California and the Old Spanish Missions

Alta California

The story of the Spanish missions is the story of California. Visiting the sites of the twenty-one missions established in present day California is a journey into the very origins of what one day would become one of the largest states in the U.S. Going from south to north, the California missions helped Spain to colonize this region bordering the Pacific Ocean.

san francisco mission dolores
Mission Dolores, San Francisco CA

Spain of course was the European power that first explored North America’s southwest region. The first colonization efforts occurred in present day New Mexico and Texas. The earliest explorer to that region was Coronado. His 1540 expedition moved north out of New Spain (Mexico) and traversed over present day Arizona into New Mexico. His expedition was not one of colonization. That would come years later. Coronado was in search of the Seven Cities of Gold which he and others had heard so much about from the Aztecs in old Mexico.

The Spaniards would begin their settlement of California, which was named Alta California with Fray Junipero Serra’s founding of the first mission of California in present day San Diego. The year was 1769 and the San Diego mission was Spain’s first foothold on the west coast. Because of Spain’s earlier colonization of Nuevo Mexico along the Rio Grande, the Alta California missions were built many years after the New Mexico missions. As an example, the mission in San Diego was founded well over 100 years after the Spanish founding of Santa Fe.

california mission san jose
Mission San Jose

The Missions and the Military

When you research anything to do with Spain’s missions in North America you come to understand how their colonization differed from those of other European countries. The key difference was the close association between the church and King. While the church was a separate entity, their efforts in the colonies were hard to differentiate from those of the Conquistadors. The missions in California were an integral part of it’s colonization. The King granted the land to the Franciscans who in turn built the California missions.

If you look into the history of the Spanish colonization of Nuevo Mexico during the early and mid 1600’s you will realize two things. In New Mexico, the Spanish authorities and the friars were working as one. The other thing you’ll realize is that the administrations in old New Mexico and Alta California were quite different. Although there were incidents of violence, Alta California never went through anything similar to the Pueblo Revolt in Nuevo Mexico in 1680. The revolt was essentially a very violent Indian backlash against the harsh rules imposed on them by the authorities which included the friars. Most of the trouble centered around forced labor and punishments meted out for those rebelling against Christian worship. The 1680 coordinated pueblo uprising was to such a degree that the Spaniards fled the region for some twelve years. They returned in 1692 with a different, more gentle attitude toward the native population. The second time they were successful.

santa clara califorina mission
Santa Clara Mission

Colonizing Alta California

Research shows that the attitude of both the friars and the military toward the Indians was much more accommodating than a century earlier in New Mexico. The friars in Alta California concentrated on education and agricultural pursuits as it pertained to the missions and the surrounding Indians.

To be sure, the Spanish military was present to protect the missions but the warfare between them and the Indians never approached anything near to what happened in New Mexico. The overall goal of both the Spanish missions and military was to help assimilate the Indians to a more European way of existence . By doing this they would be able to create subjects for the King of Spain which is one of the purposes of a colony. The missions in California also served to show Spanish claim to the territory. This would have been directed to the Russians who had settlements in northern California north of the San Francisco Bay area. It would also give notice to the British who were active in the Oregon and Northwest region.


mission carmel california
Carmel Mission

In a big way, it was the Russian and British interests to the far north that made the Sonoma Mission the northernmost of the twenty-one Spanish missions. After the Mexican Revolution which expelled Spain from Alta California and North America, the new Mexican government built a secular society and mission expansion ceased. The one exception was that the Sonoma Mission, named Mission San Francisco Solano, was erected during Mexican rule. The Mexicans also considered building a mission to the north in Santa Rosa but never went ahead with it. A case could probably be made that the construction of the Sonoma Mission and the consideration of one in Santa Rosa was more of a military initiative than a religious one. To further make the point, after the Mission San Francisco Solano was built, the military stationed General Mariano Vallejo and his northern command in Sonoma with the task of keeping an eye on the Russians.

sonoma mission
Sonoma Mission

The Old Spanish Missions Today

The old Spanish missions have been and still is one of California’s biggest tourist attractions. In fact, if visiting California for the first time, a tour of the Spanish missions is a must. The missions, through their artifacts, paintings and museums tell the story of the real founding of California. It all started with the mission system.

The current state of the missions vary greatly. Most of the missions deteriorated over the decades and a few are almost non existent but many have been beautifully restored and many are still used today for religious worship.

Three missions that I believe are of special historic significance would be the Mission San Diego, the Carmel Mission and the Sonoma Mission or referred to as Mission San Francisco Solano.

mission san rafael arcangel
Mission San Rafael Arcangel

The mission in San Diego is named Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala. This mission of course was the very first and was built by Father Junipero Serra in 1769. The mission in Carmel California which is named Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, was also built by Father Serra. Serra built this second mission about a year later in Monterey California adjacent to the military presidio. After a short time he thought it best to have the mission some distance from the presidio to be closer to the Indian population and he thus built the Carmel Mission a short distance south of Monterey. The Mission San Francisco Solano is significant in as much as it was the only one founded under Mexican rule and served as a military outpost as well during the 1830’s and 1840’s up until the conclusion of the Mexican American War.

Links to three interesting photo articles on our Western Trips site are a Visit to Mission San Juan Bautista…the Carmel Mission in Carmel California and a Visit to Sonoma Californiaand the Sonoma Mission.

mission san juan bautista
Mission San Juan Bautista

Tips on Visiting the Missions

The first thing I would suggest is to get a good statewide California road map. Check online for mission visiting hours. The missions are controlled by the local parish and visiting hours can vary greatly. Keep in mind that many of the missions are active places of worship so scheduled events can also have an effect on visiting hours. Visiting hours also can change by season. Also remember that some missions are in remote areas while others are in busy tourist destinations such as in Carmel and Sonoma. The remote missions will be much further away from travel conveniences so bringing along bottled water is a good idea.

From south to north, the missions are; Mission San Diego de Alcala in San Diego… Mission San Luis Rey de Francia in Oceanside…Mission San Juan Capistrano in San Juan Capistrano…San Gabriel Mission Archangel in San Gabriel…Mission San Fernando Rey de Espana in Mission Hills (Los Angeles)…Mission San Buenaventura in Ventura…Mission Santa Barbara in Santa Barbara…Mission Santa Ines in Solvang…Mission La Purisima Concepcion northeast of Lompoc…Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa in San Luis Obispo…Mission San Miguel Arcangel in San Miguel…Mission San Antonio de Padua northwest of Jolon…Mission Nuestra Senora de la Soledad located south of Soledad…Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo in Carmel…Mission San Juan Bautista in the San Juan Bautista Historic District…Mission Santa Cruz in Santa Cruz…Mission Santa Clara de Asis in Santa Clara…Mission San Jose in the Mission San Jose District in Fremont…Mission San Francisco de Asis in San Francisco…Mission San Rafael Arcangel in San Rafael…Mission San Francisco Solano in Sonoma.

(Photos are from author’s private collection)