California: Mission San Gabriel Arcángel

Heralded as the first European settlement of the Los Angeles basin, this mission was the most prosperous of the California missions and served as a way station for the colonization of Alta (Upper) California. In addition to its status as one of only two Spanish colonial-era stone churches of Alta California located south of Monterey, the church is singularly unique for its Moorish-inspired architectural characteristics and its unique collection of via cruces paintings crafted by an Indian artisan of Mission San Fernando.

Site Office

Mission San Gabriel

428 South Mission Drive

San Gabriel, CA 91776-1299

ph.: (626) 457-3035

Web site:

Originally named La Mision del Santo Principe el Arcángel, San Gabriel de los Temblores (chief holy prince of archangels, Saint Gabriel of the earthquakes), this mission community was renowned for its prosperity and agricultural productivity. Despite its pivotal role in linking the missions of the Monterey Bay with that of San Diego de Alcalá, much of the early prosperity of Mission San Gabriel Arcángel was borne of a lucrative wine and brandy industry first introduced to early California by the padres of this Los Angeles basin mission community. Originally established by Fray (Father) Junípero Serra as the fourth in a chain of twenty-one early California Hispanic missions, San Gabriel’s wealth led to its designation as the “Queen of the Missions,” and subsequently to its acknowledgment as the “Mother of Agriculture in California.”

The Mission’s Founding

Like so many early mission communities, San Gabriel was founded, then moved, reestablished, and rebuilt as the result of tumultuous beginnings at another nearby site in the Los Angeles basin.

Originally founded under the directive of Serra on September 8, 1771, by Franciscan friars Pedro Benito Cambón and Angel Fernandez de la Somera, the mission was eventually relocated to a different site by Father Fermin Francisco de Lasuén in May, 1775. Accompanied by fourteen soldiers and four muleteers, Fathers Cambón and Somera set forth from Mission San Diego de Alcalá on August 6, 1771. Their objective was the region explored by Don Gaspar de Portolá during the previous year. The original site was selected by Serra at the site of the Rio Santa Ana or Rio de los Temblores, so named because on the day the site was first explored, four severe earthquakes shook the area in a single day. Upon reaching the site, a sizable party of Shoshone confronted the padres, and in an effort to placate them, one of the padres unfurled a large banner of the Virgin Mary, and the natives are said to have been pacified. Despite this reception, the padres determined that the land was unsuitable for the founding of the mission and soon moved on to the Valle de San Miguel and ultimately erected a large wooden cross and celebrated the founding mass at the Shoshone Indian village of Shevaanga located at the foot of a hill and near a stream named San Miguel on September 8, 1771.

The new site was strategically important in that it was located at the intersection of three well-traveled trails, two from Mexico and the third from the distant East Coast of the United States. One of these trails linked the earliest California missions via El Camino Real. As such, the padres began the work of building the first mission structures and were assisted by the Shoshone or Gabrielino inhabitants of the region. Soon thereafter, they erected several temporary structures built of willow poles, tules, and timbers, including a palisaded chapel, padre’s quarters, monjerio or nunnery, boy’s dormitory, storeroom for carpentry tools, various rooms, and corrals for sheep and cattle.

Shortly after the mission’s founding in 1771, catastrophic floods and conflicts between the Shoshone and the Spanish guard led to the abandonment of the original site at Montebello. Tragically, as the result of inappropriate advances made by a soldier toward the wife of a Shoshone tribal leader, a conflict erupted in which the tribal leader was killed; his head was impaled on a pole by the Spanish guard in an effort to dissuade the Shoshone from furthering efforts at retaliation. In the end, this action only had the effect of keeping the otherwise peaceful Shoshone away from the mission, and in time, this early mission settlement was abandoned for a new one located at the Shoshone village of Iisanchanga. The present site was settled in May, 1775, and ultimately came to accommodate two large quadrangles and the stone church for which it is justly famous.

