History of San Francisco de Asís

Late in June, 1776, Father Francisco Palóu and Lt. José Moraga, accompanied by 16 Spanish soldiers, led a small party to the shores of San Francisco Bay. There were some wives and children of soldiers in the party, as well as the families of Spanish-American settlers, whom de Anza had induced to try their fortunes in a new colony. Bringing up the rear were about 200 weary cattle, herded along by domesticated Indians.

Old image of Mission San Francisco de Asis

Most of the supplies for the expedition had been sent by sea. The packet ship San Carlos had left Monterey at the same time but, as usual, the overland marchers arrived well in advance. Without waiting for the vessel’s arrival, Fr. Palóu and Lt. Moraga started their followers on the work of laying out the new settlement. The site selected for Mission San Francisco de Asís bordered a little laguna, or inlet, which de Anza had discovered when he explored the area earlier in the year. The explorer named the inlet laguna de Nuestra Señora de los Dolores, a contraction of which became so identified with Fr. Palóu’s mission that, even today, it is far better known as Mission Dolores than San Francisco de Asís.

On August 18th, the San Carlos arrived, and construction moved swiftly ahead. Permanent mission buildings were completed by September 1st, but in the absence of word from Captain Rivera, it was decided to postpone the dedication. Fr. Palóu and Lt. Moraga were aware that Rivera opposed the founding of another mission, but they also knew that his view was not shared by the viceroy in Mexico City. They had seen a letter to Fr. Serra in which the viceroy had expressed the hope that two more missions might be established, one in the name of San Francisco, and one dedicated to Santa Clara. They were confident that Rivera, once sufficiently impressed that these were his superior’s wishes, would hasten to approve their project.

After some weeks of fruitless waiting for word from the captain, they decided in October to proceed with the formal dedication of San Francisco de Asís. Within a year, Fr. Palóu sent another padre to establish the mission at Santa Clara while he remained at Dolores. After the death of Fr. Serra, he served briefly at Carmel as presidente of the California missions, before retiring to Mexico City to write the history from which much of this story is taken.

The mission on laguna de los Dolores soon became popular with the Indians of the area. The natives of the San Francisco district were the least gifted of all the coastal aborigines and the mission system offered them food and protection from their enemies. As converts, however, they left much to be desired. The complex social and religious concepts of the Spaniards seemed beyond their understanding or real concern. The “runaway neophyte” as a mission phenomenon, as well as the fathers’ method of handling the problem, is treated elsewhere, for it is the basis of many of the charges of cruelty leveled against the Franciscans.

A tomb in the local cemetery

At Dolores, the desertions of the “Christianized” Indians threatened the very existence of the mission. The padres never knew whether their Indian workmen would perform their assignments or flee, and neither, apparently, did the Indians. Torn between the attractions of the nearby presidio, and the self-indulgent life of his unenlightened brothers across the bay, the neophyte worker at Dolores was as a reed in the wind. There were many reasons. The narrow peninsula and the recurrent fog placed a drastic limitation on the size and nature of crops. Moreover, the steady growth of the nearby pueblo cut off the opportunity for expansion northward, while to the south were mud flats and the missions of Santa Clara and San José. Dolores never reached the degree of agricultural prosperity enjoyed by other missions and exhausting epidemics, especially measles, took a tremendous toll of the domestic Indians and left the survivors somewhat doubtful of the blessings they received.

After a time, the military officers grew weary of sending soldiers out after runaways and the subject caused bitterness between the padres and the presidio. Both sides realized the behavior of the neophytes demanded some action. An asistencia, or mission rancho, was set up on the north side of the bay where the climate and soil promised benefit to the Indian population, and a Franciscan father with a knowledge of medicine was placed in charge.

Later, an impetuous Franciscan mission father proposed to abandon both Dolores and the San Rafael asistencia in favor of a third location at Sonoma. The idea received the immediate approval of the governor, and resettlement was under way before the father presidente of the California missions discovered what was happening. The astonished presidente, now Fr. Vincente Sarría, pointed out that such an action was beyond the authority of even the governor. After some discussion, it was agreed that all three sites would be maintained as missions, with the Indians given the choice of settling in any one of them. In this way, San Rafael Arcángel and San Francisco de Solano came into being as the last of the California mission chain.

After the compromise, the fortunes of Dolores rapidly declined. In 1834, it finally succumbed to the weight of misfortune which had been accumulating over the years. By the time the land reforms were put into effect, there was little left save the buildings. When California became a part of the United States, Dolores was restored to the Catholic Church although most of its possessions had long since disappeared. Before long, the once remote settlement of Yerba Buena, now called San Francisco, would sweep around the mission and gather it into its midst. Only then would Dolores achieve a measure of revenge against this lusty city. For the day came when the mission stood untouched by the force of the tremendous earthquake, which shook the surrounding buildings into ruins.

A detail the old Mission Dolores

Today, all the wounds have healed. In the quiet garden of the mission, the history of the subsequent years is written on the markers of the graves. Early Indian neophytes have been joined by victims of the vigilantes. Spanish captains and Irish-American fire chiefs have been brought together in this final resting place, even though the church building still belongs to its founders. Inside, it differs little from its earliest appearance. The unusually effective ceiling is just as it was created by the Indian workmen and the wooden altars, built in the manner of Roman public buildings, have many recessed niches in which stand the sculptured figures of almost all the mission patron saints. Some are long and lean in figure, like Spanish art, and others reveal the shorter and stockier ideal that developed in Mexico. Some of the latter, definitely not Indian in style, must have been made at Dolores, for they are unquestionably of redwood, a tree unknown in Mexico.

Mission history has paid little heed to the artists and artisans who came into the new colony, where they performed the countless number of technical and professional services necessary for its success. Blacksmiths, carpenters, artists even engineers gave the mission system its functional design and taught the Indian neophytes to carry on. They did their work and this is virtually all we know of them, except in rare instances where the records yield a name or two as Estéban Ruíz, builder of Carmel Mission, and Romero and Urselino, blacksmith and carpenter who died with Fr. Jáyme in defending San Diego.

The old Mission Dolores

Outside of Dolores, on the busy streets of San Francisco, the steady interleaf of nights and days marks the swift passage of our own era. Within the silent walls of the old mission, time has truly found a stop. Here is yesterday waiting for the traveler where, from the altar heights, the flight of wooden angels guards its rest.