History of Early Mission System in California

Categories: CaliforniaHistory

Although the settlement of California did not begin until 1769, forces were at work only the year after the first voyage of Columbus, which ultimately brought Spanish missionaries to the Golden State of today. In 1493 Pope Alexander VI drew an arbitrary line on the map which was to divide the spheres of interest of Spain and Portugal, and declared that all explorers should be accompanied by “worthy, God-fearing, learned, skilled and experienced men to instruct the inhabitants in the Catholic faith.

” (Rohder, 1956). Controversy arose immediately. The religious element held that all men were brothers, and that newly discovered territory belonged first to the King and then to the original inhabitants. Colonists thought of the natives as sub-human beings with no rights of private ownership. The King of Spain used both of the opposing forces, first one, and then the other, to advance expansion of the Spanish Empire. California had long been discovered before the Missions were established.

California’s contact with Europeans began in the mid 1530s when Cortez’s men ventured to Baja California.

Not until 1542 did Spaniards sail north to Alta California and Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was the first to claim this new land for Spain in 1542, his expedition of that year made landings as far north as modern Santa Barbara. (Wikimedia, 2008) California was claimed and then forgotten. But in the 1700’s the Russians began nosing their way down the coast of California, and Spain saw the possibility of losing what was hers by right of discovery.

Thus to prevent any foreign power from getting a foothold, the Spanish king resolved to found Missions among the natives and to erect forts or “presidios” for their protection.

Top Writers
Doctor Jennifer
Verified expert
5 (893)
Professor P
Verified expert
4.9 (345)
Verified expert
4.9 (247)
hire verified writer

The Portola Expedition, whose purpose was to discover a land route to Monterey Bay, brought the first white men to visit the vicinity of San Antonio on September 24, 1769. (The California Mission history1998) In the following 54 years twenty-one Missions were established; the last, San Francisco Solano, in 1823.

Still, more than two hundred years passed before Spain made any concerted effort to colonize the coastal regions Cabrillo claimed for the crown. Coastal winds and currents made the voyage north difficult and Spanish captains failed to find safe harbors for their crafts. Baja California became the northwest limit of Spanish colonization, and even there, efforts to settle the area and bring native tribes to Christianity and European ways were halfhearted at best.

Not until the Seven Years War (1756-1763) realigned European alliances and their colonial empires did Spain seriously attempt to assert control of Alta California. This was to be done through a combination of military forts (presidios) and mission churches overseen by Franciscan fathers led by Junipero Serra. In 1769, the first parties set north from Baja California, and the line of Spanish settlement along the coast was inaugurated when soldiers and priests established a presidio and mission church at San Diego. (The California Mission history, 1998)

In spite of all difficulties, the energy and determination of missionaries, Father Serra and his close associates, Fathers Palou, Lasuen and Crespi, gave the mission system root and it slowly began to prosper. The fathers no longer exerted a control over their military protectors, and the latter were not yet in a position to subject the missionaries to anything beyond annoyance. Galvez, de Croix, and their immediate successors saw the possession of the California coast in the light of its importance to Spain, and they did their best to keep the padres contented.

(Johnson, 1964) Spain, however, was fast fading out of the global picture. After 1797, when its fleet came under the control of France, the fortunes of that once great country declined rapidly. The Napoleonic Wars led to the total destruction of its naval forces by Britain, and, in 1806, Napoleon invaded the Spanish peninsula, completely disrupting its government. By the end of the Spanish colonial period, Alta California had three more presidios (at Monterey, San Francisco, and Santa Barbara) and no fewer than twenty-one missions.

