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From San Diego to Sonoma, the 21 Spanish missions in California create a trail of history that gives us a special peek into the state’s early days. Home to fascinating stories and interesting facts, the 21 California missions welcome visitors who want to attend masses or simply learn more about the Golden State’s past. Read on to see what makes each of these fascinating missions unique.
The history of California's mission system
The California mission system was established in 1769, under the order of the Spanish king. The first mission in California—Mission San Diego de Alcalá—was built the same year. Military troops and Franciscan missionaries were sent to the new land to colonize the territory, convert the Natives to Christianity, and build missions. Once the Native people converted, the missionaries would leave to other locations and build additional religious outposts.
The Native converts were called “Neophytes” and were expected to learn Spanish, perform labor, and attend church. Padres, or religious leaders, oversaw the daily activities at the missions. Six soldiers were assigned to protect each of them and the mission properties. Over 54 years, four forts and 21 missions were founded along the California coast; many of them are now-major cities such as San Diego, Santa Barbara, and San Francisco. This continued until 1833 when Mexico gained independence from Spain and passed a law that ended the California mission system. While much of the California mission property was supposed to be given back to the Native people, private owners ended up with the majority of the land.
Generally speaking, the Spanish missions in California were built about 30 miles apart from each other—equivalent to a one-day journey on horseback. Those looking to go on a road trip covering all of the missions should follow El Camino Real, also known as “Royal Road,” which spans roughly 600 miles.
California missions list: The 21 missions in California
- Mission San Diego de Alcalá
- Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo
- Mission San Antonio de Padua
- Mission San Gabriel
- Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa
- Mission San Francisco de Asis (Mission Dolores)
- Mission San Juan Capistrano
- Mission Santa Clara de Asís
- Mission San Buenaventura
- Mission Santa Barbara
- Mission La Purisima Concepción
- Mission Santa Cruz
- Mission Nuestra Señora de la Soledad
- Mission San José De Guadalupe
- Mission San Juan Bautista
- Mission San Miguel Arcángel
- Mission San Fernando Rey de España
- Mission San Luis Rey de Francia
- Mission Santa Inés
- Mission San Rafael Arcángel
- Mission San Francisco Solano
Northern California missions
Mission San Francisco Solano
1. Founded in 1823, this Northern California mission was the last one to be built.
2. Mission San Francisco Solano was masterminded by an ambitious padre who acted without church approval.
3. The rustic mission can be found in Sonoma Plaza, tucked between gourmet restaurants and upscale boutiques.
4. This Sonoma mission is one of the only two California missions operated by the California State Parks system; the other one is Mission La Purisima Concepción.
Mission San Rafael Arcángel
5. Mission San Rafael Arcángel was initially built as a hospital to aid the Native Americans stationed at Mission San Francisco.
6. The current building at the site of this California mission is a 1949 replica. To see artifacts from the original mission, head to the mission museum where you’ll find three of the original mission bells.
Mission San Francisco de Asís (Mission Dolores)
7. This Spanish mission in California gets its nickname, Mission Dolores, from a nearby creek.
8. Dating back to 1776, this mission is San Francisco’s oldest intact building.
9. In 1849, Mission Dolores housed two taverns, a brewery, a dancing room, a saloon, and a hospital.
10. The stained-glass windows of this church depict all 21 missions in California.
Mission San José De Guadalupe
11. Despite its name, Old Mission San Jose is actually located in Fremont, not San Jose.
12. The original mission building was leveled during an 1868 earthquake, so the current structure there is a reconstruction.
Mission Santa Clara de Asís
13. This California mission’s bell was a gift from King Carlos IV of Spain, and it has rung every year since 1798.
14. The mission has changed its location three times due to flooding. Today, it can be found at Santa Clara University—it is the only mission in California on a college campus.
15. In 1847, the Battle of Santa Clara—the only battle of the Mexican-American War in NorCal—took place just west of this mission.
Mission Santa Cruz
16. The full name of Mission Santa Cruz is La Exaltación de la Santa Cruz, which translates to “The Mission of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.”
17. The museum at this California mission claims to have a reliquary containing pieces from the Cross of Christ.
Mission San Juan Bautista
18. Mission San Juan Bautista is very large in size, featuring three aisles and a magnificent altar.
19. If you’re wondering why this mission looks familiar, it’s because it was featured in the 1958 Alfred Hitchcock thriller, Vertigo.
