California Mission History - Answers to Frequent Questions

California Spanish Missions Have a Powerful History

Old Spanish Mission in Santa Barbara
••• Old Spanish Mission in Santa Barbara. Sean Gallup / Getty Images

If you were wondering about the Spanish missions in California - and especially if you're looking for facts about the California mission, this page was created just for you. Here's how it all got started:

The California missions started because the King of Spain wanted to create permanent settlements in the area of the New World.  

The Spanish government wanted to gain a foothold in Alta California (which means Upper California in Spanish).

The Russians were moving south from Fort Ross, into what is now coastal Sonoma County.

The decision to create Spanish missions in Alta California was political. It was also religious.  The Catholic Church wanted to convert the local people to the Catholic religion. 

Who Founded the California Missions?

Father Junipero Serra was a well-respected Spanish Franciscan priest. He worked in Mexico for seventeen years before he was put in charge of the California missions. That happened in 1767 when Franciscan priests took over New World missions from the Jesuit priests. You can read Father Serra's biography here.

How Many Missions Are There?

In 1769, Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portola and Father Serra made their first trip to establish a California mission.

Over the next 54 years, 21 California missions were started. They cover 650 miles along the El Camino Real (King's Highway) between San Diego and the town of Sonoma.

You can see their location on this map.

Why Did the Catholic Church Create the Missions?

The Spanish Fathers wanted to convert the local Indians to Christianity. At each mission, they recruited neophytes from the local Indians. They brought them to live at the mission and taught them about Catholicism, how to speak Spanish, how to do farming and other skills.

Many Indians wanted to go to the missions, but others did not. Spanish soldiers treated some of the Indians badly. The Indians couldn't resist European diseases. Epidemics of smallpox, measles and diphtheria killed many of the native people. We don't know how many Indians were in California before the Spanish arrived or exactly how many died before the mission era was over. What we do know is that the missions baptized about 80,000 Indians and recorded about 60,000 deaths.

What Did People Do at the Missions?

At the missions, people did all the things people do in any small town. All of the missions raised wheat and corn. Many of the had vineyards and made wine. They also raised cattle and sheep and sold leather goods and tanned hides. In some places, they made soap and candles, had blacksmith shops, taught Indians to weave cloth and many other skills. 

Some of the missions also had choirs, where the Fathers taught the Indians how to sing Christian songs.

What Happened to the California Missions?

The Spanish period didn't last long. In 1821 (just 52 years after Portola and Serra made their first trip to California), Mexico gained independence from Spain. Mexico couldn't afford to support the California missions after that.

In 1834, the Mexican government decided to secularize the missions - which means changing them to non-religious uses - and sell them. They asked the Indians if they wanted to buy the land, but they didn't want them - or couldn't afford to buy them. Sometimes, no one wanted the mission buildings and they slowly disintegrated.

Eventually, the mission land was divided up and sold. The Catholic church kept a few important few missions. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln returned all the mission lands to the Catholic Church. By then, many of them were in ruins.

What About the Missions Now?

In the twentieth century, people restored or rebuilt the ruined missions.

Four of the missions are still run under the auspices of the Franciscan Order: Mission San Antonio de Padua, Mission Santa Barbara, Mission San Miguel Arcángel, and Mission San Luis Rey de Francia.

Others are still Catholic churches. Seven of them are National Historic Landmarks.

Many of the old missions have excellent museums and intriguing ruins. You can read about each of them, see photos and explore their unique history here.