In addition to the missions, where the Franciscans ministered to local converts, and the military presidios, small towns or pueblos sprang up. The earliest of these were associated with the missions and presidios, but in 1777 an independent civil pueblo was created at San Jose, and others followed. The pueblos tried to attract settlers with land grants and other inducements and were governed by an alcalde (a combination of a judge and a mayor) assisted by a council called the ayuntamiento. (Wikimedia, 2008) Mission Period (1769 – 1833)

The history of occupied California dates back to the summer of 1769, but the history of the missions can be traced to 1493, just after the discovery of America. Between the two dates, there is an interval of almost 300 years during which the mission system grew to be a philosophy of human rights, put forward and defended by the religious orders, and bitterly opposed by the secular elements among the colonists. (Johnson, 1964) The Spanish mission system arose in part from the need to control Spain’s ever-expanding holdings in the New World.

When the Spanish moved up the California coast, they established control of the area through the building of missions. The philosophy that all men are brothers, and that the newly discovered lands belonged first to the King and then to the original inhabitants, clashed with the theory that the natives were sub-human beings with no right of private ownership. Consequently, there was little in common, save courage and a willingness to face the dangers of an unknown world.

Yet the King in Spain found profitable use for both of these conflicting forces and utilized first one, then the other, for the general advancement of the Spanish Empire. When the Franciscan Padre Junipero Serra established the first California mission on July 16, 1769, the religious program appeared to triumph. Events in Europe and Mexico already underway were destined, however, to rob the church of its victory. (Oakland Museum of California, 2003) The mission system, just beginning to take root in Alta California, was even then facing extinction.

In another 70 years it would pass out of existence. For the California missions, that July day in 1769 marked both a beginning and an end. (Levick, M. and Young, S, 1988)After 1769, the life of the California natives who came in contact with the Spanish was reshaped by the mission fathers, as Spain lacked a sufficient number of colonists to populate California, Missions were intended as a combination of religious, economic, and political control, the primary purpose of the mission system was to make loyal subjects of Native Americans.

The Franciscans came to California not merely to convert the tribes to Christianity but to train them for life in a European colonial society. Conversion was seldom an entirely voluntary process, and converts (neophytes) were not left to return to their old ways but were required to live in the walled mission enclosure or on rancherias, separate settlements sponsored by missions although located some distance from the mission proper. The different missions and the year of their establishment, beginning from south to north, were:

San Jose de Cabo (1730); Santiago de las Coras (1721); San Juan de Ligni (1705); Nuestra Senora de los Dolores Del Sur (1721); Santa Rosa or Todos Santos (1733); San Luis Gonzaga (1737); San Francisco Xavier (1699); Nuestra Senora de Loreto (1697); San Jose de Comund (1708); Purisima Concepcion de Cadegomo (1718); Santa Rosalia de Mulege (1705); Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe (1720); San Ignacio (1728); Santa Gertrudis (1728); San Francisco de Borja (1729); and Santa Maria de los Angeles (1766). (Zephyrin, 1908)

Only fourteen of these missions existed in 1767; epidemics had carried off the neophytes of the other establishments so that they had to be abandoned. Through these missions, they were taught Spanish as well as the tenets of their new religion and trained in skills that would fit them for their new lives: brick making and construction, raising cattle and horses, blacksmithing, weaving, tanning hides, etc. Initially, the natives of California were awestruck by the appearance of the Spanish. After their shock faded, many were eager to trade with the foreigners.

As the missions were established, some Native Americans were drawn out of curiosity, accepting baptism without understanding the cultural and social ramifications. Some came to the missions because of dissatisfaction with life in their home community. Many others were forcibly rounded up. Whatever the reasons, once the Native Americans arrived at the mission, they entered an entirely new life. The steps taken by the Spanish to force the Native Americans to comply with their plans of conversion could be brutal.

As the Fathers felt responsible for the souls of the Native Americans, those who tried to leave the mission after being baptized found that they were not free to do so. Likewise, those who refused to work were beaten or imprisoned. A French traveler, Jean Francois de La Perouse, who visited California in 1786, likened conditions at a mission to a slave plantation. (Oakland Museum of California, 2003) Besides physical punishment, the process of concentration helped to maintain control over the Native population.

