Father Serra - Missionary

Father Serra - Missionary
Always forward, never back

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Franciscan Missions of Upper [Alta] California

Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was the second Spaniard to reach the soil of California, landing in a bay he named for Saint Michael – now current San Diego. He died during the voyage and a later explorer found the larger bay now known as San Francisco. and later Monte Rey Bay, giving it glowing reports as an excellent anchorage.

Father Junipero Serra, having successfully founded five missions in the Sierra Gorda mountains of New Spain, is selected by Visitador General Gálvez to take over the Jesuits missions in California as the Jesuits were forced to leave the New World. He and Don Gaspar Portolá successfully completed the transfer and were then ordered by Gálvez to proceed north to find Upper California and establish a string of missions to ensure the territory remained in Spanish hands. Russian fur traders were reported on the north coast of the Pacific.

After founding Misión San Fernando Rey Velicatá, the party continued north to San Miguel Bay where Father Serra founded Misión San Diego de Alcalá. Governor Portolá assigned Captain Rivera to build a fortification known as the Royal Presidio of San Diego. Portolá then departed with a company of Leatherjacket Soldiers and Catalonian Volunteers to search for the harbor of Monte Rey where he was instructed to build another fortification to serve as the headquarters of Spanish presence in Upper California. Fray Juan Crespí, the expedition diarist, was also order to find and mark suitable locales for missions to provide for the soldiers and convert the natives to Catholicism. The idea was to place each mission one day's ride from the next.

It is difficult to image the unknown territory facing the expeditions. The California natives almost never traveled more than one day from their home territory so there was no one to guide them. They relied on the stalwart Sergeant Jose Ortega and his band of Leatherjacket Soldiers to find their way. They often encountered insurmountable terrain and had to turn back to search for another way. That is why, when one looks at a map of what is known as El. Camino Real, The King's Highway, it weaves back and forth between the shore and inland valleys.

The expedition failed to find the Bay of Monte Rey so glowingly reported by a previous exploration and continued on to what is now San Francisco Bay. On the return journey, they decided the first bay to be their original destination and marked it for the site of the Royal Presidio of Monte Rey.

Now, we think it would've made sense to found each mission in order from the first, San Diego, to the northernmost at San Francisco. However, things didn't work that way. The first goal was to establish the presidio at Monte Rey, along with the mission.

The expedition almost turned back to Loreto. They ran short of supplies – and were not about to sink to eating the foods the local natives did quite well on – and only stayed when a supply ship finally arrived.

As in Baja California, certain items were needed for each mission as their goal was to conduct religious rites. Those supplies often came from Spain. Bells played an important part in daily life and had to be hauled on the backs of mules. Only so many were available and limited the amount of missions to be established. It also depended upon the number of friars to man the missions. One friar conducted the ecclesiastical side while the second was responsible to building the structures and teaching the natives the various industries needed to make them self-sufficient and supply the various military outposts.

And then there were the soldiers available to provide security for the friars and the missions. Again, as in Baja, regulations called for a corporal and four privates at each mission. With the presidio in San Diego manned, the next was the presidio at Monte Rey. When these two sites were established, Father Serra and Governor Fages, who replaced Portolá, decided the Valley of Oaks would be the next mission to be founded. Thus, Misión San Antonio de Padua was founded.

While Father Serra was in Monte Rey, two friars from San Diego, with a military escort, traveled north to a site highly recommended by Fray Crespí to establish Misión San Gabriel.

As hard as he tried, Father Serra was only able to found nine missions before his death in 1784. There simply were not enough supplies and soldiers coming from Mexico. Supply ships were often long overdue and it took time to establish herds of livestock and gardens. At one time, Governor Fages sent troops south to The Valley of Bears to kills as many of the grizzled bears as possible to provide meat for the missions and two presidios. [That is why Fages became known as Governor Bear.] The natives greatly appreciated the removal of the creatures who found them easy prey and were more than willing to put their hands to the building of Misión San Luis Obispo.

After Father Serra's death, later president guardians of the missions encountered similar difficulties, thus creating the varied dates and locations of the other missions. And, weather and floods often showed that the original sites were unsuitable and had to be moved.

Completing the 19 original missions was not done overnight or easily. From Misión San Diego de Alcalá in 1769, it took until 1804 to complete Misión Santa Inés. Misiones San Rafael y San Francisco Solano came later and were never part of the original purpose. In fact, San Francisco Solano was built due to a demand from a Mexican governor.

I hope you've enjoyed this and it will direct your attention to the Father Serra's Legacy series.

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