In 1797, Father Junipero Serra led a Roman Catholic pilgrimage to bring Christianity to the wilderness in California. For the location, he and the Franciscans chose a site at the foot of the Gavilan Mountains near the El Camino Real, which they named San Juan Bautista Mission after Saint John the Baptist. The site was chosen because it promised an "abundant harvest of souls" in the San Juan Valley. In late spring, Spanish Corporal Juan Ballesteros and five men came, and in a month they erected a chapel, houses for themselves and the padres, and a granary.
Then, only thirteen days after he dedicated San Jose mission, Father Lasuen arrived for the formal San Juan Bautista mission dedication on Saturday, June 24, 1797.
Early Years at San Juan Bautista Mission
The first baptism at San Juan Bautista was an Indian child about ten years old, with Corporal Ballesteros as sponsor. The first white baptism was the corporal's son and the first funeral, in September, was for his infant son.
Fathers Jose Manuel de Martiarena and Pedro Martinez, who supervised the construction, found the native people friendly and cooperative and the San Juan Bautista Mission grew quickly. The first six months were busy, and by Christmas they built an adobe church, a monastery, granary, barracks, guardhouses and adobe houses for the neophytes. By 1800, there were more than 500 Indians living at San Juan Bautista mission.
1800 Earthquake at San Juan Bautista Mission
When San Juan Bautista Mission was founded, no one knew that it was located on top of the San Andreas Fault. However, they soon learned about the fault and its intermittent tremors. In October 1798, the shaking was so bad that the missionaries slept outside for the whole month. There were as many as 6 tremors in one day, making huge cracks in buildings and in the ground.
The Fault caused several damaging earthquakes during the early history, but San Juan Bautista mission never moved. The first major earthquake occurred in October, 1800, doing considerable damage, and a portion of the original building fell.
San Juan Bautista Mission 1800-1820The Indian population continued to increase and by 1803 there were plans to build another church. People from all over the province were invited to an elaborate ceremony which kicked off the construction. The new San Juan Bautista mission church was not completed until 1812.
In 1808, a new padre, Father Arroyo de la Cuesta, arrived. Father Cuesta was energetic and enthusiastic, and he convinced the builders that a wide church with three naves would be an unusual asset here. Because of Father Cuesta's influence, it was the largest church in the province and the only structure of its kind ever built by the Franciscans in California.
While the church grew, the congregation it was planned for declined. In 1805, the native population was 1,100, but by 1812 it was reduced to less than half because of death and desertions. The great new space dwarfed the small congregations, and Father de la Cuesta walled in the two rows of arches which separated the three naves of the church.
In 1812, Father Tapis retired from the office of Presidente and joined Father de la Cuesta. Teachings continued under Father Tapis from 1812 to 1825.
San Juan Bautista Mission 1820s - 1830s
During 1824, the San Juan Bautista mission population grew again, with people moving in from the Tulare Valley, possibly because of aggressive military expeditions to the interior territories. The population peaked during 1823, with 641 male and 607 female residents. Twenty two adobe dwellings for Indians were constructed that year, and there were reports of adobe corrals, a granary, a kiln, and weaving rooms restored with the new large labor force.
In 1827, a report filed to the governor listed San Juan Bautista mission livestock and rancho lands, listing holdings that included 6,500 head of cattle, 750 horses, 37 mules, sheep. There was no irrigation, but the pastures were watered by overflow of the Pajaro River. They got good timber from the mountains to the northeast. Springs from the Gavilan Mountains ran to irrigate the gardens, vineyard, and cornfield.
In 1833, Zacatecan Franciscans from Mexico took over.