The Californian Missions

Patricia Cleveland-Peck introduces a beautiful string of Spanish religious foundations.

If you stand high on Presidio Hill, San Diego, looking out over the Pacific, you are on the very spot where California began. Now your eyes will take in the urban sprawl of America’s seventh largest city – but in 1769, when the Franciscan missionary Father Junípero Serra and Spanish soldiers under the command of Gaspar de Portolá stepped ashore, there was nothing but barren scrub to be seen.

Spain had claimed this land when it was first spotted by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542, then in 1602 explorer Sebastían Vizcaíno (who in fact named San Diego, as was the custom, after the saint whose feast day fell closest to the sighting) sailed to the northern coasts and earmarked for Spain what was to be Monterey Bay. It was not until 1768 however, when the Russians under Catherine the Great, began to show an intrusive interest, that rapid plans were made to establish a string of missions up the Californian coast. In this way the land would be secured and the inhabitants would be converted to Catholicism and made useful ­citizens of Spain.

Missions had already been established for Spain in Baja California and Mexico (then known as New Spain) by the Jesuits, but in 1767 King Carlos III banished this Order from his empire, irritated by the Jesuit tendency to answer to a power beyond that of kings. They were replaced by the more amenable Franciscans and in 1769 four expeditions, two overland and two by sea, were despatched from Mexico to Alta California to initiate the establishment of the missions. In fact twenty-one missions situated at roughly a day’s ride on horseback from each other and forming El Camino Real, named in honour of King Carlos, together with four presidios or forts, were built over the next fifty-four years.

To continue reading this article you will need to purchase access to the online archive.

Buy Online Access  Buy Print & Archive Subscription

If you have already purchased access, or are a print & archive subscriber, please ensure you are logged in.

Please email if you have any problems.



Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week