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California Missions

California Spanish Missions Have a Powerful History

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The California missions were started because the Spanish king wanted to create permanent settlements in the area of the New World called Alta California. The decision to create Spanish missions in California was political as well as religious. The Spanish government wanted to gain a foothold in California before the Russians pushed southward from Fort Ross, in what is now coastal Sonoma County.

Father Junipero Serra, a well-respected Spanish Franciscan priest who had worked in Mexico for seventeen years, was put in charge in 1767 when the Franciscans took over the New World missions from the Jesuits.

In 1769, Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portola and Father Serra made their first expedition to establish the California missions. Over a period of 54 years, 21 California missions were established by the Spanish, spanning 650 miles along the El Camino Real from San Diego to modern-day Sonoma.

The Spanish Fathers' major purpose was to convert the local Indians to Christianity. At each Spanish mission, they recruited neophytes from the local Indians, brought them to live at the mission and taught them Spanish, farming and other skills. Many Indians willingly came to the California missions, but the Spanish mission system was not kind to them. Some were badly treated by the Spanish soldiers. Many others died of European diseases to which they had no immunity.

Some missions were more prosperous than others, but all of them raised what and corn, and had vineyards. They also raised cattle and sheep, and sold leather goods and tanned hides.

The period of Spanish prosperity was short-lived. When Mexico gained independence from Spain, they could not afford to support the California missions, and in 1834, they decided to secularize the missions and sell the land. The Indians were offered the lands first, but they either did not want them or could not afford to buy them. Eventually, the land was divided up and sold. A few missions remained in the hands of the Spanish Catholic fathers, but many others were used for all kinds of other purposes. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln returned all the mission lands to the Catholic church, but by then many of the California missions were in ruins.

In the twentieth century, many of the neglected California Spanish missions were restored, or rebuilt. Most of them are still active parish churches today, and they have excellent museums and interesting ruins.

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