The mixing of the various tribes of California in the same location meant a loss of communal rituals, dances, and languages. The communication that would have been vital to effective resistance by the Native Americans was made nearly impossible. The Spanish view of Native Americans helped to justify their harsh treatment. Many of the Franciscans who traveled through the state saw California Indians as most unhappy people in the entire world, in fine, they are so savage, wild and dirty, disheveled, ugly, small and timid that only because they have the human form is it possible to believe that they belong to mankind.

The process of missionization would have devastating effects on the Native American population of California. On July 14, 1769 Galvez sent the expedition of Junipero Serra and Gaspar de Portola to found a mission at San Diego and presidio at Monterey, respectively. En route, Fathers Francisco Gomez and Juan Crespi came across a native settlement wherein two young girls were dying: one, a baby said to be “dying at its mother’s breast,” the other a small girl suffering of burns.

On July 22, Father Gomez baptized the baby, giving her the name “Maria Magdalena,” while Father Crespi baptized the older child, naming her “Margarita;” these were the first recorded baptisms in Alta California. (Zephyrin, 1908) By then, sixty-five years of exposure to Europeans had reduced the number of California’s native peoples by half to about 150,000. After 65 years of the missions; over 60,000 Indian deaths were recorded. The California Indian population, which had numbered some 300,000 prior to 1769, had fallen to 150,000 by 1845, with the tribes living along the coast the hardest hit.

(Oakland Museum of California, 2003) Although outright warfare cost few lives, Spaniards had introduced not only Christianity but also new diseases to which the neophytes had no resistance. This decline was primarily the result of disease and thousands died in epidemics. The expedition’s soldiers dubbed the spot Los Cristianos. The group continued northward but missed Monterey Harbor and returned to San Diego on January 24, 1770. Near the end of 1771 the Portola Expedition arrived at San Francisco Bay.

Arguably “the worst epidemic of the Spanish Era in California” was known to be the measles epidemic of 1806, wherein one-quarter of the mission Indian population of the San Francisco Bay area died of the measles or related complications between March and May of that year. ( Bean and Rawls, 1997)Crowded, harsh living conditions at the missions contributed to the Indians’ health problems, and infant mortality and death rates among young children soared. It was the tribes of the coast, the “Mission Indians,” who were most drastically affected.

Tribes like the Modocs in the northern mountains had little or no contact with the Spanish and suffered little. However, the end of the mission period did not signify a renewal for the Native Americans. The process of depopulation begun with the Spanish would accelerate under Mexican rule and reach a climax with the coming of the Americans. Each mission was to be turned over to a secular clergy and all the common mission lands distributed amongst the native population within ten years after its founding, a policy that was based upon Spain’s experience with the more advanced tribes in Mexico, Central America, and Peru.

In time, it became apparent to Father Serra and his associates that the Indian tribes on the northern frontier in Alta California would require a much longer period of acclimatization. Throughout the mission period, the missionaries aimed at making their establishment self-supporting, with a view to independence of government assistance, and to wean the natives from insolence, so that they might adopt civilized ways and learn to maintain themselves by the fruit of their labor.

The friars succeeded so well that from the year 1811, when all government aid ceased, as well for the missions as for the soldiers, on account of the revolutionary situation in Mexico, the California establishments maintained not only themselves, but also the whole military and civil government on the coast down to the end of 1834, when the Franciscans were deprived of control. From the beginning of a mission the Fathers insisted that all should work according to their capacity, either on the farm or at the workshops, during six or seven hours a day. The product was stored in the granaries or warerooms for the benefit of the community.

It was their endeavor to raise or manufacture everything consumed or used by the Indians. For this reason much of the meager allowance of the friars was invested in agricultural implements or mechanical tools, and it was for that reason, too, that the missions were located where there was sufficient arable land and enough water to irrigate the soil. In this way, notwithstanding the primitiveness of the implements of those days, and the frequent droughts, thousands of acres of land were brought under cultivation by the natives directed by the missionaries, who themselves, for the sake of example, never disdained to labor like the Indians.

