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The Spanish missions in Alta California comprise a series of 21 religious and military outposts; established by Catholic priests of the Franciscan order between 1769 and 1833, to spread Christianity among the local Native Americans. The missions were part of the first major effort by Europeans to colonize the Pacific Coast region, the most northern and western of Spain's North American claims. The settlers introduced European fruits, vegetables, cattle, horses, ranching and technology into the Alta California region; however, the Spanish colonization of California also brought with it serious negative consequences to the Native American populations with whom the missionaries and other Spaniards came in contact.
The government of Mexico secularized the missions in the 1830s and divided the vast mission land holdings into land grants which became many of the Ranchos of California. In the end, the missions had mixed results in their objectives: to convert, educate, and "civilize" the indigenous population and transform the natives into Spanish colonial citizens. Today, the surviving mission buildings are the state's oldest structures and the most-visited historic monuments.
Beginning in 1492 with the voyages of Christopher Columbus, the Kingdom of Spain sought to establish missions to convert the Natives in Nueva España ("New Spain", consisting of the Caribbean, Mexico and most of what today is the Southwestern United States) to Roman Catholicism in order to facilitate colonization of these lands awarded to Spain by the Catholic Church, including that region known as Alta California. However, it was not until 1741—the time of the Vitus Bering expedition, when the territorial ambitions of Tsarist Russia towards North America became known—that King Philip V felt such installations were necessary in Upper California.
California represents the "high-water mark" of Spanish expansion in North America, it being the last and northernmost colony on the continent. The mission system arose in part from the need to control Spain's ever-expanding holdings in the New World. Realizing that the colonies would require a literate population base that the mother country could not supply, the government (with the cooperation of the Church) established a network of missions with the goal of converting the Natives to Christianity; the aim was to make converts and tax paying citizens of the Indigenous peoples they conquered. To become Spanish citizens and productive inhabitants, the Native Americans were required to learn Spanish language and vocational skills along with Christian teachings. Estimates for the pre-contact Native population in California have been based on a number of different sources (and therefore vary substantially), but Indigenous peoples may have numbered as high as 300,000, divided into more than 100 separate tribes or nations.
On January 29, 1767 King Charles III ordered the Jesuits, who had established a chain of fifteen missions in Baja California, forcibly expelled and returned to the home country. Visitador General José de Gálvez engaged the Franciscans, under the leadership of Fray Junípero Serra, to take charge of those outposts on March 12, 1768. The padres closed or consolidated several of the existing settlements, and also founded Misión San Fernando Rey de España de Velicatá (the only Franciscan mission in all of Baja California) and the nearby Visita de la Presentación in 1769. This plan, however, was changed within a few months after Gálvez received the following orders: "Occupy and fortify San Diego and Monterey for God and the King of Spain."  It was thereupon decided to call upon the priests of the Dominican Order to take charge of the Baja California missions in order to allow the Franciscans to concentrate on founding new missions in Alta California.
On July 14, 1769 Gálvez sent the Portolá expedition out from Loreto to explore lands to the north. Leader Gaspar de Portolá was accompanied by a group of Franciscans led by Junípero Serra. Serra's plan was to extend the string of missions north from Baja California, connected by an established road and spaced a day's travel apart. The first Alta California mission and presidio were founded at San Diego, the second at Monterey.
En route to Monterey, Fathers Francisco Gómez and Juan Crespí came across a Native settlement wherein two young girls were dying: one, a baby, said to be "dying at its mother's breast", the other a small girl suffering of burns. On July 22, Father Gómez baptized the baby, giving her the name "Maria Magdalena", while Father Crespí baptized the older child, naming her "Margarita;" these were the first recorded baptisms in Alta California. Crespi dubbed the spot "Los Cristianos". The group continued northward but missed Monterey Harbor and returned to San Diego on January 24, 1770. Near the end of 1769 the Portolá expedition had reached its most northerly point at present-day San Francisco. In following years, the Spanish Crown sent forth a number of expeditions to explore more of Alta California and the Pacific Northwest.
Each mission was to be turned over to a secular clergy and all the common mission lands distributed amongst the native population within ten years after its founding, a policy that was based upon Spain's experience with the more advanced tribes in Mexico, Central America, and Peru. In time, it became apparent to Father Serra and his associates that the natives on the northern frontier in Alta California required a much longer period of acclimatization. None of the California missions ever attained complete self-sufficiency, and required continued (albeit modest) financial support from mother Spain. Mission development was therefore financed out of El Fondo Piadoso de las Californias ("The Pious Fund of the Californias", which originated in 1697 and consisted of voluntary donations from individuals and religious bodies in Mexico to members of the Society of Jesus) to enable the missionaries to propagate the Catholic Faith in the area then known as California. Starting with the onset of the Mexican War of Independence in 1810, this support largely disappeared and the missions and their converts were left on their own (as of 1800, native labor had made up the backbone of the colonial economy).
