Up The Road: Mission San Diego

Jul 26, 2018

Mission San Diego de Alcalá, circa 2005
Credit Brian Michelsen

We head up the road to California’s first mission this week, Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá. (“Basilica” was bestowed by the Pope in 1976, a title signifying a church of major historic significance.) The ceremonial establishment of San Diego as Spanish colony came on July 16, 1769, when the assembled multitudes ascended the hill above their encampment. The first official European foothold in California, this “Plymouth Rock of the West Coast” was chosen as both California’s first mission and associated military outpost or presidio because of its commanding views of the valley and the bay. After a solemn mass, Father Junípero Serra, the “father president” of California’s not-yet-founded mission chain, dedicated the site to the glory of God.

But things weren’t so glorious, not in the beginning. First, the view may have been grand but surrounding soils were poor, and the mission struggled to produce food, fiber, and essential goods.  Second, unreliable water supplies compounded the problem. Third, the neighborhood wasn’t entirely welcoming.

When the Spanish arrived, they found the nearby native Californians to be healthy and hospitable. As Father Junípero Serra wrote in his diary: “They are fine in stature and carriage, affable and gay. They brought fish and mollusks to us, going out in their canoes just to fish for our benefit. They have danced their native dances for our entertainment.”

But as it became clearer what the Spanish missionaries expected in a future relationship, the locals pulled back, according to most sources. More than almost any other tribal communities, these native Californians resisted the education and cultural redirection put forth by the padres. At first the mission was so poor it could feed only half of the Kumeyaay—who the padres, tellingly, called Diegueño, “of the Diego mission,” essentially—so the neophytes (baptized natives) regularly rotated back and forth, from mission to village. Yet no one was allowed to leave the walled presidio compound surrounding the mission without an armed escort; that edict from the military grew out of their experience at earlier missions in Mexico (Baja California). The native Californians distrusted the soldiers in equal measure, so it was difficult for missionaries to attract the workforce needed for farming success and the cultural transformation (some would say genocide) central to California mission society. Slow going.

For better soil and sustainable water supplies, in 1774 the mission relocated about five miles up the valley—disastrously, in the beginning, because the unprotected, unfinished mission was soon attacked and burned by 800 or so Kumeyaay, most from far distant villages. Several Spaniards were killed, including a priest.

Things settled down considerably by 1777, when the new, rebuilt mission complex was consecrated—complete with nine-foot adobe walls and other defensive structures. Slowly, but more rapidly after a dam and aqueducts were added, the mission flourished, with olive, date, and pear orchards, lush gardens, vineyards, and vast herds of sheep, cattle, and horses. According to mission records, by 1825 it owned 19,420 sheep, 184 goats, 8,120 cattle, 565 horses, and 115 mules. But then came the earthquake. In 1812, a powerful quake shattered the mission church. The look of present-day Mission San Diego, an active Catholic parish, owes much of its present appearance, a 1931 restoration, to the reconstruction work of 1813.

Next time, we visit Junípero Serra’s second mission, founded in Monterey but soon relocated to what we know as Carmel.