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Spain first claimed the Alta (Upper) California coast in 1542, when Juan Cabrillo sailed along it and explored from what is now San Diego to San Francisco. Their claim was reinforced by Sebastían Cermano’s exploration in 1595, and by Sebastían Vizcaíno in 1602. But for almost 200 years Spain paid little attention to this land they had claimed.

It wasn’t until the mid-1700s that King Charles III of Spain began to think about California. He heard that Russian fur traders were moving down the west coast of North America from Alaska. He also heard that English explorers were interested in the area. He wanted to secure Spain’s claim to the land.

Spain’s method of colonizing new territory was to establish missions with presidios (forts) to guard them, followed by pueblos (towns). They had done this successfully in other parts of the New World, including in New Spain (Mexico) for the previous 250 years. They also had missions in what is now the U.S. southwest. This was a low-cost way to colonize new territory.

King Charles sent orders to his viceroy (governor) in Mexico, telling him to organize a group to go to Alta California. Father Junípero Serra, a Franciscan missionary, was selected as the religious leader of the expedition.

The instructions to Father Serra from the Spanish government were to establish Spanish control of the land by teaching Catholicism to the Indians. The Indians would then become Spanish citizens, according to the plan, and would be the “colonists” in the new land. This was thought to be a quicker way of creating Spanish towns in such a remote area than sending large numbers of colonists there from Spain or Mexico. Besides, settlers did not want to go to such a remote place.

The missions were not intended to be permanent. The Spanish government thought that within ten years, the California Indians would have become loyal Spanish citizens, ready to take back their land and contribute to the treasury of Spain. Skilled immigrants were expected to follow the Franciscans to California, and become settlers there.

The Spanish government wanted there to be marriages between Spanish people and the Indians. They planned for towns to grow up around the missions, which would then become parish churches. The land on which the missions were established was not given to the Catholic Church. It belonged to Spain, held, so they said, in trust for the Indians.

The Spanish law under which the California missions were founded was part of the “New Laws” issued in the 1540s. The code said that:

(1) Indians should be permitted to dwell in communities of their own;

(2) They should be permitted to choose their own leaders and councilors;

(3) No Indian might be held as a slave;

(4) No Indian might live outside his own village nor might any lay Spaniard dwell within an Indian village for longer than 3 days, and then only if he were a merchant;

(5) Indians were to be instructed in the Catholic faith.

Had the provisions of this code been followed, the history of California might be different.

The money to start the California missions came from a fund called the Pious Fund. This fund was begun by the Jesuit missionaries, who preceded the Franciscans in Mexico. The Jesuits had collected the money from private sources in the late 1600s, and used it to pay for their missions in Mexico. When the Jesuits were sent out of Mexico in 1767, the Pious Fund was taken by the government. The Franciscans argued that this money should be used solely for the support of the missions, but the King of Spain said he would make decisions about spending it.

As each new mission was started in Alta California, it received 10,000 pesos (amounting then to about $1,000) from the Pious Fund. This money was used to buy church bells, vestments (robes for the padres to wear in church), tools and seeds. The Spanish government agreed to send between $250 and $450 worth of materials each year to each mission. Each missionary was to receive $275 to $400 a year as salary.

Funding and supplies was a major problem for the first missions in California. The trip by sea from the port of San Blas in Baja (Lower) California was a dangerous voyage of three or four months. The first supply ship sunk. Often supply ships did not come when they were expected. The missions tried to become self-sufficient in order to survive.

By the 1780s, Spain was again losing interest in California. There was no gold or silver there to make Spain rich. It was costing the government a lot just to keep the harbor at San Blas open. Food waiting to be shipped to the missions sometimes rotted on the docks, waiting for a ship to sail. In 1782 the King of Spain ordered that a tax be paid by each mission. This was a hardship for the missions.

After 1810, Spain made little effort to get supplies to the missions or the presidios. Mexico was striving for independence. Spain was involved in other wars in Europe and needed all of its money for defense. Fortunately, by this time the missions were producing much of what they needed.

After more than ten years of rebellion, Mexico achieved its independence from Spain in 1821. California now belonged to Mexico. But the Mexican government was not much interested in supporting the missions. Not only did the missions have to provide for themselves, but also for the soldiers who had received no supplies or pay in many years.

Wanting to encourage Mexican settlers, the government began giving land grants to soldiers and to government officials and their friends. Many more settlers came from Mexico in order to get free land. The government wanted the prosperous farms and cattle herds of the missions to give to Mexican settlers.

In August 1833, the Mexican congress passed a bill that secularized the missions. This meant that the land was taken from the Catholic Church and placed under the control of a government official. There was some small attempt to fulfill the original plan of returning land to the Indians. However, the Mexican officials felt that the Indians were not capable of managing the land on their own. Also, the Mexicans wanted the land for themselves, so very little went to Indian owners.

Over the next three years, one by one, the missions were closed and the land and livestock given to new owners. The few Indians who received any land soon lost it through bad business deals or gambling debts. By the early 1840s, some of the mission buildings had been sold and others were falling into ruin. Thus ended the mission period in California.

In 1842 Mexican president Santa Anna transferred the Pious Fund, which then amounted to more than two million dollars, to the Mexican treasury.

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