Next 16 July, which marks the 250th anniversary of the founding of the San Diego de Alcalá mission by the Majorcan Fray Junípero Serra, is an exceptional opportunity to celebrate one of the last great exploration and colonisation endeavours undertaken by the Spanish in the world: the conquest of California.

The Spaniards began exploring the north Pacific coasts at a very early date. Hernán Cortés organised the first expeditions to the Californian peninsula in 1532. Diego Hurtado de Mendoza carried out an initial fruitless attempt in command of two ships: the San Miguel and the San Marcos. The following October, Diego de Becerra and Fortún Jiménez set sail from the port of Manzanillo. Jiménez, who reached the bay of La Paz in 1534, is regarded as the first Spaniard to have set foot in Baja California. Only a few years later, in 1539, Francisco de Ulloa departed from Acapulco and travelled along the northwest coast of New Spain as far as the Colorado River Estuary, which he named Ancón de San Andrés. Sailing down the east coast of Baja California, he continued to explore the whole peninsula until he came to Cedros Island in 1540, from which he sent an account to Cortés on one of his ships, the Santa Águeda. From there he carried on in the Trinidad, but there is no further news of his expedition. In 1542, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo (1498-1543) and Bartolomé Ferrer (1499-1550) at last reached the coasts of Alta California, sailing to Monterrey and covering more than 1,900 kilometres of coastline. As Charles V. Lummis notes, they arrived ‘a hundred miles north of where San Francisco was to be founded more than three centuries later’. (1)

The second half of the sixteenth century, however, was characterised by a long period of inactivity on the part of Spain with respect to exploring the southwest of what is now the United States. It was not until 1596, when Sebastián Vizcaíno (1547-1627), the cartographer Jerónimo Martín Palacios and the Carmelite friar  Antonio de la  Ascensión (2) set out on a new voyage of discovery at the behest of Viceroy Gaspar de Zúñiga  Azevedo y Velasco, the Count of Monterrey, that interest in a hitherto barely disputed territory was rekindled. Vizcaíno reached the mouth of what is now the Columbia River on the northern coast of Oregon, more than 1,000 kilometres north of San Francisco. He established the toponyms, most of which still remain to this day, and drew the first maps of California, which continued to be used until well into the eighteenth century, when the Spanish Monarchy resumed its plans to colonise, evangelise and above all boost the defence of the vast territories at the northern border of the viceroyalty of New Spain. (3)

Proof of the new interest these territories aroused can be found at various times in the eighteenth century, but perhaps the most interesting milestone came in 1741, when King Philip V gave instructions to the viceroys and governors in the  Americas to gather information, especially geographic, demographic and economic, on the status and characteristics of the overseas territories. To comply with these instructions in New Spain, Pedro de Cebrián, the Count of Fuenclara, (1687-1752), commissioned the New Spanish mathematician and cartographer José Antonio de Villaseñor to carry out a systematic study: the so-called Theatro Americano. Descripción General de los Reinos y Provincias de la Nueva España y sus Jurisdicciones, which was written in two volumes between 1746 and 1748, accompanied by the splendid Yconismo Hidrotérreo o Mapa Geographico de laAmérica Septentrional, (4) a magnificent map which is preserved in the Archivo General de Indias in Seville. The report and the extant accompanying materials paint a clear picture of the overall situation in New Spain, particularly in the territories at its northern border, in the mid-eighteenth century.

But it was above all during the reign of Charles III (1759-88) that attention was focused on California.  As Alfredo Jiménez has pointed out, during his long reign ‘great things occurred in Spain and in America, and important decisions were made that affected the northern border in particular. Its very marginal location brought it into increasing contact with the world outside the system […] Not long before that, the threat of England and Russia along the Pacific coasts had spurred the effective occupation of land further to the north and a policy of scientific expeditions that took the Spanish ships to the coasts of Alaska.’ (5)

Whereas the colonisation of Baja California had been completed by the Jesuits during the first half of the 1700s, that of Alta California would be undertaken by the Franciscans during the last decades of the eighteenth century.

The Jesuits had reached those lands in 1683, as part of the expedition to the region commanded by Isidro de  Atondo y  Antillón, who had been appointed governor of Sinaloa and  Admiral of the Californias by Charles II of Spain. (6) He was accompanied by Padre Eusebio Francisco Kino (1645-1711), the founder of the Nuestra Señora de Loreto mission – the first in that region – which was followed by a further 18 mission establishments and some 40 visits that made it possible to fully evangelise Baja California by about 1730.

The expulsion of the Jesuits from Spanish territory in 1768 cleared the way for the Franciscans at the California frontier: ‘By then, Spain realized the importance of establishing defenses along those coasts, with the objective of impending English and Russian incursions. It was then that the great undertaking of evangelization and colonization of Upper California began.’ (7)

Fray Junípero Serra (1713-1784), (8) who had arrived in New Spain in 1749, joined the expedition of Gaspar de Pórtola (1716-1786) and reached the Californian coast in 1769. (9) His first settlement – which was later abandoned and re-established as Nuestra Señora del Pilar – was the San Diego de  Alcalá mission established on 16 July 1769 near what is now the city of San Diego. The following year, on 3 June 1770, the San Carlos Borromeo mission, known as the Carmel mission, was founded nearly 800 kilometres north of San Diego by Monterrey Bay. These were the first of the nine founded personally by Fray Junípero Serra out of the total of 21 that the Franciscans established in California until 1823, two years after Mexico gained its independence.

