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Missions and Old Churches
in California

A "scratched Polaroid" I made of Mission Santa Barbara

Twenty-one Spanish-founded churches stretch more-or-less along the California coast from San Diego near the Mexican border to Sonoma, north of San Francisco. The system was founded in 1769, and dismantled in 1834. During that time it aimed to subdue the native population, protect the land from encroachment by other nations, and produce wealth for the Spanish Crown.


Please see my page about Baja California for more information on the missions in Mexico that led directly to the (American) California chain.

Franciscan Padre Junipero Serra was appointed president of the missions of Baja California about a month after the ouster of the Jesuits in June of 1767; he and 15 other Franciscan friars arrived in Loreto, now in Baja Sur, in March of 1768.

A little over a year after that, Serra left his assistant and former student, Francisco Palóu, in charge of the Baja missions, and set out with only an attendant and one military guard to travel north up the Baja peninsula. He met up (by design) with the Portola expedition on May 6, and continued in their company to San Diego.

On July 1, 1769, having traveled some 900 miles overland, the party reached San Diego, where two Spanish galleons had preceded them carrying supplies. Two weeks later, on July 16, 1769, Serra founded a mission on what is now Presidio Hill in San Diego (though five years later, due to drought, it moved to its current location about six miles inland). It was the first Spanish mission in what is now the U.S. state of California.

Map from Wikipedia; the numbers indicate order of founding

The chain of 21 California missions began in San Diego in 1769. They were not founded in order up the coast; instead, the second was at Carmel, around 90 miles south of San Francisco as the crow flies; next came San Antonio de Padua, about halfway between the first and second; and so on, filling in until the chain was complete from the Mexican border to north of the Bay Area.

The ostensible purpose of the missions (prophetically called "reductions") was to "Christianize" the native peoples. A more cynical view is that it was a way to pacify the locals and exploit their labor so the Spanish could avail themselves of the region's rich resources. The fact that there was a military presence, and that the kindly old padres were not allowed to travel between missions without an armed escort, supports this darker version of the story--as do the uprisings, the first of which happened just six years after the San Diego Mission's founding, when Luis Jayme, one of the resident priests, was subjected to 18 arrows and a face-smashing at the hands of some 600 natives.

But the pious padres persevered, and the buildings they built--or at least the reconstructions of them--still dot the landscape of California. Familiar place names--San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles (not a mission, but an asistencia, a sort of "sub-mission") all attest to the effectiveness of their plantings.

As mentioned on my bio page, the California missions were the first "sacred edifices" to set me back on my heels. To this day, here in the Philippines, the stone churches of the Spanish era hold for me a strange allure.

In one burst of ridiculosity, I once visited all of the California missions--in one day! You can read all about that here (under construction).

Meanwhile, here's a list of the 21 official California missions. Below that you'll find a few other features that may have been familiar to the old Californios. Enjoy!

