California Missions History – 5 Facts You Need To Understand

There are many articles you could find online regarding of California Mission. This one will focus on major facts that can help students or anyone who is interested to learn about California 200 years ago. We’ll try to offer unique information and make this article a true California Missions resource center.

California Missions History

The only logical way to start is with California Missions history. 21 Missions along the coast of California were built from 1769 till 1823. Additionally, there were several assistancias, or sub-missions, associated with some Missions.

In the 16th century, Spain soldiers were sent by King to explore new places and expand kingdom by colonizing. At the first place, they colonized civilization known as Aztecs. They named land New Spain (Nueva España). That was the region of today’s Mexico.

Since Catholic Church was very powerful at that time, and Spain was Catholic Empire they wanted to colonize more land and civilizations moving their citizens up North and exploring West cost of New World. Spain was a major geopolitical power in 18th century Europe with many colonies. At the same time, they were looking for alternatives on their way to Asia. So, they colonized land and settlers in Alta California. They brought European culture to today’s California along with religion, architectural practices, and agricultural knowledge. Actually, it was European attempt to colonize Pacific Coast.

The mission system had been used by Spain to colonize lands for centuries before the settling of Alta California. In the US, the Spanish built 30 Missions in Georgia and Florida, 16 in New Mexico, 26 in Texas and 6 in Arizona. They were built to protect the borders from invaders.

Spain had a lot of experience with Aztecs and was relatively easy to change native Californians way of life, especially to spread Christianity. Franciscan priest Father Junipero Serra founded first Mission in California in today’s San Diego, Mission San Diego de Alcalá in 1769. He founded first nine of 21 Missions. The father that continued building missions after Father Serra’s death in 1780 at Mission San Carlos Borromeo was Fermin Francisco de Lausen (1736-1803). He also established nine missions.

Junipero Serra - Founder of California Missions

Junipero Serra – Founder of California Missions

A boy that was born on November 24, 1713. in a small village Petra (the island of Majorca) on the coast of Mediterranean Sea will turn out to be the most important figure in California history. On that day, “father of the Missions”  was born , California founding father or “Apostle of California” as many like to say – a man who established first mission in the US in 1769. Junipero Serra founded nine missions in Alta California from 1769 to 1782.

Junipero Serra Synopsys

The same day he was born parents took him to the small local church of San Pedro to baptise him. Father Antonio Nadal Serra and mother Margarita Rosa Ferrer gave him name Miguel Jose Serra. He was a third child in the family.

When he was just 15 years old he moved to study in the capital of Majorca, Palma. He was educated by Franciscan fathers who followed the teaching of St. Francis of Assisi. At the age of 16, Junipero became a monk in the order of St. Francis and took name Junipero to replace his baptismal name, Miguel Jose. Junipero was the name of St. Francis companion from childhood.

Reports from that period say that Junipero Serra was very talented, intelligent, dynamic and optimistic person that was spending a lot of time praying. He quickly becomes well known for his preaching. After a formal education in theology, he becomes a professor and lecturer of philosophy. In 1743 he earned a doctorate in theology at Lullian University in Palma de Mallorca.

Missionary Days in Mexico

At the age of 36, Junipero Serra decides to become a Franciscan missionary. In 1749 he and several other Franciscan monks boarded to a ship to the New World. They arrived to Vera Cruz and headed to Mexico City. He and his student and friend Fray Francisco Palou walked 250 miles. On that journey, insect bit Father Serra in the left leg. Leg got infected, and that injury troubled Junipero for the rest of his life.

He was working for the next 17 years in central Mexico.

Father Serra in California

In 1767, when Jesuits were expelled from Lower California, Father Serra was appointed superior of the Franciscan missionary because of his administrative skills. In 1769 he joined an expedition to Upper California. At the same year, Father Sierra founded the first mission in San Diego, one of the 21 missions along the ocean coast from San Diego to San Francisco.

Under his jurisdiction missions became powerful agricultural and farming centers. With rigorous discipline and religious education, he converted native Indians to Catholics. According to Fray Francisco Palou sources, Father Junipero Serra is responsible for more than 6000 baptisms in Upper California.

