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Spanish Missions in California

By Levi Clancy for לוי on

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Spanish colonization of Alta California (now the American state of California) began in 1769.

Las Californias' governor Portolá arrived in San Diego with Father Junipero Serra, along with guards on men. On July 16th 1769 the Misión San Diego de Alcalá was founded. Spanish colonization had religious, civilian and military branches: religious misiónes (missions) and asistencias (sub-mission) that provided comestibles and goods produced by an Indian labor force;

civilian pueblos (towns) whose settlers multiplied and generated additional agricultural surplus; and military presidios (forts) that were supported by the pueblos' output, and secured territory from foreign colonization and indigenous rebellion.

The Spanish missions in Alta California thrived from 1769 to 1821, when Mexico took the territory.

Then presidios faded into history, and the missions followed suit when in 1834 they were secularized. The padres were only allowed to perform religious services and the mission lands dissolved into privately owned ranches.

Unable to support themselves, the missions became vacant ruins. However, the pueblos at Los Angeles and San Jose and today are vibrant cities.

A routine was used to establish Alta California's 21 missions. The Spanish Crown mandated that sites have Indians, water, timber, pasturage and tillable soil.

Once the site was chosen, the founding ceremony began. Soldiers, servants and muleteers made a clearing. An arbor was built of boughs, and within it was set an altar. Bells were hung on a cross-beam or the bough of a nearby tree. A large cross was made of a tree trunk and set up in front of the arbor.

The Father then followed the church's rites: he blessed the water, sprinkled the ground and cross, sang High Mass and preached a sermon. In the absence of musical instruments (as with Misión San Diego), the soldiers fired musket salvos.

With the founding complete, the Fathers first built a chapel and a storeroom.

Walls were mud-plastered palisades of young sycamores, willows and oaks in the south, and oak, pine and cypress in the north. Forked poles were included in the exterior walls, and held tie beams that connected and stabilized two opposing walls. Down the longer median of the structure were taller forked poles that supported a ridgepole. Rafters were placed on the ridgepole to form a pitched roof, then small branches were placed along the length of the roof to provide cover.

Poles were tied together with fresh rawhide that tightened as it dried. Once the Indians had been taught adobe manufacture, structures were built the same except without the use of palisades. Poles were encased in adobe walls, forming a structure strong enough to carry a tiled roof.

The overall mission layout was a quadrangle.

There was a central square courtyard surrounded entirely, with only one or two entries to the outside.

As a mission expanded, other courtyards could be added to the initial quadrangle.

Father Serra Missions and Asistencias

Misión San Diego de Alcalá (founded 1769 07 16)

Governor Portolá had received directions from the Spanish Crown "to occupy and fortify San Diego Bay and Monterey Bay for God and the King of Spain." The mission was named after the port, which itself had been named November 10 1602 by Sebastián Rodriguez Vizcaíno. The peril of founding this new mission led to its having the least decoration.

In December 1774 the mission was relocated to modern Mission Valley, where there was more water and suitable land. Starvation, fire, floods, earthquakes and hostile Indians menaced the mission but it nonetheless flourished. In 1818, fathers from Misión San Diego founded Santa Ysabel Asistencia.

Misión San Carlos Borromeo (founded 1770)

Founded in 1770 as Misión San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo de Monterey, it was relocated in 1771 to Carmel Valley for access to better land and timber, and thus became Misión San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo. The founding of the mission and presidio in Monterey was significant as it was the northernmost point mandated by the King for colonization.

The mission was the residence and headquarters of Padre Serra, the President of the missions.

Misión San Antonio de Padua (founded 1771)

Misión San Gabriel Arcángel (founded 1771)

In 1784, priests from Misión San Gabriel founded Nuestra Señora Reina de los Angeles Asistencia to serve El Pueblo de Los Angeles. In 1819, San Bernardino de Sena Estancia was established to support the mission.

