History of San José

By 1796, El Camino Real had become a well-traveled highway, which linked the northern extremity at San Francisco with the southern-most mission at San Diego. The road, however, stretched great lengths through areas occupied by hostile Indians whose presence made it necessary to furnish military protection for all but the boldest of travelers. The Franciscans long held the hope of establishing a mission at the end of each day’s travel along the road and, with the arrival of the new Governor Borica from Mexico, Fr. Lasuén deemed the time ripe for the advancement of a new mission. Accordingly, he conferred with the governor and the two agreed that five additional missions were needed.

The Chapel and Convento of Mission San José

In August, 1796, Borica forwarded a joint request to Viceroy Branciforte in which it was stated that the project would require no more soldiers than California had at the time. Further, a saving of some $15,000 annually could be realized, because military protection against the Indians would not be needed once they were “reduced” by the Franciscan fathers. The viceroy saw no reason to restrain the planners and gave his permission for them to proceed.

On June 11, 1797, Fr. Lasuén, accompanied by Sgt. Pedro Amador and five soldiers, dedicated Mission San José at a spot 15 miles to the north of the pueblo which bore the same name and which had been founded by Lieut. Moraga almost 20 years before. The Mission was sufficiently removed from the pueblo to relieve the attendant friars of the anxiety which afflicted those fathers whose missions were close by other colonial settlements.

The missionaries who labored in Mission San José were destined to have problems of another sort. The Indian tribes of the area were either indifferent or openly hostile and by the end of the first year, only 33 neophytes had been gathered into the compound. These were, for the most part, too young to do the badly needed construction work. By 1800, there were 286 Indians at the mission. After this date, the situation improved until 1831, when the Indian population reached 1,877. Thereafter, it dropped rapidly until only 580 remained in 1840.

A vestment used by the Franciscan Fathers to celebrate Mass

Located to the east and south of San Francisco Bay, Mission San José stood astride the approach to the San Joaquin Valley where many of the hostile Indian tribes lived. Since it functioned as a sort of a halfway point, it became headquarters for the Indian fighters. Forays against the natives were frequent, the first occurring shortly after the mission was established. The fathers had been aware for some time that a hostile Indian tribe was harboring a great number of runaway neophytes from the mission at San Francisco. Sergeant Amador lead an expedition against the tribe and, after a short battle, returned with over 80 of the runaways and nine additional “pagans” who had been captured in the fight. In 1805, a party of whites was attacked by another group of the hostile natives and four of the party killed. The attack evoked a savage reprisal from the Spanish, who killed 11 Indians and captured 30 more.

In 1826, the Indian fighters attacked the Cosumnes tribe, far to the north of the San José region and, in the ensuing battle, destroyed more than 40 of the belligerents. Three months later a considerable force of Spanish soldiers and settlers led by Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo marched against a large band of marauders headed by the Indian chieftain Estanislao and his companion Cipriano. The two were fugitive neophytes from the mission at San José and Estanislao had been a favorite of Fr. Durán.

In May of 1826, Vallejo and his army moved against Estanislao and his band of over 1,000 Indians. This developed into a running fight which lasted the better part of three days, and ended in a complete victory for the Spanish. Those of the enemy not killed outright were hung without further ceremony except for Estanislao, who was brought to Mission San José as a captive. Fr. Durán was far from pleased with the victory and protested the commandante’s violent treatment of the Indians. Fr. Durán received little satisfaction on the matter of his protests but secured the release of his former neophyte. Although some authorities differ, it is claimed that the river beside which the fight occurred and the modern county through which it runs bear the name “Stanislaus” in memory of the renegade neophyte.

Father Narciso Durán first arrived in California from Mexico in 1806 and was assigned, with Father Buenaventura Fortuni, to Mission San José in that same year. Together they labored for more than 20 years until Fr. Fortuni was called to Sonoma, leaving Fr. Durán alone at San José. Just prior to Fr. Fortuni’s departure, Fr. Durán was elected presidente of the missions, an office which he held from 1825 through 1827 and again from 1831 to 1838.

One of the original tools found at Mission San José

Even today Fr. Durán’s administrative ability is compared favorably with that of Fr. Lasuén, although it was his misfortune to head the missions at a time when they were fighting desperately for existence. While the mission system was already doomed when he assumed office, his brilliant leadership prolonged the useful life of the mission establishments for many years. He was an accomplished musician and his love of music led him to organize and train 30 Indian musicians who were proficient with a number of instruments, including flute, violin, trumpet and drums.

The Mexican revolt had cut off the arrival of further missionaries from Spain and the College of San Fernando in Mexico City suffered a decline because of the anti-Spanish feeling that developed in the new republic. The government of Mexico called on the Zacatecan college to supply additional Franciscan missionaries. Governor Figueroa arrived in 1833, accompanied by a number of Zacatecans who had been born in Mexico. The new padres took charge of the northern missions and Fr. Durán retired to Santa Barbara, leaving San José in the hands of one of the new arrivals.

Three years later, the mission was secularized and its property turned over to the administrator, José de Jesús Vallejo, the brother of Mariano. At the time of the transfer, the property of the mission was valued at $155,000. In a period of a little more than two years, its value had been completely dissipated. Hartnell, the former Englishman, who was inspector general of the missions after the secularization act, voiced his opinion that the mission property could be found on the ranch belonging to the Vallejo brothers. However, nothing was done about the matter and in 1846 governor Pio Pico sold the remaining property to his brother, Andres, and former Governor Alvarado. This sale was ultimately nullified and the property, some 28 acres, was returned to the Church by the United States Government.

A white, frame church with tall steeple was erected on the site in 1868 after the destruction of the original adobe by an earthquake and neglect. A similar frame rectory rose between the church and a forlorn segment of the original monastery. In 1916 a new wooden roof was erected over this portion of the monastery to protect the adobe from further erosion. Inside the gloomy, unlighted rooms were a few relics of its industrious years: Mass bells, a tool or so, and some fading vestments. Only in the garden at the rear of the monastery was there a thriving reminder of the old mission a grove of olive trees.

A draw of the original mission church and convento

In 1982 the ambitious plans to rebuild the mission church on its original foundation came to fruition. By 1985 the church was finished and rededicated, with the original portion of the old monastery strengthened and its museum greatly improved. Today the exterior of the mission church appears much as it did when first completed in 1809, while the beautiful interior once again is decorated as it was during the 1830s.