Additional to the fact that he converted many Indians, he also helped integrate Spanish culture to the land. Serra founded trade schools and introduced new fruit species and domestic animals.

He spent his whole life in California and never returned to Europe. Father Serra died at his 70, on August 28. 1784 at the mission of Carmel (San Carlos Borromeo). Mission San Carlos de Borromeo in Carmel was Father Serra headquarters.

Junipero Serra Mission List

Serra founded nine missions from age 55 until his death at 70.

  • Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá, July 16, 1769,
  • Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, June 3, 1770,
  • Mission San Antonio de Padua, July 14, 1771
  • Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, September 8, 1771,
  • Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, September 1, 1772,
  • Mission San Juan Capistrano, November 1, 1776,
  • Mission San Francisco de Asís, June 29, 1776,
  • Mission Santa Clara de Asís, January 12, 1777,
  • Mission San Buenaventura, March 31, 1782.

Father Serra Beatification and Canonization

Pope John Paul II beatified Father Serra in 1987. During Pope Francis', the first Latin America pope, visit to the U.S. In 2015, Serra was canonized and officially became a saint. Serra became the first saint canonized on the U.S. soil.

Fact #1 California Missions List – By Date of Foundation

  1. Mission San Diego de Alcalá founded in 1769
  2. Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo founded in 1770
  3. Mission San Antonio de Padua founded in 1771
  4. Mission San Gabriel founded in 1771
  5. Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa founded in 1772
  6. Mission San Francisco de Asís (Mission Dolores) founded in 1776
  7. Mission San Juan Capistrano founded in 1776
  8. Mission Santa Clara de Asís founded in 1777
  9. Mission San Buenaventura founded in 1782
  10. Mission Santa Barbara founded in 1786
  11. Mission La Purísima Concepción founded in 1787
  12. Mission Santa Cruz founded in 1791
  13. Mission Nuestra Señora de la Soledad founded in 1791
  14. Mission San José founded in 1797
  15. Mission San Juan Bautista founded in 1797
  16. Mission San Miguel Arcángel founded in 1797
  17. Mission San Fernando Rey de España founded in 1797
  18. Mission San Luis Rey de Francia founded in 1798
  19. Mission Santa Inés founded in 1804
  20. Mission San Rafael Arcángel founded in 1817
  21. Mission San Francisco Solano founded in 1823

Fact #2 Locations – California Missions Map

This is the map of all California Missions Locations. Feel free to email, blog, tweet, and pass this image around the web but please do not alter.

California Missions Map - Infographic

Fact #3 Purpose – Why Missions Were Built?

Permission to start building the chain of Missions was made by King of Spain. The main function at the time was to help Spanish Franciscan missioners spread Catholicism. The less important role was to accommodate army who protected colonized land provide them food. Spain was afraid that Russia would enter into California so the first Missions were built near harbors to prevent attacks from the sea.

Since Spanish Crown wanted to make Natives Spanish citizens they had to learn Spanish and accept Catholic Faith. That is the reason every Mission has its own church. Local Indians were baptized and civilized there.

Since the main goal of the Missions was to convert local citizens to Catholic faith they had the very common daily life. Men worked in the fields, women cooked but they had to learn Spanish and attend Holy mass. The Native Californians who converted to Christianity were called neophytes, which means “new grown.”

Padres had six soldiers to protect them and Mission assets. They were responsible to the governor, not padres.

Life in Missions

Best way to learn about California mission life is to register for behind-the-Scenes Tour with a history professor Brad Byrom, а tour that will inform and entertain you. For more information about professor Brad’s tours click here. Make online reservation at this link.  

Missions had to provide forts who protected land with food, farming was very important for every mission. Crops grown were wheat, maize, and barley. Spanish Franciscan missioners brought many fruits from Europe like pear, peach, apple, orange and many more.

Along growing crops they had to provide meat. Many animals like sheep’s, cattle, goats, and pigs were brought from Mexico. The meat was not the only purpose of livestock breeding. They also used leather and wool on cold days and during the winter.