The Church and Its Architecture

Construction of the church was begun on March 11, 1795, under the direction of Father Antonio Cruzado. The architecture of the church is unique in the California missions for its stone and masonry construction, its Moorish or “Fortress style” architecture, and its long and narrow floor plan and windows. According to architectural historian Mardith Schuetz-Miller, journeyman mason Toribio Ruiz worked to build the foundations and raised the stone and adobe walls of the church to half height before departing the mission. As with Mission San Juan Capistrano, the loss of the stonemason resulted in unanticipated changes in the architectural plan. In this instance, the original vault began cracking, and the builders were forced to replace it with a flat brick and masonry roof in 1808. The Indian master mason Miguel Blanco of Mission San Ignacio, in Baja California, is thought to have constructed the vaults that were eventually replaced. He was the master mason of San Gabriel from 1794 through 1801. Master carpenter Salvador Carabantes of Tepic, Nayarit, followed the efforts of Blanco in framing the doors and windows of the new church. It is also likely that Carabantes was involved in the construction of the timber roof that replaced the vaults installed by Blanco.

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the mission church is its architectural layout and Moorish-inspired facade. The capped buttresses, or Fortress style facade, are characteristic of sixteenth century churches of the Valley of Mexico. These were in turn inspired by the architecture of the Moors or Arabs who ruled Spain for nearly seven hundred years. Other unique features include the floor plan and windows of the church. The long and narrow nave of the church measures one hundred fifty feet in length by thirty feet in width by thirty feet in height. The long and narrow windows are similarly unique, as is the massive staircase located at the exterior of the southeast corner of the southern facade that provides access to the choir loft. In addition, the church of 1805 boasted a massive bell tower at the east end of the north wall. Today, only the inaccessible second-story door and ruined walls bear witness to the existence of this bell tower, which collapsed in 1812. Although the main entrance to the church was designed to open to the east, the collapse of the bell tower resulted in the bell wall being relocated to the southwest corner of the southern facade. The long-overdue restoration of the church and reconstruction of the campanile damaged in 1812 took place in 1827-1828. Since 1908, the Claretian Missionary Fathers have lovingly preserved and maintained the old mission.

The six bells of the campanile represent an eclectic mix of peoples and cultures pertaining to the mission. Paul Ruelas cast the three oldest bells–those of circa 1795–in Mexico City, and two of the three bear his name, ornate cross elements, and a dedication to Ave Maria Purisima (hail Mary most pure). These bells, and the copper baptismal font of the baptistery, were presented to the mission by the king of Spain at the request of Father Serra. The remaining three bells vary in date and origin. The largest bell, which hangs from a crown-shaped top, weighs nearly a ton and was cast in 1830. This bell bears the Latin inscription Fecit Benitves: Recibvs, Ano D 1830. The other two bells were cast in Medford, Massachusetts, by Major G. H. Holbrook, who learned his craft from colonial silversmith Paul Revere. The summit of the campanile bears a wrought-iron cross attached to a circular iron ring symbolizing the spread of Christianity over the world.

Prosperity and Decline

Mission San Gabriel was among the most prosperous of its time. Its agricultural base consisted of the cultivation of wheat, barley, maize, kidney beans, chickpeas, peas, and other beans and the harvesting and processing of olives, grapes, oranges, and other fruit. In the census of 1820, the mission reported ownership of 16,000 head of cattle, 13,000 sheep, 152 goats, 289 swine, 440 mares and colts, 448 tame horses, and 130 mules. Mission industries included carpentry, masonry, metalwork; a tannery and sawmill; and textile, oil, candle, and soap production. Evidence of large-scale olive oil, soap, and candle production and the tanning of hides remains in the form of massive fired brick boiling vats and tanning basins located just north of the main church in the area adjacent to the cemetery. So productive was this candle and soap processing facility that it is said that at one time San Gabriel produced these products for all the California missions.

Other indications of the mission’s prosperity are evident in that Father José Zalvidea (1805-1825) undertook several construction projects, including the Church of Our Lady of the Angels, a horse-powered flour mill, a water-powered oil and flour mill near San Marino, a water-powered sawmill, several large granaries, Gabrielino Indian housing, and a mission hospital for the Indians of San Gabriel completed in 1814. One other distinctive mission project was the commission of a sixty-foot schooner, the Guadalupe, built by Boston boat builder Joseph Chapman. This was the second such vessel built in early California and as such represents but one more indication of the old mission’s prosperity.