Arguably "the worst epidemic of the Spanish Era in California" was known to be the measles epidemic of 1806, wherein one-quarter of the mission Native American population of the San Francisco Bay area died of the measles or related complications between March and May of that year. In 1811, the Spanish Viceroy in Mexico sent an interrogatorio (questionnaire) to all of the missions in Alta California regarding the customs, disposition, and condition of the Mission Indians. The replies, which varied greatly in the length, spirit, and even the value of the information contained therein, were collected and prefaced by the Father-Presidente with a short general statement or abstract; the compilation was thereupon forwarded to the viceregal government. The contemporary nature of the responses, no matter how incomplete or biased some may be, are nonetheless of considerable value to modern ethnologists.
Russian colonization of the Americas reached its southernmost point with the 1812 establishment of Fort Ross (krepost' rus), an agricultural, scientific, and fur-trading settlement located in present-day Sonoma County, California. In November and December 1818, several of the missions were attacked by Hipólito Bouchard, "California's only pirate."  A French privateer sailing under the flag of Argentina, Pirata Buchar (as he was known to the locals) worked his way down the California coast, conducting raids on the installations at Monterey, Santa Barbara, and San Juan Capistrano, with limited success. Upon hearing of the attacks, many mission priests (along with a few government officials) sought refuge at Mission Nuestra Señora de la Soledad, the mission chain's most isolated outpost. Ironically, Mission Santa Cruz (though ultimately ignored by the marauders) was ignominiously sacked and vandalized by local residents who were entrusted with securing the church's valuables.
By 1819, Spain decided to limit its "reach" in the New World to Northern California due to the costs involved in sustaining these remote outposts; the northernmost settlement therefore is Mission San Francisco Solano, founded in Sonoma in 1823. An attempt to found a twenty-second mission in Santa Rosa in 1827 was aborted.
José María de Echeandía, the first native Mexican elected Governor of Alta California issued a "Proclamation of Emancipation" (or "Prevenciónes de Emancipacion") on July 25, 1826. All Indians within the military districts of San Diego, Santa Barbara, and Monterey who were found qualified were freed from missionary rule and made eligible to become Mexican citizens. Those who wished to remain under mission tutelage were exempted from most forms of corporal punishment. By 1830 even the neophyte populations themselves appeared confident in their own abilities to operate the mission ranches and farms independently; the padres, however, doubted the capabilities of their charges in this regard.
Accelerating immigration, both Mexican and foreign, increased pressure on the Alta California government to seize the mission properties and dispossess the natives in accordance with Echeandía's directive. Despite the fact that Echeandía's emancipation plan was met with little encouragement from the novices who populated the southern missions, he was nonetheless determined to test the scheme on a large scale at Mission San Juan Capistrano. To that end, he appointed a number of comisionados (commissioners) to oversee the emancipation of the Indians. The Mexican government passed legislation on December 20, 1827 that mandated the expulsion of all Spaniards younger than sixty years of age from Mexican territories; Governor Echeandía nevertheless intervened on behalf of some of the missionaries in order to prevent their deportation once the law took effect in California.
Governor José Figueroa (who took office in 1833) initially attempted to keep the mission system intact, but the Mexican Congress passed An Act for the Secularization of the Missions of California on August 17, 1833. The Act also provided for the colonization of both Alta and Baja California, the expenses of this latter move to be borne by the proceeds gained from the sale of the mission property to private interests.
Mission San Juan Capistrano was the very first to feel the effects of secularization when, on August 9, 1834 Governor Figueroa issued his "Decree of Confiscation."  Nine other settlements quickly followed, with six more in 1835; San Buenaventura and San Francisco de Asís were among the last to succumb, in June and December 1836, respectively. The Franciscans soon thereafter abandoned most of the missions, taking with them almost everything of value, after which the locals typically plundered the mission buildings for construction materials. Former mission pasture lands were divided into large land grants called ranchos, greatly increasing the number of private land holdings in Alta California.