Did You Know?  Native Indian groups in Upper California spoke nearly 80 languages. Many tribes who lived next to each other before Spanish had came had difficulties to understand each other. Catechisms were small books written by padres on native language to bring closer Catholic faith and church.


Since all the missions had herds of livestock (Old Mission San Luis had 20,100 sheep and 26,100 cattle back in 1832) and fields with crops (mostly with corn, wheat, beans barley and peas) it was not so hard to provide food for Padres, guests, soldiers and native Indians who lived in the mission.

They ate food they had produced in the mission and cooked Spanish and Mexican dishes following recipes Padres brought from Europe. Mexican influence was dominant though. Favorite food for Indians was atolé, made from roasted corn or barley. Indians had atolé for the breakfast and supper. Mexican influence on food served at missions is shown the best in the fact that tortillas, thin dough (made of corn and water) were served every day.

Women sometimes prepared local Indian meals as well. Preparing meals was the core of their daily duties. Every mission had a kitchen with a fireplace and adobe ovens.

Main meals served for lunch in missions included a piece of meat (chicken, pork or beef), vegetables like beans, tomato, garlic, onion, and peppers. The meat was sometimes boiled sometimes roasted. Dishes including corn and wheat were served every day. Fruit served was from mission’s orchards, mostly apples, oranges and pears.

After dinner they had sweets, like some chocolate or candied pumpkins Dulce de Calabaza.

On festive days, food was different. For a special occasion, whole beef was roasted and served for mission citizens and guests with the addition of red chili sauce.

The Most popular food at missions was atolé, masa, nixtamal, postole, huevos de chili, tortillas, tamales, tacos, torrejas, empanaditas, bunelos, relleno de frijoles (been filling), relleno de carne (meat filling), puchero, dulce de calabaza, champurrado - hot chocolate, champurrado, iced Mexican chocolate and many others.

If you want to learn California mission period recipes check Bess Anderson California Mission Recipes cookbook.


The main goal of the mission was to become self-sufficient. Everyone that was capable of working had some task to work on in the mission. The working day was 6 hours long. Sunday was labor free and reserved for mass and religious service. Men and women had different working duties.

Men in the mission usually worked as blacksmiths and carpenters. Blacksmith shops were located far from the main building since fire could destroy mission’s church or living quarters. Workers used all types of tools like a forge and anvil to shape heated metal. Equipment they used was not different from one used in Mexico or Europe back then. Final products that came out from blacksmith shops were tools for growing crops, axes, locks, plows, nails, scissors, hinges, hammers, saws, keys, etc.

Carpenters (some Indians had fantastic skills to shape wood pieces) made all kind of furniture like chairs, tables, beds that were used every day, but not just that. Woodworkers made some beautiful church balconies that were constructed of food.

Men also had responsibilities in the orchards, field and gardens growing crops (grew wheat, barley, corn, beans) vegetables (onion, tomato, melon, peppers, garlic) and fruit. Agricultural tasks depended on weather and time of year.

Many missions had wine yards and thus wine production. Because of California’s apposite climate grape quality was fantastic. Padres loved to drink wine, but they used it for medical purposes as well. Wine was used during church ceremonies.

But the most important job in the mission was taking care of livestock since farming was most important for every mission. Along with farming, they were involved in making adobe bricks and tail.

Every mission had a weaving shop with equipment. Women did weaving cloth and spinning wool as well as making candles and soap from tallow.

The main duty for women was to prepare food for the meals for all who lived in the mission.

Both men and women had a duty to make shoes and other leather goods, make tallow, prepare hides, wash clothes, weave baskets, etc.

Children in missions had some working duties like adults, but their duties were much easier of course.

Girls usually helped their mothers to prepare meals or clean and boys were helping fathers in the field. They were involved in mass helping Padres in the church or singing in church choirs.

Children whose parents have decided to live in missions continued to play games they used to before missionaries came to Upper California.



