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Home Page Button   Beginnings of the Mission
Teacher Information Button   Mission San Juan Capistrano was the seventh mission founded in Alta California. It is the only mission to have been founded twice. Originally founded on October 30, 1775 the Mission had to be abandoned. Native Californians near the San Diego Mission had attacked and burned much of Mission San Diego de Alcala. The Fathers weren’t sure how the local tribe, the Acágchemem, would act after hearing the news of the attack so they buried the heavy mission bells and returned to Mission San Diego. Once problems calmed down, Father Serra returned to the site for Mission San Juan Capistrano, dug up the bells, and rededicated the Mission. Father Serra officially re-dedicated the site on November 1, 1776.

The Mission was named for a 15th century priest from Capestrano, Italy. Father John or Capestrano (1385 – c. 1455) had been made a saint in 1724. At the age of 70 he had brought a Christian army to fight a battle against the Turks, and won.
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    Location and Geography
    The location for Mission San Juan Capistrano was chosen because it was approximately halfway between Mission San Diego de Alcala and Mission San Gabriel Arcangel. The Spanish explored the area and Father Crespi passed through the San Juan Valley. He named the area he saw Santa Maria Magdalena. The site is several miles inland from the Southern California coast and the area was lush with meadows, trees, and plentiful amounts of water available. He also saw a number of Native Californians.
Top of Page Button   The Native Americans
    The main tribe in the area around Mission Juan Capistrano was the Acágchemem. The Spanish renamed them Juaneño. Like most of the other tribes in California, the Acágchemem were nomadic. That means that they lived in one area for a time and would move their entire community to follow herds for food or when too much garbage piled up they would burn down the old ones and find another site to build their homes. Men hunted and fished to provide food while the women gathered acorns, wild herbs, roots, and berries to help feed their families.
Top of Page Button   Architecture and Layout
    The site originally chosen for Mission San Juan Capistrano didn’t have enough water and after two years the Mission was moved to a location nearer to an Acágchemem village and with better access to water.

The Mission was built with the help of the Acágchemem. The Fathers followed a regular plan for creating the layout of the mission buildings. Right after blessing the site the Fathers and the soldiers would start building a small building to hold the religious ceremonies, called a Mass. They would encourage local Natives to help them. Many did; they were fascinated by the tools and gifts that the Fathers had brought with them. The first buildings would be built of wood poles and brush. Eventually the buildings would be replaced by larger adobe brick or stone buildings. After a chapel or church was finished where the Fathers and Neophytes could hold Mass they would start building the Convento. The Convento was where the Fathers would live. Next would come workshops and the Monjerio. The Monjerio was where unmarried girls and women would live and be locked in at night. The Fathers didn’t think that unmarried girls and women should live near single men. Eventually there would be enough buildings for four sides of a square or quadrangle. The Mission complexes weren’t perfect squares because the Fathers didn’t have a way to measure distance other than walking off distances. Most Missions included a fountain. The fountain was used for washing, laundry, and water. The more fancy the fountain the more successful the Mission. Several buildings were built at Mission San Juan Capistrano including granaries, blacksmithing shops, kitchens, and rooms for the Fathers, soldiers, and neophytes.

The Mission was successful and in just 20 years became too small to hold all of the Acágchemem neophytes. Isidro Aguilar was a Spanish stone mason and designed a much larger church. The church was a special shape, the shape of a cross, and was called a cathedral. In 1800 an earthquake delayed the building and the cathedral wasn’t finished until 1806. The cathedral was 5 stories high and a little more than half as long as a football field (180 feet).

In 1812 a series of large earthquakes struck Southern California. The roof of the church collapsed and 40 people were killed. Aftershocks continued for many months and continued to do more damage to buildings. The church was never rebuilt. Later the area suffered a flood which caused more damage to the already vulnerable buildings as well as the crops.

Top of Page Button   Life at the Mission
    Life at the Mission was difficult for both the Fathers and the Natives. During the early years most Missions had trouble supporting themselves and depended on deliveries of supplies and food from New Spain and other Missions. Often the ships were unable to make the trip and the Mission’s members went hungry. It normally took several years before a Mission was able to plant enough food and raise enough cattle and other animals to be able to feed everyone who lived at the Mission.

