Fr. José Altimira was a Spanish Franciscan priest who founded Mission San Francisco Solano, the last — and most controversial — of the Alta California missions.
- 1 Who was Fr. José Altimira?
- 2 What was Mission San Francisco Solano to be Used For?
- 3 Scouting a Site
- 4 Where was Mission San Francisco Solano Located?
- 5 The Mission is Approved
- 6 When was Mission San Francisco Solano Built?
- 7 The Mission Takes Root
- 8 Fr. José Altimira Leaves Mission San Francisco Solano
- 9 Return to Spain
- 10 Conclusion
Who was Fr. José Altimira?
José Altimira was born in Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain, in 1787 and joined the Franciscan order as a young man. In June of 1819, when he was 32 years old, he sailed to New Spain (Mexico). There spent some time preparing to be a missionary at the College of San Fernando in Mexico City.
In August of 1820, he arrived in Alta California, where he was assigned to Mission San Francisco de Asís, also known as Mission Dolores. Fr. Altimira lived and ministered to the native people at Mission Dolores for three years.
Mission Dolores was known to be in a very cold and rainy area, and it had been hit by a number of illnesses and diseases. Furthermore, land for cultivation and growing crops was limited, so it had difficulty supporting itself. For that reason, the Franciscans founded another mission, San Rafael Arcángel, north of the San Francisco Bay in 1817. San Rafael was first established as an asistencia, and later became full-fledged a mission.
To learn more about Mission San Rafael Arcángel, read Mission San Rafael Arcángel: The Hospital That Became a Mission.
What was Mission San Francisco Solano to be Used For?
Although Mission San Rafael had been fairly successful in providing a more healthy place for the natives to live, the Franciscans had also been looking for a site further to the north and east, as a new location for Mission Dolores. In 1822, Fr. Payeras, the commissary prefect of the Alta California missions, made a trip as far north as Fort Ross to scout possible locations for a new mission.
Several months passed, and Fr. Payeras fell ill, without making a decision about the new site. Fr. Altimira was impatient to see Mission Dolores moved to the north bay region. He wrote a letter to the newly independent Mexican territorial authorities in Monterey. In his letter he requested that that the people of Mission Dolores be transferred to the new location. In April, his request was approved. The territorial assembly decreed that Mission San Rafael should be re-joined to Mission Dolores, and that both missions together should be transferred to a new location to the north.
Scouting a Site
With the assembly’s approval, Governor Luis Antonio Argüello sent a message to the central government in Mexico City, and Fr. Altimira communicated the news to his Franciscan superiors. This was an unusual way of doing things, since according to Spanish and Mexican law, it was the Franciscan Order who was in charge of founding new missions. Furthermore, the civil authorities in Alta California did not have permission to make decisions about new missions without first receiving permission from the central government in Mexico.
Nevertheless, Gov. Argüello went ahead and organized an expedition to scout out the best place for a new mission. He sent Fr. Altimira, together with Deputado Francisco Castro, Army Lieutenant José Sánchez and 19 soldiers. Together they set out on June 25 of 1823.
Where was Mission San Francisco Solano Located?
For the next several days, the expedition explored the areas directly north and east of the San Francisco Bay. The location they found most promising was in a valley called Sonoma in the language of the local Coast Miwok people, though it was not far from the territories of the Wappo people. Fr. Altimira spoke of the site in his diary. “No one can doubt the mildness of the climate of Sonoma after observing the plants, the very tall trees, their delicate foliage according to their species: sycamore, cottonwood, ash, laurels and others. Above all the abundance and vigor of the wild grapes, the tall grass and other wild plants…Sonoma is a place well fitted for founding a mission here.”
On July 3, 1823 they found a suitable location for the new mission, in what is today the town of Sonoma. The next day, July 4, they set up a cross and said a Mass to celebrate the foundation, which they named “New San Francisco.” That afternoon, they began the return trip home, camping at the native village of Olompali. On his return to Mission San Francisco de Asís, Fr. Altimira wrote a letter to his Franciscan superiors about what he had done, and how important it was to start transferring the old mission to the new site in Sonoma.
At the end of July, Altimira made a trip to Monterey, where he met with Governor Argüello. Argüello told him to began transferring the both Mission San Francisco and Mission San Rafael to the new location. On August 25, together with a group of soldiers and indigenous workers, Fr. Altimira oversaw the first phase of building the new mission in Sonoma.
On August 31, Fr. Altimira received a letter from Fr. Vicente Francisco de Sarría, who had become commissary prefect of the missions. Fr. Sarría told Altimira that he was to immediately stop all preparations for transfer of the mission.
