California's Missions

Decline and Revival

Ancient Mission Bells (1905) by William M. McCarthyCalifornia State Archives

From 1769 to 1835, Franciscan missions dominated the economic and spiritual fabric of Spanish and Mexican California. The Franciscan friars established twenty-one missions in what would become the Golden State, starting in San Diego and continuing along the coast to Sonoma, forty miles north of San Francisco. These missions served as one part of a three-pronged effort by the Spanish government to settle and control Alta California (including what is now the state of California). Along with military presidios (forts) and civilian pueblos (towns), the missions were Crown-sanctioned institutions designed to bring Western civilization to what they viewed as the wild frontier.

After Mexico gained its independence from Spain, it instituted a program in the mid-1830s to secularize the missions, removing the lands and holdings from the Catholic Church for redistribution by civil authorities. The missions subsequently entered a period of decline, most of the buildings allowed to fall into ruin. An architectural and artistic movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries revived interest in the crumbling structures, however. As a result, local and state organizations embarked upon restoration efforts, reconstructing many of the mission buildings. Whether revered as bastions of Western civilization or reviled for subjugating Native Americans and destroying their culture and life, these restored missions serve to remind us of the important role that California's Hispanic heritage has had in shaping the Golden State.

Artist's Rendering of Mission Carmel (1884) by Jones & Lotz, Elite Publishing and Painting by Oriana Day; Souvenir Card by Jones & LotzCalifornia State Archives

The Rise and Fall of the Missions

The first Spanish explorers set foot in what is now the State of California in 1542, but their presence was transitory, exploratory in nature, and did not result in the establishment of a permanent colony.  These early explorers viewed California as a hostile wilderness, without the enticement of gold-rich native cultures as encountered in Mexico and South America.  Europeans therefore discounted the usefulness of the region, and essentially ignored it until the late eighteenth century.  At that time, Spain found its colonies threatened by rival imperial empires. In particular, the Spanish Crown worried about Russian exploration and settlement of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. Seeking to block the Russians from advancing south, in 1769 Spain asked Captain Gaspar de Portolà to lead an expedition to establish a new colony in Alta California.  Several Franciscan priests accompanied Portolà, led by Father Junípero Serra. Their primary task: to establish a series of missions in California and convert the native populace to Roman Catholicism. 

Father Junipero Serra Monument and Pamphlet (1884/1930) by R.E. White/Department of FinanceCalifornia State Archives

No discussion of California's Franciscan missions is complete without mentioning Father Junípero Serra. Born Miguel Jose Serra in 1713 in Spain, Serra traveled to the New World in 1749 as a Franciscan priest, serving for twenty years in several missions in northern and eastern Mexico before volunteering for Portolà's 1769 Alta California expedition.

Shortly after arriving with Captain Portolà in what is now known as San Diego, Serra founded the region's first mission, Mission San Diego de Alcalá. Over the next fifteen years, despite severely ulcerated legs and feet, Serra traveled extensively throughout California's central and southern coastal regions. He founded eight more missions before his death in 1784, converting at least five thousand California Indians to Roman Catholicism. For his efforts, the Catholic Church canonized him in 2015, thus making him a saint.

Mission San Diego de Alcala (1905) by William M. McCarthyCalifornia State Archives

These photographs show the first mission established by Serra in Alta California, Mission San Diego de Alcalá. Initially made out of sticks, mud, and thatch, many of the missions had to be relocated after problems were found with their original sites. Mission San Diego was no exception. The friars battled lack of water, poor soil, and an insufficient labor supply before finally moving the mission six miles northeast of the San Diego presidio in 1774. The mission's church still stands at this location today. The upper photograph, taken in approximately 1905, shows a crumbling structure without a bell tower. The lower photograph, dating from about 1935, shows evidence of reconstruction, including a forty-six-foot tiered bell tower.

