The California missions began in the late 18th century as an effort to convert Native Americans to Catholicism and expand European territory. There were 21 missions in all, lasting from 1769 until about 1833.

The California missions began in the late 18th century as an effort to convert Native Americans to Catholicism and expand European territory. Spain was responsible for the missions, which scholars believe were attempts to colonize the Pacific coast of North America. There were 21 missions in all, lasting from 1769 until about 1833. The mission system brought many new cultural and religious ideas to California, though critics charge the systematic oppression of Native Americans amounted to slavery.

Junipero Serra

Although Spain claimed California as its territory in 1542, Spaniards didn’t try to occupy the land until the late 1700s.

Around the time of the first missions, Spain had a considerable presence in Mexico. In 1769, the Spanish king ordered land and sea expeditions to depart from Mexico to California. He also sent military troops and Franciscan missionaries to the new land.

Franciscan priest Father Junipero Serra founded the first mission in 1769. This was known as Mission San Diego de Alcalá and was located in present-day San Diego.
San Diego Mission

The native Indians who occupied the region were initially resistant to the mission. In 1775, hundreds of local Tipai-Ipai Indians attacked and burned the San Diego Mission, killing three men, including Father Luis Jayme. The missionaries rebuilt the mission as an army fort.

Junipero Serra went on to establish eight more missions before his death in 1784.

Goals of the Missions

The main goal of the California missions was to convert Native Americans into devoted Christians and Spanish citizens.

Spain used mission work to influence the natives with cultural and religious instruction.

Another motivation for the missions was to ensure that rival countries, such as Russia and Great Britain, didn’t try to occupy the California region first.

California Missions List

The 21 California missions, listed in the order they were founded, are:

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

Life in the Mission

The missions created new communities where the Native Americans received religious education and instruction. The Spanish established pueblos (towns) and presidios (forts) for protection.

The natives lived in the missions until their religious training was complete. Then, they would move to homes outside of the missions.

Once the natives converted to Christianity, the missionaries would move on to new locations, and the existing missions served as churches.

The native converts were known as “neophytes.” After they were baptized, they were expected to perform labor. Typically, men worked in the fields, and women cooked. Both learned Spanish and attended church.

Farming was an especially important job in the mission community. Wheat, barley and maize were some of the staple crops that were grown. The Spanish missionaries also brought fruits from Europe, such as apples, peaches and pears.

Other jobs included carpentry, building, weaving and leather-working.

Padres, or religious leaders, oversaw the mission. They were assigned six soldiers to protect them and the mission properties.

Mission Architecture

The mission period greatly influenced architecture in California. Many of the buildings, houses and churches still exist today.

Native Americans used all-natural materials, such as stone, timber, mud brick, adobe and tile to build mission structures. Typically, buildings had large courtyards with tall adobe walls. Missions were built around patios that contained fountains and a garden.

The buildings of this period are sometimes labeled as “mission style” to describe the signature design and craftsmanship.

End of the Mission System

By 1821, Mexico won its independence from Spain. For several years, there was debate about what to do with the mission system.

In 1833, the Mexican government passed a law that secularized and ended missions. California was part of Mexico during this time.

Some of the mission land and buildings were turned over to the Mexican government. While much of the property was intended to be given back to the natives, private owners ended up with the majority of land.

Later, missions were used as U.S. military bases in the 1846 war with Mexico.

After gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in 1848, Americans began to migrate by the masses to California. In 1850, California officially became a state.

Abraham Lincoln granted the Catholic Church ownership of some of the California missions in 1865.

Today, many of the missions are tourist attractions with their own museums.

Impact of the Missions

The California missions, which stretched from San Diego to Sonoma, had a significant impact on the Native Californians.

The mission era influenced culture, religion, architecture, art, language and economy in the region.

But, the missions also impacted California Indian cultures in negative ways. Europeans forced the natives to change their civilization to match the modern world. In the process, local traditions, cultures and customs were lost.

Some critics have charged that the Spanish mission system forced Native Americans into slavery and prostitution, comparing the missions to “concentration camps.”

Additionally, Spanish missionaries brought diseases with them that killed untold thousands of natives.

Prior to the California missions, there were about 300,000 Native Californians. By 1834, scholars believe there were only about 20,000 remaining.


A History of California’s Missions, Los Angeles Times.
The California Missions, California Missions Foundation.
California Missions: A Journey Along the El Camino Real, California Museum.
Spanish Exploration, The Spanish Missions of California.
California Missions History – 5 Facts You Need to Understand, Old Mission San Luis Rey.
Map of the California Missions, California Missions Resource Center.
Easter Sunday protest over Serra planned at Carmel Mission. Monterey Herald.