Visiting California’s Historic Missions

Summer Travel Special

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Eye-catching cobalt, vermilion, and red ochre pigments embellish the interior of San Miguel Arcángel. Rubén G. Mendoza.
Eye-catching cobalt, vermilion, and red ochre pigments embellish the interior of San Miguel Arcángel. Rubén G. Mendoza.

Summer 2015:

By Gayle Keck

 It was 1782, and an earthquake had ripped through Alta California. “In Santa Clara, it broke a bottle of brandy,” Father Junípero Serra noted, “which the poor Fathers there were jealously treasuring against some emergency.” Saving souls was not an easy business at the 21 missions of Spanish-era California. Quakes were just one of many emergencies the Franciscan friars faced (often sans brandy). There were also floods, fires, pounding rains, disease, drought, privateer raids, quarrels with the military, and native uprisings.

Each event left its mark, changing the mission landscape, creating treasures—and mysteries—for archaeologists.  With that in mind, I’m setting out to explore 13 of the missions, on a trip stretching 442 miles from Santa Barbara to San Francisco. The missions were much more than churches. They were founded, starting in the late 1700s, to help maintain Spain’s claim on California. Missions were set up to be self-sustaining indigenous communities, with vast lands, water systems, thousands of heads of livestock, and industries including farming, wine-making, weaving, woodworking, and the like. The padres enticed natives to live and work here through offers of gifts, food, pageantry, and salvation. And since there were typically only two friars at a mission, native labor would make or break the endeavor.

The missions declined when Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, and they were soon secularized by the Mexican government, losing their land holdings, stock, and buildings. It was a disastrous time for natives who had come to depend on the missions, but a great time for the Californios, Mexicans who took over former mission lands for their ranchos. In 1850, California became a U.S. state, and the mission churches were returned to the Catholic Church—some by Abraham Lincoln. Today, most are active parishes, operated by various Catholic religious groups, including some that are still led by friars.

Summary.  Read more in American Archaeology Vol. 19 No. 2, Summer 2015

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