Exploring the California Mission Trail

As revolutionary fever was catching hold in the British colonies along North America’s east coast, Spain authorized Catholic missionaries to move into the area that would become California. During a brief period between 1769 and 1823, these Franciscan priests established 21 missions along a coastal route that became California’s El Camino Real (Royal Road). Retracing their route along the California Mission Trail gives visitors an evocative glimpse of California history.

inside view, bible, alter, outside with cacti

Exploring the California Mission Trail

While California held little interest to the Spanish conquistadors seeking easy riches through gold and silver, it was of great interest to Catholic missionaries seeking religious converts. The Spanish government supported the church’s interest in gaining new converts as a low-cost way to turn native populations into Spanish citizens and create self-governing and self-supporting Spanish towns . . . thus bolstering Spain’s land claims.

California has 21 historic missions

Franciscan priests established 21 missions in California before the end of the mission period.

These missions, in order of establishment, are:

  1.    1769  San Diego de Alcalá, San Diego County
  2.    1770  San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo (Carmel Mission), Monterey County
  3.    1771  San Antonio de Padua, Monterey County
  4.    1771  San Gabriel Archangel, Los Angeles County
  5.    1772  San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, San Luis Obispo County
  6.    1776  San Francisco de Asís (Mission Delores), San Francisco County
  7.    1776  San Juan Capistrano, Orange County
  8.    1777  Santa Clara de Asís, Santa Clara County
  9.    1782  San Buenaventura, Ventura County
  10.    1786  Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara County
  11.    1787  La Purísima Concepción, Santa Barbara County
  12.    1791  Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz County
  13.    1791  Nuestra Señora de la Soledad, Monterey County
  14.    1797  San José, Alameda County
  15.    1797  San Juan Bautista, San Benito County
  16.    1797  San Miguel Arcangel, San Luis Obispo County
  17.    1797  San Fernando Rey de España, Los Angeles County
  18.    1798  San Luis Rey de Francia, San Diego County
  19.    1804  Santa Inés, Santa Barbara County
  20.    1817  San Rafael Arcángel, Marin County
  21.    1823  San Francisco de Solano (Sonoma Mission), Sonoma County

It looks like this:

map showing location of missions

History of California’s missions

As you can see, California’s missions were established in fits and starts over about 50 years, with the final mission – the farthest north – established only a decade before secularization brought the mission period to an end in 1834.

The missions under Spanish rule

Each mission began with a couple of priests and a few soldiers. Although the priests were undoubtedly committed to saving souls, they also needed to ensure the mission’s material needs were met. To do this, local Indians were conscripted into service as unpaid labor to build and maintain the mission, care for livestock, raise crops, and perform all of the other activities needed to support the mission. It was a hard life for all involved, but particularly for the Indians. Besides being forced to labor for the mission and give up their traditional practices, the native population was decimated by the combination of hard labor, poor diet, and European disease.

The missions under Mexican rule

Although the Spanish government’s goal was for each mission to become self-supporting within 10 years, none of California’s missions had reached that point when Mexico won independence – and California came under Mexican rule – in 1822. With few remaining priests and deteriorating buildings, the missions were already struggling when Mexico began “secularizing” them in 1834. While the intent of secularization was to return the land to the Indians, in reality most of the property ended up in the hands of a few wealthy ranchers who then forced the Indians to work as slave labor. Meanwhile, the remaining mission buildings were put to use as homes, barns, or storage sheds . . . or simply left to decay.

remains of arches around the plazaThe remains around the plaza at Mission San Juan Capistrano, circa 1900

The missions under American rule

California became part of the USA in 1846, and by the 1850s the missions (the original building site, gardens, and cemeteries) were being returned to the Catholic Church. However, the Church didn’t have the resources to maintain all of these facilities either, leading to further decay at many sites.

The situation didn’t begin to change until the end of the 19th century when the mission period entered the popular imagination through romanticized depictions in art and literature, particularly Helen Hunt Jackson’s extremely popular novel Ramona. Interest in the mission era was increasing at the same time the railroad was expanding into the area. These forces combined to bring increasing numbers of tourists to visit the missions – most of which were by now in a state of advanced decay. In response, those interested in preserving the missions began to form preservation groups such as the Landmarks Club, which led early preservation efforts San Juan Capistrano.

By the 1930s historical preservation was of national interest and the question wasn’t whether the ruins should be preserved or not, but whether to preserve the ruins as they were (as the Landmarks Club and other early groups had done) or reconstruct the ruins. In California reconstruction generally became the preferred approach for the missions and today most of the missions with intact buildings seem to be reconstructions rather than original structures.

