Spanish missions in California

From Academic Kids

Template:SpanishMissions The Spanish Missions in California (more simply referred to as the "California Missions") comprise a series of religious outposts established by Spanish Catholic Dominicans, Jesuits, and Franciscans, to spread the Christian doctrine among the local Native Americans, but with the added benefit of giving Spain a toehold in the frontier land. The missions introduced European livestock, fruits, vegetables, and industry into the California region. In addition to the presidio (fort) and pueblo (town), the misión was one of the three major agencies employed by the Spanish crown to extend its borders and consolidate its colonial territories.

Since 1493, Spain had maintained a number of missions throughout New Spain (Mexico and portions of what today are the Southwestern United States) in order to facilitate colonization of these lands. In this context, the term "California" is used to refer to the territory that comprises Alta California (chiefly the current U.S. state of California) and the Mexican states of Baja California and Baja California Sur. It was not until the threat of invasion by Czarist Russia in 1765, however, that the King felt such installations were necessary in Upper ("Alta") California.


The Missions

Site selection and layout

Each frontier station was forced to be self-supporting, as existing means of supply were inadequate to maintain a colony of any size. California was literally months away from the nearest base in colonized Mexico, and the cargo ships of the day were too small to carry more than a few months’ rations in their holds. In order to sustain a mission, the padres required the help of colonists or converted Native Americans, called neophytes, to cultivate crops and tend livestock in the volume needed to support a fair-sized establishment. The scarcity of imported materials, together with a lack of skilled laborers, compelled the Fathers to employ simple building materials and methods in the construction of mission structures.

Missing image
Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, circa 1910. This mission is architecturally distinctive because of the strong Moorish lines exhibited.

Although the missions were considered temporary ventures by the Spanish hierarchy, the development of an individual settlement was not simply a matter of “priestly whim.” The founding of a mission followed longstanding rules and procedures; the paperwork involved required months, sometimes years of correspondence, and demanded the attention of virtually every level of the bureaucracy. Once empowered to erect a mission in a given area, the men assigned to it chose a specific site that featured a good water supply, plenty of wood for fires and building material, and ample fields for grazing herds and raising crops. The padres blessed the site, and with the aid of their military escort fashioned temporary shelters out of tree limbs or driven stakes, roofed with thatch or reeds (cañas). It was these simple huts that would ultimately give way to the stone and adobe buildings which exist to this day.

The first priority when beginning a settlement was the location and construction of the church (iglesia). The majority of mission sanctuaries were oriented on a roughly east-west axis to take the best advantage of the sun's position for interior illumination; the exact alignment depended on the geographic features of the particular site. Once the spot for the church was selected, its position would be marked and the remainder of the mission complex would be laid out. The workshops, kitchens, living quarters, storerooms, and other ancillary chambers were usually grouped in the form of a quadrangle, inside which religious celebrations and other festive events often took place. The cuadrángulo was rarely a perfect square because the Fathers had no surveying instruments at their disposal and simply measured off all dimensions by foot.

For additional details see the main article Architecture of the California Missions.

Missing image
A view of the restored Mission San Juan Bautista and its three-bell campanario ("bell wall") in 2004.

Missions in present day Alta California (U.S.)

The 21 northern missions were established along California's El Camino Real (Spanish for The King's Highway, christened in honor of King Charles III), much of which is now U.S. Highway 101. The mission planning was begun under the leadership of Fray Junípero Serra, O.F.M. in 1769 (who in 1767, along with his fellow priests, had taken control over a group of missions in Baja California previously administered by the Jesuits). Work was concluded in 1823, although Serra had died in 1784. Father Fermín Francisco de Lasuén took up Serra's work and established nine more mission sites from 1786 through 1798; others established the last three compounds, along with at least five asistencia, or "sub-missions".

The missions are collectively the best-known historic element of the coastal regions of California (many of the mission sites have been designated as National Historic Landmarks, and all are listed in the California Historic Register). This popularity, stemming largely from Helen Hunt Jackson's 1884 novel Ramona, has been both a blessing and a curse. It has earned the missions a prominent place in California's historic consciousness, and sent a steady stream of visitors to these sites. In many cases, it led to the reconstruction of these missions, with at best an honest but (too often) poorly-informed attempt to adhere to historic reality. Many reconstructed missions are adorned with lush gardens, even though research indicates that these did not exist. Furthermore, the reconstructions severely damaged the archaeological record. Lacking substantive knowledge of the native people who built and inhabited these missions, the "reconstructors" generally left them out of the stories.

Four presidios, strategically placed along the California coast, served to protect the missions and other Spanish settlements in Upper California. Each of these posts functioned as a base of military operations for a specific region, organized as follows:

El Presidio de Sonoma, or Sonoma Barracks was established in 1836 by Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, the "Commanclate-General of the Northern Frontier of Alta California," as a part of Mexico's strategy to halt Russian incursions into the region.

The missions themselves were situated approximately 30 miles (48 km) apart, so that they were separated by one day's long ride on horseback along the 600-mile (966 km) long El Camino Real, the California Mission Trail.

In geographical order, north to south

In chronological order

Franciscan Establishments (1769-1823)

Missing image
The stone capilla (chapel) at Baja California Sur's Misión Santa Rosalía de Mulegé in 2005.

Missions in present day Baja California (Mexico)

In geographical order, north to south

Baja California (norte)
Baja California Sur

In chronological order

Jesuit Establishments (1683-1767)
Franciscan Establishments (1768-1773)
Dominican Establishments (1774-1849)


See also

External links




Academic Kids Menu

  • Art and Cultures
    • Art (
    • Architecture (
    • Cultures (
    • Music (
    • Musical Instruments (
  • Biographies (
  • Clipart (
  • Geography (
    • Countries of the World (
    • Maps (
    • Flags (
    • Continents (
  • History (
    • Ancient Civilizations (
    • Industrial Revolution (
    • Middle Ages (
    • Prehistory (
    • Renaissance (
    • Timelines (
    • United States (
    • Wars (
    • World History (
  • Human Body (
  • Mathematics (
  • Reference (
  • Science (
    • Animals (
    • Aviation (
    • Dinosaurs (
    • Earth (
    • Inventions (
    • Physical Science (
    • Plants (
    • Scientists (
  • Social Studies (
    • Anthropology (
    • Economics (
    • Government (
    • Religion (
    • Holidays (
  • Space and Astronomy
    • Solar System (
    • Planets (
  • Sports (
  • Timelines (
  • Weather (
  • US States (


  • Home Page (
  • Contact Us (

  • Clip Art (
Personal tools