El Molino Viejo was built as a mission mill, then in 1850 became the home of James S White, editor of Los Angeles' first English newspaper The Star.

Misión San Luis Obispo de Tolosa (founded 1772)

Misión San Francisco de Asís (founded 1776)

Also known as Mission Dolores.

Misión San Juan Capistrano (founded 1776)

Between 1817-1823, Santa Ana Estancia was built to house laborers; it is now known as Diego Sepúlveda Adobe, after the man to whom the land was deeded following its secularization.

Misión Santa Clara de Asís (founded 1777)

Misión San Buenaventura (founded 1782)

Father Lasuen Missions and Asistencias

Padre Fermin Francisco de Lasuen was successor to Padre Junipero Serra.

San Pedro y San Pablo Asistencia (founded 1786)

An asisténcia to Misión San Francisco de Asís.

Misión Santa Barbara (founded 1786)

Founded by Franciscan Friar Fermín de Lasuén on the Feast of St. Barbara, December 4, 1786 -- the 10th California mission.

Santa Margarita de Cortona Asistencia (founded 1787)

An asisténcia to Misión San Luis Obispo de Tolosa.

Misión La Purísima Concepción (founded 1787)

Misión Santa Cruz (founded 1791)
Misión Nuestra Señora de La Soledad (founded 1791)
Misión San José (founded 1797)

Misión San Juan Bautista (founded 1797)

Misión San Miguel Arcángel (founded 1797)

Misión San Fernando Rey de España (founded 1797)
Misión San Luis Rey de Francia (founded 1798)

In 1823, Estancia de la Misión de San Luis, Rey de Francia (aka Las Flores Estancia)was constructed with a hostel and chapel; sheep had been grazed here for over ten years prior. The Estancia is now a feeble ruin.

Father Tápis Missions and Asistencias

Misión Santa Inés (founded 1804)

San Antonio de Pala Asistencia (founded 1816)

Established as an asistencia to Misión San Luis Rey de Francia.

Misión San Rafael Arcángel (founded 1817)
Misión San Francisco Solano (founded 1823)

Daily Life in California Missions

At sunrise a bell was rung. The Indians gathered for oraciones (morning prayers) for an hour.

Then came desayuno (breakfast) which was served from large kettles in the courtyard. Daily tasks were assigned after breakfast. The men were usually formed into cuadrillas with an overseer, who reported to the majordomo (chief overseer).

Duties included hunting, sowing, reaping, herding and trades (masonry, carpentry, blacksmithing, tanning, soap-making, shoe-making and weaving).

Padres travelled from mission to mission by horse or burro, and welcomed upon arrival with esquilas (happy bells).

Meaning hand bell, an esquila was suspended in the tower and turned, not rung, by hand. This required great skill and was a proud task.


The missions and asistencias were the religious branch of Spain's colonization, and were agricultural and manufacturing powerhouses. With those in place, the military branch could be established. (Pueblos were the third, civilian branch of Spanish hegemony.)

After the religious ceremonies founding Misión San Carlos de Borromeo, Las Californias' Governor Don Gaspar de Portolá, with his officiers and men, established the Real Presidio de Monterey (Royal Presidio of Monterey).

To found the presidio, royal standards were unfurled and the governor scattered handfuls of pebbles and grass to the four winds. He then performed ceremonies prescribed by law to shouts of ¡Hurrah! and ¡Viva!, and the clangor of bells and musket salvos.

Spanish king Don Carlos III thus formally secured control over Alta California.

The presidio guarded Spanish interests and provided a seat of government. It was not elaborate but could withstand Indian attacks.

Real Presidio de Monterey (founded 1770 06 03)

The presidio was built in a square plan, surrounded by a wall 12' high and 4' thick. Barracks were made of wood roofed with mud. There was a chapel, not a formal mission church, which served the Governor, officers and men of the presidio, and their families.


There were pueblos at San Jose and Los Angeles.