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San Diego Mission

Table of Contents

Introduction                                                                            page1

Chapter One:     Beginning of the Mission                              page2

Chapter Two:  Materials Used to Build the Mission             page3

Chapter Three: Purpose of the Mission                                   page4

Chapter Four:  Mission Layout                                              pages5-6

Chapter Five:  Mission Life                                                   page7

Chapter Six:    Advantages of the Mission System               page8

Chapter Seven: Disadvantages of the Mission System           page9

Chapter Eight:  The Mission in Later Years                           page10

Chapter Nine:    Illustrations and extra stuff                          pages11-

Bibliography                                                                           page


During the late 1700’s Spanish missionaries built a series of 21 missions along the coast of California.  Although there are many missions, Mission San Diego de Alcala is its own little world.  Its walls come alive when we discover the history of its beginnings, construction, purpose, layout, and daily life.  Also, throughout this story are the advantages and disadvantages of the mission system.

Chapter One:

Beginning of the Mission

The San Diego Mission compared to other missions, had a unique beginning.  On July 16th 1769, Padre Junipero Serra founded his first mission in Alta California, San Diego de Alcala.  It was named for Saint Didacus of Alcala. The Indians were curious but not particularly friendly.  The Spanish tried to be friendly and offer gifts to attract the natives to the mission.

The San Diego Mission was not only the first California mission but also the furthest south.  As you can probably guess, the original San Diego mission was located next to the San Diego Bay. Five years later the mission was moved six miles inland where there was more water and better land, and to move farther from the presidio, because the Indians were afraid of the soldiers at the presidio. Padre Luis Jayme was in charge of the mission at this time

Chapter Two:

Materials Used to Build the Mission

To build the San Diego Mission many materials had to be used.  The original mission had walls made of logs.  The floors were dirt and the roof was grass.  Later the walls became stone and adobe.  Adobe is a mixture of mud, straw, and manure.  They also changed the roof to tile with beams of pine and poplar logs.  The tile roof helped prevent fire.  The bell tower goes straight up into the air.  It has five bells.

Both padres and Indians had to be hardworking!  The San Diego Mission was rebuilt four times.  It was rebuilt once when it was moved east to better soil and water.  It was rebuilt once because it was attacked by Indians.  Then after an earthquake in 1803 destroyed the mission it had to be rebuilt, and in the 1900’s it was rebuilt for what we see today!

Chapter Three:

Purpose of the Mission

The missions had several purposes.

One purpose of the missions was to protect the Spanish claim to the land that is nowadays called California.  Since the king of Spain heard that Russian fur traders had started a colony in Alaska, he sent the missionaries with soldiers to help protect the claim.  When the Indians were better acquainted with Spanish people more Spanish settlers would come to settle in Alta California.  Getting to California was tough and not many people wanted to have to deal with Indians.  With more Spanish people in the land the land would be more like Spain.

Another purpose of the missions was to Christianize the Indians.  Spain was mostly Catholic.  Missionaries felt it was their duty to God and in the Natives’ best interest to learn the Catholic beliefs and what they regarded as a civilized way of life.

The Spanish wanted to improve the Indians’ way of life. For example, the Spanish taught the Indians farming skills.  Planting and raising crops was something new to the Indians.  The Spanish tried to educate the Indian children.   Not all the Spanish ways actually improved them though.

Finally, the El Camino Real, which means the “Royal Road” or “Kings Highway,” forms a link with all 21 missions.  On the El Camino Real each mission was about 30 miles apart or a day’s walk from another mission.  The El Camino Real is about 630 miles long!  The pueblos, which are small towns, and presidios, or forts, were established near the missions.  This was so they weren’t far from the El Camino Real, and could protect the missions.  (see map p.   )

Chapter Five:

Mission Life

Mission life was full of hardships for Spanish and Indians.

Life of the people at the mission was interesting.  In the morning everyone would go to church to pray.  Then everyone sat down to eat a basic breakfast.  Later the padre taught Indian women to make soap, baskets, candles, and other useful articles.  The Indian women would also learn how to sew and weave.  At the same time the men would be learning farming skills and how to take care of animals.  The evening would be taken up with lessons on the Spanish language and prayers.   Bells would be ringing during the day to call both the Spanish and the Indians to different activities and to make them aware of the arrival of guests.