In spite of this neglect, the Indian towns at San Juan Capistrano, San Dieguito, and Las Flores did continue on for some time under a provision in Gobernador Echeandía's 1826 Proclamation that allowed for the partial conversion of missions to pueblos. According to one estimate, the native population in and around the missions proper was approximately 80,000 at the time of the confiscation; others claim that the statewide population had dwindled to approximately 100,000 by the early 1840s, due in no small part to the natives' exposure to European diseases, and from the Franciscan practice of cloistering women in the convento and controlling sexuality during the child-bearing age. (Baja California experienced a similar reduction in native population resulting from Spanish colonization efforts there).
When assessing the relative importance of the various sources of the native population decline in California, including Old World epidemic diseases, violence, nutritional changes, and cultural shock, it is clear that declines tended to be steepest in the areas directly affected by the missions and the Gold Rush. "The first (factor) was the food supply...The second factor was disease...A third factor, which strongly intensified the effect of the other two, was the social and physical disruption visited upon the Indian. He was driven from his home by the thousands, starved, beaten, raped, and murdered with impunity. He was not only given no assistance in the struggle against foreign diseases, but was prevented from adopting even the most elementary measures to secure his food, clothing, and shelter. The utter devastation caused by the white man was literally incredible, and not until the population figures are examined does the extent of the havoc become evident."
Pío de Jesus Pico, the last Mexican Governor of Alta California, found upon taking office that there were few funds available to carry on the affairs of the province. He prevailed upon the assembly to pass a decree authorizing the renting or the sale of all mission property, reserving only the church, a curate's house, and a building for a courthouse. The expenses of conducting the services of the church were to be provided from the proceeds, but there was no disposition made as to what should be done to secure the funds for that purpose. After secularization, Father Presidente Narciso Durán transferred the missions' headquarters to Santa Barbara, thereby making Mission Santa Barbara the repository of some 3,000 original documents that had been scattered through the California missions. The Mission archive is the oldest library in the State of California that still remains in the hands of its founders, the Franciscans (it is the only mission where they have maintained an uninterrupted presence). Beginning with the writings of Hubert Howe Bancroft, the library has served as a center for historical study of the missions for more than a century. In 1895 journalist and historian Charles Fletcher Lummis criticized the Act and its results, saying:
Disestablishment—a polite term for robbery—by Mexico (rather than by native Californians misrepresenting the Mexican government) in 1834, was the death blow of the mission system. The lands were confiscated; the buildings were sold for beggarly sums, and often for beggarly purposes. The Indian converts were scattered and starved out; the noble buildings were pillaged for their tiles and adobes...
By way of confiscation of the missions between 1834 and 1838 the approximately 15,000 resident neophytes lost the protection of the mission system, along with their stock and other movable property; by the transfer of California to the United States, they were left without legal title to their land. Via the Act of September 30, 1850, Congress appropriated funds to allow the President to appoint three Commissioners, O. M. Wozencraft, Redick McKee and George W. Barbour, to study the California situation and "...negotiate treaties with the various Indian tribes of California." Treaty negotiations ensued during the period between March 19, 1851 and January 7, 1852, during which the Commission interacted with 402 Indian chiefs and headmen (representing approximately one-third to one-half of the California tribes) and entered into eighteen treaties. California Senator William M. Gwin's Act of March 3, 1851 created the Public Land Commission, whose purpose was to determine the validity of Spanish and Mexican land grants in California. On February 19, 1853 Archbishop J.S. Alemany filed petitions for the return of all former mission lands in the state. Ownership of 1,051.44 acres (for all practical intents being the exact area of land occupied by the original mission buildings, cemeteries, and gardens) was subsequently conveyed to the Church, along with the Cañada de los Pinos (or College Rancho) in Santa Barbara County comprising 35,499.73 acres (143.6623 km2), and La Laguna in San Luis Obispo County, consisting of 4,157.02 acres (16.8229 km2). As the result of a U.S. government investigation in 1873, a number of Indian reservations were assigned by executive proclamation in 1875. The commissioner of Indian affairs reported in 1879 that the number of Mission Indians in the state was down to around 3,000.
In addition to the presidio (royal fort) and pueblo (town), the misión was one of the three major agencies employed by the Spanish sovereign to extend its borders and consolidate its colonial territories. Asistencias ("satellite" or "sub" missions, sometimes referred to as "contributing chapels") were small-scale missions that regularly conducted Mass on days of obligation but lacked a resident priest; as with the missions, these settlements were typically established in areas with high concentrations of potential native converts. The Spanish Californians had never strayed from the coast when establishing their settlements; Mission Nuestra Señora de la Soledad was located farthest inland, being only some thirty miles (48 kilometers) from the shore. Each frontier station was forced to be self-supporting, as existing means of supply were inadequate to maintain a colony of any size. California was months away from the nearest base in colonized Mexico, and the cargo ships of the day were too small to carry more than a few months’ rations in their holds. To sustain a mission, the padres required the help of colonists or converted Native Americans, called neophytes, to cultivate crops and tend livestock in the volume needed to support a fair-sized establishment. The scarcity of imported materials, together with a lack of skilled laborers, compelled the Fathers to employ simple building materials and methods in the construction of mission structures.
