California’s overlooked mission history

We often forget that California history goes further back than the “49-ers,” the gold prospectors who hurried to California once gold was discovered in 1848.

The first European settlers in California were not “49-ers;” they were Spanish. California belonged to Spain from 1769 to 1821, and then to the Mexicans until the US got it back in 1848 after winning the Mexican-American War.

front view of Carmel mission

Carmel Mission: except for the sign in English it could be anywhere in Latin America.

The Spanish in the New World, besides looking for gold, set out to expand the Spanish colonial empire, along with spreading Catholicism. They established a string of 21 missions along the coast of California, all of which are still standing. 

On my recent visit to California, I visited two of them. Carmel Mission (properly called Mission San Carlos Borromeo Del Rio Carmelo) in Carmel is the second oldest of the missions, built in 1770. Mission Dolores in San Francisco was built in 1776, making it the oldest surviving building in San Francisco.

Carmel Mission

If you’ve ever travelled in Latin America, you’ll feel like the Carmel Mission was simply picked up from some small sleepy South American town and plunked down in California. Architecturally it is very Latin American: built of adobe covered in plaster, with bells set up high in the front wall, and Native American-influenced paintwork on the inside.

The cemetery outside contains a few rows of graves marked by wooden crosses. Each wooden cross has a large seashell hanging on it or on the grave itself. I assume these mark the graves of Native Americans. On the opposite side of the path stand the graves of the European part of the congregation: these have stone markers. One of them claims the person lived to 151 years old!

Carmel mission graves

Some of the graves in the Carmel Mission graveyard

There’s a large cloister as well, planted with bougainvillea, aloe plants and so on, again looking like it’s from somewhere else: a peaceful place to sit.

Mission Dolores

Mission Dolores in San Francisco is very similar to Carmel Mission, built in almost the same style, but today completely surrounded by other city buildings, including the Catholic Basilica next door. Again, it’s the original adobe building, this time with a painted ceiling in Native American style. The graveyard in this case is a quiet, lush oasis in the city. I was inclined to just sit and soak in the sleepy atmosphere.

view of the interior of Mission Dolores with painted ceiling

The interior of Mission Dolores in San Francisco

Native Americans

In admiring the quiet beauty of these missions, though, it’s easy to forget what they represent: the first disruptive encroachment of European society into a peaceful, thriving Native American culture in California. These churches were very likely built and supported by Native American laborers, who converted—or were converted—to Christianity. They were coerced into working for the Spanish, and, according to Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge, treated more or less like slaves. They were unpaid, and soldiers were sent to recapture them if they left. In addition, death rates were appalling, often from diseases brought by the Europeans.

drawing of Native Americans at Mission Dolore

A depiction of Native Americans at Mission Delores, on display there.

Mission Dolores has some interesting displays about the lives of the original Native American inhabitants. Decimated, their history has been reduced to some artifacts, a diorama and some explanatory signs. Nevertheless, at least they are receiving some attention these days. A reconstruction of a traditional reed hut stands in the graveyard there.

Also read my article about El Paso, “Traces of El Paso’s History.”

The class distinction between the Spanish arrivals and the native inhabitants was clearly very strictly maintained, as evidenced by the separate sections of the graveyard at the Carmel Mission. It’s strange to take in this peaceful atmosphere today, and realize what violence and suffering was necessary to create it all those years ago.

painted wall in Carmel mission

An interior detail in Carmel mission

I assume that if you are of a religious inclination, both of these churches would welcome you to take part in services. We happened to visit Carmel on a Sunday and a service was ending as we arrived. 

If you are religious, or if you’re interested in the architecture or history, this would be an interesting way to visit California: traveling along the coast (a gorgeous drive in itself), viewing all of the missions one by one, south to north or vice versa. Since the intention was for them to be one day’s horseride apart, 30 miles separate each from the next. 

If you do so, please don’t forget to consider the Native Americans who contributed their labor and often their lives to create these lovely, peaceful places.


  • Tracie Howe

    December 19, 2014 at 9:29 pm

    How interesting! I had no idea that there were so many missions still present in California. I will have to make sure to visit some on my next trip. Native Americans can never be honored enough to make up for the tragedies that they faced from the settlers. At least places like these act as reminders of their history.

    • rachel75

      December 19, 2014 at 11:12 pm

      I didn’t know either! I only knew about these two but Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge, showed me the others. Yes, they serve as reminders, whether intentionally or not. Thanks for commenting!

  • Milan Bardun

    December 21, 2014 at 10:13 pm

    This is really impressive! I had no idea that California has that rich Spanish and Latin background. It explains everything – when I was there, I met many people who didn’t even speak English and in LA I found many Mexican districts. Now I know why.

    • rachel75

      December 22, 2014 at 12:47 am

      Yes, though I’m pretty sure the ones who live in CA but don’t speak much English are recent immigrants. The descendants of the early Spanish and Mexicans would be fully assimilated by now. I’m glad you liked the post!

  • Natalie

    December 23, 2014 at 4:38 pm

    Great post! It’s seems like people forget that America has a much richer history than just the ~250 years that the U.S. has offered to the world. Like you mention, there were explorers and before that, the Native Americans. Here in Charleston (SC), there are European settler sites from the late 1600s, as well as Native American artifacts from a few thousand years ago. It’s this layered history that I love about our country! I hope to make it over to CA to see these things soon!

    • rachel75

      December 23, 2014 at 4:42 pm

      Yes, you should! I remember being amazed when I visited St. Augustine in Florida (Europeans), and also Mesa Verde in Colorado (Native Americans). We don’t really think there’s anything that old in the US, but there is. The Europeans laugh at the idea, but North America has a long history too. Thanks for commenting!


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