After conquering the Aztecs in Mexico, the Spanish set out to settle the Pacific Coast of what they called "Alta California," or Upper California. With the British and Russians taking steps to explore the California coastline, the Spanish feared these countries would lay claim to the territory before they could. Additionally, Spanish ships sailing from Asia needed a place to stop for provisions. Perhaps most significantly, the Roman Catholic Spanish wanted to convert the pagan natives to their form of religion.
Acting on the orders of Spanish King Charles III, Franciscan missionaries left San Diego in 1769 to colonize the areas further north and convert the native population to Catholicism. Father Junipero Serra led the expedition and is generally credited with founding the California mission system. Father Serra served as president of the mission chain, and founded the first nine missions. After his death in 1784, Father Fermin Lasuen took his placed, working to establish the remaining 11 missions.
The missionaries set about establishing a series of 21 Spanish missions in California stretching from San Diego to just north of San Francisco. Catholic Franciscan priests headed the California missions and sought to make the missions self sufficient by establishing farms and ranches worked by natives. Missions were intended to be self-sustaining villages. Generally, natives, soldiers, several artisans with families and one or two priests lived at the mission.
By Spanish law, the missions' lands and resources were to be turned over to the native population once the natives learned to manage themselves as Spaniards. The Spanish had settled Mexico in the same way. However, acclimation of the native peoples proved to be more difficult than anticipated, and the missions in CA were never able to entirely fund themselves. A fund called the El Fondo Piadoso de las Califonias, or The Pious Fund of the Californias, helped support the missions. It consisted of donations from residents and churches in Mexico who wanted to see the Catholic faith spread throughout North America. The support virtually dried up with the onset of the Mexican War of Independence in 1810.
The native peoples served as labor for the California mission system. If a native was converted and Baptized in the faith, he or she became a servant of the mission.
When natives were baptized, they received a new Christian name and agreed to new rules, one being that they could not leave the mission grounds without permission. They worked the farms and received spiritual education from the priests. At its peak some 21,000 native Californians were bound to the missions.
Estimates indicate approximately 300,000 native Californians lived in Alta California before the arrival of the Spanish. By 1834, the number had dropped to 20,000. That's largely due to diseases which ran rampant through the native population. For example, one quarter of the native living in the San Francisco Bay area died in a measles epidemic in 1806.
The Mission Trail
The missions were located roughly 30 miles apart along the 650-mile-long California Mission Trail, a concept developed in 1798 when a priest convinced the Spanish to create additional outposts where travelers could rest and take refuge. The missions were spaced so that each could be reached in a day by horseback or three days by foot. That's why the missions' steeples were built as high as the tallest tree in the area so they could be seen from a distance. Tradition holds that the priests sowed mustard seeds along the trail to mark the way with bright yellow flowers.
The Missions' End
By 1819, the Spanish abandoned efforts to colonize Alta California. The expense to maintain the remote settlements was immense, and the Spanish were involved in military actions in other parts of the world that drew funds and attention. Then, in 1821, Mexico was granted independence from Spain, and the Mexicans were not interested in maintaining the missions. The first native Mexican governor of California, José María de Echeandía, declared a Proclamation of Emancipation in 1826. The proclamation freed the natives from mission servitude and made them eligible to become Mexican citizens. The directive was all but ignored in the Southern missions. Not to have his order discounted, Governor Echeandía appointed a commission to ensure the natives were given their independence from Mission San Juan Capistrano.
Then, on December 20, 1827, the Mexican government ordered all Spaniards younger than 60 years of age to leave the Mexican territories. In 1833, Governor Jose Figueroa took office. He initially attempted to keep the mission system in place, but the Mexican Congress approved An Act for the Secularization of the Missions of California in August 1833, thus bringing an end to the Spanish mission in California. The act allowed colonization of both Alta and Baja (Lower) California. To finance further colonization, the missions were offered for sale to natives and Mexican citizens, but none were able to pay the price asked by the government. Therefore, all the mission property was broken up into ranchos and granted to former military officers who had fought against Spain in the war for independence.