California Mission Facts and Answers to Frequent Questions

The Basics About California's Spanish Missions

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 California Missions facts, this page was created just for you.

How the California Missions Got Started

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

The Spanish wanted to take control of Alta California (which means Upper California in Spanish). They were worried because 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 at missions in Mexico for seventeen years before he was put in charge of the California missions. To find out more about him, read Father Serra's biography.

That happened in 1767 when the Franciscan order of priests took over New World missions from the Jesuit priests. The details behind that change are too complicated to go into in this summary 

How Many Missions Are There?

In 1769, Spanish soldier and explorer Gaspar de Portola and Father Serra made their first trip together. They went north from La Paz in Baja California (now in Mexico) to establish a mission in Alta California (which is now the state of California).

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. Other locations were proposed and rejected and plans to build a twenty-second mission in Santa Rosa in 1827 were canceled.

You can see their location on a map. Today, you can visit the sites of all of them. Some of them are original buildings, but others have been rebuilt.

Why Was the Purpose of the Missions in California?

The Spanish Fathers wanted to convert the local Indians to Christianity. At each mission, they recruited neophytes from the local Indians. In some places, they brought them to live at the mission, and in others, they stayed in their villages and went to the mission every day. Everywhere, the Fathers taught them about Catholicism, how to speak Spanish, how to do farming, and other skills.

Some Indians wanted to go to the missions, but others did not. Spanish soldiers mistreated some of the Indians.

One of the worst thing about the missions for the Indians was that they 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 did in any small town at that time.

All of the missions raised wheat and corn. Many of them 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, wove cloth, and made other products to use and sell. 

The daily schedule was strict, and everyone attended church services, Some of the missions also had choirs, where the Fathers taught the Indians how to sing Christian songs.

Besides their religious duties, the Fathers had to prepare reports about the mission, which included how many animals they had, along with records of all baptisms, marriages, births, and deaths.

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 essential missions. Finally in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln returned all of the former mission lands to the Catholic Church. By then, many of them were in ruins.

What About the Missions Now?

In the twentieth century, people got interested in the missions again. They restored or rebuilt the ruined missions.

Four of the missions are still run under by 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 in these quick guides, designed to help both California students and curious visitors.