History of Santa Cruz

Mission Santa Cruz was founded September 25, 1791, although Father Fermín Lasuén, who selected the actual site, was not able to be present at the dedication. The event, of considerable importance to Northern Californians, was attended by the Franciscan Fathers from Santa Clara and the commandante of the San Francisco Presidio. His presence was a reflection of the vast improvement in relations between the friars and the military.

A sketch of the old mission Santa Cruz

The new viceroy in Mexico City was sympathetic to the Franciscan cause and best of all, in the eyes of the padres, Governor Fages had departed in April of 1791. His successor, José Antonio Roméu, was very ill when he arrived in California. He had only a year to live and during this brief rule was inclined to allow the padres to follow their own counsel. The next governor, José Joaquín de Arrillaga, was of similar disposition, and the Franciscans did not have further conflict with the military until the arrival of Diego Borica in October, 1794.

Thus, the early years of Mission Santa Cruz were pleasant ones. Gifts from the older missions poured in and within three months, 87 Indian neophytes had been gathered into the growing community. The first permanent church, completed in 1794, was located on the heights overlooking the San Lorenzo River. The building was 112 feet long, 29 feet wide and 25 feet high, with walls five feet thick.

Visitors to the missions often remark upon the long and narrow construction of the buildings. This design, which could almost be called the trademark of the missions, was dictated by the limitations which the fathers faced in California. They had few who were versed in the art of engineering, and their Indian help could not be expected to follow the demands of intricate construction. The width of the mission buildings was determined by the length of the wooden beams which supported the flat roof, since the adobe walls could not withstand much weight or side pressure. Only Carmel, where Fr. Lasuén had the assistance of an expert artisan, dared to depart from the usual flat and narrow structure.

At Santa Cruz, other buildings were soon erected and the mission enclosed a hollow square. In 1796, a grain mill was built and the padres looked forward to further expansion. Unfortunately, their dreams were never realized. Ultimately, they came to look upon this as their most prosperous year and point to the new governor, Borica, as the cause of their misfortune, since he founded California’s third pueblo just across the river in 1797.

When Father Francisco Palou had crossed the San Lorenzo River in 1774, he was impressed by the character of the country about him. While its seaside location was considerably to the west of El Camino Real that developed after the establishment of Mission Dolores, there was little then that was not remote from existing habitation. The sight of the full-flowing stream, the lush vegetation and the heavy stand of timber moved him to remark that the site would be able to support a large and prosperous community. The pueblo which took root there in 1797 did not prosper during the Spanish regime but did exist long enough to contribute materially to the downfall of Mission Santa Cruz.

Branciforte, the new civilian community, was California’s first real estate development. It was beautifully laid out on paper, and launched with such grandiose enthusiasm and empty promises that it may well have been the pattern for many present day promotions. Borica began by asking the viceroy to send him healthy, hard-working colonists, promising them neat, white houses, $116 annually for two years, and $66 annually for the following three. In addition, each settler would receive clothes, farm tools and furniture.

A small construction near Mission Santa Cruz

The community was plotted in the manner of an ancient Roman frontier colony, with all the houses arranged in a neat square. The farming area formed one huge field which was subdivided into smaller units, each assigned to an individual settler. When the settlers arrived, they found that the houses had not been built. Borica, on the other hand, discovered that the newcomers were not quite what he expected. His subordinate commanding the Branciforte military was constrained to make the following report: …”to take a charitable view of the subject, their absence for a couple of centuries at a distance of a million leagues would prove most beneficial to the province.” Indicative of the nature of the new community was one of its earliest public works: a race track. Perhaps the new settlers were more suited to the country than the unhappy commander realized, for, like the original natives, they much preferred to relax and spend their time in gambling rather than pursue any demanding industry.

Branciforte was conceived as a sort of 18th Century welfare state, with the Spanish idea of mixing the races which had proved so effective in colonizing other provinces in Latin America. Each alternate house was earmarked as a residence of an Indian “chief.” It was believed that such an arrangement would hasten the development of the natives into ideal Spanish citizens. While the plan had worked admirably in some parts of Mexico, there were no real chiefs in California. What leaders there were presented a dismal contrast to the resplendent kings of the Indian civilizations to the south. Indians did come to Branciforte but not as fellow citizens. Usually they were runaway neophytes from across the river who were soon ensnared by the pleasures of the aguardiente bottle and pressed into service by the indolent whites.

Of the 500 neophytes at the mission in 1796, some 200 melted away in less than two years. In vain, Fr. Lasuén complained that the new town was encroaching upon mission lands. The Governor, with remarkable logic, pointed out to the father presidente that the mission lands belonged to the neophytes and, therefore, the fewer neophytes in the mission, the less land the mission would require. Unable to retaliate against the detested pueblo, the fathers did not hesitate in applying swift justice to Indian backsliders they were able to regather in the fold. The severity of these punishments probably accelerated the mission’s decline.

The old items used for mass and liturgies

The happy days at Santa Cruz were over. In 1818, the news of Bouchard’s attack on Monterey at the south end of the harbor was accompanied by orders to strip the mission of valuables and retire to Santa Clara until the danger was over. In the process of “saving” the mission, the inhabitants of Branciforte who volunteered for this patriotic duty managed to inflict more damage than a fleet of pirates could have done. Anything not lost or stolen was smashed or buried in such a manner that it was beyond further use. So great was the indignation of the Franciscan padre in charge, that he argued for the abandonment of the mission.

During the remaining 15 years of its operation as a mission, Santa Cruz led an exciting existence. Branciforte naturally attracted many of the rough foreign adventurers who were beginning to arrive on the shores of California. Located, as it was, on the Bay of Monterey, yet out of sight of the governor at the Monterey Presidio, Santa Cruz developed a trade with the hide and tallow smugglers. Later, after the restrictions were removed, its activities centered around the hide trade until it was put out of business by the secularization act in 1834. There was an attempt at some sort of land distribution for the Indians but in 1845 Santa Cruz was a settlement of about 400 citizens, only one fourth of whom were Indians.

Painting of the old Santa Cruz Mission

Today the city of Santa Cruz occupies not only the site of the old mission but that once graced by Branciforte as well. Only a street name commemorates Branciforte but, at the approximate site of the mission, there stands a modern chapel built in the exact proportion, though half the size of the adobe mission church which once welcomed the arrival of its first Indian neophytes 200 years ago.