Mission Carmel (1915/1955) by William M. McCarthy/UnknownCalifornia State Archives

The primary goal of California's Franciscan missions was to transform the indigenous peoples into Roman Catholics as well as productive subjects of the Spanish Crown. To that end, the friars rigidly controlled the religion, education, sexuality, politics, and labor of the native peoples who came into the missions either voluntarily or at the end of a musket.

Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo (also known as Mission Carmel) near Monterey served as headquarters for the mission system from the mission's founding in 1770 until 1803. Shown here in approximately 1915, the mission is the location of Father Serra's burial site.

Serra is a controversial figure in California's history. He is revered by the Catholic Church for his evangelical zeal and dedication to the mission system. Most of his biographers agree that Serra admired California's Indians, defending them against abuse by soldiers and civilians. On the other hand, Serra is viewed by many as one of the primary architects of the systematic destruction of the Golden State's native peoples and cultures. These critics point out that thousands of Native Americans died while in the missions, from disease, malnutrition, unsanitary conditions, and overwork, while under the paternalistic care of Serra and other Franciscan friars.

Missions San Antonio de Padua and San Gabriel Arcangel (1890/1905) by Unknown/Pacific Novelty Co./UnknownCalifornia State Archives

This collage features the third and fourth missions founded by Father Serra. The uppermost image, a hand-tinted photograph, depicts Mission San Antonio de Padua, established in 1771 in what is now Monterey County. This mission church was the first to have a fired-tile roof, now ubiquitous throughout the Golden State as part of the "mission style" of architecture. It was also the first mission complex to house over a thousand Native Americans, mostly from the Salinan, Yokut, and Esselen peoples.

By 1810, the total "neophyte" (as the Native American converts were called) population at the missions reached approximately 20,000. These Indians labored on vast mission estates, raising crops and pasturing herds of cattle that not only fed the colony but also furnished its principal economic exports -- hides and tallow. Mission San Gabriel Arcángel (in what is now Los Angeles County), also founded in 1771 and shown in the lower images, featured one of the largest mission livestock herds, consisting of more than 42,000 animals (primarily sheep and cattle) by 1828.

Mission San Buenaventura (1900) by UnknownCalifornia State Archives

Mission San Buenaventura, located in the present-day city of Ventura in Southern California, also had a large livestock herd, consisting of over 41,000 animals by 1816. This included almost five thousand horses, one of the largest horse herds in the mission system.

The excellent grazing available in California's coastal valleys allowed the missions and, later, ranchos (tracts of land granted to civilians by the government) to amass enormous herds. The hides and tallow from the cattle herds in particular became crucial to the budding colony's economy, traded for finished goods like cotton, hats, tobacco, tea, sugar, and myriad other items. The large herds also had an unintended impact on California's environment, destroying so much native habitat that they began to threaten the hunter-gatherer existence of those Indians still living outside of the mission system.

Mission Dolores (1905-04-20) by C.E. FennellCalifornia State Archives

Mission San Francisco de Asís, more commonly known as Mission Dolores, was the sixth mission to be established by Father Serra, in 1776. The mission's chapel, built in 1791 with more than 36,000 adobe (mud, clay, and straw) bricks, still stands today, having survived the great earthquake and fire that swept through San Francisco in 1906 as well as numerous other disasters. It is the oldest intact building in San Francisco.

The mission either recruited or took by force neophytes from the Ohlone, Miwok, and Patwin tribes. The neophyte population at Mission Dolores suffered greatly from European diseases against which they had no immunity, a fact that caused many Indians to desert and flee to the interior. Diseases such as cholera, dysentery, tuberculosis, venereal disease, measles, and influenza ravaged tribes throughout the Golden State, their impact exacerbated by concentrating neophyte populations at the mission complexes. The total population of California's indigenous tribes is estimated to have been approximately 310,000 in the late eighteenth century, at the start of Spanish colonization. By the end of the nineteenth century, only 100,000 remained, many killed by disease.