As with all the missions of Alta California, Mexican independence from Spain heralded a difficult and challenging period for San Gabriel. As a result of the Secularization Act of 1833, San Gabriel was divested of all of its holdings and Father Estenaga, who was then in charge of the mission, was forced to hand over all church properties to a civil administrator in 1834. The extent of the loss is made apparent by statistics that show that when the mission was secularized in 1834, it owned some 16,500 head of cattle and much of the land of the Los Angeles basin, whereas by 1840 less than 100 head of cattle could be accounted for. By the time that the Franciscans were permitted to return temporarily in 1843, virtually everything of any commercial value had been removed and the mission was left in ruins. In the interim, Governor Pío Pico took personal possession of all former land and stock holdings of San Gabriel. Those Franciscans who remained with the mission continued to care for those Gabrielinos who remained with the mission until 1852. The dismantling of the mission and the expropriation of its lands ultimately left the Gabrielinos, who were to have inherited the newly improved agricultural lands, all but destitute and subject to exploitation at the hands of the new landowners. In 1859, U.S. president James Buchanan restored the old mission to the Catholic Church.

California’s Earliest Wine Industry

San Gabriel was the heart of the early California wine industry. At its height, the mission produced some five hundred barrels of wine per year from its four vineyards. In addition to fine wines and extensive vineyards, San Gabriel was noted for its production of brandy under the direction of Father Narciso Duran, whose brandy was described by wine connoisseur Fred McMillin as “double distilled and twice as strong as the good father’s faith.” In fact, the mission once boasted the oldest and largest winery in California and maintained three wine presses and eight stills for the production of brandy. So prosperous was the wine and brandy industry of Mission San Gabriel that between 1818 and 1822, it contributed seven barrels of brandy toward the establishment of the Church of Our Lady of the Angels some eight miles distant. Today, a single ancient grapevine bears witness to the vast wealth and great history of this mission’s agricultural legacy.

Places to Visit

Because the mission is located in the heart of the Los Angeles basin, one need only travel a few miles in any direction to find sites of historic significance related to San Gabriel or its vicinity. Where San Gabriel is concerned, the must-see sites are located in the area of the mission proper and within a radius of two to three miles around the old mission itself.

The Spanish era, from 1771 to 1820, is best characterized by the San Gabriel mission complex itself, including the mission church of 1805, a museum room-block dating to 1812, a cemetery of 1778, the mission kitchen, four brick-lined soap and tallow cisterns or boilers, laundry or tanning tanks, an original water cistern, and brick-lined hearths and an aqueduct located at the center of the courtyard.

Plaza Park, which lies immediately south of the church, includes markers commemorating the 1774 land expedition of Juan Bautista de Anza and the 1776 overland trek that saw the arrival of two hundred settlers from Sonora, Mexico. Two blocks north of the mission is “The Old Grapevine,” which represents the sole surviving strand of the mission mother vine used to plant the vineyards from which the mission’s wine industry grew.

The Old Plaza Church, or Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Angeles, was an assistencia or religious outpost of San Gabriel founded in 1784 to serve the needs of the new pueblo of Los Angeles. The church is located in downtown Los Angeles on Main Street.

On a hillside two miles northwest of the mission, in the City of San Marino, is located El Molino Viejo, or the “Old Mill” of San Gabriel dating to 1816.

Representative of the Mexican-rancho period, from 1821 to 1847, San Bernardino de Sena is an estancia or ranching outpost of San Gabriel located some fifty miles southeast of the mission in the city of Redlands. Originally founded as a ranch in 1818,the outpost was relocated to its present site in 1830.

For Further Information

  • Bonestell, Chesley, and Paul Johnson. “San Gabriel Arcangel.” In The Golden Era of the Missions: 1769-1834. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1974. With paintings by Bonestell.
  • City of San Gabriel Historical Walk.www.san
  • Krell, Dorothy, ed. “San Gabriel Arcangel.” In The California Missions: A Pictorial History. Menlo Park, Calif.: Sunset, 1993.
  • La Fiesta de San Gabriel.
  • McMillin, Fred. “San Gabriel Rang the Bell.” Wine Day.
  • Mendoza, Ruben G., and Kenneth D. Halla. “Mission Systems: Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.” In The Encyclopedia of North American History. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press/Marshall Cavendish, 1997. Reviews the mission system and the role of Serra in the founding of the California mission chain.
  • Ruscin, Terry. “San Gabriel, Arcangel.” In Mission Memoirs. San Diego: Sunbelt, 1999.
  • Schuetz-Miller, Mardith K. Building and Builders in Hispanic California, 1769-1850. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, 1994. An excellent resource for the study of Hispanic architecture in early California.
  • Wright, Ralph B., ed. “San Gabriel Arcangel.” In California Missions. Arroyo Grande, Calif.: Record Printing, 1980. A useful overview to the founding and development of the mission.