The twenty-one Spanish missions in California established by Catholic priests of the Franciscan order between 1769 and 1834, were supposed to expand Christianity among the Native Americans living in the area. The local natives were forcibly relocated from their traditional dwellings, villages, and homelands to live and work at the missions as virtual slaves.
Disease, starvation, over work, and torture decimated these tribes. Mission Indians were from many regional
Native American tribes; their members were often relocated together in new mixed groups and the Spanish named the Indian groups after the responsible mission.
Around 1906 Alfred L. Kroeber and Constance G. Du Bois of the University of California, Berkeley first applied the term “Mission Indians” to Southern California Native Americans as an ethnographic and anthropological label to include those at Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa and south. Today it is also sometimes used to describe Northern California Native Americans populations at the eleven Northern California missions, Mission San Miguel Arcángel and north, as well as people relocated there, like the Channel Islands’ original inhabitants.
Mission San Diego de Alcala was the first of the California missions. It was founded in the year 1769 upon the arrival of the expedition headed by Don Gaspar de Portola by land up the peninsula of Lower California and the expedition that came by sea. Fray Junipero Serra, first Father President of the Missions, was with Portola. The ruins of the Mission may still be seen. It was here that the first irrigation dam and ditches in California were built, and that the first palm and olive trees were planted.
Mission San Carlos de Carmelo, the second of the Mission establishments, was founded in 1770 by Father Serra and became his headquarters during his life in California. His body was buried within the sanctuary of the church that was erected there during the last year of his life. Annual pilgrimages by devout and patriotic Californians are made to it. The Mission is popularly known as “Carmel” and is situated on the little bay of that name six miles distant from the city of Monterey.
Mission San Antonio de Padua, was in the days of its glory one of the most beautiful and most important of the Mission establishments. Perhaps because of the fact that it is away from the trend of travel, situated in a lonely but lovely valley in a circle of the Santa Lucia Mountains, it has been sadly neglected and is only infrequently visited. In order to reach it a detour of twenty miles from King City on the main California State High-way is necessary. The trouble taken to find it is well worth the effort.
Mission San Gabriel Arcangel, with its picturesque bell tower and its exquisitely beautiful outer stairway, worn by the bare feet of the Indian neophytes, was founded in the year 1771 and is distant nine miles from the center of the City of Los Angeles. San Gabriel became the richest of the Missions and was called “The Queen of the Missions.” It is here that the “Mission Play” is given each year in a magnificent playhouse by a great company of Indian and white performers numbering over one hundred persons.
Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa is located in the present thriving city of San Luis Obispo and was founded in 1772 by Father Junípero Serra. Like nearly all the other Mission establishments much of the structure has fallen from long years of neglect and the merciless onslaughts of the wind and rain. However, the beautiful old church has been restored and is again being used for the celebration of Divine services. This Mission met with many discouragements in its early stages but finally became highly prosperous. The mission church today is a parish church of the Diocese of Monterey. The Chumash Indians, now known as the Santa Ynez Band of Mission Indians, helped to build this mission.
Mission San Francisco de Assisi was founded in 1776, the year of American Independence. This Mission, still standing in the heart of the great City of San Francisco was a familiar landmark when the great gold rush of 1849-1850 was in full swing. Almost since its establishment it has been popularly known as “Mission Dolores” probably for the reason that it was founded on the church calendar day of Our Mother of Sorrows. It escaped untouched, as though by a miracle, the great fire of 1906.
Mission of San Juan Capistrano, the seventh mission, was founded in 1776 and became in its time a mighty establishment. An eminent architect, the late Arthur B. Benton, who made a careful survey of San Juan Capistrano with a view to its possible full restoration estimated that the work could not be done at a cost less than $200,000 (in 1929). It is here that the only remaining church in which Father Serra celebrated Mass is to be seen, and which has been completely restored by Father St. John O’Sullivan. But the great main church which was wrecked by the earthquake of 1812 still remains in ruins. The Acjachemem were renamed the Juaneños after the Mission San Juan Capistrano.
Mission Santa Clara de Assisi, the eighth mission, was founded in 1777. It is located in the lovely little city of Santa Clara adjacent to the better known metropolis of San Jose. By reason of fires and one or two rather destructive temblors, this once beautiful structure finally reached almost complete destruction. Lately, however, the Jesuit Fathers having had for many years the seat of their university at Santa Clara have rebuilt the old church exactly as it originally stood.
Mission San Buenaventura, the nineth mission, was founded in 1783 and is located along the main State Highway of California connecting Los Angeles with San Francisco. When San Buenaventura was builded no bells were available for it, and so wooden bells were substituted and the Mission became famous for them. Another feature of San Buenaventura that will prove of no small interest is the fact that within its walls may be found the celebrated “Matrimonial Chair.” Any young lady sitting in this chair is assured of a good husband within a year following.