Mission San Juan Capistrano (1890/1915) by Unknown/William M. McCarthy/BlanchardCalifornia State Archives

Mission San Juan Capistrano, shown in these photographs, is one of the best-known of California's missions, due in large part to its world-famous population of American cliff swallows that migrate to the region each year for the summer. A center for California's hide and tallow trade, Mission San Juan Capistrano (located in present-day Orange County) was also one of the largest agricultural producers in the mission system. The mission's neophytes harvested more than 234,879 bushels of wheat, barley, corn, beans, peas, lentils, garbanzo beans, and broad beans between 1783 and 1831.

The Franciscan missions served as schools in European industries and agriculture, teaching the neophytes how to cultivate land; tend livestock; construct buildings out of stone and adobe; work wood, leather, and iron to make plows, farm implements, cutlery, saddles, and other products; and many other tasks necessary to the European way of life. The presence of the neophyte laborers allowed the missions to construct extensive irrigation systems, which in turn paved the way for the diversification of agriculture on larger farms. Common mission crops included, in addition to those noted above, oats, citrus, deciduous fruits and nuts, grapes, hemp, flax, squash, and melons.

Mission Santa Barbara by F.L. Parks & Co./William McCarthyCalifornia State Archives

Mission Santa Bárbara (near today's City of Santa Barbara) is the only mission never abandoned by the Catholic Church, having been continuously operated by Franciscan monks since its establishment in 1786. In 1824, this mission, along with Mission Santa Inés and La Purísima Mission, was the site of a large revolt by its neophytes, largely made up of members of the Chumash tribe.

Relations between the Franciscan monks and native California Indians were often strained. Many of the missionaries held an extremely paternalistic attitude toward the neophytes, certain that the Indians would not accept the "civilizing" influence of the Church voluntarily. Once on the mission grounds, neophytes could not leave without permission. The friars rigidly regulated every aspect of neophyte life, including religion, education, labor, sexuality, and politics. Often, corporeal punishment in the form of lashings and beatings awaited those who broke these strict rules. Such rigidity engendered deep resentment within many of the neophytes, and resulted in high rates of fugitivism as the Indians fled mission lands fearing punishment, as well as disease and hunger.

Missions San Luis Obispo, San Juan Bautista, San Jose, and Santa Cruz by See DescriptionCalifornia State Archives

This collage shows four different California missions. In the upper left-hand corner is a circa 1900 photograph of Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, founded in 1772 in what is now the downtown area of the City of San Luis Obispo. This is one of the few missions that still stands on its original site, never having been forced to move due to insufficient water or poor soil.

On the upper right is seen Mission San Juan Bautista, founded in 1797 and located in present-day San Benito County. The long, low-arched colonnade at the front is a feature often seen in mission architecture.

At lower right appears Mission San José (in the City of San Jose), also founded in 1797. Located in a region with particularly rich soil, this mission not only produced more agricultural products than almost any other, it also diversified its crops to include olive and fruit tree orchards as well as a vineyard. Fire destroyed the original church building in 1868. The photograph shows the building as restored in 1985-1986.

The final image at bottom left, a postcard from the early twentieth century, depicts Mission Santa Cruz, founded in 1791 in present-day Santa Cruz. An 1857 earthquake destroyed much of the first mission church. The structure currently standing at this site is a one-third-size replica of the original building.

Missions Santa Inez, San Miguel, and San Rafael by W.S. Dassonville/George F. Howell, Jr./Charles B. Turrill, Esq.California State Archives

The large photograph at left features Mission Santa Inés Virgen y Martír. Founded in 1804 to help with neophyte overcrowding in nearby Missions Santa Bárbara and La Purísima, Mission Santa Inés later housed the College of Our Lady of Refuge, California's first seminary. It is located in Santa Barbara County, in present-day Solvang.

Mission San Miguel Arcángel, in San Luis Obispo County, is pictured at the upper right. This is one of the few missions that did not feature a traditional bell tower. The missions used bells to not only summon friars and neophytes to prayers, but also to mark the time of day and to regulate the schedule of life within the mission walls. Mission San Miguel's bell hung from a wooden beam in an archway rather than being housed in a tower. This mission is also well-known for its unique colonnade, which features twelve arches of different sizes and shapes.

