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  • The Spanish Missions of Alta (Upper) California were created to colonize the rich California coast and to protect Spain’s interests from incursion from British and Russian Explorers.

  • Initial expeditions by Cabrillo in 1542 and Vizcaino in 1602 mapped the Alta California coast

  • The Missions were funded and backed by the King Carlos III of Spain and overseen by the Franciscan Friars of the Catholic Church

  • First California Mission founded in 1769 at San Diego by Father Junipero Serra

  • Chain of 21 Missions founded from 1769 to 1823 from San Diego to North of San Francisco

  • Missions Secularized and sold by the Mexican Government starting in 1833

  • California becomes a state in 1853 and many Mission Buildings returned to the Catholic Church by the U.S. Government in the 1850s and 1860s.

  • By the late 1800s most missions were crumbling, Hollywood took note and publicized the Missions plight.

  • Through years of private donations and some government assistance all 21 missions have been restored or rebuilt and are visited by millions of tourists each year.

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Top of Page Button   Historical Background
   The Missions were created to expand Spain’s influence in the New World. Spain had already opened several Missions in Baja California, what would later be Mexico, and as far South as Guatemala. Concerned about Russian and English expeditions along the west coast, King Carlos III of Spain approved plans to expand the Missions into Alta California.

Father Junipero Serra founded the first Mission in 1769 in San Diego, a bay previously mapped by expeditions by Jose Cabrillo and Sebastian Vizcaino. Mission sites had to have access to water, good soil for crops, grazing land for livestock, and be close to native California villages. Serra’s goal was to Christianize the local natives and make them subjects of Spain while providing a physical Spanish presence on the Alta California coast. Tribes were initially intrigued by the Spanish tools, gifts, and their domestication of animals. Eventually many chose to move to the missions primarily because of the fathers’ ability to provide a consistent food source and relative safety. Once converted to Catholicism the former natives, called neophytes, were required to live at the Mission and work to contribute to the Mission’s growth.

Twenty-one Spanish missions were founded in a chain that ran over 500 miles from San Diego to north of the San Francisco Bay. Mexico's independence from Spain signaled the end of the Mission Period. The Missions were secularized by the Mexican government in 1833. The father's intent had been that the lands be given to the neophytes, but most missions were sold to unscrupulous buyers, the lands sold off, and the buildings fell into disrepair. Serra and his fellow Fathers converted thousands of Native Californians, brought agriculture to California, and paved the road for the population expansion that would lead to California’s statehood in 1853. The Federal Government eventually returned most of the Missions' church buildings back to the Catholic Church.

Unfortunately, the missions destroyed the California natives’ ability to continue their robust and vibrant cultures. By the time the missions were secularized much of the tribal lands had been sold and/or the hunting had been ruined by ranching, tribes had been decimated by disease, and most of those tribe members that were left were unable to reclaim their tribal heritage and traditions.

In the 1900s the rugged beauty of the crumbling missions and the romanticism of a bygone era led many Californians to begin the restoration of the Mission chain. To date all 21 missions have been restored or rebuilt and are explored by millions of visitors each year.

The Mission Period is an important part of California's history and is included in the History/Social Studies Curriculum Standards for fourth grade students.

Top of Page Button   Why Study the Missions?
    Some would answer this question, "Because we have to, it's part of the Standards." But the Missions can provide our students with a better understanding of both California's rich Native and Spanish heritages as well as the devastating effects of colonialism. The Missions provide us with a rare opportunity to see and touch real primary sources--not just those available online or in a book. The Missions are unique physical representations of an important era in California's history as well as a repository for treasured native Californian artifacts.

Top of Page Button   Pertinent California State Standards
    The most important factor in designing any Missions project is the Curriculum Standard and objective(s) being addressed by the project. The following standards address the Mission Period:

The Complete History/Social Studies State Standards may be found at the California Department of Education's website:
4th Grade Standards

4.2 Students describe the social, political, cultural, and economic life and interactions among people of California from the pre-Columbian societies to the Spanish mission and Mexican rancho periods.

  1. Discuss the major nations of California Indians, including their geographic distribution, economic activities, legends, and religious beliefs; and describe how they depended on, adapted to, and modified the physical environment by cultivation of land and use of sea resources.

  2. Identify the early land and sea routes to, and European settlements in, California with a focus on the exploration of the North Pacific (e.g., by Captain James Cook, Vitus Bering, Juan Cabrillo), noting especially the importance of mountains, deserts, ocean currents, and wind patterns.

  3. Describe the Spanish exploration and colonization of California, including the relationships among soldiers, missionaries, and Indians (e.g., Juan Crespi, Junipero Serra, Gaspar de Portola).

  4. Describe the mapping of, geographic basis of, and economic factors in the placement and function of the Spanish missions; and understand how the mission system expanded the influence of Spain and Catholicism throughout New Spain and Latin America.

  5. Describe the daily lives of the people, native and nonnative, who occupied the presidios, missions, ranchos, and pueblos.

  6. Discuss the role of the Franciscans in changing the economy of California from a hunter-gatherer economy to an agricultural economy.

  7. Describe the effects of the Mexican War for Independence on Alta California, including its effects on the territorial boundaries of North America.

  8. Discuss the period of Mexican rule in California and its attributes, including land grants, secularization of the missions, and the rise of the rancho economy.

Top of Page Button   Lesson Plan Ideas
    As a fourth grader, I completed the ubiquitous Mission Model, too (Mission San Juan Capistrano lovingly recreated in Popsicle sticks). Many of us have completed this type of project or assigned it to our students as a culmination of a California Missions unit. In addition to the model many of us may have created a report. Both of these projects have educational value, but the business of modern times has led to the prevalence of Mission kits and over-reaching parent involvement that minimalizes students’ understanding of the concepts the teacher had intended. Models and simple reports were great project ideas in an era before the Missions were rebuilt. Research has shown that students learn best through a balance of personal narratives, the presentation of historical information within a concrete context such as a timeline, and a discussion of the political and societal pressures of the period. In addition, students show highest motivation with simulations and self-directed activities. With all 21 Missions being available to visitors there are a number of ways to bring the Mission period to life.

Click here to go to the Mission Lesson Plan Page