Historical Background

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. 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 Junípero 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. 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.

Statue of Father Serra with Indian Boy sculpted by Sally James Farnham in 1925

In 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued a papal decision that sought to reconcile conflicting territorial claims made by the two leading world powers of the time, Spain and Portugal. Alexander’s declaration divided the newfound roundness of the world into two hemispheres, with Europe as the crux. The right of exploration in the East was given to Portugal, and in the West to Spain, as the other countries of Catholic Europe had yet to develop colonial interests. In his decision, the Pope solemnly enjoined the monarchs that each exploratory venture was to be accompanied by “worthy, God-fearing, learned, skilled and experienced men, to instruct the inhabitants in the Catholic faith.” For Spain, this charge was accepted in good faith by Ferdinand and Isabella, particularly the latter. In her will the Queen asked Ferdinand to respect the persons and liberties of the Indians, and that the Pope’s injunction “be not infringed upon in any way.”

However, it was not a humanitarian concern for the welfare of the Indians that attracted the first rough adventurers to the New World. The dead voice of the Queen found no echo on this side of the Atlantic until 1512 when a Dominican monk, Antonio de Montesino, returned to Spain and sought the ear of Ferdinand. Aided by the bishop, Pedro de Córdova, he convinced their King that all was not as it should be in the new western colonies. He reported that in the islands of Hispañiola (now Dominican Republic and Haiti) and Cuba, under the system of slavery conducted by the colonists, the Natives had been all but exterminated. In six years the Indian population of Hispañiola decreased by nearly one-half. Impressed by the passion of his informants, Ferdinand issued several ordinances covering reform and later allowed the bishop to establish a settlement, from which Spanish laymen were excluded, on the remote Venezuelan coast. The bishop’s venture prospered until a crew of Spanish pearl-seekers raided a nearby village and kidnapped one of the tribal chieftains. The Indians suspected the missionaries of being a party to the violence and they attacked and destroyed the mission. Enemies of the friars seized this opportunity to place the reform effort in an unfavorable light and prevented any further efforts on behalf of the Indians until 1543.

At that time Bartólome de Las Casas, who had been working for Indian emancipation with Córdova and Montesino, succeeded in obtaining the support of Charles V. The King issued a code of mandatory requirements for the colonies, which were subsequently referred to as the “New Laws.” This revolutionary proclamation contained five provisions that would eventually become the foundation of California’s mission system. These were:

  1. The Indians should be permitted to dwell in the communities of their own;
  2. They should be permitted to choose their own leaders and councilors;
  3. No Indian might be held as a slave;
  4. No Indian might live outside his own village nor might any lay Spaniard dwell within an Indian village for longer than three days, and then only if he were a merchant or ill;
  5. The Indians were to be instructed in the Catholic faith.

Under the protection of the New Laws, a humble beginning was made in Guatemala. When the colony began to prosper in that remote area, other missionary groups, faced with the hostility of the plantation owners, turned to the example of Guatemala. The Jesuits founded missions in the northern wilderness of Mexico and in the more bountiful areas of Paraguay in which the authority of the padres was supreme, even over their military protectors. While the Spanish plantation owners were strenuously opposed to these communities, and the King and his viceroy looked upon them without conspicuous favor, they were self-supporting and provided an inexpensive means of securing the frontiers against the territorial ambitions of England and Russia.

The Spanish conquest of the Philippines had made the court of Philip II the most luxurious in Europe. Spanish galleons were plying the Pacific, bringing the rich treasures of the Philippines to Mexico by way of the Hawaiian Islands and the California coast. The great need for these ships was for a safe harbor on the coast where they could find fresh water and refuge from English sea raiders. Several sea expeditions were sent from Mexico to explore the California coast in an effort to locate such a harbor. On December 16, 1602, Vizcaíño discovered the bay of Monterey which he described as “… the best part that could be desired, for besides being sheltered from all the winds, there is much wood and water, suitable for the masts and yards… this port is surrounded by the settlements of friendly Indians willing to give what they have, and would be pleased to see us settle in this country… There are springs of good water; beautiful lakes covered with ducks and many other birds; most fertile pastures; good meadows for cattle, and fertile fields for growing crops…”

Failing to overcome California by sea, Philip issued orders for the “reduction” of the California wilderness by a military expedition. In this, he was unsuccessful. The barren wastelands of the Pacific shores resisted the efforts of his commanders to find a means of settlement. A century was to pass, and several costly failures were to be experienced before the soil of Lower California (also defined as Baja California, that great peninsula below present-day San Diego now part of Mexico) was conquered. By then the gestures of the Spanish throne contained a hint of frugal caution, and when conquest came, it was achieved by a group of hardy Jesuits at their own expense and on their own terms.

The Jesuits secured the right of complete control over the military commanders who accompanied them. The soldiers and their officers, devoid of spiritual ambition or worldly statesmanship, resented their domination by ecclesiastics. As a rule, they came from the ranks of the colonials who despised the Indians. They were shocked by the barrenness of the country, and disappointed by the absence of raw wealth. The extreme poverty of the Indians denied them even the simple spoils of conquest. Lower California only furnished the colonials with further grievances against the mission system.

