769 and 1823, was similarly constructed in a quadrangular shape and consisted of a patio, chapel, convento (living quarters for the priests), kitchen, and dormitório. The mission also had craft rooms, storehouses, irrigated fields, orchards, and grazing land. In the fields the missionaries frequently worked side-by-side with their converts who were expected to live apart from unconverted members of their tribe and abide by strict rules or face reprimand, in some cases the lash. Over the years, Native Americans displayed a wide range of reactions to the mission way of life: some embraced it wholeheartedly, some rejected it violently, others endured it for the various material and cultural benefits it bestowed.

Father Serra, a native of Mallorca, Spain, inaugurated the first of the missions, San Diego de Alcala, in 1769, having accompanied Gaspar de Portolá from Mexico during the latter’s occupation of Alta California. Before his death in 1784, Serra oversaw the development of the first nine missions in the chain, including Mission San Carlos Borroméo de Carmelo (1770), San Antonio de Padua (1771), San Gabriel Arcángel (1771), San Luis Obispo de Tolosa (1772), San Francisco de Asís (Mission Dolores) (1776), San Juan Capistrano (1776), and San Buenaventura (1782).

With one exception, the rest of the missions were established while Mexico was part of the Spanish empire. They include the Missions Santa Barbara (1786), La Purisíma Concepcion (1787), Santa Cruz (1791), Nuestra Señora de la Soledad (1791), San José (1797), San Juan Bautista (1797), San Miguel de Arcángel (1797), San Fernando Rey de España (1797), San Luis Rey de Francia (1798), Santa Ynéz (1804), San Rafael Arcángel (1817).

San Juan Capistrano Mission. c1895. Popular Graphic Arts. Prints & Photographs Division

The last in the chain, Mission San Francisco de Solano, was founded in 1823, shortly after Mexico declared its independence from Spain. It was launched by a young Basque priest, Padre José Altimira, without the knowledge of his superiors but with support from the civil governor, who wished to halt Russian settlement in Northern California by staking a Mexican land claim via the mission. Just as the priests had always conceived of the missions as a means to convert the Indians and inculcate Spanish culture, the military and civil authorities used them as territorial outposts and aids to trade and colonization.

Many factors contributed to the decline of the California missions. Mexico halted stipends sent to the missions, and forced Spaniards, including the Franciscan padres, from Mexican territory. Soon after independence Mexico’s Congress also passed a law of secularization to speed the transfer of mission lands from the Catholic church to the Indians. In actuality, however, most mission assets were quickly confiscated by corrupt local officials and squatters, and by mid-century the California mission system lay in ruin.

In 1851, during the height of the Gold Rush era, the Mission Santa Clara was given to the Jesuits who incorporated it into the University of Santa ClaraExternal. Rebuilt in 1779 and 1781, and restored after a flood in 1784, an earthquake in 1818, and a fire in 1926, the tower of Santa Clara still contains an original bell brought to that mission from Spain.

Meeting of Frontiers is a bilingual English-Russian presentation concerning the meeting of the Russian-American frontier in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. Among its many items is Relacion historica de la vida y apostolicas tareas del venerable padre fray Junipero Serra, y de las misiones que fundó en la California Septentrional, y nuevos establecimientos de Monterey, the 1787 Spanish-language biography of Junipero Serra written by Serra’s friend and fellow Franciscan, Francisco Palóu.

U.S. Highway 101 which runs the full length of California…near King City. Dorothea Lange, photographer, Feb. 1936. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives. Prints & Photographs Division

Not only the twenty-one missions but four presidios and two Spanish pueblos (today’s cities of Los Angeles and San Jose) lay along El Camino Real. Over time the old road was replaced by modern streets and highways, mainly by US 101 (above), but also by I-5, Route 72, Route 82, and I-280.

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