Rise of the California Missions Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Twenty-one Catholic missions, four military installations, and several towns established Spain’s claim to Alta, or upper, California, altering the lives of thousands of American Indians.

Summary of Event

The global Spanish Empire Imperialism;Spanish had gradually developed a mission system Catholic Church;mission system that suited imperial policy in places as distant from Spain as the Philippines, Paraguay, and Baja California. With a relatively modest investment, the Crown could extend its frontiers and establish opportunities for further expansion later. [kw]Rise of the California Missions (July 17, 1769-1824) [kw]Missions, Rise of the California (July 17, 1769-1824) [kw]California Missions, Rise of the (July 17, 1769-1824) California;Catholic missions [g]American colonies;July 17, 1769-1824: Rise of the California Missions[1940] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;July 17, 1769-1824: Rise of the California Missions[1940] [c]Colonization;July 17, 1769-1824: Rise of the California Missions[1940] [c]Religion and theology;July 17, 1769-1824: Rise of the California Missions[1940] [c]Organizations and institutions;July 17, 1769-1824: Rise of the California Missions[1940] Gálvez, José de Lausen, Fermín de Portolá, Gaspar de Serra, Junípero

Two or three missionaries per location could attract indigenous peoples North America;Spanish colonization to a different way of life. The American Indians would learn manual trades, farming, cattle-raising, smithing, tanning, weaving, and other rudimentary skills, so that they could manage the mission on their own. A few soldiers at each mission—never more than ten—enforced discipline. On occasions of serious trouble, appeal could be made to strategically placed presidios that housed sizable, highly mobile military forces capable of putting down any rebellions. When the missions developed enough, a pueblo might be established nearby, able to make use of the growing mission economy without having to follow the often austere mission routine.

The Spanish missionaries, usually members of religious orders (the regular clergy), expected to complete their work in ten years, after which the establishments were to be secularized: The administration of Church affairs would be in the hands of the secular clergy, and all the mission’s properties and possessions would be dispersed. Church authorities would receive the church buildings and some surrounding land, and indigenous peoples would receive at least half of all the possessions and land.

For 160 years, missionaries in New Spain sought to evangelize the peoples of the Upper California territories, Alta California California;exploration and settlement claimed for Spain by Cabrillo, Juan Rodríguez Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo in 1524 and Vizcaíno, Sebastián Sebastián Vizcaíno in 1611. Without royal approval, however, ecclesiastical initiatives were not implemented in the Spanish Empire. Even many popes, as well as lowly missionaries, discovered this policy.





In 1741, Danish captain Bering, Vitus Jonassen Vitus Jonassen Bering had reached Alaska and claimed much of North America’s west coast. Croix, Carlos Francisco de Carlos Francisco de Croix became the viceroy of New Spain in 1766. Along with José de Gálvez, visitador general of King Charles III, Croix laid plans for a series of missions in Alta California to blunt Russian-Spanish conflicts[Russian Spanish conflicts] Spanish-Russian conflicts[Spanish Russian conflicts] Russian exploration;Spanish opposition to Russian expansionist plans. Gálvez’s plans called for a mission and fort at Monterey Bay in the north. They chose San Diego Missions;San Diego, California in the south as the site of the first mission because it was about half the distance from the base in Loreto, Baja California. Gálvez selected Gaspar de Portolá to be governor of California and Father Junípero Serra as president of the missions.

Four foundation parties, two by land and two by sea, set out from Baja for the arduous journey. Most of the sailors died, as did many of those taking part in the overland trek. On July 17, 1769, Serra dedicated the mission of San Diego mission, California San Diego de Alcalá on a site five miles west of the present mission. Portolá pushed on to Missions;Monterey, California Monterey with a small party but left no permanent settlement. That came about the following year, under Serra. Between Serra and his immediate successor, Father Fermín de Lausen, eighteen of the twenty-one missions were built by 1798.

Economics determined the sequence of building the missions. Largely dependent on shipping for supplies in the earliest years, the missions were first clustered in three areas: south (San Diego), central (Santa Barbara Channel) and north (Monterey). Gradually, the gaps between the missions were closed to lessen their reliance on the vagaries of eighteenth century shipping. In 1776, Juan Bautista de Anza Anza, Juan Bautista de led an arduous overland expedition to San Francisco mission, California San Francisco through the southern deserts, demonstrating that New Spain no longer need rely on the sea to supply California. In all, Spain founded twenty of the missions. After independence, Mexican authorities founded the last of the missions at Sonoma, San Francisco de Solano, dedicated in 1823.

A twentieth century photograph of the bell tower of Mission San Diego de Alcalá, the first of the California missions. The original building was rebuilt in 1808.