The missions themselves proved the virtue of the system. Under the tenacious leadership of the Jesuits, a modest suggestion of prosperity emerged from the land’s meager resources. After these early zealots passed away, the unknown fields beyond the mission gates were destined to lie fallow, awaiting another inspired band of men, the Franciscans, under Father Serra. The Spanish Crown had tried to find a group of islands that would offer a strategic defense for the Philippines, but these islands could never be discovered. Eventually, the Spanish government became more anxious than ever for the security of the California coast. Knowledge of England’s victory in Canada in 1763, was woven with rumors of Russia’s approach from Alaska. Again, the Crown looked to the missions.

Charles III, who had become King in 1759, sought to re-establish Spain’s pre-eminence among the nations of the world. This ambition was to affect the fortunes of Alta California in two ways. The mission system was to be founded there, not by Jesuits but by the Franciscans, and the missionary fathers were no longer to have control of the military. The King, along with other monarchs in Europe, seemed determined to curb the power of the religious orders. The Jesuits were the first to fall victim to this resolve for the order had become strong enough to be envied for its wealth and position. It was in June 1767, therefore, that the tide of expulsion reached Lower California. Don Gaspar de Portolá arrived in Loreto to remove the Jesuits from the missions. With him, as replacements, were Franciscan fathers whose names are forever linked with the history of the Golden State; Junípero Serra, Francisco Palóu, Juan Crespí, and Fermín Lasuén. The Jesuits were sent away and with them went the system of absolute missionary control. Portolá placed a soldier in charge of the administration of each mission and limited the Franciscans to religious duties. In a short time, life in the missions had slipped into chaos with the soldiers making fresh contributions to the ruins by their relentless search for the buried treasures which they believed the Jesuits had been forced to leave behind.

Portrait of Father Junípero Serra

Had Lower California been left to its own devices, the missions could not have existed for long. It developed that Charles III had sent to Mexico two men who were intent on securing the Californias. They were José de Galvez, the visitador general, and Marques de Croix, the new viceroy. When Galvez arrived in Loreto in 1768, he became aware of the condition of the missions and restored the Franciscans to command over their soldiers. Then, with Father Serra and Governor Portolá, plans were made for extending the Spanish domain into Upper California by use of the mission system. The soldier and the priest decided that their joint expedition should be divided, and sent to San Diego in two sections, one by land and one by sea. Three ships, the San Carlos, the San Antonio, and the San José, carrying troops and four missionaries, sailed from La Paz on January 9, February 15, and June 16, 1769, in the order named. Driven off her course by storms, the San Carlos arrived at San Diego 20 days after the San Antonio, although she had sailed five weeks earlier. All of her crew, but one sailor and the cook, had succumbed to scurvy, and many of the soldiers had died. The San Antonio lost eight of her crew from the same disease, and the San José was lost at sea.

The land expedition was divided into two divisions under Captain Fernando Rivera y Moncada and Portolá. Captain Rivera led the advance detachment and Portolá followed with Father Serra. After many hardships, Portolá reached San Diego on July 1, 1769. There he found Rivera, and his force and the San Carlos and San Antonio with the surviving members of the sea expedition. And there, Father Serra found the new field of endeavor, of which he long had dreamed. The story of the founding of the northern missions is told later, but we should look ahead here, and consider some of the factors that were destined to affect the fortunes of the mission fathers. The land that one day was to bear the wealth and prosperity we see about us gave no immediate hint of its eventual generosity. The hardships undergone by the early settlers exceeded their worst fears and, understandably, the stories that went back to Lower California and Mexico produced no flood of eager colonists. It took no imagination to visualize the disasters awaiting those who braved the northern stretches of chaparral and sand or the equally perilous Pacific Ocean. Soldiers deserted, and even some of the fathers, upon their arrival, made their first job the composition of a long letter to Mexico City asking for permission to return.

Despite all the difficulties, the energy and determination of Father Serra and his close associates, Fathers Palóu, Lasuén, and Crespí, gave the mission system root and it slowly began to prosper. The fathers no longer exerted 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.

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 destruction of its naval forces by Britain, and, in 1806, Napoleon invaded the Spanish peninsula, completely disrupting its government. Out of touch with the mother country, nationalist feelings in Mexico began to express themselves 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. 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 protests 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.

In 1833, the Mexican Congress passed a bill ordering the immediate secularization of all the missions in California. The act intended to immediately transfer to the Indian neophytes all of the wealth and property that had been accumulated under the mission system. It was Governor José Figueroa’s duty to put the act into operation, but he realized that the mission Indians were not capable of assuming private ownership without a period of supervision and education. Accordingly, he proposed to secularize only ten missions in the first year. Half of the lands and livestock would be apportioned to the leading Indian families, who would not be permitted to sell, trade, or give them away. The other half would remain under the temporary control of the mission fathers, who were to continue in their religious work. Providing the Indians made good use of their first property over the years, the balance of the mission holdings would then be distributed. Eventually, according to Figueroa’s plan, the mission chapel would become the parish church in the center of an Indian community. Had Figueroa lived the plan might have succeeded. However, with his death in 1835, control fell into the hands of greedy politicians who ignored the interest of the Indians, and proceeded to divide the spoils among their friends and relatives.

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 but it was almost never a part of Mexico, and before it could realize its national aspirations, it had been gathered into the complex structure of the United States, to form the western border of that great new nation.

It is now 150 years later, and both the missions and the ranchos of the proud Dons who followed them, find echo in the names, architecture, and way of life that is California’s heritage. Along the length of El Camino Real are the same living altars before which the missionary fathers stood. They first brought to these shores the litany now sung on later lips, and within the enduring walls of the mission churches, their spirit lives on. Whatever else they did, is done.