Most Americans do not know about the famous missions established by the Spanish priests in the state of California. I wasn’t aware of them before our recent trip there, but their story is quite fascinating.
These missions were established between 1769 and 1823 with the purposes of introducing the Roman Catholic faith to the Native Americans and to secure Spain’s expansion in the new world.
There are twenty one of these missions that extend from San Diego to Sonoma and each were spaced about a day’s horseback ride apart.
Spain’s first landfall on the California coastline was a result of the discovery of a more favorable return trade route discovered from the Philippines to the Spanish colony in Mexico in 1564. Spain’s interest in securing the California coastline was to protect this valuable trade route. This eventually led to the colonization of California.
The first mission was established in San Diego. The year was 1769 and the obstacles and dangers were great as four separate parties of men were dispatched from Lower California (the Baja peninsula) to establish five missions in Upper California.
Two of the parties were to travel by land and two by sea. They each left on different dates and were to meet in San Diego and establish the first mission.
The first ship, the San Carlos left La Paz on January 9 and the San Antonio set sail on February 15. The supply ship, the San Jose, was to supply all four groups. It sailed on June 16. She was lost at sea and never heard of again.
The first land party, under the command of Captain Fernando Rivera y Moncada departed in March and the second, commanded by Don Gaspar Portola left on May 15, 1769. Portola was given command of the expedition and Father Junipero Serra was in charge of the Franciscan monks that would establish the mission.
The first to arrive of the four groups was the San Antonio on April 11, which had left 46 days after the San Carlos. The latter ship suffered problems and spent 110 days at sea before arriving. The crew was totally devastated and in terrible condition. The crew was so weak they could not lower a boat and row ashore. Two-thirds of these men eventually died.
The first land party arrived on May 14 and Captain Moncada began immediately to move the camp closer to the water, built a stockade and huts for the soldiers, crew and priests. The fourth party finally arrived on July 1 with Portola and Father Serra.
In all, more than one third of all the men that began the expedition had died and of the remaining men, half of them were too ill to work. The original plan was to immediately push on to Monterrey, but this had to be delayed.
A new plan was formulated by Portola. The San Antonio was to return to Lower California for supplies. Father Serra and one other Franciscan monk were to stay in San Diego and found the mission and care for the sick. Portola would take the remaining healthy men north to Monterrey.
Two days after Portola left, Father Serra directed the construction of a brush shelter on a high bluff overlooking the beach. You can see this location today in Presidio Park above Old Town San Diego.
Upon the completed construction, a large cross was erected in front of the shelter, Father Serra donned his best vestments, blessed the cross and celebrated High Mass. The first of the twenty one Spanish missions was now founded.
It is said that Native American villagers from a nearby village curiously watched the ceremony, “remaining what they considered a safe distance away.” This would be their first touch with Roman Catholic ceremonies.
Modern day man has a difficult time relating to these types of conditions and hardship. Our high tech world keeps us in cyber space most of each day. But it is always proper to reflect on men and women that carved out this great country, who through great personal difficulty, sacrifice and daily danger were determined to succeed despite the odds against them.