Indian tribes used minimal clothes. Women usually wore skirts or aprons made from animal skin or skirts mixed from wool with willow fiber. On cold winter days, they wore robes and slippers to cover their feet and keep them warm. Man did not use clothes at all. They were fully naked and barefoot. In winter days they wore animal fur across chest and backs. Men dressed for tribal dance nights or other special days. Clothing was different for coastal and desert Indian tribes.

Things changed a big once they decided to start living in the missions. It was not acceptable for Padres to have naked men in missions, so they decided to give one long sleeves shirt and one blanket made from wool to every man and woman. Men usually wore white clothing while women clothing was more colorful. It was not unusual to see a woman with a flower in the hair. Both man and women wore small blankets on the shoulders – serape.

Padres also required dressing rules for different occupations. Men who worked in a field and with animals wore wide pants, V-neck shirts, and boots. 

Ruins and Church California Mission

Fact #4 – California Missions Architecture

We can definitely say that style and architecture of California Missions was esthetic and functional at the same time. Native Indians had many useful skills. They used all natural materials to build houses from timber, stone, mud brick, adobe, and tile. These materials were enough for Spanish Fathers to plain beautiful churches and Mission buildings mixing European and Mexican architectural style. Some modern architectures have expression “Mission style” to describe furniture or craftsmen style these days. Most used materials were: stone, adobe, stucco, and wood. Keep in mind that there are no two identical Missions in California.

Exterior design

Since building needed to be secured from Indian attacks every Mission had a large courtyard with tall adobe walls. Inside there is a small tower with bells. There is no embellishment on towers or walls. Roofs were made from red tile.

Every Mission was built on a patio. Every patio has fountain and garden. The best-preserved example is Mission San Luis Rey. Characteristic of every mission too are wide eaves. Windows are small (for better protection) and have curved tops.

Church walls are very tall. Church floor is mainly covered with terra cote. Bells called people to church every morning at 6 AM.

Except for church, patio, garden and fountain many missions had a cemetery, baptistery, bakery, library, the winery, soldier’s rooms, guest’s rooms, laundry room and priests’ house.

Cemetery of Mission San Luis Rey is still in operation.      

Interior design

Churches were decorated same as in Western Europe, similar to other Catholic churches in Spain. It was the most important building in every Mission. They are painted following the example of European cathedrals. At the beginning, there were no benches, just images of the saints and statues. Colors used to decorate was red, yellow, green and blue. All made from natural flowers of course. It is also important to stress that gold and silver were kept in church treasury.

Furniture in Missions mainly was made of oak. Another building except churches was very plain and simple. Soldiers’ quarters were separated from priest quarters.

Native Indians California Missions

Fact #5 Secularization – The End of Mission System

In 1821 California became a part of Mexico. Mexico got independence from Spain and 1832 Missions were secularized by the act of Mexican government. Mission land was confiscated and after that sold out but Church retains priest’s rooms and chapels. Many remained parish churches. Other buildings were turned over to the Mexican government.

The Missions were given 10 years to fulfill their purpose of instructing the Indians. After, the land and livestock were to be given to the Indians. Indians had no knowledge to run property and quickly got manipulated to turn it over to private hands. Some land was given to ex-military officers and Mexican elite. Poorly maintained buildings start to fall apart and many missions were ruined almost completely.

Some Missions were used as US military bases during the war with Mexico from 1846. War ended in 1846. In 1850 California became part of United States. During war period and shortly after that US Military manage to somehow maintain Missions from further predation.

On March 1865. Abraham Lincoln, president of US gave the proclamation to restore ownership of some California Missions to Catholic Church. Since then many organizations and people are involved in missions restoration using photos and paintings from early stages.

Today California Missions are tourist attractions and you should visit them if you are in California. They all have museums where you can learn more about California Missions history from the first hand.

Since you’re here...

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Help preserve the Old Mission San Luis Rey for future generations! Please, click on Make a Donation form or Membership Form button and choose a membership option. Thank you.

Want Some More Facts? Visit CALIFORNIA MISSIONS Q&A.

California Missions History