Mission Santa Barbara, founded in 1786, doubtless Santa Barbara is the most famous and best known of all the Missions, as it is, at the same time the best preserved. It may be said to stand as it originally was except for the absence of the Indian homes that once surrounded it. Within its cloister is the garden widely known as the “Sacred Garden” from which women are excluded under the Franciscan rule. However, two women are known to have been admitted–the Princess Eulalie of Spain and the wife of President McKinley.
Mission La Purisima Concepcion, the eleventh mission, was founded in 1787. It was originally a most beautiful thing from an architectural point of view erected on a lovely plain in the Valley of Lompoc near the present little city of that name. It was used mainly as a monastery to which the Mission Fathers retired for special prayer and contemplation. So completely fallen to ruin is La Purisima now that the heedless traveler may easily overlook it.
Mission Santa Cruz, also known as the Mission of the Holy Cross, not a trace of which now remains and the site of which is identified only by a mark, was founded in 1791 where the present city of the name now stands within the shadow of the great redwoods and at one end of the shining crescent of the Bay of Monterey. It was in its time a thriving establishment busy with the day’s work and filled with the anvil’s music and the sound of whirring looms.
Mission La Soledad, the thirteenth mission, was founded in 1791. As its name implies it was a lonely and solitary place. Only a few of its walls now stand which the sightseer can gaze upon by a short journey of a mile or so from Soledad City located on the main California Highway. It was here, when the Missions were confiscated by the Mexican government, that Father Saria (not Serra) remained with his stricken Indian neophytes and died among them of sheer starvation as he was weakly attempting to ascend the altar steps one morning to celebrate the Divine Service.
Mission San Jose de Guadalupe, the fourteenth mission, was founded in 1797. Only a little of the structure now remains but this little is available to sightseers in the Santa Clara Valley not far from the City of San Jose. It was here that the renowned Concepcion Arguello spent the last years of her life among the Dominican Sisters whose community she joined when they came to California. Her life and love story forms the theme of John Steven McGroarty’s Play “La Golondrina” (The Swallow) which is presented for a short season each year in the Mission Playhouse at San Gabriel.
Mission San Juan Bautista, founded in 1797, was named in honor of St. John the Baptist. So much of the original structure remains, and in such enduring beauty, that no traveler should miss a visit to it. It is located near the city of Hollister in San Benito County, not far from Santa Cruz. Considerable “restoration” has been done at San Juan Bautista. Near the old church many of the historic adobe houses of California history are still standing and occupied.
Mission San Miguel Arcangel, the sixteenth of the Missions, was founded in 1797. It is a familiar sight still to passengers on the railway trains and automobiles on the State Highway. A view of its ruins bespeaks the fact that it must have been a thing of great architectural splendor in the days of its glory. The original church still remains undisturbed with the frescoes painted by the Indians still bright upon its gray walls. The Franciscan Fathers have lately returned to its possession.
Mission San Fernando Rey de Espana was founded in 1797 and located some twenty miles north of the City of Los Angeles in the great San Fernando Valley. This ruin is the most striking landmark in Southern California. Prent Buell, the eminent authority on Mission architecture, places San Fernando next to San Luis Rey as the architectural Mission gem. A great bronze statue of Fray Junipero Serra has been erected here, and the City of Los Angeles maintains a beautiful floral park adjacent.
Mission San Luis Rey de Franca was the eighteenth Mission and was founded in 1798. The Franciscan Fathers have returned to it and have done a great deal to restore it to its original proportions. It was builded entirely of adobe and, according to Buell, stands preeminent architecturally. It is to be seen four miles inland from the town of Oceanside as the traveler enters San Diego County from the North. Many interesting relics of the early Mission days are on exhibition in the museum. In the patio of San Luis Rey the original pepper tree of California still stands green and growing. The Payomkowishum were renamed Luiseños after the Mission San Luis Rey.
Mission Santa Ines was founded in 1804, nineteenth in the chain, located near the town of Los Olivos. This is one of the most beautiful of all Missions, and a great deal of restoration work has been done upon it mainly through the financial assistance of the Society of the Native Sons of the Golden West. Surrounding the old church is an Indian Reservation still maintained by the Government upon which a few Indian families continue to live. Much of the credit for the restoration of this beautiful edifice is due to the zeal of Father Alexander Butler who was for many years the resident priest.
Mission San Rafael Arcangel, the twentieth mission, was founded in 1817 has been entirely annihilated by time and the neglectful years. It was one of the two establishments erected north of the Bay of San Francisco in a beautiful and fruitful section of the country. A Masonic Temple now stands on the site. A few broken tiles are the only evidence remaining of this once devoted Franciscan outpost. In due time, no doubt, a suitable tablet or monument will be erected to mark the spot.
Mission San Francisco de Solano, the twenty-first and last of the Missions, was founded on America’s Independence day, July 4, 1824. The ancient church still stands intact and is surrounded by many historic graves marked by gorgeous monuments. The Mission is located in the town of Sonoma famous as the scene of the American adventure known in history popularly as the “Bear Flag Republic.” The Sonoma Valley figures as the “Valley of the Moon” in one of Jack London’s Novels.