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Visiting the Spanish Missions in California

Robert Nicholson is a member of the California Mission Historical Society and the California Mission Walkers and an amateur historian.

Mission San Diego de Alcalá

Mission San Diego de Alcalá

Completing Your California Visit

No visit to California is complete without visiting one of its 21 Spanish missions. The missions gave birth to many of California’s major cities, including San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, San Jose, and San Francisco.

The missionary system and the settlers it brought had a major influence on things in California, including place names, language, food, architecture, and culture.

History of California's Missions

The missions were built over a short period of less than 50 years, from 1769 to 1823. They follow a line near the Pacific coast, running from San Diego to Sonoma.

The mission system was funded and supported by the Franciscan order of the Catholic Church, and by the Spanish government. The goal of the Franciscans was to evangelize the native population and to convert them to Catholicism. The goal of the Spanish government was to expand and protect their territory. Along with the missions, the Spanish built four Presidios, or military forts, in California.

The California missions were not the first built by the Spanish. They had previously built missions in areas that later became Mexico, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Florida, Central America and the Caribbean. The first missions in the new world were built in the 1490s.

Unlike European settlers in the Eastern United States, the Spanish did not try to kill the native people or drive them from their lands. Their goal was actually to convert and assimilate the native people and make them Spanish citizens.

The missionaries brought important skills, including agriculture, irrigation, herding, weaving, pottery making, building with adobe, and even painting and music. In practice, cultural transference went both ways. Spanish settlers adopted native plants and foods and incorporated Indian words into their language. Natives and Spanish settlers intermarried and built communities surrounding the missions.

Mission San Antonio de Padua

Mission San Antonio de Padua

Criticism of the Mission System

The mission system has been strongly criticized for systematic abuse and virtual enslavement of the Indian converts (called neophytes). Much of the criticism comes from a book, A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California’s Indians by the Spanish Missions, written by journalist Elias Castillo.

Among the charges:

  • Indian neophytes, once they converted, were prohibited from leaving the missions, and were forced to work in the mission fields.
  • They were forced to wear European-style clothing and to learn Spanish.
  • They were frequently beaten and even whipped.
  • Large numbers died of malnutrition and disease.

Castillo goes on to say that impressionable Indians were lured with gifts, “converted” to a religion that they did not understand, and then enslaved. This picture is very different from the traditional view of the missions, in which the Spanish and Indians lived together in harmony.

As with most things, the truth probably lies somewhere between the two views. Drawing on original source materials, such as letters, mission records, and accounts from travelers, it’s possible to cherry-pick evidence to support either point of view.

The Mission System Was Incredibly Complicated

Before forming a judgement on the merits of the mission system, and the good and harm that it did, there are some things to consider.

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  • Life was hard in the missions, especially during drought periods. The neophytes were sometimes malnourished, but so were the missionaries, and Indians outside of the mission system.
  • Beatings and whippings were used as punishment, but this was common at the time. Missionaries and soldiers were also whipped for infractions.
  • Many Indians died of diseases brought by the Spanish, but at the time medical science was very primitive, and nobody understood the idea that the natives had no resistance to European diseases.
  • The California mission system spanned more than 800 miles, and travel and communication were difficult. Within the mission system, there were administrators that were harsh and punitive, and others that were benevolent and compassionate.
  • Many Indians prospered under the mission system, and neighboring tribes often adopted the agricultural and herding methods taught by the missionaries. Some of the Indians studied for the priesthood, and one at least one is known to have travelled to Spain to study.
  • There were uprisings at some of the missions; clearly some of the Indians resisted the missionaries. At other missions, however, Indians were armed and trained as soldiers. In some cases, the missions became involved in local “politics” and even warfare, forming alliances with some tribes to defeat others.

In short, the situation was complicated, and the missionaries as a whole cannot be characterized either as benevolent teachers or harsh slave-masters.

Remains of adobe walls at Mission Santa Inés.  Several of the missions are active archeological sites, helping scholars and historians to learn more about the mission system.