An artist's rendering of Mission San Rafael Arcángel is seen at the bottom right. Founded late in the mission period, in 1821, it was originally intended to be an asistencia, or sub-mission, to Mission Dolores in San Francisco. The friars felt that a neophyte hospital was needed for the many that fell sick in the San Francisco Bay area. Mission San Rafael thus served as California's first sanitarium. The City of San Rafael, seeking to use the property, removed the original mission buildings in 1870. Only a single pear tree remained as evidence of the old mission site until a replica of the original mission church was built in 1949.

Mission San Fernando (1890/1915) by Pacific Novelty Company/UnknownCalifornia State Archives

Both interior and exterior views of Mission San Fernando Rey de España are shown here. Friars Francisco Dumetz and Juan Lope Coretés, under direction of the mission system's president Friar Fermín Francisco de Lasuén (successor to Father Junípero Serra), founded the mission in 1797, in what is now the City of Los Angeles.

Decades later, in 1842, Francisco Lopez found gold particles in a canyon on this mission's lands. This first California gold strike only lasted about four years before petering out, but treasure seekers subsequently destroyed many of the old mission's walls and floors trying to find gold they were sure the padres had hidden away. Although the church was restored in the 1940s, those efforts were destroyed by an earthquake in 1971. The reconstructed building now standing at the site was completed in 1974.

Mission San Luis Rey (1910) by J.H. WhiteCalifornia State Archives

Mission San Luis Rey de Francía, shown here in the late nineteenth century, was founded in 1798. Located in what is now the City of Oceanside in San Diego County, it rapidly became one of the most populous of the missions, with 2,869 neophytes in residence by 1825, almost three times more than the average California mission. As a result, it also featured the largest livestock herds (more than 57,000 head by 1808) and harvested a larger volume of agricultural products than any other mission in the Alta California system.

Friar Antonio Peyrí led Mission San Luis Rey from its founding until 1832, when he retired. By that time, the threat of secularization loomed, heralding the end of California's mission era. The Mission San Luis Rey neophyte population is said to have been so upset at Father Peyrí's retirement that they followed him to the harbor at San Diego begging him to remain.

Spanish law held the mission friars responsible for the persons, labor, and property of their neophyte converts, until those converts were ready to leave the missions and enter secular, civilian life. The friars continuously fought to prevent civilian and military abuse of the Indians and their labor. While critics see this as self-serving and paternalistic behavior on the part of the friars, others contend that without the protection offered by the missions, the Indian population would have been subject to even greater abuse.

Sonoma Mission (1930/1970) by California Department of Finance/California Department of Commerce, Division of Tourism and Visitor ServicesCalifornia State Archives

Mission San Francisco Solano was the last of California's missions to be founded, in 1823. More commonly known as Sonoma Mission, it is also the most northerly mission in the chain, situated forty miles north of San Francisco, and is the only mission built during the Mexican period.

Mexico achieved independence from Spain in 1821. This significantly weakened the power of the Catholic Church in North America, paving the way for secularization of the mission system. Although the agricultural products of the missions, along with hides and tallow profits, supported an estimated two-thirds of the population in Alta California, many felt the colony's continued growth depended upon redistribution of the mission lands into private hands, and the integration of Indians into pueblo life. The Church was unable to forestall the growing dissatisfaction with the missions, and in 1833 the Mexican Congress voted for secularization.

Over the next few years, the missions lost their extensive landholdings and entered into a period of prolonged decline. The priests and most of the native inhabitants left. Neighboring property owners looted the buildings, removing roof tiles and beams, and thereby hastening their decay. By the turn of the twentieth century, most of the missions were desolate ruins, or had been modified far beyond their original appearance.

