I've been posting about the California Missions in Alta or Upper California and have bypassed the original ones established in Baja, or Lower California.
The first mission established in The Californias [note the plural] was the Misión Nuestra Senora de Loreto Conchó, founded on October 19, 1697 by the Jesuit priest Juan María de Salvatierra – a good seventy years before Father Serra came on the scene. The town of Loreto went on to become the religious and administrative capital of The Californias.
When we think of “Governor” Portola, we often miss the point that he was actually the Lieutenant Governor for Alta California. The “governor” was actually Matias de Armona who presided at Loreto – with no direct authority over Portola, or Fages who followed. Armona was openly hostile to the Franciscans, feeling the Jesuits who were ousted, had been unfairly treated. This bitterness caused him to be removed in 1775.
Those who have visited Baja know it to be an arid, hostile land where every plant reaches out to snag, grab, or sting you. What few animals that live there are nocturnal. Those you might see during the day will poison you with their venom. At the same time, the oceans surrounding it contain some truly amazing and beautiful creatures. Sharks as big as whales – without teeth! Giant Oceanic Manta Rays as big as some light airplanes that fly awesomely through the Sea of Cortez. Swordfish. Tuna. And massive gatherings of Hammerhead Sharks.
The mission at Loreto was the basis for the other missions in both upper and lower California and was based upon similar missions founded by the Jesuits wherever they served. The other orders, Franciscan, Dominicans, and Capuchins followed their model.
It should also be remember that, at the time of the founding of the missions in Baja, the weather was far different than in the 1800s and today. The world was in the midst of The Mini Ice Age, a time when lakes and rivers in Europe and North America froze solid for lengthy periods and winters were especially long and cold. Sub-tropical areas such as the American southwest, northern Mexico, and The Californias were cooler with more abundant water. So, the missions were able to sustain themselves then, while many have been abandoned.
These were the natives who lived in Baja. Their lives were even more primitive than other tribes to the north and east of them. They had not progressed beyond the Stone Age and lived strictly by what nature provided. They proliferated in times of plenty and died away in times of drought – just like the plants and animals they lived with.
El Camino Real Misionero
The road connecting the missions in Upper California was called El Camino Real, The King's Highway, while the one in Lower California was called The Royal Missionary Highway/Path, whichever is most commonly used. It was just that, a narrow pathway for the Jesuits to move from mission to mission, often riding mules or donkeys. It was never designed for wheeled vehicles and often crossed extremely rugged terrain.
After founding the mission at Loreto, the Jesuits went on to establish seventeen more, plus two ranchos and/or visitas [visiting stations or country chapels which a priest might show up irregularly].
Without a topographic map, it is extremely difficult to relate to just how rugged and difficult the terrain and how the priests managed to make their way from one to another.
This is only the southern part of Baja and it is easy to see how separated these missions are/were – some no longer stand.
I think all of us are familiar with Cabo San Lucas and become confused to learn the airport is actually in San José del Cabo, or where the mission is actually located. And, the name of the mission founded at the Pericú settlement of Añuití in 1730 by Jesuit Father Nicolá Tamaral, is a real mouthful - Misión Estero de las Palmas de San José del Cabo Añuití. A presidio, or military base, was also located there.
The most serious rebellion in the southern part of the Baja Peninsula took place in 1734-1737. This uprising of the Pericú and Guaycuras engulfed several missions in the southern part of the peninsula, most of which had to be abandoned. In January 1735, indigenous forces ambushed the Manila Galleon that had stopped at San José del Cabo for supplies. "The revolt and its subsequent suppression," according to Don Laylander, "hastened the disorganization and declines of the southern aboriginal groups. To suppress the revolt, the Jesuits were forced to call in outside military assistance." In 1742, King Felipe V authorized the use of royal funds to suppress the revolt. The arrival of a military force from Sinaloa helped to restore order and reestablish control of the southern Baja lands. The last scattered resistance to the Spaniards did not end until 1744. Misión San José del Cabo was re-established in 1736 as a visita of Mission Santiago, and finally closed in 1840 by the Mexicans.
In 1990, I loaded my wife and her five kids into my 1964 Dodge 400 station wagon. We took the car ferry from Mazatlan to La Paz. We were in a hurry to get to Tijuana so we only drove past la Misión de Nuestra Señora del Pilar de La Paz Airapí, established by the the Jesuit missionaries Juan de Ugarte and Jaime Bravo in 1720. It was also involved in the Pericú and Guaycura revolt. All of its Indian neophytes and disciples were relocated to Misión Santa Rosa de las Palmas in Todos Santo.
Franciscans establish their only mission
[The only pictures are of some adobe brick piles]
In 1769, on orders of Visitador Galvez, Father Serra led an expedition north to establish Misión San Fernando Rey de España de Velicatá, the only Franciscan mission in Baja. In the 1770s, under the Franciscans and then after 1773 under their Dominican successors, the mission quickly reached its peak and went into decline as epidemics decimated the native population. A missionary was no longer permanently resident at the site after about 1818. A few ruined walls and stone foundations survive at the site as well as petroglyphs and some remains of pictograms.
Representatives of the Dominican order arrived in 1772
To Loreto came more and more fathers from many countries of Europe, as the work
expanded west over the steep ridges of La Giganta. The usual procedure in founding a
mission was to find a suitable site with water and pasturage. Trails had to be hacked out
for mule trains bringing supplies from the mother mission. Then Indians were gathered
and with their help buildings erected and crops sown. Ingenious systems of irrigation
were devised. But on Baja California there was always a struggle with the elements.
Drought caused springs to dry up and crops to wither; because of it many a mission had to move its site. Torrential rains brought floods to wash away the hard-won fields; winds of hurricane force knocked down the first crude buildings. If the weather proved kind, along came swarms of locusts to strip the green leaves from every growing thing. After years of struggle, however, the fathers could point proudly to orchards, patches of vegetables and melons, date palms - some of which still survive - fields of grain, sugar-cane and cotton, flocks of cattle, sheep, horses and mules. Over the rough trails the fathers went forth to found new missions north and south.
The Dominican mission closest to the Mexican/Californian border is Misión El Descanso or Misión San Miguel la Nueva founded in 1817 at a site about 22 kilometers south of present-day Rosarito. It was the last founded by the Dominicans and the furthest north.
This is an artist's depictions of what the mission garden once looked like.
Sadly, wind, weather and political considerations have laid waste of many of those missions in the arid deserts of Baja. Those in the best condition are still places of worship for the heavily Roman Catholic population. Here are some pictures of those currently in service as churches:
Misión de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe del Norte
Misión San Francisco Borja
Misión Santa Gertrudis
Misión San Ignacio Kadakaamán
Misión Santa Rosalía de Mulegé
Misión San Francisco Javier de Viggé-Biaundó
Misión San Luis Gonzaga Chiriyaqui
If you really want a taste of history, these are well worthwhile visiting.