Brief History of San Diego de Alcalá

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

Two days later, on July 16, 1769, a crude brushwood shelter had been erected and there Father Serra established Mission San Diego de Alcalá which was to be the first of the famous 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 resentful. When it appeared the Indians 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 mission was moved six miles inland to separate mission and presidio. A later Indian attack, which could easily have been repulsed by the soldiers, destroyed the buildings, and killed a priest and two workmen. Then the mission was moved back to the presidio. 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 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 the California Indians which stretched along the coast for 600 miles from San Diego to Sonoma, north of San Francisco Bay. Originally the San Diego Mission and the Spanish presidio, or fort, were located on the hill above Old Town San Diego, but the mission was soon moved 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 Church by the U. S. Congress. The original buildings were in ruins. In 1931 restoration began which exactly duplicated the Padres’ church and bell wall.

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