The official records show that in the twenty-one missions of Upper California from the year 1770 to the end of 1831, when the general reports cease, there were harvested in round numbers 2,200,000 bushels of wheat, 600,000 bushels of barley, 850,000 bushels of corn, 160,000 bushels of beans, and 100,000 bushels of peas and lentils, not to mention garden vegetables, grapes, olives, and various fruits, for which no reports were required. (Zephyrin, 1908) It must be remembered that before the arrival of the Franciscans, the natives raised absolutely nothing, but subsisted on whatever the earth provided spontaneously, e.g. , acorns, seeds, berries in their season, fish near the coast, or, when there was nothing else, anything that crept above the surface of the land. All the grains now raised, and all the fruits, such as apples, oranges, peaches, pears, plums, prunes, lemons, grapes, pomegranates, olives, nuts, etc. , were introduced by the missionaries. To irrigate the land, long ditches had often to be constructed, some of which were of solid masonry. The one which brought the water down to Mission San Diego was of stone and cement and ran along the river side over a distance of six miles, beginning at a dam made of brick and stone.

Nevertheless, it is still of opinion of many that none of these California missions ever attained complete self-sufficiency, and required continued (albeit modest) financial support from mother Spain, out of what was often referred to as El Fondo Piadoso de las Californias (“The Pious Fund of the Californias”, which had its origin in 1697 and consisted of voluntary donations made by individuals and religious bodies in Mexico to members of the Society of Jesus) to enable them to propagate the Catholic Faith in the area then known as California.

(Rohder, 1956) Decline of the Mission: Out of touch with the mother country, nationalist feeling in Mexico began to express itself in murmurs of revolt. In 1810, the unrest flared into an open revolution, which wrenched the country with social turmoil that continued with varying intensity throughout the nineteenth century. (Bancroft, 1886) Meanwhile, the missions in California had demonstrated that the new land would support a rich and abundant agriculture. Great herds of sheep and cattle appeared and colonists came trooping in to find their fortune.

They saw that the greatest riches were controlled by the missions and their Indian neophytes, yet treated lightly Franciscan claims that the lands belonged to the natives. Soon the newcomers were talking about freedom for the Indians, and made issue of the fact that the fathers kept their neophytes under lock and key. Perhaps there were individual cases of Franciscan injustice to the Indians, but it was ironic to hear protest from those who had so violently defended the slave systems in the plantations and mining communities of Mexico.

Quite possibly, it occurred to the padres that the labor requirements of the cattle ranches were meager, and that this had much to do with their seeming change of heart. Starting with the onset of the Mexican War of Independence in 1810, the primary means of Spanish control, the missions, were dismantled in a process known as secularization. this support largely disappeared and the missions and their converts were left on their own. In 1811, the Spanish Viceroy in Mexico sent an interrogatorio (questionnaire) to all of the missions in Alta California regarding the customs, disposition, and condition of the Mission Indians.

(Bancroft, 1886) The replies, which varied greatly in the length, spirit, and even the value of the information contained therein, were collected and prefaced by the Father-Presidente with a short general statement or abstract; the compilation was thereupon forwarded to the viceregal government. The contemporary nature of the responses, no matter how incomplete or biased some may be, are nonetheless of considerable value to modern ethnologists. In November and December of 1818, several of the missions were attacked by Hipolito Bouchard, “California’s only pirate.

” A French privateer sailing under the flag of Argentina, Pirata Buchar (as he was known to the locals) worked his way down the California coast, conducting raids on the installations at Monterey, Santa Barbara, and San Juan Capistrano, with limited success. Upon hearing of the attacks, many mission priests (along with a few government officials) sought refuge at Mission Nuestra Senora de la Soledad, the mission chain’s most isolated outpost. Ironically, Mission Santa Cruz (though ultimately ignored by the marauders) was ignominiously sacked and vandalized by local residents who were entrusted with securing the church’s valuables.

