05 February 2010

Spanish missions in California: architecture and industry

I asked my history students about Spanish (1697–1821) and Mexican (1821-34) mission architecture in California and no-one knew anything about it. Nor did they know about the Mexican ranchos (1834-49).

The Kingdom of Spain always sought to establish missions to convert to Roman Catholicism the pagans in New Spain i.e Caribbean, Mexico and most of what today is the SW USA. This was to save their souls, of course, but also to facilitate colonisation of these lands awarded to Spain by the Catholic Church. The Spanish Crown laid claim to Alta California in 1542, but the first permanent Jesuit mission, Misión de Nuestra Señora de Loreto Conchó, wasn’t established till 1697. Jesuit control over the peninsula was only very slowly extended.

The missions arose from the need to control Spain's ever-expanding holdings. The government and Church realised the colonies would require a literate population base that Spain could not supply. The c300,000 indigenous Americans had to learn Spanish, vocations and Christianity.

San Diego de Alcalá Mission, founded in 1769

Alta California was to be settled by Franciscan monks, protected by troops in the California Missions. The Franciscans hoped to convert the tribes to Christianity and to train them for life in colonial society. Converts were required to live in the walled mission enclosure or on rancherías, separate settlements sponsored by missions.

Loreto Mission had been running since 1697. But it wasn’t until the threat of incursion by Russian fur traders and potentially settlers, coming down from Alaska episodically in the 1760s, that Spain felt development and control of the northern colonies was necessary.

Father-Presidente was the head of the Catholic missions in Alta and Baja California, appointed by the College of San Fernando de Mexico. After King Carlos III ordered the Jesuits expelled from New Spain in 1768, the Franciscan Junípero Serra became Father Presidente. Serra founded the San Diego de Alcalá Mission in 1769. Later that year, Serra and his men moved up north. They reached Monterey in 1770, where Serra founded the next mission, San Carlos Borromeo Mission.

The road then was merely a horse and mule trail. To facilitate travel, new mission settlements were established about 50ks apart; they were separated by one day's long ride on horseback or 3 days on foot all the way along the 966ks el Camino Real. Heavy freight movement along the California Mission Trail was practical only via water. By 1821, there were 21 Franciscan Alta California missions.

Camino Real, 966ks long, completed by 1821

In 1798 the Spanish started to fill in the spaces along El Camino Real with 5 additional outposts. Sub-missions were small-scale missions that regularly conducted Mass but lacked a resident priest. Sub-missions were established in areas with high numbers of potential native converts and where travellers could take lodging.

Most missions were small, staffed by 2 Franciscans and 6-8 soldiers under an officer, who generally acted as steward of the mission's temporal affairs. Once empowered to erect a mission, the officers chose a site that had a good water and wood supplies, and good fields for herds and crops. The church, kitchen, living quarters, workshops and storerooms were grouped around a quadrangle. A baptised Indian was no longer free to move about the country, but had to labour and worship at the mission under their strict supervision.

The goal of the missions was, above all, to become self-sufficient in relatively short order. So crop farming was the most important industry of any mission. Grapes were also grown & fermented into wine for sacramental use and for trade. Mission Grape was first planted at Mission San Juan Capistrano in 1779; in 1783, the first wine produced in Alta California emerged from the mission's winery. Mission San Gabriel Arcángel introduced the California citrus industry with the planting of the region’s first significant orchard in 1804. Olives (first cultivated at Mission San Diego de Alcalá) were grown, both for use at the mission and to trade for other goods. As Gardens of a Golden Afternoon blog has shown,  gardens were a central part of mission productivity (and beauty).

Mission San Juan Capistrano, founded 1776

Carpenters made wooden structures and furniture. Bricks were fired in kilns, as were ceramic pots. We can call the mission system a giant training school that comprised agriculture, mechanical arts and the raising of live-stock.

Because I am more interested in the architecture, I relied on Native American Netroots to talk about conditions in the missions. "The Franciscan missions were basically slave plantations which required the Indian people to work for the Spanish under cruel conditions. Indians did not come freely to the missions and once there, they were held against their will. Many attempted to escape, and the soldiers stationed at the mission would attempt to recapture them. Escape attempts are severely punished by the Franciscans. Backed by a small number of soldiers stationed at the missions, the priests imposed a rigid system of coerced and disciplined labour, enforced by the use of corporal punishment and other forms of control".

California during the Mission Period was divided into four military districts. Each mission had its own soldiers, nonetheless the independent presidios/barracks , strategically placed along the coast, were built to protect the missions and other Spanish settlements in Upper California. Built from 1769-82, each of these garrisons functioned as a base of military operations for its region eg El Presidio Real de San Carlos de Monterey defended San Luis Obispo Mission. These presidios had guard houses, store rooms, living quarters and an observation tower, and became part of Spanish strategy to halt Russian incursions south. Later the Sonoma Presidio became the new Californian headquarters of the Mexican Army.

Each frontier station was forced to be self-supporting, so the missions were given the responsibility of providing the presidios with the necessary food and manufactured goods to sustain operations. At this stage Spanish influence was marked by the chain of missions reaching from Loreto, north to San Diego to just north of today's San Francisco Bay area, and extended inland c30-70ks from the missions. Mission Nuestra Señora de la Soledad 1791 was located farthest inland, but even this was only 48 ks from the coast.

By 1819, during the exhausting The Mexican War of Independence, Spain decided to limit its reach to Northern California due to the costs involved in sustaining these remote outposts. Only two missions were created north of San Francisco, San Rafael and the Mission San Francisco Solano, founded in Sonoma in 1823. Solano was the last mission opened in the chain; an attempt to found a 22nd mission in Santa Rosa in 1827 failed.