Food at the missions was different from food any of the people were used to.  The diet of the Spanish was just slightly changed. The Native Californians’ diet, however, changed so enormously that many of them died.

Clothing was another change for the Indians that came with the missions.  The Indians were forced to wear what Spanish people considered “ proper.”  In their old ways Indians wore skins.  When Spanish people came, Indians were introduced to woven cloth of wool.  Indians wore new woolen cloth, and padres wore robes embroidered with patterns for church.

Work was hard at the missions.  The Spanish had the important job of teaching the Indians how to do their jobs.  Spanish also taught the Indians Christianity.  Indian men had to raise crops and tend animals and build the mission buildings.  Indian women and children had to tend the gardens, do the cooking, make baskets, soap, candles, cloth, and other useful articles.

There was very little recreation time at the missions.  I’m sure everyone was happy when it was the end of the day so they could go to sleep. The neophytes were each given a little time to relax before they went to bed.  Once in a while everyone had a fiesta, or party.  Music was a very important part of the Indians’ and Spanish peoples’ lives.  It was the music that attracted many of the Indians to the mission.  The bells of the church and the singing and chanting of religious songs were some of their music.  Indians thought it was a honor to ring the bells.  [see page    ]

Chapter Six:

Advantages of the Mission System

Although none of the missions were perfect, there were a few advantages.

One advantage was that the missionaries taught the Indians new trades.  The Indian men learned how to take care of animals and grow successful crops. The missionaries also taught the women how to make candles, soap and cloth. The women also learned sewing, gardening, and cooking new foods.

Because of the missions, some cities and towns with settlers were established.

The first two towns, pueblos, which were planned grew from small dirt towns into the cities of San Jose and Los Angeles. Other unplanned pueblos often grew up close to the other missions and the El Camino Real. That was the case near the San Diego mission.

Last, the padres were very devoted to the Indians. They were the only Spanish people who cared a bit for them.  Other people would probably rather shoot them. The Indians also therefore were able to get some knowledge that helped them deal with the invading culture.

Chapter Seven:

Disadvantages of the Mission System

Even though there were advantages in the mission system, there were also disadvantages.

One disadvantage was that a foreign culture was being forced on the Indians.  One’s culture is made up of their beliefs, food, clothing, language, and so forth.  The food in the Indians’ life was extremely different than the food of the Spanish.  Also, their religion was changed to the Catholic religion.  The Indians’ clothing, language, and kinds of work and housing were also changed.

In addition, many Native Californians were treated as slaves.  They were made to do endless hard work.  If they ran away from the mission and were found, they were brought back and beaten. Or in other words, they weren’t able to leave.  Some Indians started revolts against the missions, but they never completely succeeded in destroying the missions.

Diseases were a major problem for the Native Californians. When white men came to California, Indians’ bodies couldn’t deal with the diseases they brought. A couple of diseases which killed many Indians were smallpox and measles. As a result, ninety percent of the Indians in and out of the missions died.

When the missions closed, Indians were left with nothing.  In 1833 the Mexican government ordered all the missions to close. The wealth and land would be given to the Indian neophytes, but because of corruption the land wasn’t given to them. It was given to some of the Mexican people. Some of the Indians were able to go back to where they came from but in many cases the tribe wouldn’t let them, or their places had been settled by the Spanish. The Indians who had been born at the mission didn’t know the old ways.

Chapter 8:

The Mission in Later Years

The history of Mission San Diego does not stop in 1833, however. In the following years the United States of America took over California. An army troop stayed in the mission ruins for 15 years. After that, the mission was returned to the Catholic church, and it was used as a school for Indian children. Restoration started in the 1890’s. Father Anthony Ubach was interested in restoring the mission.  It was a very slow process.

You may want to see the mission yourself.  If you go there, be sure to see the padre’s room and the museum. The bell tower is beautiful, and the church is in use as a church today. There are also ongoing excavations of original walls.

Out of all the California missions, San Diego de Alcala is unique.


Armento, Beverly, Oh California, Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Company,


Boule, Mary Null, The Missions: California’s Heritage, Vashon, Washington: Merryant

Publishing, 1988.

Eagen, Brent I, San Diego de Alcala, California’s First Mission, San Diego, California,

Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala.

Faber, Gail, and Lasanna, Michele, Whispers Along the Mission Trail, Alamo, California: Magpie Publications, 1986.

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