The California missions ended after Mexico became independent of Spain. The newly independent Mexican government eventually passed laws that called for an end to the mission system through a process called “secularization.”
- 1 Secularization: The end of the Spanish missions in California
- 2 How long did the California missions last?
- 3 What was secularization?
- 4 Who started secularization?
- 5 Why were the California missions closed down?
- 6 When did the California missions end?
- 7 How many of the California missions are still standing?
- 8 El Camino Real
Secularization: The end of the Spanish missions in California
To visit the California missions today is an impressive experience. The church buildings, gardens and grounds are beautiful and well-maintained, and harken back to an earlier, more romantic period. Museum displays tell of the history of the missions, and gift shops offer all sorts of keepsakes to take with us.
But if we were to travel back in time to a little over 100 years ago, we would probably see most missions in ruins. Despite the fact that the California missions reached a large level of economic success, at a certain point they stopped operating. So it is no surprise that many people ask “How did the California missions end?”
How long did the California missions last?
The first Spanish mission in California was San Diego de Alcalá, founded in 1769. The last mission was San Francisco Solano, founded in 1823. So the period of mission founding lasted 54 years in total. But the missions continued on until the Mexican government began the process of secularization in 1834. This means that the missions lasted for a total of about 65 years.
What was secularization?
Under Spanish rule, the government expected that the missions would last for a period of 10 years. The idea was that during those 10 years the Indian people living at the mission would learn how to live according to the lifestyle of a Latin American pueblo or town. After that time, the missionaries would move away and that the land of the missions would be converted into small farms that would be owned by individual Indian families. The mission church would become a parish church, with a “secular” priest (one who didn’t belong to a special order like the Franciscans), as in most Latin American and Spanish towns.
This process was called “secularization”, because in Latin the word “secular” refers to a common ordinary life in the world. The mission communities were therefore to become common, ordinary towns.
In the view of the missionaries, though, 10 years was not enough time for this to be accomplished. They believed that Native Americans in California needed more time be educated and adapt to the new lifestyle. So, when the Spanish government pressed to have the missions converted into towns, the missionaries resisted, saying that the Indians in their communities were not ready for the change.
Who started secularization?
When Mexico became independent from Spain in the 1820s, the newly formed Mexican government decided that it was time to secularize the missions. They passed laws ordering California officials to turn them over to the Indians to be converted into towns. Soon the California territorial government decided that the missions would be overseen by an administrator, who would be in charge of distributing the land and property to the Indians.
First the administrator would do an inventory of the property of the mission together with the priest and decide on the value of the property. He would then decide how much property both land and goods would be distributed to the Indians, and how much was to be considered surplus.
Often much of the land and property wound up in the hands of the administrators themselves. In the end, most of the ex-mission lands were granted to Spanish/Mexican settlers who converted them into ranches. Most Indian people received very little land, although although some received land grants that were converted into farms or ranches.
You can read more about Native Americans who received land grants here: Native Americans in the Rancho Era: Roberto-Suñol and Olompali.
Why were the California missions closed down?
After several decades of existence, officials in Mexico and Alta California believed that the missionaries were keeping the Indians from being productive members of society. If they weren’t living on the missions, the officials thought, the Native Americans could use their skills to work in towns and ranches owned by local settlers.
Some officials believed that life on the missions was oppressive. They thought that the Indians would be better off being completely free to choose where and how they would live. Others believed that the mission lands weren’t being used well. They thought that if some of the land were in private hands, it could be made more productive.
In short, many officials also believed that the Christian Indians at the missions had been under the authority of the Franciscan padres for too long, and that it was time for them to be free from their influence.
When did the California missions end?
On January 6, 1831, Governor José María Echeandía drafted an order that all the California missions were to be secularized. Because of the resistance of many people, including the clergy at the missions, nothing substantial was done at the beginning.
But on August 9, 1834, Governor José Figueroa issued a series of guidelines about how the missions were to be secularized. Soon the process began in earnest. In November and December of 1834, an inventory of all the goods and property of each mission was drawn up. With the inventory, the value of everything was to be appraised in order to be sold.
By the late 1830s all of the California missions had been secularized. The only mission to be converted into a pueblo was Mission San Juan Capistrano in 1841, and very few of the lands had been turned over to the Indian people. With mission secularization, the rancho era in California began.
After secularization, most of the churches began to deteriorate. Almost all of the lands had become ranches in the hands of Californio families. For the Indian people who lived on the missions, this often meant that they had to find work on farms and ranches.
Others went to live in wilder areas amongst relatives or other Indian tribes who had not joined the missions. Some native people turned to stealing cattle and goods from ex-mission ranches. This caused a great degree of friction between them and the Hispanic settlers.
How many of the California missions are still standing?
All 21 of the California missions are standing, though most have been rebuilt, either partially or completely. Since the mission buildings were made mostly of adobe, they needed to be cared for. After secularization there were few resources to maintain the mission buildings. Most of them had fallen apart, though some, such as Mission Santa Barbara, remained in operation throughout the years. Nevertheless, people still continued to visit them, including Indian people who grew up around them.
After the US-Mexico war in 1846, California became part of the U.S. Most of the mission churches passed into the hands of the US government. But later, the Catholic bishops of California petitioned the U.S. government for their return.
In 1859, President James Buchanan agreed to return almost all of the missions and some of the mission properties (the buildings) to the Catholic Church. Later, President Abraham Lincoln completed the process by returning the rest of the missions to the Church.
El Camino Real
It wasn’t until the late 19th and early 20th century that a movement to refurbish the missions developed. Civic and church groups got together to raise money for repairs and decorations. They wanted to bring them back to a state that reflected their original glory. They also worked to convince people from the East Coast to come out to California and visit the missions.
With the construction of Highway 101, travelers could more easily visit the missions by automobile. Highway 101 — which came to be known as El Camino Real — ran along the California coast and connected most of the missions. With time, the restored California missions became major tourist attractions, drawing visitors from all over the world.
Roy Hartnell says
Thank you for this interesting article. It is my understanding that my great-great grandfather, William Edward Petty Hartnell was appointed by Governor Figueroa to visit the missions and perform the inventories of mission properties.
Damian Bacich says
Dear Mr. Hartnell,
How wonderful to hear! Are you familiar with The Diary of your great-great grandfather? It was published some years back and is a very interesting account of his life during the secularization period.