Brief History of San Diego de Alcalá

On July 1, 1769, a pitiful group of Missionaries and Spanish soldiers gathered on the shore of San Diego Bay. Amongst the 219 Spaniards who had left Lower California two months before only half were still alive. Most of the survivors were sick and exhausted. Even so, after two weeks’ rest, Governor Portolá gathered the healthiest men about him and set off northward to attempt to locate Vizcaino’s Bay of Monterey.

Two days later, on July 16, 1769, the Spaniards left in San Diego erected a crude brushwood under which Father Serra dedicated Mission San Diego de Alcalá, the first of the celebrated California missions. The Indians, however, were slow in accepting the blessings offered. They approached the strangers with extreme caution at first then later wandered about the new settlement, stealing whatever they found the chance to carry away.

Father Serra considered the loss of a few trinkets a small price to pay for the friendship of the Natives, but the Spanish soldiers were much more resentful. When it appeared that the Indian Natives were approaching to steal in force, they were fired upon and quickly scattered by the soldiers. Naturally, any conversions were thus considerably delayed.

Plaque remembering San Diego de Alcalá as the first mission founded

Eventually, the Franciscan Father Francisco Palóu moved the San Diego de Alcalá Mission six miles inland to separate the Mission and Presidio. In 1775, another Indian attack that the Spanish soldiers of Presidio Hill could have easily repulsed ended up destroying the buildings and killing a Priest and two Mission workers. As a result, the Franciscans moved San Diego de Alcalá back to Presidio Hill. But, that arrangement was no more satisfactory the second time than the first time, and the inland site became the final location of the San Diego de Alcalá Mission. The church of today was not completed until 1813.

During the next 54 years, the Spanish Padres established a Chain of 21 missions to convert the California Indians to Christianity. This chain stretched along the coast for 600 miles from San Diego to Sonoma, north of San Francisco Bay. At first, Mission San Diego and the Spanish Presidio, or fort, were located on Presidio Hill, a hill above Old Town San Diego. But, as just recounted, the Padres soon moved Mission San Diego to its present location five miles up the San Diego River.

Mexican secularization laws took away the vast mission property. It was not until 1862 that a mere 22 acres were returned to the Roman Catholic Church by the U. S. Congress. When the American Government returned the San Diego de Alcalá Mission, its original buildings were in ruins. In 1931, restoration work began, and the newly rebuilt mission church rigidly duplicated the Padres’ original one and the bell wall.

Today, only at Mission San Antonio de Pala, the former outpost Chapel of Mission San Luis Rey, are Mission Indians still ministered to at an original Spanish site.