Proposed Entrance to the Quad at San Diego State College (1930) by Alfred Eichler for the California Department of Public WorksCalifornia State Archives

Mission Revival

Beginning in the 1880s, Californians embarked on a search for a style of architecture and design appropriate to their state and its heritage. Their quest led to the crumbling missions remaining from the Spanish and Mexican eras.  As artists and writers imbued these ruins with a nostalgia and romance they never enjoyed during their heyday, architects found inspiration in the uncluttered lines of the old mission churches.  Authors no longer viewed the time before 1835 as an era of superstitious primitivism.  Instead, they created a new mythology of kindly padres living in harmony with devout, submissive Indians in a utopia under the shadows of the great missions.  Promoters capitalized on this new interest in all things Spanish and "Old California," particularly the missions, to boost tourism, settlement, and investment. The missions became tourist attractions as statewide organizations, such as the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West and the Landmarks Club, along with the Roman Catholic Church, local supporters, and occasionally state and local governments, began the long process of restoring the decaying church buildings.  

Romanticized Ramona (1884/1924) by Helen Hunt Jackson; California Secretary of State, "New Series" TrademarksCalifornia State Archives

Of all of the individuals associated with the Golden State's missions, the most enduringly popular did not really exist at all. She was Ramona, heroine of Helen Hunt Jackson's 1884 novel of the same name. Although written to expose the mistreatment of the Mission Indians by Anglo-Americans, the book did much to encourage interest in Spanish and Mexican California, and romanticized its missions. In print since its publication, Ramona has inspired songs, four motion pictures, and an annual pageant.

The novel also sparked a minor tourist trade, as sites sprang up across southern California claiming to be "Ramona's Home," or "Ramona's Marriage Place." Furthermore, the character Ramona became a valuable marketing tool. Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, she appeared on packaging in many visages, from classical goddess to modern flapper. The two trademarks shown here, dating from 1903 (upper) and 1923 (lower), illustrate the wide range of artistic license in depicting this fictional heroine.

Proposed Entrance to the Quad at San Diego State College (1930) by Alfred Eichler for the California Department of Public WorksCalifornia State Archives

Much of the architecture used in constructing the missions was born out of necessity. Lack of building materials and skilled labor reduced the options available to the friars, as did the critical need of security. The Spanish Colonial style, then popular in Spain itself, also influenced the design of many of the missions.

The buildings generally featured a central courtyard, massive adobe walls plastered with stucco, low-pitched roofs sheathed in inflammable clay tiles, thick arches, and long exterior arcades with arched columns supporting low ceilings. Architectural embellishments were minimized, resulting in clean, simple lines that appealed to architects across California.

All of these architectural elements and more were adopted by the Mission Revival style of architecture that arose in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and is still seen in construction throughout the Golden State today. These elements appeared in a wide variety of buildings, including San Diego State College. Architect Alfred Eichler relied heavily on the design of nearby Mission San Diego's bell tower for the entrance to the college's quad, as seen in this sketch from approximately 1930.

Marketing with Missions (1893/1905) by California Secretary of State's Office, TrademarksCalifornia State Archives

Many trademarks registered in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries took advantage of the mission revival movement by using images of the mission buildings to entice buyers. The four trademarks here each feature a different California mission. At upper left can be seen Mission Carmel, headquarters of Father Junípero Serra, prominently displayed on this 1893 Mission Brand trademark. The Mission Leaf Lard trademark at upper right, registered in 1905, incorporates Mission San Gabriel's image into its design, while the Mission Remedy Company (at lower left) decided to use Mission San Juan Capistrano to sell its products in 1903. At lower right, the first mission in California, Mission San Diego de Alcalá, adorns the 1903 trademark of the Chula Vista Fruit Association.

Soledad Mission (1913) by Unknown/H.C. TibbittsCalifornia State Archives

As interest in the missions grew, many California citizens began to look at the ruins of stones and adobe bricks with an eye toward restoration and reconstruction. Fearing that without intervention the old buildings would eventually melt into the earth from which they were made, private organizations, individual citizens, the Catholic Church itself, and state and local governments allocated funds and personnel to restoring or reconstructing as many of the mission buildings as possible.