Although the missions were considered temporary ventures by the Spanish hierarchy, the development of an individual settlement was not simply a matter of "priestly whim." The founding of a mission followed longstanding rules and procedures; the paperwork involved required months, sometimes years of correspondence, and demanded the attention of virtually every level of the bureaucracy. Once empowered to erect a mission in a given area, the men assigned to it chose a specific site that featured a good water supply, plenty of wood for fires and building materials, and ample fields for grazing herds and raising crops. The padres blessed the site, and with the aid of their military escort fashioned temporary shelters out of tree limbs or driven stakes, roofed with thatch or reeds (cañas). It was these simple huts that ultimately gave way to the stone and adobe buildings that exist to the present.
The first priority when beginning a settlement was the location and construction of the church (iglesia). The majority of mission sanctuaries were oriented on a roughly east-west axis to take the best advantage of the sun's position for interior illumination; the exact alignment depended on the geographic features of the particular site. Once the spot for the church had been selected, its position was marked and the remainder of the mission complex was laid out. The workshops, kitchens, living quarters, storerooms, and other ancillary chambers were usually grouped in the form of a quadrangle, inside which religious celebrations and other festive events often took place. The cuadrángulo was rarely a perfect square because the Fathers had no surveying instruments at their disposal and simply measured off all dimensions by foot. Some fanciful accounts regarding the construction of the missions claimed that underground tunnels were incorporated in the design, to be used as a means of emergency egress in the event of attack; however, no historical evidence (written or physical) has ever been uncovered to support these wild assertions.
The Alta California missions known as reductions (reducciones) or congregations (congregaciones), were settlements founded by the Spanish colonizers of the New World with the purpose of totally assimilating indigenous populations into European culture and the Catholic religion. It was a doctrine established in 1531, which based the Spanish state's right over the land and persons of the Indies on the Papal charge to evangelize them. It was employed wherever the indigenous populations were not already concentrated in native pueblos. Indians were congregated around the mission proper through the use of means including forced resettlement, whereupon they were "reduced" from a perceived free "undisciplined'" state and ultimately converted into "civilized" members of colonial society. Their own civilized and disciplined culture, developed over 8,000 years of freedom, was not considered. A total of 146 Friars Minor, all of whom were ordained as priests (and mostly Spaniards by birth) served in California between 1769 and 1845. 67 missionaries died at their posts (two as martyrs: Padres Luís Jayme and Andrés Quintana), while the remainder returned to Europe due to illness, or upon completing their ten-year service commitment. As the rules of the Franciscan Order forbade friars to live alone, two missionaries were assigned to each settlement, sequestered in the mission's convento. To these the governor assigned a guard of five or six soldiers under the command of a corporal, who generally acted as steward of the mission's temporal affairs, subject to the fathers' direction.
Indians were initially attracted into the mission compaunds by gifts of food, colored beads, bits of bright cloth, and trinkets. Once a Native American "gentile" was baptized, they were labeled a neophyte, or new believer. This happened only after a brief period during which the initiates were instructed in the most basic aspects of the Catholic faith. But, while many natives were lured to join the missions out of curiosity and sincere desire to participate and engage in trade, many found themselves trapped once they were baptised.).
To the padres, a baptized Indian person was no longer free to move about the country, but had to labor and worship at the mission under the strict observance of the fathers and overseers, who herded them to daily masses and labors. If an Indian did not report for their duties for a period of a few days, they were searched for, and if it was discovered that they had left without permission, they were considered runaways. Large-scale military expeditions were organized to round up the escaped neophytes. Sometimes the Franciscans even permitted neophytes to escape to their villages, so that an expedition might be organized to follow them and in the process of capturing the fugitives, a dozen or more new "Christians" could be rounded up. "On one occasion," writes Hugo Reid, "they went as far as the present Rancho del Chino, where they tied and whipped every man, woman and child in the lodge, and drove part of them back.... On the road they did the same with those of the lodge at San Jose. On arriving home the men were instructed to throw their bows and arrows at the feet of the priest, and make due submission. The infants were then baptized, as were also all children under eight years of age; the former were left with their mothers, but the latter kept apart from all communication with their parents. The consequence was, first, the women consented to the rite and received it, for the love they bore their children; and finally the males gave way for the purpose of enjoying once more the society of wife and family. Marriage was then performed, and so this contaminated race, in their own sight and that of their kindred, became followers of Christ."
