What were the Spanish missions in California? How did they begin? The Spanish missions in California were communities of indigenous people (Indians) established by Franciscan missionaries in the 18th and 19th centuries. The were frontier institutions and part of Spain’s effort to have a presence in California.
(Click here for a map of all 21 Spanish missions in California).
The Spanish missions are the most iconic symbols of the the California frontier. And while they weren’t the only frontier institutions in Spanish and Mexican California, they continue to be the most visible monuments to California’s rich heritage.
Spanish Interest in California
Since the early 16th century, Spanish explorers had viewed the Pacific coast of North America as a difficult and distant place to reach — the furthest point of the known world. Nevertheless, they believed that Spain was the only European power with the right to settle the area.
During the later years of the 18th century, though, the Spanish became increasingly concerned that their rivals the British and Russians were becoming active along the Pacific Coast. Spanish officials, therefore, chose to establish a presence along the coastline by founding a series of military forts (presidios in Spanish).
In order to do so, they launched expeditions to explore the area by both land and sea. When they did, they also brought along Catholic missionaries.
Missionaries and Missions
The missionaries belonged to the Franciscan Order, a religious association founded in Italy by St. Francis of Assisi in 1209. The missionaries were allowed to communicate with the local indigenous people and their leaders in hopes of attracting their communities to the Christian faith, as had been done all over Latin America in the preceding centuries.
While they collaborated with Spanish officials, the missionaries often disagreed with them on a number of issues. The missionaries’ motives were religious, and they believed that Native people would have a better life as Christians.
Spanish officials mainly saw things through the lens of their country’s strategic goals. They hoped that by becoming Catholics, the Indians would become allies of Spain against her English and Russian rivals. Missionaries often believed that Spanish soldiers were too harsh or conflictive in their dealings with Native people, while government officials would accuse the priests of trying to achieve too much authority over the Indians through religion.
Nevertheless, they both groups wanted to see the mission idea succeed, and for this they needed the cooperation of the indigenous people. This called for diplomacy and negotiation with different tribes, clans and kinship groups to persuade them to join the missions and become allies of the Spanish.
Native peoples had diverse reactions to the presence of Spanish missions, missionaries and soldiers. Some were curious and open, while others were more circumspect. Some individuals and groups embraced the mission idea for the benefits they perceived, while others kept their distance or became openly hostile.
Between the 1769 and 1823, the Franciscans organized 21 missions along the California coast. The mission chain in was initiated by Father Junípero Serra, a Franciscan priest from Mallorca, Spain. Prior to coming to Alta California, Serra had been a missionary in central Mexico and in Baja California. He personally oversaw the foundation of the first nine missions.
After Serra’s death in 1784, his successors carried on the work of establishing missions. Mission sites would normally be chosen near Native communities and in locations that had access to water sources like rivers or springs, together with promising agricultural land.
Often people from diverse Native groups and languages would live together at the same mission, some of whom had previously been enemies. In such cases, Spanish would become the common language of the mission and adult members of the community taught the rudiments of the Spanish language, while children learned the language from an early age.
Each mission would normally be overseen by one or two priests and operated with the help of a staff of Native supervisors. There would also be a small detachment of Spanish soldiers to guard the mission against attack and to help with law enforcement. If the soldiers were married, their families also lived with them on the mission grounds. The rest of the mission population would be made up of several hundred to 2,000 Native people.
A Spanish mission was conceived as a new town, and individuals or communities who joined the mission were expected to transfer their allegiance to their new community, living there for the rest of their lives. Although members were allowed to travel outside the mission lands from time to time for trade, visiting friends and relatives or for hunting and food gathering, some resented these limits or grew weary of the mission lifestyle and would leave or run away to live in non-mission Indian communities. Some even organized armed revolts against the Spanish.
Missions were farming and ranching communities, where daily rhythms were based on the cycles of agricultural tasks, like plowing, planting and harvesting. Mission members also learned the skills that supported farm life, such as livestock husbandry, carpentry, blacksmithing, and weaving cloth. Each person had a task to complete during the day.