(Library of Congress)

In late eighteenth century California, there were about 130,000 American Indians California;American Indians living in many small bands. The land supported them well in a life that was not much different from the one they had lived five thousand years before. Abundant potable water, fish, and game were within easy reach. Of all the indigenous peoples of what would become the United States, they made the swiftest, most seaworthy boats, without knowing metal trades. Their loosely structured societies lacked a central organization. They had no writing system for their six languages and several dialects. There were no organized wars, although occasional raids to steal goods were not unknown. Shelter was modest, at most.

It quickly became clear to the Franciscan missionaries missionaries that they needed more workers if the missions were to become self-sufficient. They stepped up recruitment of the indigenous peoples American Indians;and Catholicism[Catholicism] Catholic Church;and American Indians[American Indians] as laborers, often luring them with trinkets. The Franciscan missionary plan initially included teaching the native populations in their own languages, but the diversity was so extensive that that plan was abandoned, and Spanish was chosen instead to be the lingua franca of California.

The missions attracted people from surrounding areas with the promise of better living conditions and some amenities unavailable to those on the outside. If the indigenous converted Religious conversion of indigenous peoples to Christianity Christianity;and American Indians[American Indians] —a condition for remaining within the economic ambit of the mission—they were no longer at liberty to return to their previous way of life, although many did, in fact, escape. American Indians living in the mission were permitted, even encouraged, to visit their families for weeks at a time. This policy proved to be the best recruiting tool the missionaries possessed.

The workers did learn trades, and some even learned to read and write. Daily work usually finished by mid-morning, and numerous feast days provided diversion from the normal regimen. By the time of secularization in 1834, approximately thirty thousand American Indians resided at the missions, with only sixty friars and three hundred soldiers along the 650 miles from San Diego to Sonoma. The missions held 230,000 cattle, 34,000 horses, and 268,000 hogs, sheep, and goats.


Mission life was far removed from that visited upon the indigenous peoples’ ancestors by the savage conquistadores of the sixteenth century. The process of colonization was relatively peaceful, and on balance the indigenous population fared better under the Spanish friars than people in other colonies and received better treatment than they received subsequently in Mexico or in the United States. However, because the mission system destroyed their previous tranquil existence and failed to prepare them for the promised secularization, it cannot escape historical criticism. The California Indians were introduced into an alien culture as little more than slaves; they suffered tragically from European diseases Diseases;and Catholic missions[Catholic missions] and, in the end, were ill-equipped for any other existence, either that of their own rapidly declining culture or that of the new California.

When Mexico gained independence from Spain, the new government resolved to secularize the missions. When secularization began, American Indians were either tricked into giving up their rights or their rights simply were ignored in the land grab of what had been the missions. Stranded after secularization, many of the Indians at the missions had nowhere else to go, so they stayed on, continuing menial work under new masters. Only in the twentieth century were there some modest advances in their status. The U.S. government gave most of the mission buildings back to the Catholic Church after California entered the Union. Many of the missions have been restored to a romantic, tranquil, even charming condition that belies their troubled history.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cook, Sherburne Friend. The Conflict Between the California Indian and White Civilization. 4 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1943. A scholarly collection that chronicles the troubled history of American Indians during and after the mission period. Rich bibliographies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Costo, Rupert, and Jeannette Henry Costo, eds. The Missions of California: A Legacy of Genocide. San Francisco, Calif.: Indian Historian Press, 1987. A collection that vigorously indicts the evils of the mission system.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Englehardt, Zephyrin. The Missions and Missionaries of California. 4 vols. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Mission Santa Barbara, 1929. The monumental standard reference work on the missions, giving an overall positive evaluation of the system.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Font Obrador, Bartolome. Fr. Junipero Serra: Mallorca, Mexico, Sierra Gorda, Californias. Palma, Mallorca, Spain: Comissio de Cultura, 1992. A biography of Serra that depends on, but summarizes well, the work of many earlier authors.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Geiger, Maynard J. The Life and Times of Fray Junipero Serra, OFM. 2 vols. Washington, D.C.: Academy of American Franciscan History, 1959. A large, sympathetic biography that relies heavily on original sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnson, Paul C., et al., eds. The California Missions: A Pictorial History. Menlo Park, Calif.: Lane, 1985. A colorful, popular, accessible, and reliable work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lightfoot, Kent G. Indians, Missionaries, and Merchants: The Legacy of Colonial Encounters on the California Frontiers. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. Lightfoot compares the treatment of California Indians by the Franciscan missionaries with the treatment of Russian merchants who came to the state in the eighteenth century. An anthropologist, Lightfoot bases his account on oral histories, indigenous texts, archaeological excavations, and other sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sandos, James A. Converting California: Indians and Franciscans in the Missions. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2004. A history of the missions from the founding of the first mission in 1769 until 1836, when the missions were turned over to the public. Sandos focuses on the religious conflicts between the missionaries and American Indians.

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Categories: History