History and Guide to Mission Santa Cruz

Mission Santa Cruz in California

Fritz Liess / Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Mission Santa Cruz was the twelfth mission built in California, founded September 25, 1791, by Father Fermin Lasuen. The name Mission Santa Cruz means Holy Cross Mission.

Mission Santa Cruz was known as the "hard luck mission." Today, it has the only remaining example of Indian housing in California.

The Mission Santa Cruz church is near 126 High Street (which is the address of the modern church nearby) in Santa Cruz, California.

Near the old mission church is the Mission Santa Cruz Historic Park at 144 School Street. They have the only surviving Indian neophyte quarters in the state of California.

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Interior front of Mission Santa Cruz

Trip Savvy / Betsy Malloy

The mission church people visit today is a reproduction, about half the size of the original. 

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Back and Choir Loft

Interior back and choir loft of Mission Santa Cruz

TripSavvy / Betsy Malloy

The choir loft in the mission church is in the back, which is typical for the time period. 

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Original Buildings

Buildings at Mission Santa Cruz State Historic Park

Ed Bierman / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

This is the only building still left standing from the original Mission Santa Cruz, now located in the state historic park. Shortly after the mission closed, it became part of a private residence and was covered over with a roof, which saved the mud-based adobe brick from melting away in the rain.

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Indian Sleeping Area

Indian sleeping area at Mission Santa Cruz

TripSavvy / Betsy Malloy

This bed is part of the only surviving example of Indian living quarters from California's mission era.

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Indian Quarters

Indian Quarters at Mission Santa Cruz

TripSavvy / Betsy Malloy

This gives an idea of how an Indian family might have lived at a Spanish mission in California.

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History: 1769 to 1799

Layout of Mission Santa Cruz

TripSavvy / Betsy Malloy

In 1774, Father Palou chose a mission site near a river flowing into the ocean. On August 28, 1791, Father Fermin Lasuen raised a cross where Santa Cruz Mission would be built.

On September 25 of that year, Fathers Salazar and Lopez held the founding celebration.

Early Years

Older missions sent gifts to start the new one. Buildings were constructed, and the Indian population grew. Within three months, there were 87 neophytes.

Santa Cruz Mission did well in its first few years. After floods, the Fathers moved uphill to a permanent location, and more Indians came.

In 1796, Santa Cruz Mission produced 1,200 bushels of grain, 600 bushels of corn, and 6 bushels of beans. They planted vineyards and raised cattle and sheep. Their property extended from Ano Nuevo south to the Pajaro River. Native workers made cloth, leather, adobe bricks, roof tiles, and worked as blacksmiths.

Ohlone Indians came to Santa Cruz Mission to work and go to church, but many of them still lived in their nearby villages. By 1796, there were 500 neophytes.

History and Branciforte

Because problems came up when missions were too close to settlers, the Franciscan fathers said there should be at least three miles between a mission and a town. At Santa Cruz, Governor Borica ignored them. In 1797, he started a pueblo (town) just across the river and named it Villa de Branciforte.

Some people say Branciforte was California's first real estate development. Borica asked the Viceroy in Mexico to send colonists. He promised them clothing, farm tools, furniture, a neat white house, $116 annually for two years, and $66 annually for the next three years after that.

The community was laid out in a square, with a farming area divided into units for each settler. Borica wanted Branciforte to be like Latin America, where the races mixed successfully, and houses were set aside for Indian chiefs. The plan worked in Mexico but was doomed to fail in California.

The settlers who came were criminals who didn't want to run farms. They stole things and tried to pay the Indians to leave the mission. Borica's assistant wrote a letter saying if the settlers were a few million miles away, it would be good for the area.

Neophytes started leaving Santa Cruz Mission. The population went from 500 in 1796 to 300 two years later. Father Lasuen complained, but the Governor just said if there were fewer Indians, then Santa Cruz Mission needed less land.

In 1799, a rainstorm damaged the church, and it had to be rebuilt.

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History: 1800 to the Present Day

Mission Santa Cruz historic plaque

Ed Bierman / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

From 1800 to 1820, the natives had no resistance to European diseases like measles, scarlet fever, and the flu. The priests tried to read medical books and help them when they got sick, but they had little success. Thousands of Indians died, and others ran away.

Indians ran way because of sickness but also because of strict rules and harsh punishment. They were beaten for working too slowly or bringing dirty blankets to church. When they ran away, they were punished for that, too.

Some priests were exceptionally cruel. In 1812, Father Andres Quintana had two natives beaten with a wire-tipped whip. Because of the cruelty, angry Indians kidnapped Father Quintana and killed him, a case that prompted California's first autopsy.

In 1818, a pirate named Hippolyte de Bouchard attacked the Monterey Presidio south of Santa Cruz. The Fathers and Indians went inland to the mission at Soledad. Father Olbes asked the settlers to pack up their belongings for them, but he should have known better. After the pirates had taken what they wanted, the settlers stole the rest. Father Olbes was so upset that he wanted to abandon the place, but Father Lasuen wouldn't let him.

1820s to 1830s

The native population remained small, and the Branciforte settlers kept causing trouble. Records from 1831 say the mission owned thousands of cattle and sheep and produced hides and tallow, but it never returned to its former prosperity. By 1831, only about 300 neophytes were left.


Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821, but it couldn't afford to keep the missions running. In 1834, they decided to close them and sell the land. Mission Santa Cruz was one of the first to be secularized. The Mexicans offered the land to the natives, but they either didn't want it or couldn't pay for it. The property was then divided and sold to Mexican citizens. By 1845, of the 400 people at Santa Cruz, only 100 were Indians.

In the next few years, the church buildings fell apart. An earthquake in 1840 toppled the bell tower and another earthquake in 1857 destroyed the church. People carried roof beams and tiles away for other uses, and no trace of the original church remained. The 35 adobe structures on the hill became part of the town.

In 1863, Abraham Lincoln returned the lands to the Catholic church, but there was little left of Mission Santa Cruz. What little that remained was put up for sale, but no one would buy it. In 1889 a white-painted, Gothic-style brick church was built on the mission's site.

History in the 20th Century

In 1930, a wealthy family started to build a full-sized replica near the original site, but they lost money in the stock market crash and could only build something half the size of the original.

The only original building left was used for Indian housing, built-in 1824.

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Layout, Floor Plan, Buildings, and Grounds

Interior mission santa cruz

Robert A. Estremo / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

The first permanent church at Santa Cruz was built in 1793-1794.

The church was 112 feet long, 29 feet wide, and 25 feet high, with walls five feet thick. The first roof was thatched, but a tile roof was added in 1811. It was the main mission church for 65 years. Other buildings were constructed around a square, including a weaving room, granary, and a grain mill was built in 1796.

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Layout of Mission Santa Cruz

TripSavvy / Betsy Malloy

If you compare this picture with what's there today, the original mission was located where the big, modern church is now. The row of Indian quarters at the state historic park is near the lower left of this picture.

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Cattle Brand

Cattle Brand of Mission Santa Cruz

TripSavvy / Betsy Malloy

The Mission Santa Cruz picture shows its cattle brand. It was drawn from samples on display at Mission San Francisco Solano and Mission San Antonio. It's one of several mission brands that include the letter "A" in various forms, but unable to find out its origin.