In seeking out and establishing a new mission site in Sonoma, Fr. Altimira had worked closely with the local civil officials. He had informed the Franciscan authorities of his plan, but he did not wait for their approval before proceeding. Fr. Sarría also wrote a letter to Gov. Argüello explaining that neither Fr. Altimira nor the local civil authorities were allowed to found a mission without the prior approval of the Franciscan Order.
When Fr. Altimira received the news, he stopped all preparations. But he soon wrote a furious letter to Gov. Argüello complaining about the decision of his superiors. He asked if the governor was going to proceed, or would bow to the influence of the Franciscans. Whatever the outcome, Altimira already knew what he intended to do. He ended his letter with an ultimatum. “I came here to convert gentiles and to establish new missions. If I cannot do it here…I will leave the country.”
The Mission is Approved
After some negotiations, both sides agreed to allow the mission to be established, but neither Mission Dolores nor Mission San Rafael would be closed. On September 30, 1823, the Franciscans and the governor finally drew up an agreement. Fr. Altamira was put in charge of the new mission, though he was still considered an associate of Mission San Francisco de Asís.
When was Mission San Francisco Solano Built?
In October of 1823, construction on the mission church began, and on April 4, 1824, the new church was dedicated. Fr. Altimira had expected Mission San Francisco de Asís to be transferred to the new site, so he had been referring to it as Mission San Francisco. In order to avoid confusion at having two missions with the same name, the Sonoma mission was named San Francisco Solano, after a Franciscan saint who had been a missionary in South America.
The Mission Takes Root
By the end of 1823, Fr. Altimira’s report showed that a large quantity of crops had been sown and harvested, a new adobe building had been constructed, and the mission had numerous cattle, horses and sheep on its ranches. Almost 700 people were living at the mission, most of whom were native people, mainly in traditional houses that they had built.
Over the next couple of years, Indians from local rancherias began to come to the mission. Housing was limited at the mission, and it began to get crowded. Many of the newcomers continued to live in their own villages and would travel to the mission to help in the harvest, receiving a portion of the crops in exchange. When Fr. Altimira complained to the Franciscan authorities that the Indians did not want to live at the mission, his superiors replied that they had received complaints about him from the Indians themselves, who said he was too strict and a poor manager.
Fr. José Altimira Leaves Mission San Francisco Solano
In fall of 1826, tensions reached their highest point when local Indians raided mission supplies and set fire to the native houses at the mission. The damage was not very extensive, and the Mexican authorities chose not to try and punish the attackers. Nevertheless, Fr. Altimira felt very discouraged. He soon left Sonoma and went to live at Mission San Rafael, and later back to San Francisco de Asís. He requested a transfer south to Mission Santa Barbara, but ended up at San Buenaventura.
Return to Spain
In 1827, the Mexican government decreed that all Spanish men were to leave the country. Since Fr. Altimira had never agreed to swear allegiance to the new Republic of Mexico, he decided it was a good time to leave the country. In January of 1828, together with another friar, he boarded a ship in Santa Barbara bound for Spain. When his superiors discovered he had left, they conducted an investigation to see if he had taken any mission property with him. They found no evidence of wrongdoing.
Almost nothing is known of Fr. José Altimira’s life after he returned to Spain. There is evidence that he eventually went to live in Tenerife in the Canary Islands and was still there as late as 1860.
San Francisco Solano was the last of the Alta California missions to be established, and the only one founded under Mexican rule. With the difficulties of the new republic, Mexico was not able to continue supporting the missions and presidios in Alta California, nor did it have the resources to found new ones.
By establishing Mission San Francisco Solano, Fr. José Altimira extended the boundaries of the mission chain in Alta California and marked its final outpost. To do so, he stepped outside of the rules for creating new missions, struggled with his Franciscan superiors and left an indelible mark on the California frontier.
- Who were the people that originally lived in the Sonoma area?
- Why did the Franciscans want to found a new mission north of the San Francisco Bay?
- What rule did Fr. Altimira break when he chose a site for a new mission?
- Why did they name the mission “San Francisco Solano”?
- Why did Fr. José Altimira return to Spain?
- The official website of Mission San Francisco Solano: www.sonomaparks.org/pub/place/1
- Geiger, Maynard, OFM. Franciscan Missionaries in Hispanic California: 1769-1848. A Biographical Dictionary. San Marino, The Huntington Library, 1969.
- Smilie, Robert S. The Sonoma Mission: San Francisco Solano de Sonoma. Founding, Ruin and Restoration of California’s 21st Mission. Fresno, Valley Publishers, 1975.