The List: Here is the list of missions from south to north--the traditional way of listing them, as though one were traveling from Mexico. Order and date of founding are given; unlike my temple visits, I couldn't begin to account for the numerous dates of my visits to these anchors of ancient California.
  1. San Diego (Mission San Diego de Alcalá); San Diego (map / Wiki); 1st to be founded, by Padre Junipero Serra: July 16, 1769
  2. San Luis Rey (Mission San Luis Rey de Francia); Oceanside (map / Wiki); 18th to be founded, and 9th and last founded by Padre Fermín Francisco Lasuén: June 13, 1798
  3. San Juan Capistrano (Mission San Juan Capistrano); San Juan Capistrano (map / Wiki); 7th to be founded: November 1, 1776
  4. San Gabriel (Mission San Gabriel Arcángel); San Gabriel (map / Wiki); 4th to be founded: September 8, 1771
  5. San Fernando (Mission San Fernando Rey de España); Mission Hills, L.A. (map / Wiki); 17th to be founded: September 8, 1797
  6. Ventura (Mission San Buenaventura); Ventura (map / Wiki); 9th to be founded, and last founded by Padre Junipero Serra: March 31, 1782
  7. Santa Barbara (Mission Santa Barbara); Santa Barbara (map / Wiki); 10th to be founded, and first founded by Padre Fermín Francisco Lasuén: December 4, 1786
  8. Santa Inés (Mission Santa Inés); Solvang (map / Wiki); 19th to be founded, and the only one founded by Padre Estévan Tápis: September 17, 1804
  9. La Purísima (Mission La Purísima Concepción); Lompoc (map / Wiki); 11th to be founded: December 8, 1787
  10. San Luis Obispo (Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa); San Luis Obispo (map / Wiki); 5th to be founded: September 1, 1772
  11. San Miguel (Mission San Miguel Arcángel); San Miguel (map / Wiki); 16th to be founded: July 25, 1797
  12. San Antonio (Mission San Antonio de Padua); near Jolon (map / Wiki); 3rd to be founded: July 14, 1771
  13. Soledad (Mission Nuestra Señora de la Soledad); near Soledad (map / Wiki); 13th to be founded: October 9, 1791
  14. Carmel (Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo); Carmel (map / Wiki); 2nd to be founded: June 3, 1770
  15. San Juan Bautista (Mission San Juan Bautista); San Juan Bautista (map / Wiki); 15th to be founded: June 24, 1797
  16. Santa Cruz (Mission Santa Cruz); Santa Cruz (map / Wiki); 12th to be founded: August 28, 1791
  17. Santa Clara (Mission Santa Clara de Asís); Santa Clara (map / Wiki); 8th to be founded: January 12, 1777
  18. San José (Mission San José); Fremont (map / Wiki); 14th to be founded: June 11, 1797
  19. San Francisco or (Mission) Dolores (Mission San Francisco de Asís); San Francisco (map / Wiki); 6th to be founded: October 9, 1776
  20. San Rafael (Mission San Rafael Arcángel); San Rafael (map / Wiki); 20th to be founded, and the only one founded by Padre Vicente de Sarria: December 14, 1817
  21. Sonoma (Mission San Francisco Solano); Sonoma (map / Wiki); 21st and last to be founded, and the only one founded by Padre Jose Altimira: July 4, 1823 
Let me add here two more legitimate missions which were never part of the California chain, though they were located technically within California's modern borders. They were founded by the padres working on the Arizona/Sonora missions, and lasted only a few short months, having been wiped out by (rightfully) hostile Indians. The sites contain only markers today, though the modern mission-like St. Thomas Yuma Indian Mission is at the marker for Mission Puerto de Purísima Concepción.
  1. Mission Puerto de Purísima Concepción; across the river from Yuma, Arizona (map / Wiki); founded October, 1780, by Padre Francisco Garcés; wiped out in a native uprising July 17–19, 1781. Marker only.
  2. Mission San Pedro y San Pablo de Bicuñer; across the river from Yuma, Arizona (map / Wiki); founded January 7, 1781 by Padre Francisco Garcés; wiped out in a native uprising July 17–19, 1781. Marker only.

Other Mission-Era Sites in California

The "bribe" Msgr Weber used to get me to just leave
Although the California missions continue to attract the most attention, they were in fact part of a much larger scheme of conquest. Other components of the system were:
  • asistencias: smaller "sub-missions" served by priests traveling from the main missions
  • presidios: military forts established for the protection of the Crown's interests
  • pueblos: civil towns, subject neither to the missions nor the presidios
  • estancias: ranches established to raise supplies for the missions (and presidios) in more far-flung locations
One day, with nothing better to do, I dropped in on Monsignor Francis J. Weber, archivist for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the highest-level "missioner" I've ever met. I had seen him once before at Dawson's Books in Larchmont, so felt bold to drop in to his office at Mission San Fernando.

I was telling him about what he called my "stunt"--visiting all the California missions in one day--and talk came around to the other establishments of the Spanish. As 5 p.m. neared--I guess even monsignors look forward to quittin' time--he abruptly asked, "If I give you some books, will you just leave?"

