23 Mar 19
San Gabriel Valley Tribune
Two hundred and fifty years ago, the Spanish-led ‘Sacred Expedition’ to establish forts and missions in what was then called Alta California headed north from the tip of Baja.
The Russians are coming
Spain had laid claim to territory in what would become California, Arizona and New Mexico more than 150 years before the “Sacred Expedition.” The Sebastian Vizcaino expedition in 1602 was ordered to find safe harbors in Alta California for Spanish ships returning from the Philippines. The Vizcaino expedition along the California coast gave many places the names they have today, including San Diego, Monterey and Santa Barbara. The Spanish did not pay much attention to Alta California until they heard the Russians were making settlements in what is now Washington and Oregon.
King Charles II of Spain ordered that Spanish settlements were to be established near the harbors mapped by Vicaino in San Diego and Monterey. Spanish soldier Gaspar de Portola volunteered to lead the mission.
By 1802, the Russians established Fort Ross, in what is now Sonoma County, as their southernmost settlement in North America. The fortress flew the Russian flag until 1842. Fort Ross is a national historic landmark and state historic park.
Land and sea expedition
Two 72-foot ships set sail before two separate land groups left from Baja. The first ship, the San Carlos, left La Paz on Jan. 9, 1769, with 62 men. The captain had poorly drawn maps and took 110 days to reach San Diego Bay.
The second ship, the San Antonio, left Feb. 15, 1769, and reached San Diego in 54 days. Most of the crew on the San Carlos died along the journey and nearly all the crew on the San Antonio fell sick.
March 24, 1769: The first of two overland parties leaves to build settlements in Alta California. The first, a group of 25 soldiers, several Jesuit priests and about 40 Christian Indians, is led by Capt. Fernando Rivera. Rivera’s party acts as scouts, clearing trails and building camps for the second land-based expedition. Rivera’s party arrives in San Diego on May 14.
May 15, 1769: Portola, the Rev. Junipero Serra, 11 soldiers, five muleteers and 12 Christian Indians set out with 200 cattle plus 163 mules and some horses. They arrive in San Diego in June. The first mission in Alta California, the Mission of San Diego de Alcalá, and the military base San Diego Presidio are founded in July 1769.
April 1770: Serra and Portola set off to establish a chain of missions and Portolá established the Monterey Presidio. It is unknown what the Native American population was before being exposed to European settlers in California. Some estimate the number to be about 300,000, and after the Gold Rush in the mid-1800s, the Native American population was less than 30,000.
In September, the San Francisco Arts Commission voted to remove its “Early Days” sculpture, depicting a Native American at the feet of a Catholic missionary. A plaque was placed to explain why it was removed. In January, San Francisco voted to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day.
Spanish explorers began settlements along the Baja California Peninsula in the 1680s. The first mission was founded in 1697 and the chain of missions that followed did so well, the king of Spain appointed Portola to be governor and supervise the operations.
When Mexico gained independence from Spain in the 1820s, the missions of Baja were converted to parish churches.
The mission legacy
Junipero Serra founded the first nine missions along El Camino Real (The King’s Highway) from San Diego to San Francisco. There were 21 missions by 1823.
When Mexico won its independence from Spain, it planned to return the 21 Franciscan missions in California to the Native Americans. Most mission lands ended up in the hands of wealthy local residents during the 1830s. The Native Americans, to a large extent, were removed from the former mission properties or left to fend for themselves.
Most of the missions were returned to the Catholic Church after California became part of the United State in 1850.
Sources: California Missions Resource Center, MissionTour.org, Californias-missions.org, MissionsOfCalifornia.org, The Associated Press, SanDiegoHistory.org, Encyclopedia Britannica, Various mission web sites
Research contributed by Charles Apple and Scott Brown