For instance, the ruins of Mission Nuestra Señora de la Soledad (more commonly known as Mission Soledad) appear as little more than rubble in the photograph on the right, taken early in the twentieth century. Reconstruction of the mission chapel, seen in the photograph at far left, began in 1954 under the auspices of the Native Daughters of the Golden West. Like many restored mission chapels, it now serves as an active Catholic church as well as a museum.

Restoring La Purisima Mission (1970) by California Department of Commerce, Division of Tourism and Visitor ServicesCalifornia State Archives

La Purísima Concepción De María Santísima is the most extensively restored mission complex in the Golden State. Founded in 1787, the mission was destroyed by an earthquake in 1812. Friar Marià Paieres, in charge of the mission at that time, requested and received permission to rebuild at a new location four miles away near the El Camino Real, in what is now the city of Lompoc in Santa Barbara County. Remaining at this same location today, it is the only mission complex arranged in a linear fashion rather than around a central courtyard.

In 1933, ownership of La Purísima and the surrounding land transferred from private hands to the State of California. Shortly thereafter, the Civilian Conservation Corps, working under the National Park Service, began the process of restoration.

The California Department of Parks and Recreation called the rebuilding of La Purísima "one of the largest historical restoration and reconstruction projects" undertaken in the United States. Crews used local building materials in the construction, re-purposing the soil from some of the old building foundations into adobe bricks and tiles as well as digging clay from surrounding areas. By the time the mission complex was designated a State Historic Monument in 1941, work on the three main buildings as well as three smaller buildings had been completed. Today, ten of the original buildings are fully restored, including the church (the bell tower of which is seen at left), and the mission's soap works, shown in the photograph at the right.

Mission Santa Clara (1910/1980) by Unknown/William M. McCarthyCalifornia State Archives

The two images seen here actually show the same mission church: Mission Santa Clara de Asís.

Founded in 1777, the mission suffered a series of calamities that destroyed several different church buildings constructed at the site. In 1851, the mission and some of the surrounding lands became the center of Santa Clara University, a private Jesuit school and the first university in the Golden State. Ten years later, in 1861, the school embarked upon a campaign to renovate many of the buildings on the campus, including the mission church. The design of the reconstructed building, seen in the lower of these two photographs, included Italianate detailing and a second bell tower. Fire destroyed this remodeled building in the late 1920s.

The church subsequently underwent yet another reconstruction phase. The reconstructed building, seen in the upper photograph, was designed to reflect an earlier church destroyed in an 1825 fire. It is made of steel-reinforced concrete rather than the traditional adobe bricks, however, a necessary modification to accommodate California's earthquake-prone geography.

Missions in the Public School System (1950) by William StablerCalifornia State Archives

Interest in the Franciscan missions continued throughout the twentieth century and into the present day. By the 1950s, California's public schools had incorporated mission history into their curriculum for grammar school students. Fourth-graders throughout the Golden State still construct dioramas of the various missions and learn about mission life.

Today, historians and teachers alike acknowledge the harsh realities of mission existence while at the same time recognizing the importance the missions had in shaping California's history. The complex interplay between European and Native American cultures, power struggles between the Catholic Church and Spanish and Mexican civil and military authorities, and tensions surrounding relationships between the friars and the neophytes all came crashing together behind thick adobe walls to the sound of mission bells calling the faithful to prayer.

California's missions and their friars can be viewed through many lenses: as destroyers of lives and cultures, as defenders of faith and Western civilization, as paternalistic institutions keeping their neophytes rigidly disciplined, or as kindly friars genuinely concerned with the well-being of the Indians under their care. None of these views fully encompasses the mission system, as it was all of these things and more.

Credits: Story

All images from records held by the California State Archives.

Digital exhibit and imaging by Jessica Herrick (2017). Portions adapted from physical exhibit by Blaine Lamb (2007).

California State Archives
A Division of the California Secretary of State's Office
1020 O Street
Sacramento, CA 95814
Reference Telephone: (916) 653-2246
General Information: (916) 653-7715
Fax: (916) 653-7363

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
Latino Cultures in the US
Be inspired by the contributions and experiences of Latinos in the US
View theme
Google apps