Mission Nuestra Señora de la Soledad
20. Mission Soledad is the resting place of the only Spanish governor to be buried in California, dressed in a Franciscan monk’s habit.
21. This California mission has experienced so many epidemics and floods in its history that it has been nicknamed the “hard-luck mission.”
Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo
22. Father Junípero Serra, who founded nine of the 21 missions, was laid to rest on the grounds of this Monterey County mission.
23. This mission is considered to be one of the most beautiful missions in California because it boasts original paintings and statues, a massive holy-water fountain, and flower-filled courtyards.
24. You’ll find a life-sized statue of Our Lady of Bethlehem, known as La Conquistadora, at this California mission.
Mission San Antonio de Padua
25. Mission San Antonio de Padua is located on Fort Hunter Liggett, the U.S. Army Reserve’s largest training installation.
26. Thanks to a land donation from William Randolph Hearst, this Jolon mission’s setting has remained untouched, so it’s still in pristine condition.
Mission San Miguel Arcángel
27. Mission San Miguel is considered a National Historic Landmark and is home to dazzling, colorful frescoes that were painted by Native Americans in 1821. These frescoes are some of the only surviving examples of wall art done by the Salinan people.
Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa
28. The youth center of Mission San Luis Obispo once served as the padres’ soup kitchen.
29. Mission San Luis Obispo’s roof was destroyed in 1776 by Native Americans, who shot flaming arrows at the building as a form of protest against the mission system. This led the Spanish missionaries to construct all future missions in California with clay roofs.
Southern California missions
Mission Santa Inés
30. This Solvang mission is among the most colorful of all the 21 California missions, with frescoes and well-preserved painting adorning its walls.
31. In 1844, this mission became the location of the first seminary for training Catholic priests in California.
Mission La Purisima Concepción
32. The Lompoc mission is the best restored Spanish mission in California in terms of its physical structure, with 10 of the original buildings remaining intact.
33. Trails suitable for hiking and horseback riding lace the 1,928-acre grounds of this California mission.
Mission Santa Barbara
34. Mission Santa Barbara is the only one of the 21 California missions to have two bell towers.
35. The library archives at Mission Santa Barbara contain the first medical treatise written in California.
36. The lone woman of San Nicolas Island, Juana Maria—on whom the award-winning novel Island of the Blue Dolphins is based—is buried on this mission’s grounds.
Mission San Buenaventura
37. At its most prosperous time, this California mission was home to over 41,00 animals.
38. There are many interesting sights to see at Mission San Buenaventura, including an asymmetric bell tower with five bells, a palm tree-framed garden, and one of the only surviving examples of a wooden bell.
Mission San Fernando Rey de España
39. Several California celebrities are buried at this California mission, including Bob Hope and Ritchie Valens.
40. Mission San Fernando houses a mysterious Russian bell. This bell was cast in 1796 in Alaska (at the time of the Russian Empire), but no one knows who brought it to California.
Mission San Gabriel Arcángel
41. The altar of this Spanish mission is original; it was handcrafted in Mexico City and brought to this California mission in the 1790s.
Mission San Juan Capistrano
42. The Wrightwood earthquake of 1812 destroyed a significant portion of Mission San Juan Capistrano and killed 40 people who were inside.
43. Every spring, this California mission welcomes the return of migrating swallows that spend most of the year here before flying back to Argentina for the winter. The mission celebrates the return of the birds with the Feast of St. Joseph each March.
44. The Serra Chapel at Mission San Juan Capistrano is considered the oldest surviving building in California.
Mission San Luis Rey de Francia
45. Known as the “King of the Missions,” Mission San Luis Rey is located within a six-acre central square and marked by an octagonal dome.
46. California’s first known pepper tree was planted in this Oceanside mission’s plaza in 1830.
47. Mission San Luis Rey de Francia features an ornate sunken garden—which used to be an open-air laundry area—as well as carved gargoyles that once spouted water from their mouths.
48. This Spanish mission in California served as a film location for Disney’s 1950s television series Zorro.
Mission San Diego de Alcalá
49. As the first-ever California mission to be built, Mission San Diego boasts an impressive 46-foot-tall tower with five bells, the largest of which weighs 1,200 pounds.
50. This California mission was occupied by the U.S. Army from 1849 to 1857; the church was used as a barracks and a stable.
51. Mass is held daily at Mission San Diego de Alcalá, and guided tours are available for those who book in advance.
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