After a brief stop in San Luis Obispo for gas and Starbucks, we were on our way. About an hour later, we came upon Mission San Miguel Arcángel to the right of the highway. My husband began asking questions about the California Missions. I had come to California as a teenager so missed the study of California history and could not provide all the answers to his questions.
At that point he bought up Google on his cell phone to get the facts. As he read me the California Mission history, I realized that I had many misconceptions concerning the missions that included the subjugation of the native population and the order in which the missions were built.
I believed that Father Junípero Serra had founded all twenty-one missions mostly because his name was the only name other than Governor Gaspar de Portolà I ever heard in connection with the missions. I live near the Junipero Serra Freeway, see a large statue of Junípero Serra every time I drive past the Carmel Mission and read scholarship applications from students at Junipero Serra High School in San Mateo. The name Junípero Serra has surrounded me since I first visited the mission in San Juan Capistrano.
The Beginning of the Missions in Spanish California
King Carlos V of Spain created a set of "New Laws" that governed the treatment of native Americans in the Spanish colonies. Rather than subjugating the natives, these laws afforded the Indians protection and rights. The Indians had the right to live in communities of their own and select their own leaders. They were not permitted to live outside their community. However, Spaniards were not allowed to live in the Indian villages.
Spain being a Catholic nation and together with power of the Catholic Church, the "New Laws" required that natives be instructed in the Catholic faith. Thus, King Carlos allowed the Jesuits to establish missions in Spanish California. In order to protect the missions, Spanish soldiers were assigned to each mission and were under the command of the Jesuits.
The Jesuits built first Misión San Bruno about 12 miles north of Loreto, Baja California. (Baja California is a peninsula below the State of California and is part of México.) Between 1683 and 1767, the Jesuits built 18 missions and two visitas in Baja California. (Visitas are visiting stations or satellite missions. They have no resident priest.)
By 1767, the Spanish government decided that the Jesuits had gained too much power. The Jesuits were replaced by the Franciscans and control of the soldiers stationed at the missions was removed from clergy. Junípero Serra was made the head of the Catholic missions in both Alta and Baja California. He established in 1769 a 19th mission, Misión San Fernando Rey de España de Velicatá about 200 miles south of Ensenada, Mexico, and Visita de la Presentación located west of Loreto, the third visita. These were the only sites that the Franciscans established in Baja California before Father Serra and Governor Portola turned their attention to Alta California.
However, this left in Baja California an area encompassing the 200 miles south of Alta California with no missions. Between 1774 and 1834, the Dominican Order built nine missions and two visitas that filled that gap.
Missions in Alta California
I had heard that the distance between the missions in California was a day's journey on foot. Based on that piece of knowledge, I assumed that the missions were constructed starting with the mission in San Diego and culminating with the mission built north of San Francisco, Misión San Francisco Solano.
As I expected, Father Serra established Misión San Diego de Alcalá in 1769 as the first mission in Alta California. I then assumed that the second mission would be a day's journey north of San Diego. Misión San Luis Rey de Francia is located north of San Diego and east of Oceanside but was established June 13, 1798 as the 18th mission. Father Serra died August 28, 1784. Father Fermin Francisco de Lasuén succeeded him as head of the mission system and it was he who founded the 18th mission.
As it turns out the missions were not built in order from south to north. The plan was when the mission system was completed one could travel by horseback or boat from one mission to the next in one day and by foot in three days. The second mission was Misión San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo and was established June 3, 1770. This mission is located in Carmel, California and is the final resting place of Father Junípero Serra.
Of the 21 missions, Fathers Serra and Lasuén were responsible for the building of 16 missions. Father Lasuén died in 1803 and is buried at the mission in Carmel near Father Serra.
Apparently in some way, I learned that the Indians of California were nothing more than slaves within the mission system. As I read more about the mission system and its history, I found my perceptions to be wrong. The "New Laws" and how King Carlos viewed the native population of Spanish America was my first clue that I did not have an accurate picture. As I researched further, I found that both the Jesuits and the Franciscans had an even more benevolent view of the Indians.
The plan in establishing the mission system included turning over the common land within the mission to the native population ten years after a given mission was founded. The Spaniards introduced European crops and livestock to Spanish California. The Franciscans hoped that the Indians would learn how to grow crops and raise livestock instead of living as a hunter-gather society.
As the mission system entered the 19th century, the secular community of Spanish colonists gained more influence. It was the view of many of the colonists that the aborigne population in Spanish California was primitive and not much above the status of the woirk animals that they employed.
Eventually the mission system broke down and the native population lost many of its rights and lifestyle. One can argue whether the Jesuits and Franciscans should have interfered with the Indian society or not. It seems to me that they were much like many parents who tell their adult children how to live. It is done out of love and concern and not to be exploitive.
The Indians fared no better when the people of the United States descended on California after gold was discovered. In fact, the Indians fared much worse.
A Virtual Tour of the California Missions
The Lewis and Clark Journey of Discovery
The Spanish Mission of California
California Mission History
California Missions Resource Center
Library of Congress
Monterey County California
The Old Mission San Juan Bautista