Since the beginning, mission development had been financed out of The Pious Fund of the Californias and consisted of voluntary donations made in Mexico to members of the Society of Jesus. With the onset of the Mexican War of Independence in 1810, this support largely disappeared, and the missions and their converts were left on their own.

Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, founded 1771

The first native Mexican to be elected Governor of Alta California issued a Proclamation of Emancipation in Jul 1826. All Indians within the military districts of San Diego, Santa Barbara and Monterey were freed from missionary rule. Under the General Law of Secularisation of 1827, all persons born in Spain were declared illegal immigrants and were expelled, including many of the Californian clergy. The Mexican Congress passed An Act for the Secularisation of the Missions of California in 1833. It provided for rancher colonisation of both Alta and Baja California, the expenses to come from the the sale of the mission property. In 1834, under the Decree of Confiscation, 9 other settlements soon closed, with 6 more in 1835; San Buenaventura and San Francisco de Asís were among the last to close, in 1836. Today all that remains of the original Mission San Buenaventura is the church and garden. Services are still held in the parish church, where the altar is intact. A small, on-site museum has displays of mission-era artefacts.
St Luis Rey, founded 1798.

After secularisation, the Father Presidente transferred the missions' headquarters to Mission Santa Barbara, making it the repository of documents from all the scattered missions.

During the Mexican Rancho Period (1834–49), settlements with large land grants were turned into ranchos, where cattle and sheep were raised. The owners of these ranchos styled themselves after the landed gentry in Spain, and they dominated the ranching industry. At the peak of the missions’ functioning in 1832, the missions controlled perhaps a sixth of Alta California, but the missions faded in importance under Mexican control, while ranching and trade grew.

Although the territory of California was annexed in 1848 by the USA, after the Mexican-American War, a number of mission structures survived or were rebuilt, as noted by the California Beaches Blog and My Two Cents blog. The California Missions Travel Guide is very useful for details about the 21 missions, 5 sub-missions, 5 presidios and 4 ranches.

It is from this inspiration that modern Mission Revival Style architecture emerged.


the foto fanatic said...

Love that detailed history. When I was in South America I was gobsmacked at the opulence of the Catholic churches and cathedrals by comparison with the relative poverty of their constituents.

STAG said...

What a fun class this must have been to teach! I have to admit my only exposure to any of the Ranchero period would be old Zorro movies!

And I thought Camino Real was a Tennessee Williams Play....

LondonGirl said...

thanks, this is a wonderful post! I'd vaguely heard of it, but the detail was new, and I really enjoyed it

P. M. Doolan said...

I remember visiting the Jesuit mission in San Francisco many years ago. I had read up on the architecture, but I was totally unprepared for the graveyard. It was filled with the graves of Irish immigrants from 1847 - the Black Year of the Irish famine. I remember the grave of one family, the O' Sullivans of Cork. She and he in their 20s and their young infant - all three had died within days of each other. I was deeply moved by this unexpected discovery which brought home to me the unendurable suffering of these people who had fled famine, crossed the Atlantic and the width of an entire continent to only meet death thousands of miles from home. And these graves represent just a small example of suffering of unimagianable proportions.
Reading you article Helen brought this back to me again.

We Travel said...

How do these Spanish Missions compare to convents etc back in Mexico or Spain?

Hels said...

foto fanatic

It seems that many churches tithed their congregants, taking 10% of their precious value (in money or in kind). Which would be fine if the families received their fair share of the wealth in schooling, care of orphans and widows, decent funerals etc etc.

My feeling is that some opulence was for opulence sake, and not for the locals' spiritual or material comfort. I am NOT thinking of the Californian missions, in this instance.

Hels said...


hmmmm Ottawa.. a bit far to come for lectures :) But there are tons of books and journal articles on the topic.

Hels said...


I have learned a great deal about the architectural history of the missions, but I too knew very little about how the residents felt about the facilities and how historians have come to view the entire movement. It is a fascinating topic, and one still relevant now (in some countries).

Hels said...

PM Doolan

you are sooo right. History can be read in official chronicles of course, but in so many other places as well.

I know when impoverished mothers gave their babies over the orphanages in Britain, for example, they often gave a toy or some other token to the carers. They hoped that the "orphans" would grow up knowing how much their mothers had loved them. Those tokens were ignored by historians for decades.

Hels said...

We Travel

I know that the building materials, arches, windows, floor tiles, ceiling beams and bell towers were very similar to Spanish and Mexican facilities.

Now I would like to know about the activities of the 21 sites. If the mission system was intended to be a giant training school that comprised agriculture, mechanical arts and the raising of live-stock, were there similar vocational facilities in Spain and Mexico? Did the mother countries have their own carpenters, brickies and potters.

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for a good look at the mission in San Luis Obispo, read the blog called Itinerant: http://liveitinerantly.com/blog/2013/12/27/christmas-eve-in-san-luis-obispo

The architecture has been well preserved and the gardens are special.

Unknown said...

Absolutely incredible pictures. I also love your recap of the history of the mission!

Hels said...


Thank you. I think to understand any architecture at all, we must know the history of the era and of the individual institution.

But even more so with an institution that came from another country and another society. The Spanish missions were beautiful and also effective in fulfilling their state role.

Hels said...

Santa Barbara Mission has been well photographed and discussed in Intelliblog. Many thanks for the link: