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La Victoire de Samothrace, Unknown, 190 BC

Spanish Missions


The Spanish settled California through the use of missionaries.

21 religious missions were built along the coast, from San Diego to Sonoma.

They were built within 1 day of horse travel from each other (3 days by foot), with access to fresh water, wood and grazing fields.

They were backed by the 5 military forts of San Diego, Santa Barbara, Monterey, San Francisco, & Sonoma.

Small towns later gave rise to the cities of San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, San Francisco...

The route that connected the missions along the coast was called the Camino Real.

Modern Californian roads like the Highway 1, Highway 101 and Mission Street in San Francisco still follow this route, which was been lined with bronze bells in the 1900s.

Fun fact : the missionaries planted mustard seeds and ash trees along the route to indicate where springs could be found.

The missions were not happy places.

A typical mission was occupied by 2 missionaries and 5 soldiers.

Most of the labour was done by Native Californians.

The missionaries first attracted their curiosity with food and gifts, and baptised them, turning them into what they called Neophytes.

Once a Native Californian became a Neophyte, he or she was assumed to be "attached" to the mission.

They grew new crops, herded cattle and horses, made bricks, built mission buildings...

If they left, they would be punished and brought back to the mission by force.

In 1800, around 20,500 Native Californians are thought to have worked for the missions.

Added to the violence was the risk of dying of disease brought by the Europeans - measles, diphtheria, smallpox, syphilis...

Over 30 years the missions recorded 64,000 deaths. The Native Californian population fell from 87,000 to 14,000.

While there are some examples of rebellions against the Spanish, these were swiftly quashed by the army, who had superior military force.