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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

The Legacy of California's Missions

Two hundred and fifty years after Hernán Cortés claimed Mexico and the vast lands north of it for Spain, it came to the attention of the mother country that Russian ships were touching land here and there along the northern California coastline. This Russian activity was seen as a threat. Imperial Spain claimed ownership of the land known as Alta California, yet through two and a half centuries, had seldom sent exploratory voyages there, and had never occupied it. Now, to defend their claims against perceived Russian aggression, a Spanish presence became imperative.

In 1768, King Carlos III issued the order: a company of Franciscan padres, already living in Spanish Mexico on the Baja California peninsula, would colonize the remote region on New Spain’s northwest frontier.

Between then and 1823, a total of twenty-one missionary churches formed outposts along the California coast from San Diego to Sonoma, spaced a stiff day’s travel apart on a dirt trail that became known as the El Camino Real; often in view of the Pacific Ocean, but always near a fresh water supply and fertile soil. The Spanish missions grew and flourished for nearly half a century, from 1769 through the early years after Mexico won its independence from Spain. Their crops, livestock, granaries, tanneries, wineries and other industries fed and clothed priests and Spanish soldiers and thousands of native Indians, but the new regime—constantly in turmoil and constrained by an inadequate treasury—was jealous of the Franciscan’s power and wealth. Mexico ordered that the missions be secularized: transferred from church ownership to private parties, an order carried out during the 1830s. Then, following the American takeover of California, the missions were either abandoned or used for other purposes. Late in the 19th century, the crumbling relics were restored, one by one, with several reclaiming their function as active churches.

Today each site receives thousands of visitors annually, visitors who often see them as quaint old churches to be viewed in the way the cathedrals of Europe are viewed, instead of what the twenty-one California missions really are: the visible symbols of California’s colonial past.

In order of establishment they are:

1. (1769) Mission San Diego

2. (1770) Mission San Carlos 3. (1771) Mission San Antonio 4. (1771) Mission San Gabriel

5. (1772) Mission San Luis Obispo 6. (1776) Mission Dolores (San Francisco) 7. (1776) Mission San Juan Capistrano 8. (1777) Mission Santa Clara 9. (1782) Mission San Buenaventura

10. (1786) Mission Santa Barbara 11. (1787) Mission La Purísima

12. (1791) Mission Santa Cruz 13. (1791) Mission Soledad 14. (1797) Mission San José 15. (1797) Mission San Juan Bautista 16. (1797) Mission San Miguel 17. (1797) Mission San Fernando 18. (1798) Mission San Luis Rey

19. (1804) Mission Santa Inés

20. (1817) Mission San Rafael 21. (1823) Mission San Francisco Solano

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