Up The Road: Mission-Era California

Jul 18, 2018

Mission San Jose, Fremont
Credit Robert Freiberger

Europeans generally get credit for having “discovered” America, including the mythic land of California, though of course the people already here didn’t realize they were lost, or otherwise in need of finding. But there are claims that the Chinese discovered the Americas, often derided. According to one story, a storm-tossed Chinese ship—misdirected by its own compass, after a cockroach got wedged under the needle—sailed stubbornly for 100 days toward what was supposed to be mainland China. (The navigator reportedly ignored the crew, who pointed out that the sun was setting on the wrong horizon.) These unwitting adventurers finally reached land, and reported stepping out into towering forests surrounding an almost endless inlet, and meeting with red-skinned peoples amid giant red-barked trees. California, right?

True or not, the Spanish actually settled in, though it took some time. Hernan Cortes invaded Mexico for Spain in 1519, and by 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo had claimed San Diego Bay. That was about it until the 1760s when King Carlos III—threatened by England, and desperate to hold onto Spain’s tenuous empire in the New World—instructed the Viceroy of Mexico to colonize Alta California. California then included all of present-day Utah, Nevada, and California plus parts of Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. Crazy-ambitious, that Carlos.


Mission San Juan Capistrano, Orange County
Credit Shane Burkhardt


Gaspar de Portola was expedition commander—two groups set out by land, and three by sea—but Father Junipero Serra, Franciscan chaplain of the land expedition, somehow got all the glory, later. Probably because the religious and social stories of mission life offered more to relate to than the daily grind of fort and garrison life, the life of the presidios. Californians’ love of mission architecture and the long-ago, idyllic notions it still evokes make it hard to fully imagine what it was like to actually live there, then. Not very romantic at all.

For one thing, food was scarce for decades, until missions could reliably produce what they needed. Staff was stretched very thin too. Spain was strapped, and barely supported their new colonies. For another, Franciscan priests constantly struggled with the military over the core purpose. Was it more important to convert the unchurched native Californians to Catholicism and teach them useful skills, as the Franciscans believed, or to put down Indian uprisings and otherwise protect the territory? Plus the padres worried—with some reason—that those hard-partying soldiers were a corrupting influence on their new students.


Ultimately—and thanks to free Native American labor—between 1769 and 1836 Spanish Empire managed built 21 California missions and additional “asistencias,” or sub-missions, along with five presidios, or full-on military outposts. People often point out that the missions were about 30 miles, or a day’s ride, apart on the famed El Camino Real, or “royal road,” which was little more than a faint trail for horses and mules. Padres reportedly tossed out mustard seed so yellow blooms would help mark the route.



Mission San Antonio de Padua, Monterey County
Credit Photos by Clark



But, as their founding dates establish, the missions didn’t develop in a straight line. They weren’t situated for travel convenience. They were quite intentionally located where large numbers of native Californians already lived, so the missionaries could get busy radically changing their world. Which they did. More next time.