Skip to main content

The Spanish Missions of California

The Spanish Missions of CaliforniaPhoto from Unsplash

Originally Posted On:


California Missions is an online resource for information about the twenty-one beautiful missions that line the state of California. From San Diego to Sonoma, each historical mission has a colorful two-hundred-year-old story to tell. Our goal is to educate and inform students, teachers, and Internet visitors alike, about the fascinating history that is contained inside their massive adobe walls. The heritage left by the Missions and their Founding Fathers survives today and shapes the modern State of California.

Spanish Missions in California

In 1769, Franciscan Father Junípero Serra founded the first California Spanish Mission in San Diego. Over the next 54 years, twenty more missions were opened along the California coast. These Spanish missions, designed to spread Christianity among the Native Americans, joined the existing Spanish, French, and British missions in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Texas, and New Mexico. The missions prospered until 1833, when the Mexican government began selling the rich mission lands to private citizens in a process called secularization.

Although not trained as architects, the mission founders successfully combined the available raw materials, the building skill of the native Indians, and their Spanish heritage to create the twenty-one missions on the California coast. Their massive, low silhouettes demonstrate the limitations of adobe as a building material. This earthen brick, though strong, tended to be very heavy. The blocks could not be stacked too high, since they tended to topple. To prevent this and hold the weight of the tile roof, the walls had to be constructed up to five feet thick. Further, the use of adobe dictated that the missions had to be built with large awnings as the adobe walls dissolved in the rain. The areas exposed to the elements were plastered with lime stucco.

Today, the missions stand as the single greatest influence in California architecture. Their influence runs from the university campus to office buildings and millions of residential houses that share the “Spanish style” of stucco walls and tile roofs. When grouped together, the missions represent a combination of necessary, simple, yet massive construction influenced by their Spanish heritage from a continent thousands of miles away.

California Missions Heritage

The state of California draws over 100 million tourists each year from around the world. For millions of those travelers, a visit to one or more of the twenty-one California Spanish Missions is an integral part of their trip. With this in mind, it is no wonder that the missions draw more travelers to their pleasant grounds than any other historical attraction in the state. Some are lost in a metropolitan embrace, while others still stand in open valleys and remind visitors of the pastoral charm that was once their setting. The missions, and their history, recall the extent of Spanish influence in California.

Introduction to the Spanish Missions of California

Pre-Columbian history of California

The Americas were first colonized by humans between some 16,000 and 26,000 years ago, during the Last Glacial Maximum, a period when ice sheets covered much of North America. People migrating from Asia are believed to have crossed a land bridge, known as Beringia, that once connected Siberia to Alaska. The exact timing and route of this migration are still being debated by archaeologists, but there is growing evidence that humans were in the Americas much earlier than previously thought. Over time, these first colonizers spread throughout North and South America, becoming the ancestors of all the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. The findings of the remains of the Arlington Springs Man in 1959 on Santa Rosa Island indicate that California was already inhabited 13,000 years ago during the Wisconsin glaciation, the most recent ice age, and perhaps even earlier.

Before the arrival of Europeans, estimates suggest there may have been as many as 300,000 people living in California, making it one of the most densely populated and culturally diversified regions north of Mexico at the time. In all, at least 30 tribes or different cultural groups inhabited California. These groups included the early-arriving Hokan family and the later-arriving Uto-Aztecan. Native Californians lived in autonomous communities connected by trade and kinship networks. Linguists estimate that there were some six different language family groups and as many as 135 distinct dialects spoken in pre-Columbian California. At the time of the first European contact, the major cultural groups in California included the Chumash, Kumeyaay, Nisenan, Maidu, Miwok, Modoc, Mohave, Ohlone, Pomo, Serrano, Shasta, Tataviam, Tongva, Wintu, Yurok, and Yokuts.

European exploration of California

In 1542, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo was the first maritime explorer to claim the territory of California on behalf of the Spanish Empire. He departed from Mexico with two ships and sailed north along the California coast, landing in San Diego Bay on September 28, 1542. The expedition continued exploring north, likely reaching as far as present-day Oregon before being forced to turn back due to winter weather and Cabrillo’s death from injuries sustained in a fall. Cabrillo’s pilot, Bartolomé Ferrer, took command and eventually returned to Mexico reporting their findings to the Spanish Crown.

In 1579, English privateer and explorer Francis Drake landed on the California coast while he was circumnavigating the globe (1577-1580). The exact location of where he put ashore is debated, but it is believed to be somewhere near what is now Drakes Bay, north of San Francisco. While ashore, Drake claimed the land for Queen Elizabeth I of England, naming it “Nova Albion” (New Albion) due to the white cliffs resembling those of his homeland. Drake’s claim didn’t lead to immediate English colonization efforts in California. However, it did establish a competing claim to the region alongside Spanish interests.

On November 4, 1595, Sebastián Rodríguez Cermeño, who had been commissioned by King Felipe II of Spain to chart the California coast, anchored at Drakes Bay. Once ashore, Cermeño claimed the area in the name of the king of Spain. Despite actually failing to recognize the entrance to the great bay, Cermeño called the area “La Bahia de San Francisco,” in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan order.

