How was a mission site chosen? What factors went into the location of a mission? Who decided where to build a mission?
Before establishing a Spanish mission in Alta California, a number of steps had to be taken in order to ensure that it would be successful. Both the Spanish government and the Franciscan Order had to agree that a mission was desirable. A mission site had to be found, and the local native people had to approve.
The story of the founding of Mission San Miguel Arcángel offers a good example of how a mission location was selected.
Mission San Miguel Arcángel
San Miguel was the sixteenth in the mission chain and was founded in order to make travel and communication easier between Mission San Antonio de Padua and Mission San Luis Obispo. These two missions were located quite far apart from each other (about 70 miles — see Missions Map). Establishing an intermediate mission meant it would also be easier to serve the Native American communities that lived between the two missions.
In 1795, Spanish Governor Diego Borica sent Fr. Buenaventura Sitjar (pronounced “See-har”) to scout out a site for a new mission. Fr. Sitjar, who had been a missionary for several years at Mission San Antonio, was fluent in the language of the local Salinan Indians. The padre had even composed a grammar of the Salinan language, so he was the right person to potentially speak to the natives of the area about the best place to found a new mission and gain their permission.
Scouting the Site
Accompanied by Sergeant Mariano Castro, Corporal Ignacio Vallejo and some other soldiers, Sitjar set out to make his survey in August of 1795. He was looking for a mission site with several important features:
- availability of good land for growing crops,
- a nearby water source,
- resources for building,
- a native population that would be agreeable to the establishment of a mission.
On Aug 27, 1795, Sitjar wrote a report to Fr. Fermín Francisco de Lasuén, President of the Alta California missions, describing the results of his explorations. He judged that the area around the Río Nacimiento contained the right features for establishing a mission.
Description of the Land
It was very important to find an area suitable for growing crops and for raising livestock, the two main activities of the mission. According to Fr. Sitjar, he had found just such a place.
The site which I judge most suitable for the Mission in said locality is a mesa which faces toward Mission San Antonio. It rises above the plain about three yards, and is capable of holding the Mission buildings — church, ranchería [site for neophyte dwellings], corrals for cattle, etc. Below said mesa or table land, is a level piece of land as far as the willow grove on which as many as one hundred fanegas of wheat could be sown. On the other side of the willow grove is another plain on which two hundred fanegas could be sown; and all this without irrigation, even though the year were as dry as the present one has been, providing the planting is done in season, for it is good land. Besides these plains, there are various mesas sufficiently extensive within the willow groves among the water pools. There are also tracts of level land as well toward San Luis Obispo as toward San Antonio, which are all actually dressed in green.”
Of course, no agricultural activity could be successful without access to a reliable water source, especially in drought-prone Alta California. Fr. Sitjar seemed convinced that the location he found had enough water to support farming.
I looked with sufficient reflexion at Las Pozas (The Pools or Wells) and doubt not that by opening a ditch to one of them, which may be more than a quarter of a league in size, it could irrigate a large part of the plain that adjoins the mesa of the Mission, the water of which is seen running from another pool. So if now, despite the drought, the water runs, it is a sign that it has a spring, which in consequence never fails.”
The Spanish missions in Alta California all centered around a complex of buildings, which included a church and other structures to support their activities. So it was important to find a good source of wood for buildings as well as for making fire.
The said Mission (site) has also timber close at hand, consisting of poplar, alder, willow and such trees also as are said to be the same from which they make boards at Mission Purisima. About two leagues and a half from said Mission (site) there are some pine trees. Firewood for the kitchen is abundant and quite close to the said Mission and in sight.”
Stone and Clay
Although most mission buildings started out as temporary structures made of tree branches and other materials, as the mission became more established, it was important to have permanent structures with more durable building materials.
Stone for filling in the foundations of the walls are sufficient in the hillsides of the mesa itself and very near by…On said mesa there is also sufficient clay close by as well as at some distance for making tiles.”
No mission could be established without an agreement with local Indian groups. The missionaries’ main goal was to attract native people to Christianity, and therefore needed to seek their approval before establishing a presence in the areas belonging to them. Moreover, without permission of Native American representatives, the mission would be in danger of being attacked and destroyed.
To the Indians toward the east of said site and also to those toward San Antonio I have spoken in the language of San Antonio. I have heard the Indians say that they desired a Mission. They are very affable, and a Christian there told me that there are many Indians in that region.”
Founding of the Mission
Fr. Lasuén studied Fr. Sitjar’s report, and wrote to Gov. Borica requesting the founding of a new mission. The governor wrote to the Viceroy in Mexico City in February of 1796, and supported Fr. Lasuén’s recommendations.
On July 25, 1797, Father President Fermín Francisco de Lasuén, accompanied by Fr. Buenaventura Sitjar and a detachment of soldiers, officially founded Mission San Miguel Arcángel on the spot known by the Salinan Indians as Vahca. He named the Mission after St. Michael, one of the three archangels mentioned in the Bible.
Fr. Lasuén wrote a letter to Gov. Borica reporting that the ceremony was witnessed by a large number of non-Christian natives of all ages: men, women and children. He named Fr. Sitjar, together with another Franciscan, Fr. Antonio de la Concepción Horra, as the first missionaries of San Miguel.
(Source, Zepheryn Engelhardt, San Miguel, Arcangel, the Mission on the Highway)