California Missions: History & Locations

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the Spanish missions in California. The lesson discusses Spanish missions and their uses, before highlighting a few of the most important missions in California's chain of 21.


The legacy of colonialism in North America is one of the most hotly debated issues in history, and in wider American culture as well. Colonialist practices and the treatment of the native population was at times barbaric by modern sensibilities, and it can be difficult for some to come to terms with how our country reached its current state.

An important aspect of colonialism, especially that practiced by the Spanish, was Catholic missions. This lesson will explore the missions, all of which still exist in some form, up and down the California coast.


Missions were not an anomaly to California but were a common institution, created by colonial Europeans wherever they dropped anchor. Though it may be hard for some to understand today, in colonial times Christianity (and for the Spanish, specifically Catholicism) was an essential piece of the colonial effort. Though today we may recognize the legitimacy of multiple religions, in earlier eras people believed there was only one true religion: theirs.

With that in mind, the Spanish viewed their Catholic evangelization not as forcing another religion on an unwilling populace (as one might reasonably view it today), but as a force for good. They were introducing the Native Americans to true religion and the key to their eternal salvation.

Missions were an important tool, and European colonialists set them up wherever they went, from the South Pacific to the shores of California. The functions of each mission varied depending on where it was located, and its functions within the overall missionary effort. At a minimum, missions provided a point of contact with the native population and an introduction to Catholicism. Often missions provided food or other services to natives if they would listen to the evangelizing sermons that missionaries delivered. These attempts at gaining native Catholics had varying success.

In more material concerns, and especially in California, missions also served as a base for colonial efforts. They often imposed European farming techniques and practices on the natives living in the area. Furthermore, in times of unrest or war between colonialists and natives, missions sometimes served as a refuge for missionaries and their acolytes.

California Missions

Though the Spanish had sailed along the California coast as early as the 16th century, Spanish plans for permanent settlement and a series of missions in California did not take shape until the mid-18th century. The first mission was founded on the banks of the San Diego River in 1769.

Father Serra
Father Serra

The missionary effort was led by Father Serra, a priest, and explorer from the Spanish island of Majorca. Serra founded several of the early missions in California and personally directed their growth. While the chief thrust of the missionary effort was religious, under Serra's direction, missions became thriving settlements with European-style farming and often acted as trading centers with the native population.

Over the following half-century, the Spanish built 21 missions along the Spanish coast, all connected by El Camino Real: the Royal Road. The last mission was built at the northern end of this road, in San Francisco in 1823.

Today, these missions are maintained by the state of California and are popular tourist spots.

Important Missions

San Diego de Alcala, 1769

The first mission in California and the most southern, San Diego de Alcala was founded in 1769 when three Catholic fathers placed a cross in the ground, next to the San Diego River. In the early days of California missionary work, San Diego de Alcala served as a jumping off point for missionaries who would work further north.

San Diego de Alcala today
San Diego de Alcala

San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, 1770

The second mission founded, is also the final resting place of one of the fathers of the Spanish mission efforts in California, Father Serra.

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