Those that lived at the Mission went by a strict schedule. The Fathers were used to this type of lifestyle, but the neophytes were not. The structure of Mission life was one of the reasons many Native Californians tried to leave. A French explorer, Jean François de La Pérouse, visited Mission San Carlos is 1786 and wrote a detailed account of what he observed. Events at the Mission were signaled by the ringing of the Mission bells. Each day started around sunrise (about 6am). The Mission bells would ring to wake everyone and summon them to Mass and morning prayers. Prayer lasted for about an hour and then everyone would go to breakfast. Atole, a type of soup made from barley and other grains, would be served. Breakfast took about 45 minutes and then it was time for everyone to go to work.

The Fathers were responsible for running the Mission and instructing the new converts and children in the Catholic faith. Most of the men went to the fields to tend to the crops or to help with the animals while women stayed at the Mission and worked on domestic chores such as weaving cloth and making clothes, boiling down fat to make soap and candles, and tending to the vegetable gardens. Children often helped at these chores around the Mission once their religious instruction was over. Depending on the particular industry at the Mission there also might be neophytes leatherworking, metalworking, wine making, and pressing olives for olive oil.

At noon the bells would ring again for everyone to gather for dinner, what we would call lunch. Lunch was normally pozole, another thick soup with beans and peas. After an afternoon break everyone returned to their work for another two to four hours depending on how much work there was to be done. A last bell would be rung to end the work day. Another serving of Atole would be served and the neophytes would be able to rest until it was time for bed (Margolin, Pg. 85). Women were usually expected to go to bed by 8pm and men by 9pm. Most of the Fathers allowed their neophytes to continue to hunt and gather additional foods and to cook some of their traditional dishes.

Living at the Mission was often difficult for new converts. They were used to working when work needed to be done and resting when they were tired. The Mission lifestyle was different. The Neophytes were the main source of labor for the Missions. It was their hard work along with the soldiers’ and Fathers’ that built the Missions and their outbuildings. Agriculture and ranching required constant tending to the crops and animals. Without this labor the Missions would not have been able to survive. Many neophytes missed the freedom of their tribal life and would try to leave the Mission. The Fathers wouldn’t allow neophytes to leave and would send soldiers to search for them and bring them back. Runaways were usually punished for breaking the rules.

Mission San Juan Capistrano prospered and grew wheat, barley, corn, vegetables, peaches, walnuts, figs, red/green grapes, oranges, pears, olives, and date palms. The Mission did well enough to be able to trade with sea merchants for materials and items that couldn’t be made at the Mission. Women continued to make baskets in their Acagchemem tradition. The Mission also had a number of livestock including cattle, sheep, horses, mules, and goats.

Top of Page Button   The End of the Mission Period
    By 1812 1360 Indians lived at the mission. Although the law passed by the Mexican government was supposed to give Mission lands to the Native tribes, most went to Mexican landowners. Mission San Juan Capistrano was an exception. The Mission was secularized in 1833 and designated as a ‘pueblo de indios’ by the governor, Jose Figueroa. This meant that Mission San Juan Capistrano was to become its own city and the mission buildings were used as city administration buildings. The Acagchemem were responsible for running the city but there was a Mexican official in charge. The city did not fair well and the Acagchemem blamed the Mexican official in charge over them. They complained that he used their labor for his own purposes and sold off the land illegally. By 1834 there were 861 Natives still living at the mission, but by 1840 the number had dropped to around 100.
Mission San Juan Capistrano, c. 1907 What was once a proud and prosperous mission began to crumble and by the mid 1800s the church was crumbling. Wood, adobe, and tiles were stolen from the Mission buildings by settlers in the area to build their own homes. The Mission was returned to the Catholic Church in 1865. The Mission continued to deteriorate while the town of San Juan Capistrano flourished. The town was the halfway point on the main railroad path from Los Angeles to San Diego and the Mission ruins were just across the street from the railroad tracks. Many people passed through the town on their way to either city, as well as being heavily used by ranchers in the area to transport their crops to market.

Top of Page Button   Reconstruction and The Mission Today
    In 1910 the Landmarks Club of California began to raise funds to restore the mission. A song was written about the tiny swallows that make their nests at the Mission each year—the song became a hit and the Mission became a popular stop for tourists. The Mission is still under reconstruction, but has become an important resource for telling the story of the Acagchemem and the Missionaries.
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