The Spanish Missions of California

 San Carlos Mission by Robert Holmes

Mision San Carlos, Carmel
Golden State Gallery
Photo © Robert Holmes

Starting in 1769 with the founding of Mission San Diego de Alcala, the Fransiscan Fathers built 21 missions in California under Spanish colonial rule. The most famous is San Juan Capistrano, between Los Angeles and San Diego, a beautiful mission known for its legend of the swallows, which return every year in March. Spain also built missions throughout Mexico and the Southwest, though few are as well known as the ones in California.

Despite its enormous natural resources and wealth, Spain did not settle California until fairly late, in order to prevent other colonial powers from claiming the territory. A chain of 21 missions was built about a days ride away from each other to facilitate this task. Spain's only real interest in California, at least at first, was to control the coast so that the Manila galleons to New Spain (Mexico) would remain safe.

The Missions were an essential part of the Spanish colonial structure. Their primary function was to Christianize the natives, to pacify them and educate them to become loyal Spanish subjects. Normally, a mission would support the development of a pueblo for Spaniards to settle in. A presidio (military garrison) would protect the missions and pueblos. Historically, the missions were the most effective in contributing to the peaceful colonization of California.

Beyond the obvious strategic and religious functions, the missions were influential in other areas. The religious orders valued education and did a great deal to promote literacy among the natives. Spain's initial disinterest in California and the lack of support resources made the economic functions of the missions even more crucial to their survival. They supported the cultivation of crops and animal husbandry and provided training in a number of skills. Spain made an enormous contribution to California's economy in that they brought the first domestic grapes and oranges, crops that are become a mainstay of California's economy.

Reredos. Mission San Juan Bautista.
Reredos. Mission San Juan Bautista.
San Benito County, CA
Courtesy of Coolspots California
Link unavailable

The Spaniards were also influential in destroying some of the pillars of native society. All of the European colonial nations, and indeed the United States in its westward expansion, have perpetuated horrible acts against the natives in the process of colonization. Spain, tragically, was no different. The priests' treatment of the natives was often quite harsh, due to the traditional European colonial attitude of cultural superiority. An equally important explanation for the Spaniards' actions in California is the fact that they enjoyed meager economic support from the colonial power. In fairness, it should be noted that throughout history a number of priests fundamentally rejected the dominant colonial attitudes toward the natives and acted as a voice of conscience in curbing colonial excesses.

Mission Santa Barbara. by Robert Holmes
Mission Santa Barbara
Golden State Gallery
Photo © Robert Holmes

The majority of missions show a number of common architectural characteristics. One is the fountain at the center of the courtyard, which indicated the relative wealth of the mission. Another is the number of courtyards and gardens. Finally, there is the use of arches on many mission buildings. These all show the unmistakable influence of the Moslems on building and architecture in Spain following the expulsion of the Moors, and all were common traits in the architecture throughout the Islamic world.

Altar. Mission Santa Barbara. 
Courtesy Coolspots California
Altar-Mission Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara, CA
Courtesy of Coolspots California
inactive link

The early 1800's brought major changes. First, Mexico won independance from Spain. The missions were secularized and the Spanish priests were expected to leave. Mission assets would presumably be returned to the Indians, though there is little evidence that this ever happened. These factors, along with a number of natural disasters and armed conflicts, caused many of the Missions to fall into disrepair. Recently, there have been efforts to restore them to preserve a valuable part of our history. Most of the missions were built with adobe and over time fell victim to fires, earthquakes, and other disasters. Some of the missions have been restored almost completely, but this task is complicated by the need to protect the structures against earthquakes.

California Missions by Jeri Meier
The Spanish Missions of California
California Mission Studies Assn.

Mission San Gabriel Arcangel Bells
Mission San Gabriel Arcangel Bells
San Gabriel, CA
©1997 by IVN Communications

Last Updated May 2, 2001

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