MISSIONS, PRESIDIOS,
AND PUEBLOS
CHAPTER 5

The Spanish crown used three institutions to colonize California: the mission, presidio, and the pueblo. Of the three, the mission became primary. The other two agencies supported and defended the mission padres, whose purpose in turn was to “save” the souls of “pagan” Indians. Eventually, the mission system helped Spain transform converted Indians into a controllable labor force. Future missionization would thereby become economically viable, even as it expanded the empire.

By 1776, Father Serra called for an increase in the population of the province of Alta California, the development of its agricultural possibilities, and further exploration and mission building along its northern coast. Ultimately, twenty-one missions formed a chain extending along the coast from San Diego to Sonoma. The missions were separated by about a day’s travel on horseback—some thirty miles apart. The King’s Highway, or El Camino Real of the tourist literature, was then scarcely more than a dusty path. It was, however, the only route connecting mission to mission and presidio to presidio.

Serra founded nine missions. The succeeding nine were established by Fray Fermin de Lasuén, a name as important in California history as Serra. Three requisites determined the choice of a mission site—arable soil for crops, an adequate supply of fresh water, and a large local Indian population. By the time all twenty-one missions were established, the priests had in their possession much of the choicest land in the province. Later this would generate much resentment by civilian leaders and settlers.

The first mission buildings were mere huts made out of thatch and sticks, plastered with mud or clay, and roofed with tule—hardly the adobe-brick or cut-stone buildings one sees today. The stone walls at Mission San Carlos Borroméo were never seen by Serra, though he is buried there. The California padres, in their isolation, modified Moorish and Roman architectural styles

-41-

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