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Mission San Diego de Alcalá, the first mission, was founded by Father Junípero Serra

On July 16, 1769, Father Junípero Serra founded Mission San Diego de Alcalá, the first Catholic mission in California. Father Serra was a Franciscan friar from Spain who had lived in New Spain (now Mexico) for twenty years, working to spread Christianity among the people there.

At the time, what is now California was a region called Alta (Upper) California. The Spanish had explored Alta California by sea, but had never settled there. However, in the 1760’s Russian fur trappers were heading south from Siberia and Alaska, with an interest in claiming the region. Also, the British were now expanding westward across America from the Ohio Valley. This concerned the Spanish Inspector-General, José de Gálvez. So Gálvez sent forth an expedition to establish colonies in Alta California before others could take it over.

Gaspar de Portolá, a soldier who was governor of Baja (Lower) California (a part of New Spain), was put in charge of the expedition. For Spain, establishing a colony meant building a Catholic mission, so Father Junípero Serra was sent to oversee the missions. The first mission was to be founded near the harbor at San Diego Bay, mapped over 200 years earlier by Spanish explorer Juan Cabrillo and named in 1602 by Spaniard Sebastián Vizcaíno.

Portolá divided the expedition into four groups, two by sea and two by land. Serra and Portolá made the 750-mile trip by land, using mules to carry supplies. The journey was dangerous; of those who set out, more than half died or deserted on the way north. Many who reached San Diego Bay were very sick.

Father Serra began building a mission. A cross was set up on a hill; a small chapel was made of brush and branches. The mission bell hung from a tree limb. Mission San Diego de Alcalá, the first of 21 missions that the Franciscans would build in Alta California, was dedicated on July 16, 1769. The Indians who lived in the area did not trust the newcomers. It was many months before any came to live and work at the new mission.

The first few months were a struggle for survival at the mission. Supplies expected from Baja California did not arrive. Portolá said the mission would have to be abandoned if aid did not come by March 20, 1770. Just before sunset on March 19, a sail was spotted on the horizon. In the morning no ship was in sight, but Portolá agreed to wait a bit. After four more days, the ship returned. Thanks to the supplies on board, Mission San Diego de Alcalá survived.  

Gaspar de Portolá led an expedition up the California coast

The first attempt by the Spanish to colonize California was led by Gaspar de Portolá. This journey, begun in late spring of 1769, paved the way for all future Spanish settlements in the region. When he was chosen to lead the expedition, Portolá had been the governor of Baja (Lower) California in New Spain for four years. Born to a noble Catalonian family in Spain, he had served as a captain in the Spanish Army in Europe.

The first goal of Portolá’s expedition was to reach San Diego Bay and establish a mission there. He left Father Junípero Serra in charge. Most of Portolá’s men who had come by sea had died or were very ill. Nevertheless, Portolá’s original instructions had been to continue on north from San Diego and establish another mission at Monterey Bay.

The Spanish knew of Monterey Bay from the voyages of Sebastián Vizcaíno, who had described it as a large protected harbor. Portolá and 64 men set off from San Diego on July 14, 1769. They traveled north through Sepulveda Pass, along the Santa Clara River, and then up the coast. After a week’s delay while they sought a pass through the Sierra de Santa Lucia mountains, they entered the Salinas Valley. At the end of the valley they came to Monterey Bay, recognizing various landmarks there that Vizcaíno had noted. However, there was not a fine harbor, as Vizcaíno described, but a rather unprotected stretch of beach. Portolá concluded that Vizcaíno must have been writing about another harbor, farther north, so the expedition continued. 

On November 2, 1769, they reached the end of San Francisco Bay, the first Europeans to see it. Portolá realized that he had come too far. He turned his expedition around and went south again to Monterey Bay. Still thinking it was the wrong place, Portolá erected a large cross, then returned to San Diego. By this time many members of the expedition were in poor health. They had no food, and survived only by killing and eating a dozen of their pack mules.

The next spring they returned to Monterey Bay, and this time Portolá decided it was the harbor he was seeking. The cross they had erected was now surrounded by a circle of feathered arrows thrust into the ground, which they interpreted as signs of friendship from the local Indians. The second Franciscan mission of Alta California was dedicated here, although it was soon moved four miles south. In Monterey, Portolá established a presidio, a military post. Portolá’s task was at last completed. After ruling as governor of Alta California for about one year, he returned to Mexico City.  

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