A total of 20,355 natives were "attached" to the California missions in 1806 (the highest figure recorded during in the Mission Period); under Mexican rule the number rose to 21,066 (in 1824, the record year during the entire era of the Franciscan missions).During the entire period of Mission rule, from 1769 to 1834, the Franciscans baptized 53,600 adult Indians and buried 37,000. Dr. Cook estimates that 15,250 or 45% of the population decrease was caused by disease. Two epidemics of measles, one in 1806 and the other in 1828, caused many deaths. The mortality rates were so high that the missions were constantly dependent upon new conversions.
Young native women were required to reside in the monjerío (or "nunnery") under the supervision of a trusted Indian matron who bore the responsibility for their welfare and education. Women only left the convent after they had been "won" by an Indian suitor and were deemed ready for marriage. Following Spanish custom, courtship took place on either side of a barred window. After the marriage ceremony the woman moved out of the mission compound and into one of the family huts. These "nunneries" were considered a necessity by the priests, who felt the women needed to be protected from the men, both Indian and de razón. The cramped and unsanitary conditions the girls lived in contributed to the fast spread of disease and population decline. So many died at times that many of the Indian residents of the missions urged the fathers to raid new villages to supply them with more women. As of December 31, 1832 (the peak of the mission system's development) the mission padres had performed a combined total of 87,787 baptisms and 24,529 marriages, and recorded 63,789 deaths.
The neophytes were kept in well-guarded mission compounds. The policy of the Franciscans was to keep them constantly occupied. "If the Indian would not work," writes C. D. Willard, "he was starved and flogged. If he ran away he was pursued and brought back."
Bells were vitally important to daily life at any mission. The bells were rung at mealtimes, to call the Mission residents to work and to religious services, during births and funerals, to signal the approach of a ship or returning missionary, and at other times; novices were instructed in the intricate rituals associated with the ringing the mission bells. The daily routine began with sunrise Mass and morning prayers, followed by instruction of the natives in the teachings of the Roman Catholic faith. After a generous (by era standards) breakfast of atole, the able-bodied men and women were assigned their tasks for the day. The women were committed to dressmaking, knitting, weaving, embroidering, laundering, and cooking, while some of the stronger girls ground flour or carried adobe bricks (weighing 55 lb, or 25 kg each) to the men engaged in building. The men worked a variety of jobs, having learned from the missionaries how to plow, sow, irrigate, cultivate, reap, thresh, and glean. In addition, they were taught to build adobe houses, tan leather hides, shear sheep, weave rugs and clothing from wool, make ropes, soap, paint, and other useful duties.
The work day was six hours, interrupted by dinner (lunch) around 11:00 a.m. and a two-hour siesta, and ended with evening prayers and the rosary, supper, and social activities. About 90 days out of each year were designated as religious or civil holidays, free from manual labor. The labor organization of the missions resembled a slave plantation in many respects. Foreigners who visited the missions remarked at how the priests' control over the Indians appeared excessive, but necessary given the white men's isolation and numeric disadvantage. Indians were not paid wages as they were not considered free laborers and, as a result, the missions were able to profit from the goods produced by the Mission Indians to the detriment of the other Spanish and Mexican settlers of the time who could not compete economically with the advantage of the mission system.
The Franciscans began to send neophytes to work as servants of Spanish soldiers in the presidios. Each presidio was provided with land, el rancho del rey, which served as a pasture for the presidio livestock and as a source of food for the soldiers. Theoretically the soldiers were supposed to work on this land themselves but within a few years the neophytes were doing all the work on the presidio farm and, in addition, were serving domestics for the soldiers. While the fiction prevailed that neophytes were to receive wages for their work, no attempt was made to collect the wages for these services after 1790. It is recorded that the neophytes performed the work "under unmitigated compulsion".
In recent years, much debate has arisen as to the actual treatment of the Indians during the Mission period, and many claim that the California mission system is directly responsible for the decline of the native cultures. Evidence has now been brought to light that puts the Indians' experiences in a very different context.