In 1596, Sebastián Vizcaíno was appointed by the Spanish viceroy of New Spain, Gaspar de Zúñiga y Acevedo, to lead an expedition to explore the California coastline. His primary objectives were to chart the coast, search for potential harbors and resources, and assert Spanish control over the region.

In 1602, Vizcaíno sailed to California with three ships and explored its coastline on behalf of New Spain. The expedition was the most extensive European exploration of California up to that point. Vizcaíno mapped the coastline from Baja California to Monterey Bay, documenting bays, rivers, and potential areas for settlements. He named San Diego and Monterey Bay. He also made contact with various Indigenous groups along the coast. The detailed charts and maps he drove of the coast and the coastal waters of California would prove of immense value for the subsequent explorations. Indeed, Vizcaíno’s maps were used extensively during the Portolá and Serra expedition.

European settlement of California

In 1768, under the direction of King Charles III of Spain, the inspector general of New Spain, José de Gálvez, sent explorers to Alta California to settle the area. Spain intended to establish a permanent presence in the region and secure the territory against possible claims from Russians and the British Empire. The colonization of Alta California began in 1769 with the arrival at San Diego of the Portolá expedition. The Spanish crown often used missionaries to convert Indigenous populations to Catholicism alongside its colonization efforts.

Establishing missions in Alta California would expand Spanish religious influence and secure control over the new territory and its Native people. It was then not by chance that the Portolá expedition was accompanied by a group of Spanish Franciscan Missionaries. Among them was Junípero Serra (1713-1784), the Father Presidente of Alta California. On July 16, 1769, Father Serra founded the first mission of Alta California, Mission San Diego de Alcalá. It was the beginning of the mission system in Alta California. In a period of 54 years, a total of twenty-one missions, four presidios, and several pueblos were established along the coast of Alta California.

The devastating impact on the Indigenous population

The European colonization and the establishment of the mission system had a devastating impact on the Indigenous population of Alta California. It is estimated that some 300,000 Native peoples lived in Alta California before the mission era. By 1845, their number had halved to 150,000, one of the main reasons being the diseases introduced by the Spanish Colonists to which Indigenous populations had no prior exposure and lacked immunity. The discovery of gold in 1948 and the massive influx of new immigrants during the Gold Rush proved to be even worse for Native Americans of California. Estimates suggest that within just two decades of the Gold Rush, the Native American population in California had plummeted by over 80%. This period is often referred to as the California Genocide due to the systematic violence and destruction inflicted upon indigenous peoples. By the late 19th century, the Native American population in California is estimated to have plummeted to a mere 20,000 to 30,000.

Mexico’s independence and Secularization

After Mexico gained independence from Spain, in 1821, a slow but powerful process to spoil the mission system of its importance began, culminating in 1833, when the Mexican Congress passed the secularization law. Starting in 1834, one by one, the missions were sold and their economic monopoly was dismantled. At the time of secularization, the mission system had proved so successful that the Franciscan Friars held over 90% of all settled property in Alta California, supposedly in trust for the converted Indians living in the mission premises.

Los Californios

Instead, a new generation born in California, Los Californios, won large land grants from the dismantling of the mission system. Their ancestry stemmed from a mix of Spanish soldiers, missionaries, colonists, and indigenous people. Their lifestyle revolved around cattle ranching, a skill they adapted from the Spanish vaqueros (cowboys). They lived on large ranchos, raised horses and cattle, and held social gatherings called “fiestas” that featured music, dance, and traditional food. Their language was primarily Spanish with some unique regional variations. Los Californios played a crucial role in California’s early history and development and helped establish the ranching industry, which became a cornerstone of California’s economy.

Mexican-American War

During the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), many missions had already fallen in disrepair and some were used as military outposts. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed on February 2, 1848, officially ended the Mexican-American War. Under the treaty’s terms, Mexico ceded a vast amount of territory to the United States, including present-day California, in exchange for $15 million.

California becomes part of the United States

The discovery of gold in California in 1848 triggered a massive influx of immigrants. This rapid population growth made California a prime candidate for statehood. In anticipation of statehood, California drafted a constitution in 1849 that prohibited slavery. This constitution was ratified by popular vote in the same year. On September 9, 1850, President Millard Fillmore signed the California Statehood Act into law, officially admitting California as the 31st state of the United States.

Mission properties are returned to the Catholic Church

In the 1850s, the U.S. government began returning some mission properties to the Catholic Church. In 1859, President James Buchanan signed an executive order returning most of the remaining mission buildings to the Catholic Church. In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued an executive order returning additional mission properties to the Church. The focus of the returns was primarily on the mission buildings and small surrounding areas.

Preservation and rebuilding of the California missions

Today, after suffering much neglect and earthquake damage, the twenty-one missions of Alta California have been either preserved or rebuilt thanks to the joint effort of various California mission historical societies and preservation committees. Many mission buildings now include parish churches and museums and have become popular tourist attractions. The beauty of their settings, their magnificent architecture, and their controversial Spanish past continue to fascinate the visitors and inspire awe in them.

Data & News supplied by
Stock quotes supplied by Barchart
Quotes delayed at least 20 minutes.
By accessing this page, you agree to the following
Privacy Policy and Terms and Conditions.