By 1819, Spain decided to limit its reach in the New World to Northern California due to the costs involved in sustaining these remote outposts; the northernmost settlement therefore is Mission San Francisco Solano. It was the Mexican Independence of Spain in 1821 that started the decline of the prosperity of the Missions and spelled the end of their days of peace and progress. It was never intended that the Indians should remain at the Missions indefinitely. After they had become self-reliant members of society, the lands which were rightly theirs were to be turned over to them.

This was known as secularization. (Wikimedia, 2008) Spanish laws always recognized the Indians’ right to their land; secularization meant nothing more than the turning over the spiritual affairs of the Mission from the Padres to their respective Bishop because it would then be considered out of the Mission stage, and the land would be distributed to the Indians. Their work accomplished, the Franciscans could then move on to new spiritual conquests. Later, the Mexican War for Independence in 1821 lead to an end of Spanish authority in California.

By 1840, this process was complete, with the vast tracks of mission land being divided up among Mexican landowners. (Bancroft, 1886) A handful of powerful families were given control of most of the land. Relying on the hide and tallow trade, the Californios were content to import the manufactured goods they needed from abroad. Given California’s distance from the rest of Mexico, a new identity developed among the inhabitants, giving rise to the name Californios rather than Espanoles or Mexicanos.

California was an outpost of empire no longer, however, and the broad social upheaval in Mexico was destined to topple the mission system. Alta California had ceased to be a colony of Spain it was almost never a part of Mexico, and before it could realize its own national aspirations, it had been gathered into the complex structure of the United States, to form the western border of a that great new nation. American settlers, who began to arrive by the 1830s, had a variety of opinions about life in Mexican California.

These opinions were divided among two groups: the maritime traders and the overland settlers. The maritime traders populated the coastal towns of Los Angeles, Monterey, and San Diego and catered to the trading needs of the locals. Due to their economic interaction, they often had an understanding of Spanish, married Californio wives, and were generally accepted by the locals. Larkin’s phrase, “Halcyon Days” exemplified their view of Mexican California as an idealized pastoral existence. (Bancroft. 1886) The Overland settlers were the American fur trappers and farmers who settled in the Sacramento Valley. They often held the Californians in contempt, seeing their lifestyle as an affront to the Puritan work ethic.


  1. Bancroft, H. Hubert, 1886. History of California, 1801-1894 (Volume II). The History Company, San Francisco, California.
  2. Bean, W and Rawls, J, 1997. California: An Interpretive History. McGraw-Hill, New York.
  3. Johnson, P, 1964. The California Missions. Lane Book Company, Menlo Park, California.
  4. Levick, M. and Young, S, 1988. The Missions of California. Chronicle Books LLC, San Francisco, California.
  5. Zephyrin Englehardt, 1908.? The Missions and Missionaries of California, (Volume I). Transcribed by Mary Thomas . The James H. Barry Co. , San Francisco, California.
  6. Hittell, H. Theodore, 1898. History of California, (Volume one). N. J. Stone & Company, San Francisco, California
  7. Rohder, Regis. 1956. Mission San Antonio: the peace and beauty of early California days. UC Regents of the University of California, U. S. From the site: http://content. cdlib. org/xtf/view?docId=hb5489p2xm&doc. view=frames&chunk. id=div00004&toc. depth=1&toc. id=&brand=calisphere
  8. Oakland Museum of California, 2003. California’s Perspectives on American History: Early California: pre 1769 – 1880’s. Taken from: http://www. museumca. org/picturethis/1_2. html
  9. The California Mission history,1998. Mission San Diego de Alcala. Taken From http://www. californiamissions. com/cahistory/sandiego. html
  10. Wikimedia foundation Inc 2008, History of California: Spannish Missions in California From the site: http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/California_missions

Cite this page

History of Early Mission System in California. (2016, Aug 20). Retrieved from http://studymoose.com/history-of-early-mission-system-in-california-essay

Are You on a Short Deadline? Let a Professional Expert Help You
Let’s chat?  We're online 24/7