spanish missions in California

5 Facts About California Missions History [Missions Map & List of All Missions]

There are many articles you could find online regarding of California Mission. This one will focus on significant facts that can help students or anyone 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 the kingdom by colonizing. At the first place, they colonized the civilization known as the Aztecs. They named land New Spain (Nueva España). That was the region of today’s Mexico.

Since the Catholic Church was mighty at that time, and Spain was a Catholic Empire, they wanted to colonize more land and civilizations, moving their citizens up North and exploring the West coast of New World. Spain was a significant 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 a European attempt to colonize the Pacific Coast.

The mission system had been used by Spain to colonize lands for centuries before the settling of Alta California. In the U.S., 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 the native Californians’ way of life, mainly to spread Christianity. Franciscan priest Father Junipero Serra founded the first Mission in California in today’s San Diego, Mission San Diego de Alcalá, in 1769. He founded the 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 his first Mission in the U.S. 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 baptize him. Father Antonio Nadal Serra and his mother Margarita Rosa Ferrer gave him the name Miguel Jose Serra. He was the 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 the 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 a 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, the insect bit Father Serra in the left leg. The 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. In 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 American pope, visit to the U.S. In 2015, Serra was canonized and officially became a saint. Serra became the first saint canonized on U.S. soil.

Fact #1 California Missions List – By Date of Foundation

  • Mission San Diego de Alcalá founded in 1769
  • Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo founded in 1770
  • Mission San Antonio de Padua founded in 1771
  • Mission San Gabriel founded in 1771
  • Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa founded in 1772
  • Mission San Francisco de Asís (Mission Dolores) founded in 1776
  • Mission San Juan Capistrano founded in 1776
  • Mission Santa Clara de Asís founded in 1777
  • Mission San Buenaventura founded in 1782
  • Mission Santa Barbara founded in 1786
  • Mission La Purísima Concepción founded in 1787
  • Mission Santa Cruz founded in 1791
  • Mission Nuestra Señora de la Soledad founded in 1791
  • Mission San José founded in 1797
  • Mission San Juan Bautista founded in 1797
  • Mission San Miguel Arcángel founded in 1797
  • Mission San Fernando Rey de España founded in 1797
  • Mission San Luis Rey de Francia founded in 1798
  • Mission Santa Inés founded in 1804
  • Mission San Rafael Arcángel founded in 1817
  • Mission San Francisco Solano founded in 1823

Fact #2 Locations – California Missions Map

This is the map of all California Missions. Feel free to email, blog, tweet, and pass this image around the web.

california missions map

Fact #3 Purpose – Why Missions Were Built?

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

Since the Spanish Crown wanted to make Natives Spanish citizens, they had to learn Spanish and accept the Catholic Faith. That is the reason every Mission has its 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

Missions had to provide forts, which 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 with 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 the Spanish had come 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. The favorite food for Indians was atolé, made from roasted corn or barley. Indians had atolé for 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, the 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 the fire could destroy Mission’s church or living quarters. Workers used all types of tools like a forge and anvil to shape heated metal. The equipment they used was not different from one used in Mexico or Europe back then. Final products 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 kinds 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. The wine was used during church ceremonies.

But the most crucial 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 primary duty for women was to prepare food 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. The man did not wear clothes at all. They were entirely naked and barefoot. In winter days, they wore animal fur across their 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’s clothing was more colorful. It was not unusual to see a woman with a flower in the hair. Both men 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.

California Mission Arhitecture

Fact #4 – California Missions Architecture

We can say that style and architecture of California Missions were esthetic and functional at the same time. Native Indians had many useful skills. They used 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 an expression “Mission style” to describe furniture or craftsmen style these days. The most used materials were: stone, adobe, stucco, and wood. Keep in mind that there are no two identical Missions in California.

Exterior design

Since the 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 a fountain and garden. The best-preserved example is Mission San Luis Rey. The characteristic of every Mission is wide eaves, as well. Windows are small (for better protection) and have curved tops.

Church walls are very tall. The 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, winery, soldier’s rooms, guest’s rooms, laundry room and priests’ house. The cemetery of Mission San Luis Rey is still in operation.

Interior design

Churches were decorated the 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. In the beginning, there were no benches, just images of the saints and statues. The colors used to decorate were 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 the church treasury.

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

End of Mission System

Fact #5 Secularization – The End of Mission System

In 1821 California became a part of Mexico. Mexico got independence from Spain, and in 1832 Missions were secularized by the act of the 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 did not know to run property and quickly got manipulated to turn it over to private hands. Some land was given to ex-military officers and the Mexican elite. Poorly maintained buildings start to fall apart, and many missions were ruined.

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

In March 1865. Abraham Lincoln, president of the U.S. gave the proclamation to restore ownership of some California Missions to the Catholic Church. Since then, many organizations and people are involved in Mission’s restoration using photos and paintings from the 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 first hand.