He did, and I did. The books are a series he compiled of documentary materials called El Caminito Real, the "Little Royal Highway." Each of the three volumes covers one of the types of establishments--asistencias, presidio chapels, and estancias--and the second one includes a short piece on pueblo chapels. The first also covers two sites Msgr Weber calls "Quasi-Missions" (see below) and discusses several possibilities for a "22nd mission" or "ghost mission." All of the documents contained are fascinating (if this sort of stuff fascinates you).

The list below is derived largely from Msgr Weber's work. Places I simply could not identify have been omitted, such as estancias with the names San Miguel Arcangel (founded "before 1816"), and Santa Catalina (founded 1828), with absolutely no other information given.

I have added brief notes about what one can expect at each location. I have not visited all of these, but will write more about them when I have time.


These were, as the name implies, places set up to "assist" in the work of the larger missions. At least one mission (San Rafael) seems to have begun life as an asistencia; some confusion exists about the status of some others--pueblo church? estancia?--but the short list of 3 + 1 I give here is generally agreed upon.
  1. Santa Ysabel; Santa Ysabel on the Santa Ysabel Indian Reservation (map / Wiki); attached to Mission San Diego, founded September 20, 1818. A modern chapel has been built on the site.
  2. San Antonio de Pala; 20 miles inland from Mission San Luis Rey on the Pala Indian Reservation (map / Wiki); attached to Mission San Luis Rey, founded June 13, 1816. A thriving "mission" today, it still serves indigenous peoples, and has never gone out of use from its founding.
  3. Nuestra Senora de Los Angeles; downtown Los Angeles (map / Wiki); attached to Mission San Gabriel, founded in early 1784. In 1814 it became a pueblo church (detached from the mission) and is now a neighborhood parish church.
  4. Santa Margarita de Cortuna; on a private ranch near Santa Margarita (map / Wiki); attached to Mission San Luis Obispo, founded 1787. Today a few walls have been incorporated into a barn on private property; some of the ranch buildings may also date to the mission era, at least in their foundations.

These were fortified military garrisons; again there is a "plus one," added after the system was complete. Each of the original four was given responsibility over a segment of the Camino Real, the mission trail. Here they are listed from south to north, like the missions they were established to protect.
  1. San Diego; Presidio Park, downtown San Diego (map / Wiki); founded May 14, 1769; responsible for protection of four missions (San Diego through San Gabriel). Only foundations remain.
  2. Santa Barbara; El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park in downtown Santa Barbara (map / Wiki); founded April 21, 1782; responsible for protection of five missions (San Fernando through La Purísima). Portions of two original buildings remain; the rest is resonstructed.
  3. San Carlos (Monterey); downtown Monterey (map / Wiki); founded June 3, 1770; responsible for protection of six missions (San Luis Obispo through San Juan Bautista). The founding site lies outside of the modern Monterey Presidio (now the Defense Language Institute); San Carlos Cathedral in Monterey is the only existing presidio chapel in California.
  4. San Francisco; in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area at the northern tip of the peninsula in San Francisco (map / Wiki); founded September 17, 1776; responsible for protection of six missions (Santa Cruz through Solano). Though there are numerous old buildings on the immense grounds, it seems only some adobe walls in the former Officers' Club date back to the fort's founding.
  5. Sonoma (Barracks); facing the plaza in downtown Sonoma (map / Wiki); founded 1836. This was never part of the original system--indeed, it was founded in the Mexican era after Spain's departure. It is now part of Sonoma State Historic Park.

Only three Pueblos--civilian towns independent of ecclesiastical or military oversight--were founded in California in the Spanish period. Listed in order of founding.
  1. San Jose; downtown San Jose (map / Wiki); founded November 29, 1777 (marker only). St Joseph's Church (now a cathedral) about a mile and a half southeast was the first non-mission parish built in California for the settlers instead of the Indians (1803)
  2. Los Angeles; downtown Los Angeles  (map / Wiki); founded September 4, 1781. (see also asistencias above)
  3. Villa (Pueblo) de Branciforte; now part of Santa Cruz (map / Wiki); founded 1797. Branciforte, the original "sin city" (the main street was a horse-racing track!) never had a pueblo chapel. A private adobe residence is the only structure remaining from the period. The "map" link leads to a marker near the center of the original settlement.