Indians who were part of the mission were introduced to a whole new set of foods, such as beef, pork, and mutton, along with grains and fruits from Europe and Latin America. Natives would also supplement this new diet with the local foods they had been accustomed to eating, such as fish, venison, and other wild meats, as well as acorns, berries, and other native plants.
The dominant feature of the mission complex was the church, which would initially be built with wood, mud, and branches, and later evolve into a larger structure made of adobe bricks, like the beautiful buildings we see today. Each mission would have a central courtyard surrounded by other structures necessary for the maintenance of the community, including a number of dwellings for Indian families, for the soldiers and their families, as well as the padres. Around the mission buildings, there would be orchards and gardens, as well as large areas of grazing acreage for cattle and fields for grain production.
Since the mission lands usually consisted of thousands of acres, community members would sometimes live further away from the central area. Some would live in their own native villages and visit the mission for work or events. Native communities affiliated with, but distant from the missions were also established. They would be visited occasionally be a missionary priest who would celebrate the sacraments for them and instruct them in Catholic teachings. These communities would be known as asistencias or doctrinas.
The Missions Fall into Decline
Spanish missions were never meant to be permanent institutions. According to the pattern that had been set in other Spanish territories in the Americas, within a certain span of years, the missionaries were expected to leave and the mission would be formally converted into a town, with the Indians fully responsible for its governance. Until that time, the mission lands, although formally owned by the Indians, were to be held in trust and overseen by the missionaries.
As the years passed, disagreements took place between the missionaries and government officials over whether the missions were ready to be converted into towns. Spanish authorities claimed that the padres were intentionally keeping the Indians in a state of dependence on their authority, while the missionaries accused officials of being in a hurry to turn them into laborers and soldiers.
In the 1820s, the struggles for Mexican independence interrupted the support that missions received from the Spanish government. After Mexico broke from Spain, Alta California became a Mexican territory.
In time, the Mexican government concluded that the missions had worn out their usefulness. It decreed a process of dissolving the missions, and in the early 1830s the government chose to remove them from the authority and of the Franciscans and place them under the control of lay administrators.
This process, known as secularization, resulted in the sale or granting of most mission lands and resources to private individuals. Some Native people did obtain parcels of ex-mission lands, but for the most part the indigenous communities who made up the mission population were left without property of their own.
For the next several decades, mission lands evolved into ranches or towns, especially after Alta California was incorporated into the U.S. as the State of California as a result of the U.S. – Mexico War. Many California cities derive their names from these missions and ranches. The mission churches and their associated buildings fell into disrepair and decay.
Conclusion: Missions Today
In 1884, the success of the popular novel Ramona by Helen Hunt Jackson brought the mission era to the attention of the Anglo-American population. This helped create the impetus for a revival in interest in the Spanish missions and their architectural restoration, a phenomenon that continues into the present.
Today, the California missions function as Roman Catholic parishes, or in some cases state historic parks. Most are living communities that take pride in preserving their heritage. A number of missions still serve the Native populations that built them. Each year the missions are visited by thousands of people from around the world and contribute to the economy of California as important tourist destinations. They all stand as monuments to a fascinating period of history and as reminders of California’s rich and diverse heritage.
1769: First mission established in San Diego, Alta California by Father Junípero Serra.
1784: Death of Junípero Serra.
1821: Spain accepts Mexican independence — Alta California becomes part of Mexico.
1823: Last mission established at Sonoma, Alta California.
1834-36: Missions secularized (jurisdiction removed from the Franciscans). Mission buildings fall into disrepair, Native lands are distributed to private owners.
1846: Bear Flag Revolt — American settlers seek to separate Alta California from Mexico. The U.S. military intervenes as part of the U.S. – Mexico War.
1848: The U.S. – Mexico War ends with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, formally ceding Alta California to the United States.
1850: Alta California becomes the 31st U.S. state, changing its name to the State of California.
Do you have a favorite mission? Are there some you would like to visit? Let us know!