Mission Santa Cruz



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With a name meaning Holy Cross in Spanish, Mission Santa Cruz was the 12th mission established in California by the Franciscan order. The history of the Mission of Santa Cruz is not a happy one. A series of natural disasters and problems with the local native population caused this mission to be quite unsuccessful in terms of population, agricultural production and number of converts. The mission's highest population was recorded in 1796 and barely topped 500 residents.

The area where the mission is located along Monterey Bay's north shore was originally claimed for Spain by explorer Gaspar de Portola. During an expedition in 1769, he placed a cross near the San Lorenzo River and called the area "Santa Cruz" for feast of the Exultation of the Cross. Some 20 years later, Fathers Isídro Salazar and Balamero Lopez arrived at the site to establish a mission. A cross was raised by Father Fermin Lasuen, Father Serra's successor, in August 1791.

However, the church had been built on the San Lorenzo River's flood plain. So during the winter, the river flooded the mission. Over the next two years, the fathers sought to rebuild the mission on a hill above the river. The new church was consecrated on May 10, 1794.

Troubles with Neighbors

Before the new mission had been completed, members of Quirosto tribe sacked and burned a portion of Mission Santa Cruz. The attack was in retaliation for the forced relocation of natives to the mission.

In 1797, the secular town of Branciforte was established across the San Lorenzo River from the mission. The fathers did not want the town so close to the mission, as they feared it would be settled by unsavory elements. In the end, they were right. Branciforte was settled largely by former convicts, and the town soon became a hub of gambling, drinking, smuggling and other crimes. The Branciforte settlers also used money to entice the natives to desert the mission and work for them. Within two years of Branciforte's founding, at least 200 natives left the mission.

And, when the mission was warned of an impending attack by pirates in 1818, the leaders of Branciforte were asked to help protect the mission's valuables while the fathers and natives took refuge nearby. Instead, the pirate attack never occurred, and the people of Branciforte looted the mission themselves.

Because Branciforte was such a threat, the fathers kept a tight rein on the natives who lived at the mission. Harsh punishments were handed out for minor infractions. Natives couldn't go near Branciforte or risk punishment. They would also be punished for working too slowly or bringing dirty blankets to church. In 1812, natives killed and disfigured Father Andrés Quintana who had ordered a harsh punishment of two natives.

Despite the fathers' efforts to recruit more natives to live and work at the mission, the population dwindled. The population was one of the smallest of any of the missions as the natives either died from diseases or ran away.


Like all the California missions, 1834 marked the beginning of the end for Mission Santa Cruz. The Mexican government removed the Catholic Church as owners of the mission and attempted to sell the mission's lands to local people. However, no buyers came forward, so the mission was divided into ranchos and bequeathed to former military leaders of the Mexican War for Independence. Earthquakes and tsunamis in 1840 and 1857 basically destroyed the original mission buildings and church.

The mission was returned to the Roman Catholic Church in 1859 by President James Buchanan, and a new church was built in 1858. This church was used until 1889 when a stone Gothic church was constructed. Despite damages from an earthquake and fire in the 1980s and 1990s respectively, that church is still in use today by the Holy Cross Parish.