These were the hardest to track down of all the categories of "other" foundations, and there are surely many, many more than are listed here. One of the complications is to distinguish a mission area estancia from a Mexican-period rancho, as many of the latter were simply land grants passed on by the new government of former mission lands. This list is primarily from Msgr Weber, with some additions and subtractions. Locations are given south to north.
  1. San Pedro (Las Flores); Camp Pendleton (map / Wiki); attached to Mission San Luis Rey. American-period adobe and Boy Scout camp on site.
  2. Costa Mesa; Costa Mesa (map / Wiki); attached to Mission San Juan Capistrano. Mexican-period adobe on site.
  3. La Puente; Industry (map / Wiki); attached to Mission San Gabriel. American-period homestead on site.
  4. San Bernardino; Redlands (map / Wiki); attached to Mission San Gabriel. Reconstructed "mission" on site.
  5. San Miguel Arcangel; Ventura (map / Wiki); attached to Mission San Buenaventura. Site is now occupied by a park.
  6. Santa Gertrudis; Casitas Pass (map / Wiki); attached to Mission Santa Barbara. Marker only.
  7. San Francisco; Camulos (map / Wiki); attached to Mission San Fernando Rey. Now Rancho Camulos Museum. A Rancho San Francisco marker has also been placed a half-mile north of the site of the old ranch headquarters (Camulos was developed by a subsequent owner).
  8. Las Cieneguitas; Santa Barbara (map / about; see 1863); attached to Mission Santa Barbara. St. Vincent's School now occupies the site.
  9. San Marcos; San Marcos Pass (map / Wiki; more); attached to Mission Santa Barbara. The site is now occupied by Rancho San Marcos Golf Course.
  10. San Emigdio; San Emidio (map / Wiki); attached to Mission Santa Barbara (?). No known remains.
  11. San Miguelito; Near Avila Beach (map / Wiki); attached to Mission San Luis Obispo. Site unknown, "a few miles from the quaint town of Avila" (Weber, Estancias); Avila Beach is on Rancho property.
  12. San Mateo; San Mateo (map / article); attached to Mission San Francisco. Marker only; the adobe building was demolished in 1868.
  13. San Pedro y San Pablo; Pacifica (map / Wiki); attached to Mission San Francisco. In Sanchez Adobe Park, which has a Mexican-period adobe.

References: The Wikipedia article Spanish Missions in California is a good place to start, with a solid history section and links to all the missions.

A Google search or a look at Amazon will reveal many books, old and new. The California missions support a thriving publishing industry, not least because every fourth-grader is required by the state curriculum to do a "mission project"!

Project Gutenberg has some excellent older volumes with stories and descriptions of the sites from the late 19th and early 20th centuries; some of them were in ruins at the time, but have been restored today.

Mrs. A. S. C. Forbes was responsible for much of the restoration and promotion of the missions, and especially the "El Camino Real" and its seemingly-ubiquitous bells. Her classic California Missions and Landmarks is available on the Hathi Trust site. It's also available on Kindle and in facsimile reprint for around eight bucks.

Charles F. Lummis, an even bigger booster (and a personal hero) also wrote extensively on the missions. His The Spanish Pioneers And The California Missions (available on is a good place to start, though the story of the California missions occupies only 40-some pages of a 400-page book. One of my favorite parts is the "Present Status" of each mission as of 1929 (presumably).

Google Map:

  • Use + /- or mouse wheel to zoom in and out.
  • Click to close the hand to move around.
  • (The two functions above are accomplished with two fingers on mobile devices.)
  • Click the square-with-arrow on the left to open or close the index of sites. (Works better if you zoom in first.)
  • Click the three-dot thingy in the upper right to share the map with others.
  • Click the "four corners" in the upper right to go to the full map.

Last updated Apr. 3, 2019

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