California Mission's History

From the first Spanish mission to the dozens of missions that followed, learn about California’s earliest European settlers & what followed their colonization.
California Mission's History
Spanish Missions
The First Mission
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Spanish Missions Along the California Shore

The history of California’s missions is the history of California’s first European settlers. Missions were the foundation of the original Spanish settlements and the growing Spanish hold over the West Coast. The construction of missions directly parallels the creation of early colonies and towns in California.

Why were missions the defining factor of early California? To answer that question, it is first necessary to understand what a mission is and why Spanish settlers created them.

Missions are outposts established for the purpose of spreading a certain religion, often in a foreign country. The Spanish missionaries who helped colonize California brought with them their Catholic beliefs. They created footholds in the newly settled land, constructing churches, schools, workrooms, gardens, and fields, all the while seeking to spread Catholicism.

Over 21 missions were established along the coast of California between 1769 and 1823. During this 54-year time span, Spanish settlers worked their way up the shore and spread their influence throughout Southern and Central California.

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The First Mission

The first Spanish mission to what would eventually become California was launched in 1769. It was financed by the Spanish monarchy and led by Junipero Serra, a Roman Catholic priest and Franciscan friar. Serra sought to expand Catholic influence and Spanish control, and he set in motion the construction of the first colony in California.

Junipero Serra founded the San Diego de Alcalá Mission in San Diego, California. The growing Spanish population would eventually culminate in the area being renamed to Old Town, signifying the creation of California’s first city in what would later be known as San Diego. It would also become the launching point for 20 additional missions, eight of which were also led by Junipero Serra.

The San Diego de Alcalá mission also included the San Diego Presidio, which was a military fort primarily used in conflicts with Native Americans. Though the mission was later moved and reconstructed about six miles inland, the Presidio remained in the original location.

Though the original building no longer exists, you can visit a recreation at the Junipero Serra Museum in San Diego, California. Constructed near the original location of the mission, it aims to preserve the history of San Diego’s early Spanish settlers and educate visitors about the Spanish colonization of California. The museum includes artifacts, its own fine art collection, and the newly renovated Presidio.

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Continued Expansion and Mission Construction

After the first mission was established, it was only a matter of time before others followed. In 1770, the second mission was established in Carmel. This was the San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo mission.

Like its predecessor, the Carmel mission was renovated and turned into a museum. It is now known as the Carmel Mission Basilica Museum, and it is considered to be one of the most authentic restorations of a Roman Catholic mission church in the state.

Many more missions followed as Spanish control over the region continued to expand. The next few missions were San Antonio de Padua in 1771, San Gabriel Arcangel in the same year, and San Luis Obispo de Tolosa in 1772. The San Gabriel Arcangel holds the distinction of being the oldest building in Los Angeles County.

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The original mission was burned in 1775 during an uprising by local natives. The current church, built in the early 19th century, is the fifth to stand on this location. The mission site is a National Historic.

Another mission wasn’t constructed until 1776. This mission was known as San Francisco de Asis, also referred to as Mission Dolores. This was followed by the San Juan Capistrano mission in the same year, Santa Clara de Asis in 1777, and San Buenaventura in 1782.

San Buenaventura was the last mission Junipero Serra ever founded. He died in 1784, and it would be another two years before new missions entered construction.

The 10th Californian mission was the Santa Barbara mission in 1786, followed by La Purísima Concepcion in 1787 and the Santa Cruz and Nuestra Señora de la Soledad missions in 1791. 1797 saw the construction of four different missions. These were San José, San Juan Bautista, San Miguel Arcangel, and San Fernando Rey de España.

San Luis Rey de Francia was built in 1789, just a few miles away from the first mission. It was followed by Santa Ines in 1804, San Rafael Arcangel in 1817, and finally San Francisco Solano in 1823, which was the final Californian mission.

After Expansion

San Francisco Solano is the northernmost of the 21 missions, which makes it a fitting endpoint, lying the furthest away from the original mission. At this point, much of California was under Spanish, and later Mexican, control. The area between the missions had been colonized, and Spanish settlers had started to create cities and raise families in the colonized land.

Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821, which meant it was now in control of all the missions that had been constructed in the last half-century. Only the last mission, San Francisco Solano, was established after the Mexican government was in charge of the mission program. After this, the program was halted for a decade.

After much debate about the topic, in 1833 the Mexican government legally ended their missions and secularized many of the original mission sites. Though some sought to return the land to Native American populations who had been displaced, the land these sites occupied was largely divided between the Mexican government and private landowners.

Despite the now-defunct expansion program, the missions continued to play important roles in California’s history. Many were used as United States military bases during the war with Mexico, and once the US gained control over the territory, the Catholic Church was given ownership of some missions.

Now, the missions are primarily used for either religious purposes or as educational tools. Many have become museums that contain artifacts and artwork from this important time in California’s early history.

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The Impact of the Missions

The missions had an undeniable impact on the development of California from the late 1700s onward. However, whether this impact was entirely positive has been hotly contested.

It’s true that without the missions, much of modern California would look very different from how it is today. Some of the oldest cities in California were founded around missions, such as San Diego, which arose from the original San Diego de Alcalá mission. These areas might not have become so heavily populated, and they might not have the same rich history they do if things had gone differently.

The missions also made significant contributions to the art, architecture, language, commerce, religion, and culture developments in California, the impact of which can be seen to this day. Much of the Victorian and Spanish-style architecture of early buildings has been preserved and integrated into modern city design, and Spanish and Mexican culture and heritage remains pervasive in the area.

Despite these powerful contributions, many have pointed out that these cultural developments came at the expense of the already existing culture in the area. Though the missions may have brought European settlers to California, they were far from the first people to live there.

Native American tribes like the Kumeyaay occupied Southern California and often clashed with missionaries.

Many Native American tribes were driven out of their homes, and constant conflicts with Spanish settlers harmed native populations. Those who weren’t killed in conflicts or from diseases, or forced from their homes, were often assimilated into Spanish culture, which led to the erasure of Native American cultures and practices from multiple tribes.

European settlers often worked to convert Native Americans to their own lifestyle and religion, which resulted in the loss of many Native American languages, customs, and traditions. In some cases, settlers enslaved native populations.

By the end of the missions in 1833, it’s estimated that local Native American numbers dropped from around 300,000 before the missions to only about 20,000 after.

The relationship between the missions and Native American tribes is a complex one. While the missions were a crucial part of Californian history, and they represent the very beginnings of the state, they still harmed the lives of those who already lived in California prior to its colonization. Acknowledging both points of view on this issue is imperative to understanding how the history of the missions impacted the founding and growth of California after the late 1700s.

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Mission Fun Facts and Trivia

The missions are a unique part of Californian history, and they carry a lot of historical weight. Here are some additional interesting facts about them.

El Camino Real

The road linking all 21 missions is known as the El Camino Real, or The Royal Road. It is about 600 miles long and it stretches from modern-day San Diego to San Francisco.

Preservation Efforts

Some of the mission buildings began falling into disrepair long before the end of the mission programs, but recent historical societies have worked to turn back the hands of time. Though many of the original mission buildings are lost to time, all 21 missions have been either preserved or reconstructed!

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