Bringing Missions to California, 1769-1823

Posted on October 22, 2012

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Traveling with Gaspar de Portolá’s 1769 land expedition to California was the Franciscan missionary Junípero Serra.  From his arrival there until his death in 1784, Serra was to serve as the first Father President of the mission system project in California.

Gaspar de Portolá and Father Serra, whatever their personal or other motivations for being there, were making their trek that season on behalf of Spain, and Spain had come to California to claim it for its empire.  The mission system was wielded in California, as it had been often done, as tool of colonization and a vanguard to settlement, a cheap, effective way for Spain to neutralize dense Aboriginal populations located a long way from the centre of things.  The present instance fit both those criteria.  The California coast was densely populated—Aboriginal California as a whole probably supported 300,000 people prior to European arrival—and it was a long way from the centre as that centre was defined by Spain.

The voyages of Cabrilho, Drake, Unamuno, Cermeno and Vizcaíno to that exotic coast between 1542 and 1602, and the tales those voyages had brought back with them, had made California’s coastline part of the known world.  Sort of.  Mapmakers of the mid-18th century sometimes still fused geography with fable by theorizing an inland sea dominating North America’s northwestern quadrant.  Some still could not resist drawing in a Northwest Passage starting somewhere in Hudson’s Bay, sometimes passing through this mythical sea, and debouching on the NorthwestCoast.

Arriving in California in 1769, a vague place on the borderlines of a mythic geography, would-be California colonist Father Serra must have imagined that he stood at the edge of the world.

Not a problem. Commissioned to construct three missions, the ambitious Father already had a vision of a string of missions along the entire coast of South and Central California.

If placed at proper intervals—say every twenty-five leagues, more or less, like the ones nearby—they would form from San Diego to here [Mission San Carlos], stepping stones, so that every third day one might sleep in a village.  With that, peace would be assured, and passage through all the country made easy; and a postal service may be established.—Father Junípero Serra to Viceroy Bucareli, August 24, 1774(quoted in Lightfoot,53)

Father Serra wasn’t worried about the fact that he had trekked beyond the edges of European civilization because he was fully determined to bring that civilization with him.  The missionary mandate was two-fold, conversion to Christianity and conversion to European lifeways.  Missionaries taught the Bible, taught Christian ceremonial and doctrine, but they also instructed in the Spanish language, and indoctrinated their Aboriginal students in “the importance and centrality of Eurocentric worldviews, life ways and economic practices.”[1]  Father Serra had come to California expressly to remake its lands and population into a Spanish-flavoured theocracy.

Spain could not have settled on a more determined pastor to colonize and subdue California on its behalf.  Within three years, he had already exceeded his commission, establishing five missions where three had been called for.  By the time of his death in 1784, he had brought nine into operation, established within four presidios overseen by the Spanish military.

Fray Serra also cultivated an ambitious successor, the second Father President, Fermín Lasuén, who matched the first Father President’s efforts by doubling the number of missions to 18 by 1798.  The number was finalized at 21 by the addition of three other missions in 1804, 1817 and 1823, by which time Father Serra’s vision of missions as stepping stones was fully realized and the mission trail stretched along California’s coast from San Diego Bay to north of San Francisco Bay.

These missions were to have a profound effect on the Aboriginal people of California, and on its history.  That was Father Serra’s intent, of course.  But the effect they were to have went far beyond Christianization, beyond either the Father President’s intent or his imaginings, nor has it ended yet.


[1] Kent G. Lightfoot, Indians, Missionaries and Merchants, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2005, p. 7.

Posted in: history