The missionaries of California were by-and-large well-meaning, devoted men...[whose] attitudes toward the Indians ranged from genuine (if paternalistic) affection to wrathful disgust. They were ill-equipped—nor did most truly desire—to understand complex and radically different Native American customs. Using European standards, they condemned the Indians for living in a "wilderness", for worshipping false gods or no God at all, and for having no written laws, standing armies, forts, or churches.
The goal of the missions was, above all, to become self-sufficient in relatively short order. Farming, therefore, was the most important industry of any mission. Barley, maize, and wheat were among the most common crops grown. Cereal grains were dried and ground by stone into flour. Even today, California is well known for the abundance and many varieties of fruit trees that are cultivated throughout the state. The only fruits indigenous to the region, however, consisted of wild berries or grew on small bushes. Spanish missionaries brought fruit seeds over from Europe, many of which had been introduced from Asia following earlier expeditions to the continent; orange, grape, apple, peach, pear, and fig seeds were among the most prolific of the imports. Grapes were also grown and fermented into wine for sacramental use and again, for trading. The specific variety, called the Criolla or "Mission grape", was first planted at Mission San Juan Capistrano in 1779; in 1783, the first wine produced in Alta California emerged from the mission's winery. Ranching also became an important mission industry as cattle and sheep herds were raised.
Mission San Gabriel Arcángel unknowingly witnessed the origin of the California citrus industry with the planting of the region's first significant orchard in 1804, though the commercial potential of citrus was not realized until 1841. Olives (first cultivated at Mission San Diego de Alcalá) were grown, cured, and pressed under large stone wheels to extract their oil, both for use at the mission and to trade for other goods. Father Serra set aside a portion of the Mission Carmel gardens in 1774 for tobacco plants, a practice that soon spread throughout the mission system.
It was also the missions' responsibility to provide the Spanish forts, or "presidios", with the necessary foodstuffs, and manufactured goods to sustain operations. It was a constant point of contention between missionaries and the soldiers as to how many fanegas  of barley, or how many shirts or blankets the mission had to provide the garrisons on any given year. At times these requirements were hard to meet, especially during years of drought, or when the much anticipated shipments from the port of San Blas failed to arrive. The Spaniards kept meticulous records of mission activities, and each year reports submitted to the Father-Presidente summarizing both the material and spiritual status at each of the settlements.
Livestock was raised, not only for the purpose of obtaining meat, but also for wool, leather, and tallow, and for cultivating the land. In 1832, at the height of their prosperity, the missions collectively owned:
All these grazing animals were originally brought up from Mexico. A great many Indians were required to guard the herds and flocks on the mission ranches, which created the need for "...a class of horsemen scarcely surpassed anywhere."  These animals multiplied beyond the settler's expectations, often overrunning pastures and extending well-beyond the domains of the missions. The giant herds of horses and cows took well to the climate and the extensive pastures of the Coastal California region, but at a heavy price for the California Native American people. The uncontrolled spread of these new herds, and associated invasive exotic plant species, quickly exhausted the native plants in the grasslands, and the chaparral and woodlands that the Indians depended on for their seed, foliage, and bulb harvests. The grazing-overgrazing problems were also recognized by the Spaniards, who periodically had extermination parties cull and kill thousands of excess livestock, when herd populations grew beyond their control or the land's capacity. Years with a severe drought did this also.
Mission kitchens and bakeries prepared and served thousands of meals each day. Candles, soap, grease, and ointments were all made from tallow (rendered animal fat) in large vats located just outside the west wing. Also situated in this general area were vats for dyeing wool and tanning leather, and primitive looms for weaving. Large bodegas (warehouses) provided long-term storage for preserved foodstuffs and other treated materials.
Each mission had to fabricate virtually all of its construction materials from local materials. Workers in the carpintería (carpentry shop) used crude methods to shape beams, lintels, and other structural elements; more skilled artisans carved doors, furniture, and wooden implements. For certain applications bricks (ladrillos) were fired in ovens (kilns) to strengthen them and make them more resistant to the elements; when tejas (roof tiles) eventually replaced the conventional jacal roofing (densely packed reeds) they were placed in the kilns to harden them as well. Glazed ceramic pots, dishes, and canisters were also made in mission kilns.
Prior to the establishment of the missions, the native peoples knew only how to utilize bone, seashells, stone, and wood for building, tool making, weapons, and so forth. The missionaries established manual training in European skills and methods; in agriculture, mechanical arts, and the raising and care of livestock. Everything consumed and otherwise utilized by the natives was produced at the missions under the supervision of the padres; thus, the neophytes not only supported themselves, but after 1811 sustained the entire military and civil government of California. The foundry at Mission San Juan Capistrano was the first to introduce the Indians to the Iron Age. The blacksmith used the mission's forges (California's first) to smelt and fashion iron into everything from basic tools and hardware (such as nails) to crosses, gates, hinges, even cannon for mission defense. Iron was one commodity in particular which the mission relied solely on trade to acquire, as the missionaries had neither the know-how nor the technology to mine and process metal ores.
No study of the missions is complete without mention of their extensive water supply systems. Stone zanjas (aqueducts, sometimes spanning miles, brought fresh water from a nearby river or spring to the mission site. Open or covered lined ditches and/or baked clay pipes, joined together with lime mortar or bitumen, gravity-fed the water into large cisterns and fountains, and emptied into waterways where the force of the water was used to turn grinding wheels and other simple machinery, or dispensed for use in cleaning. Water used for drinking and cooking was allowed to trickle through alternate layers of sand and charcoal to remove the impurities. One of the best-preserved mission water systems is at Mission Santa Barbara.
Prior to 1754, grants of mission lands were made directly by the Spanish Crown. But, given the remote locations and the inherent difficulties in communicating with the territorial governments, power was transferred to the viceroys of New Spain to grant lands and establish missions in North America. The 21 Alta California missions were established along the northernmost section of California's El Camino Real (Spanish for "The Royal Highway", though often spoken as "The King's Highway"), christened in honor of King Charles III), much of which is now U.S. Route 101 and several Mission Streets. The mission planning was begun in 1767 under the leadership of Fray Junípero Serra, O.F.M. (who, in 1767, along with his fellow priests, had taken control over a group of missions in Baja California previously administered by the Jesuits).
Father Pedro Estévan Tápis proposed the establishment of a mission on one of the Channel Islands in the Pacific Ocean off San Pedro Harbor in 1784, with either Santa Catalina or Santa Cruz (known as Limú to the Tongva residents) being the most likely locations, the reasoning being that an offshore mission might have attracted potential people to convert who were not living on the mainland, and could have been an effective measure to restrict smuggling operations. Governor José Joaquín de Arrillaga approved the plan the following year, however an outbreak of sarampion (measles) killing some 200 Tongva people coupled with a scarcity of land for agriculture and potable water left the success of such a venture in doubt, so no effort to found an island mission was ever made. In September, 1821 Father Mariano Payeras, "Comisario Prefecto" of the California missions, visited Cañada de Santa Ysabel east of Mission San Diego de Alcalá as part of a plan to establish an entire chain of inland missions. The Santa Ysabel Asistencia had been founded in 1818 as a "mother" mission, however the plan's expanding beyond never came to fruition.
Work on the mission chain was concluded in 1823, even though Serra had died in 1784 (plans to establish a twenty-second mission in Santa Rosa in 1827 were canceled). Father Fermín Francisco de Lasuén took up Serra's work and established nine more mission sites, from 1786 through 1798; others established the last three compounds, along with at least five asistencias (mission assistance outposts). At the peak of its development in 1832, the mission system controlled an area equal to approximately one-sixth of Alta California.
No other group of structures in the United States elicits the intense interest as inspired by the Missions of California (California is home to the greatest number of well-preserved missions found in any U.S. state). The missions are collectively the best-known historic element of the coastal regions of California:
Because virtually all of the artwork at the missions served either a devotional or didactic purpose, there was no underlying reason for the mission residents to record their surroundings graphically; visitors, however, found them to be objects of curiosity. During the 1850s a number of artists found gainful employment as draftsmen attached to expeditions sent to map the Pacific coastline and the border between California and Mexico (as well as plot practical railroad routes); many of the drawings were reproduced as lithographs in the expedition reports.
In 1875 American illustrator Henry Chapman Ford began visiting each of the twenty-one mission sites, where he created a historically important portfolio of watercolors, oils, and etchings. His depictions of the missions were (in part) responsible for the revival of interest in the state's Spanish heritage, and indirectly for the restoration of the missions. The 1880s saw the appearance of a number of articles on the missions in national publications and the first books on the subject; as a result, a large number of artists did one or more mission paintings, though few attempted a series.
The popularity of the missions also stemmed largely from Helen Hunt Jackson's 1884 novel Ramona and the subsequent efforts of Charles Fletcher Lummis, William Randolph Hearst, and other members of the "Landmarks Club of Southern California" to restore three of the southern missions in the early 20th century (San Juan Capistrano, San Diego de Alcalá, and San Fernando; the Pala Asistencia was also restored by this effort). Lummis wrote in 1895,
In ten years from now—unless our intelligence shall awaken at once—there will remain of these noble piles nothing but a few indeterminable heaps of adobe. We shall deserve and shall have the contempt of all thoughtful people if we suffer our noble missions to fall. 