Mission Architecture

Location and layout

All missions were to be located where there was a permanent source of water, wood for cooking, heating, and construction, suitable land for farming, and nearby indigenous communities to provide converts and labor.

The church was usually the first significant building constructed at the mission. It served as an anchor for the rest of the compound, which was usually laid out as a quadrangle with an open plaza in the middle. The church and the priests’ quarters would be along one side; dormitories for men and women on the sides (across the plaza from each other); and kitchens, storage areas, and workshops in the remaining space. Quarters for the soldiers stationed at the mission were generally located outside the quadrangle, as were the mission’s barns, mill, tannery, and adobe brick-making area. If the mission was making its own tile, that operation would also be located outside the quadrangle.

Access to the inside the quadrangle was limited, with one main entrance directly into the plaza and a second through the church. No other building had access to the external world, even through a window. Life in the mission was very much life in a closed society.

The plaza itself would usually have fruit trees and gardens, but it would certainly have a kitchen area with an oven and cooking fire. This is where olives would be pressed, grain ground into flour, and food prepared. The courtyard would also be used to prepare wool for spinning and other everyday household tasks.

Building materials

Buildings were usually simple structures of one or two stories, as the priests were responsible for both their design and the oversight of work done by unskilled laborers. Designs and construction methods were generally based on those of other missions or European buildings as remembered by the priests. Common construction elements included thick adobe walls, arched corridors, wide eaves, and sloping roofs.

Building materials generally came from the site, with the earliest buildings roughly constructed of little more than branches and reeds. More permanent structures were built of wood and then adobe and roofed with thatch. As time went by, adobe structures were often roofed with clay tiles either made on site or brought in from a neighboring mission. Brick and cut stone were also used in construction as the mission became better established.

Agriculture

Each mission was responsible for feeding not only the priests and attending soldiers, but also novices and other indigenous people living and working in the mission. To accomplish this, missions had a stock of European seeds, fruit trees, grape vines, and livestock that served as the basis for agricultural activities.

Visiting the missions

All 21 California missions still exist in some form or another and welcome visitors. While a few sites (most notably San Miguel Arcángel) remain relatively intact, most have been significantly altered over time, if not almost completely rebuilt. A few (San Rafael, Santa Cruz, and Soledad) are actually replicas constructed on or near their original site. A few are managed as historic sites, while many still serve as active parish churches. Santa Clara’s reconstructed church serves as the chapel for Santa Clara University. Tourists should be respectful of those parishioners and visitors who are at the mission to worship.

California mission exteriors

California’s missions were located along the El Camino Real, the Spanish Royal Road, which is roughly the route followed by California Route 101 today. The mission trail is over 500 miles in length, stretching north from San Diego de Alcalá in San Diego (the first mission established) to San Francisco de Solano in Sonoma County (the last).

Resources

A lot has been written about the California missions and their impact. The following lists a few resources I found useful.

General information on the missions and the mission period

All of these sites provide information on specific missions, usually with plenty of images. Some also provide analysis of the mission period and/or information for visitors.

  • California Missions Resource Center – Developed by an author who has studied and written extensively about the California missions (you’ll find his books and other materials in the mission gift shops), this comprehensive website tends to glorify the mission movement, but it also provides a wealth of historical information, including illustrations and photographs. It’s a beautiful, easy to use site with loads of information.
  • California Missions Native History – Created by the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center, this website presents Native points-of-view on the history and impact of each California mission.
  • Mission Tours – A private website developed by someone with a passion for the missions and their history, this site doesn’t have complete information on all of California’s missions. However, for those with complete information, there is a lot here – including 360 degree panoramas of the inside of the mission churches.
  • US Mission Trail – Another private website, this one has photographs and personal observations about the missions of California and beyond.
  • The California Missions Trail – The California parks website has a concise list of the missions with a few facts about each.
  • Educational resources on the California missions – Published by the Los Angeles Times, this website provides all sorts of interesting information on the mission period, with a focus on the complex legacy of the period. The site opens with the admonishment:

Attention, fourth-graders. If you want to make a model of a handsome, historic California building that was built for a simple purpose and produced entirely positive results, consider a lighthouse.

But if you want to explore how California came to look and behave the way it does, how civilizations collided, how farming was started here, how some of our biggest cities got their names and how we wound up with dozens of Native American reservations, the missions are a good place to start.

Insight into changing perspectives on the mission period

Views on the impact of the mission period have changed dramatically over time as some of the mythology created at the end on the 19th has been stripped away.

Historical preservation

The missions provide a fascinating case study for how attitudes about historical preservation developed and changed over time. Unfortunately, most information doesn’t seem to be readily accessible via the internet.

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