Remains of adobe walls at Mission Santa Inés. Several of the missions are active archeological sites, helping scholars and historians to learn more about the mission system.

Teaching About the Missions

The California school system requires students to learn about the mission period. In the past, schools taught the “benevolent missionary” point of view, but teaching today is much more nuanced.

The standard curriculum was completely revised in 2016. Teachers are now encouraged to give students open-ended questions such as “how did life change for the Indians after the missionaries arrived?”, and to provide access to materials drawn from original sources, or objective data, so the students can form their own conclusions.

The new curriculum draws heavily on the National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework, published in 2013.

Visiting the Missions

If you visit any of California’s coastal cities, you’ll probably find one or more missions nearby. Each mission offers a different experience, both because the missions themselves varied a great deal, and because some are much better preserved than others.

We’ve listed a few of the most interesting missions below. For a complete list of the 21 California Missions and a description of each, visit the California Mission Guide.

Mission La Purísima Concepción

Mission La Purísima Concepción

La Purísima Concepción

Although the mission is not easy to get to, it’s worth a trip. It’s about an hour from San Luis Obispo, and 2 ½ hours from Los Angeles.

In 1933, the mission was restored by the National Park Service and the Civilian Conservation Corp, and it is now a California State Park.

It’s the best place to see what mission life was really like. In addition to the mission church and living quarters, there are outbuildings, livestock pens, gardens, pottery kilns, and more. There is also a small museum and interpretive center. There are frequent “living history” events and historical re-enactments. Check the La Purísima Concepción mission website for information and details.

Mission San Juan Bautista church, viewed from the original mission trail.

Mission San Juan Bautista church, viewed from the original mission trail.

San Juan Bautista

The mission is located in a small town about an hour south of San Jose and is an active Catholic church. The church building and gardens are beautiful, and there is a small museum and gift shop. In addition, the mission building is located on the original town plaza, which is surrounded by several other historical builds that are operated by the California State Park Service.

From the mission grounds, you can look down on a dirt trail which was the original road connecting the missions. The path is 9 feet wide, and there are still ruts from wagon wheels visible in a few places.

For film fans, the mission was used as a setting for the climactic scene in the Alfred Hitchcock classic film Vertigo, released in 1958.

The flag of the short-lived California Republic after its independence from Mexico.

The flag of the short-lived California Republic after its independence from Mexico.

San Francisco Solano

This mission, located in Sonoma (about an hour North of San Francisco), was the last of the missions built, and the only mission constructed after Mexico’s independence from Spain. It is also the Northernmost of the California missions.

The mission and the accompanying military fort were intended to provide a barrier to Russian expansion in Northern California. Ironically, the isolated missionaries traded with the Russian settlers at Fort Ross, 60 miles to the North.

Visitors can see a 1913 reconstruction of the mission’s adobe chapel, as well as the nearby military barracks. The original padres’ quarters now house a museum. The mission is located on the original town square, which was the site of California’s Bear Flag Revolt in 1846, in which California declared its independence from Mexico.

The town of Sonoma is located in California’s wine country, and there are several nearby wineries that offer tastings.

Mission San Juan Capistrano

Mission San Juan Capistrano

San Juan Capistrano

San Juan Capistrano was once known as “The Jewel of the Missions” due to the beauty of its buildings and gardens.

Today, visitors can see the extensive grounds, the ruins of the stone church (which was built in 1806 and destroyed by an earthquake in 1812), the original adobe church (built in 1782), living quarters, workshops, beautiful gardens, and a museum. The adobe church is believed to be the oldest standing building in California.

Capistrano may be best known for its fabled swallows, which are said to return to the mission to nest each year on St. Joseph’s Day, March 19.

Church interior, Mission San Antonio de Padua

Church interior, Mission San Antonio de Padua

More Missions

The missions I’ve highlighted are a little off the beaten path, and are therefore among the best-preserved (and have the most extensive grounds). But you’ll also find missions in San Diego (the first of the California missions), San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and San Jose, as well as several in the Los Angeles area.

Wherever you travel in California, try to work a mission visit into your itinerary!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Robert Nicholson

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