California Missions

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Beginning in the mid-eighteenth century and extending into the early nineteenth century, the Spanish crown strategically consolidated its power in its Nueva España colony of Alta California by allowing Catholic priests to establish mission churches. By 1823, twenty-one missions dotted the California coastline from San Diego to Sonoma. Along with the presidio fort and pueblo town, the mission was the third institution that had proven successful as a colonizing method in other Spanish dominions in the New World, such as in Mexico and South America. Manned by Franciscan priests, the aim of the missions was to spread Christianity to the Native Americans, thereby molding obeisant, Europeanized citizens loyal to Spain. The missions’ lasting influence on the California landscape cannot be underestimated: each formed the core of municipalities and metropolises that developed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

During his reign 1759–1788, King Charles III perceived a threat to the Spanish hold on Alta California from an increase of Russian fur traders in the north and the British in the east. In 1767, after expelling the Jesuits, Charles granted the Franciscan Order missions in Baja California and asked Friar Junipero Serra y Ferrer 1713–1784 to plan and direct a northward expansion program of the mission system. Serra oversaw the completion of the first mission, Mission San Diego de Alcalá, at the southern end of the chain two years later, followed by the Mission San Carlos Borromeo Del Rio Carmelo in Monterey, Spain’s northern outpost, in 1770. Before his death, Serra established seven additional missions in between these anchors while his successor, Fermin de Francisco de Lasuén de Arasqueta 1736–1803, established another nine missions between 1786 and 1798. Within thirty-five years, nineteen missions were established the last two were added decades later, strung along the overland route El Camino Real, each one-day’s ride equivalent to about thirty miles from the last and close to the sea the farthest inland, Mission Nuestra Señora de la Soledad, was thirty miles from shore.

These were frontier settlements, and as such, they had to be self-sustaining: each mission was sited near a reliable water source and outlying agricultural fields supported the colony. The missions’ built forms and spatial organization followed a rigid pattern that was repeated with little variance, and yet the chapels—the heart of each mission—were aesthetically differentiated. The missions were often arranged in a quadrangle and enwalled by the rectangular cells that fronted an interior courtyard. The church’s construction, comprising local masonry or adobe bricks, took priority while mendicants dwelled in temporary, crude wooden shelters with thatched roofs. Eventually, such huts were replaced by low-slung stone or adobe buildings that contained workshops, kitchens, dormitories, storage rooms, stables, barns, and other facilities. Agriculture and ranching were the lifeblood of each isolated colony, and a mission’s workers culled from the native populations would grow and mill barley, maize, wheat; plant and harvest orchards and vineyards; and raise and slaughter cattle and sheep. The Criolla varietal or Mission grape was first planted at Mission San Juan Capistrano in 1779, the first Californian olive at Mission San Diego de Alcalá 1777, and the Mission San Gabriel Arcángel preceded California’s signature citrus industry with the first orange orchard, planted in 1804.

The missions were also tools of colonization. Between 1769 and 1834, Franciscan priests baptized 53,600 adult native Californians who were then forced to work for the missions’ agricultural economies. While the Church exploited the labor of these neophytes, it also unwittingly killed them by introducing diseases for which the natives had no natural immunity, such as tuberculosis, diphtheria, and smallpox: in the same mission period, 37,000 natives were buried in mission cemeteries, 45 percent of their deaths attributed to two plagues of measles in 1806 and 1828.

The mission system began to slowly unravel in 1821, when Mexico achieved its independence and annexed Alta California. For a decade, the Church held onto its immense land holdings in 1832, the mission system owned one-sixth of the territory’s land and its control of converts despite a secularization program undertaken by the new Californian government. In 1833, the government passed an act that disbanded the missions, relegating them to parish churches, and divided their properties into land grants. Between 1834 and 1838, these vast land grants were sold to individuals who established ranches. Through this privatization, 15,000 converts still dwelling on former mission lands were dispossessed. Whatever holdings the missionaries may have held onto were lost again in 1850, when California became the union’s 31st state, and state legislation revoked any convert’s claims or titles. In 1853, Archbishop J.S. Alemany petitioned the state to return ownership of 1,051 acres to the Church, which was granted along with other ranch lands in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties. Today, most of the missions are owned and maintained by the Catholic Church, while three are still dedicated to the Franciscan Order. Three missions are owned by the California Department of Parks and Recreation and are open to the public as State Historic Parks.

In the late nineteenth century, a wave of romanticism for colonial Spanish heritage—specifically for mission architecture as a reflection of such—suffused Californian culture, spurred by Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel Ramona 1884. Early preservation efforts were led by the likes of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst and other elites who comprised the Landmarks Club of Southern California, which led the restoration of San Diego de Alcalá, San Fernando, and San Juan Capistrano in the 1920s and 1930s. By 1955, the last mission church had been reconstructed. Although the missions widely vary in architectural integrity, seven missions have been designated National Historic Landmarks and fifteen are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. While many missions are no longer wholly intact and a few are complete replicas, typically the churches have been restored as well as some convents and ancillary structures.

Lake, Alison. Colonial Rosary: The Spanish and Indian Missions of California. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2014.
Lowman, Robert P. The Spanish Missions of California. Arroyo Grande, CA: Lowman Publishing Company, 2011.

Writing Credits

Heather N. McMahon



Heather N. McMahon, "California Missions", SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—,

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