The Mission Period
The Jesuits (1697–1767)
Padre Juan María Salvatierra established Antigua California’s first permanent Spanish mission in 1697. He landed in San Bruno but promptly found a more reliable source of freshwater 24 kilometers (15 mi) south of the original mission, and proceeded to establish the mission that would become “the mother of all California missions,” Nuestra Señora de Loreto. Historians estimate the indigenous population at about 50,000 at the time of Salvatierra’s arrival.
Over the next 70 years, the Jesuits established 22 settlements and supporting visitas (visiting missions), creating a mission trail south to the cape at San José and north to Cataviña in the Desierto Central. The missionaries introduced the indigenous people to the “civilized” Spanish way of life and offered food and water in exchange for labor. The indigenous people planted crops, dug waterways, and built churches. But they did not always welcome the missionary efforts to change their ways, particularly when it came to the decree against polygamy.
Uprisings were a frequent occurrence during the missionary period. The Pericú rebellion of 1734 caused extensive damage, destroying four missions in the southern part of the peninsula and killing two of the padres. Through the rest of the 18th century, the indigenous population decreased rapidly due to epidemics of European-borne diseases such as smallpox and measles. By 1748 more than 80 percent of the population estimated at Salvatierra’s arrival had perished. With no one left alive to convert, the missions began to close. By 1767 only one member of the entire Huchiti branch of the Guaycura nation had survived.
In the wake of disease and death, the missionaries pressed northward, always seeking more “neophytes” for their religious activities.
On June 15, 1767, King Charles III of Spain issued the Jesuit Expulsion Decree, requiring the 16 missionaries left in Antigua California to return to the mainland, where they were shipped back to Europe and imprisoned or exiled. Historical accounts of the reason for the expulsion differ. One theory says the Jesuits were accused of stealing the hidden treasures of Antigua California from the crown; others believe the Jesuits were punished for speaking out against government corruption. In any case, they were replaced immediately by the Franciscan Order.
The Franciscans and Dominicans
Fourteen Franciscan padres landed in Loreto in 1768, including Padre Junípero Serra, who carried the mission torch north to Alta California. The Franciscans established one mission in Northern Baja, San Fernando Velicatá, before crossing into the present-day U.S. state of California to establish a mission at San Diego and a new mission trail that would extend as far north as Sonoma.
With his attention on Alta California, Serra transferred the Baja missions to the Dominican Order in 1772, and the first of nine Dominican missions (and one visita) was established at El Rosario in 1774, which became the official boundary between Alta and Baja California in 1777. In 1776 Monterey replaced Loreto as the capital of the two Californias.
By 1800 only 5,000 indigenous people survived on the peninsula, and the Spanish government could no longer justify support of the missions.
© Nikki Goth Itoi from Moon Baja, 9th Edition