In acknowledgement of the magnitude of the restoration efforts required and the urgent need to have acted quickly to prevent further or even total degradation, Lummis went on to state,
It is no exaggeration to say that human power could not have restored these four missions had there been a five-year delay in the attempt.
In 1911 author John Steven McGroarty penned The Mission Play, a three-hour pageant describing the California missions from their founding in 1769 through secularization in 1834, and ending with their "final ruin" in 1847.
Today, the missions exist in varying degrees of architectural integrity and structural soundness. The most common extant features at the mission grounds include the church building and an ancillary convento (convent) wing. In some cases (in San Rafael, Santa Cruz, and Soledad, for example), the current buildings are replicas constructed on or near the original site. Other mission compounds remain relatively intact and true to their original, Mission Era construction.
A notable example of an intact complex is the now-threatened Mission San Miguel Arcángel: its chapel retains the original interior murals created by Salinan Indians under the direction of Esteban Munras, a Spanish artist and last Spanish diplomat to California. This structure was closed to the public from 2003 to 2009 due to severe damage from the San Simeon earthquake. Many missions have preserved (or in some cases reconstructed) historic features in addition to chapel buildings.
The missions have earned a prominent place in California's historic consciousness, and a steady stream of tourists from all over the world visit them. In recognition of that fact, on November 30, 2004 President George W. Bush signed HR 1446, the "California Mission Preservation Act", into law. The measure was designed to provide $10 million over a five-year period to the California Missions Foundation for projects related to the physical preservation of the missions, including structural rehabilitation, stabilization, and conservation of mission art and artifacts. The California Missions Foundation, a volunteer, tax-exempt organization, was founded in 1999 by Richard Ameil, an eighth generation Californian. A change to the California Constitution has also been proposed that would allow the use of State funds in restoration efforts.
To facilitate overland travel, the mission settlements were situated approximately 30 miles (48 kilometers) apart, so that they were separated by one day's long ride on horseback (or three days on foot) along the 600-mile (966-kilometer) long "California Mission Trail." Father Lasuén is credited for having brought the concept to life in 1798 when he successfully argued that filling in the "spaces" along El Camino Real with additional outposts would provide much-needed rest stops, where travelers could take lodging in relative safety and comfort. Heavy freight movement was practical only via water. Tradition has it that the padres sprinkled mustard seeds along the trail in order to mark it with bright yellow flowers.
* Fathers Payeras and Durán remained at their resident missions during their terms as "Father-Presidente", therefore those settlements became the de facto headquarters (until 1833, when all mission records were permanently relocated to Santa Barbara).
The "Father-Presidente" was the head of the Catholic missions in Alta and Baja California. He was appointed by the College of San Fernando de Mexico until 1812, when the position became known as the "Commissary Prefect" who was appointed by the Commissary General of the Indies (a Franciscan residing in Spain). Beginning in 1831, separate individuals were elected to oversee Upper and Lower California.
California during the Mission Period was divided into four military districts. Four presidios, strategically placed along the California coast, served to protect the missions and other Spanish settlements in Upper California. Each of these garrisons (comandancias) functioned as a base of military operations for a specific region. Although independent of one another, a sort of unison or connection existed among the missions of each district, which were organized as follows:
An ongoing power struggle between church and state grew increasingly heated and lasted for decades. Originating as a feud between Father Serra and Pedro Fages (the military governor of Alta California from 1770 to 1774, who regarded the Spanish installations in California as military institutions first and religious outposts second), the uneasy relationship persisted for more than sixty years. Dependent upon one another for their very survival, military leaders and mission padres nevertheless adopted conflicting stances regarding everything from land rights, the allocation of supplies, protection of the missions, the criminal propensities of the soldiers, and (in particular) the status of the native populations.
There is controversy over the California Department of Education's treatment of the missions in the Department's elementary curriculum; in the tradition of historical revisionism, it has been alleged that the curriculum "waters down" the harsh treatment of Native Americans. Modern anthropologists cite a cultural bias on the part of the missionaries that blinded them to the natives' plight and caused them to develop strong negative opinions of the California Indians. European diseases that the California Native Americans had no immunity to caused a significant population reduction from the first encounter through the 19th century.
On other missions in the Americas: view the Spanish Missions 'color bar' below.
On California history:
On general missionary history:
On colonial Spanish American history:
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