Names such as the Jesuits Eusebio Francisco Kino, mentioned earlier, Juan María de Salvatierra (1648-1717), Juan de Ugarte (1662-1730) and Fernando Consag (1703-1759) and Franciscans like Fray Juan Crespí (1721-1782) allow us to trace the process of this long endeavour to discover, explore and colonise the Californias. Crespí, for example, took part in one of the most important expeditions with far-reaching consequences: that of Juan Pérez (1725-1775), which, departing from the port of San Blas on 24 January 1774, reached the south of  Alaska and explored the Queen Charlotte and Prince of Wales archipelagos, as well as Nootka Island. The area was fiercely disputed with the English and Russians and it was necessary to fortify the island and build the San Miguel fortress in April 1790.

In the view of some historians, the colonisation of California was probably the most efficient of the systems the Spanish experimented with in the Americas. The territorial structure was based on three types of elements: the missions (religious hubs), the presidios (military hubs) and the settlements (civic hubs), the germ of the first Spanish cities in this territory such as San José de Guadalupe, which was founded by Felipe de Nevé (1724-1784), governor of the Californias, on 29 November 1777, and Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles de la Porciúncula, now Los Angeles, established on 4 September 1781.

But above all Spain used the missions and presidios to integrate the native population and to defend and populate these North American territories. While the missions strengthened Spain’s presence along the Californian coast, the presidios formed a continuous line of garrisons between the Pacific coast and Mexican Gulf coast in Texas. The presidios of San Diego (1769), San Carlos de Monterrey (1770), San Francisco (1776) and Santa Bárbara (1782) were established in Alta California.

Mexico’s process of emancipation (1810-1824) marked the end of the old imperial border. The short-lived Mexican government of   Alta California, which hung the new tricolour fl ag on the former Spanish presidios and forts during the 25-year period from 1821 to 1846, resulted in the secularisation of the missions in 1833 and the rapid disappearance of the system. The experiment had lasted barely 50 years. When Fray Junípero Serra died in 1784, 4,650 Indians were living in the missions. The number had risen to 7,500 by 1790, and to 13,500 by about 1800. By the time Alta California became part of the newly established Mexico in 1821, the number of Indians living in each of the Franciscan missions averaged about a thousand. (10)

The war between Mexico and the United States (1846-1847) and the consequences of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo (1848) whereby Mexico ceded all its territories north of the Gila and Bravo rivers left  Alta California, like the other inland provinces (New Mexico and Texas), permanently linked to the Union. Today that vast group of territories constitute the sovereign states of California, Nevada, Utah,  Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas, and part of Wyoming, Kansas and Oklahoma. (11)

Shaping the image of the missions of Alta California

From the time of their construction the Franciscan missions of California attracted the attention of the travellers and explorers who visited them. Jean-François de Galaup, Count of La Pérouse (1741-1788), arrived at the San Carlos mission in September 1786. He landed in Monterrey in command of two French frigates on an expedition that set sail from the port of Brest and travelled around the world at the orders of Louis XVI. These ships were the first foreign vessels to drop anchor at a port of New California, and La Pérouse was the first illustrious foreigner to visit this remote place.  A testament to this visit is provided by a drawing by Gaspard Duché de Vancy (1756-1788), who accompanied the expedition as a painter.

Malaspina’s expedition, the most important eighteenth-century Spanish exploration, also docked at the Californian ports. From 30 July 1789 to 21 September 1794, under the command of Alejandro Malaspina (1754-1809) and José de Bustamante (1759-1825), the frigates Descubierta and Atrevida made a long voyage from Cádiz to Montevideo and Buenos Aires. They traversed the Strait of Magellan to the Chilean ports of Chiloé, Talcaguano and Valparaíso and continued to Peru, anchoring in Arica and El Callao, followed by Guayaquil, and from there headed for Panama, sailing up the north Pacific coast in search of the Northwest Passage. Travelling on board were the ensign Felipe Bauzá, the expedition’s cartographer, the officers Dionisio Alcalá Galiano and Juan Gutiérrez de la Concha, who were responsible for the astronomy tasks, and the painters Fernando Brambila, Juan Ravenet, José del Pozo and Tomás de Suría, and José Guió, a painter and taxidermist. They were joined by the sailor José Cardero as a draughtsman. There is a very interesting drawing by Cardero of the San Carlos mission: ‘the view is a close up of the square formed by the friary, the church and the rancheria and, in the background, in the nearby fields, a perspective of the huts or tents where the Indians slept’. (12) 

Prominent among the oldest pictorial testimonies of the Franciscan missions is the work of Ferdinand Deppe (1794-1861), a German naturalist, explorer and painter who had travelled around the whole of Mexico from 1824 to 1827 gathering samples of Mexican flora and fauna for the Natural History Museum in Berlin. In 1828 he returned to Mexico accompanied by the botanist Christian Wilhelm Schiede (1798-1836), with whom he took up residence in Jalapa to collect further zoological and botanical specimens to sell to European merchants and museums. However, the business failed, and he moved to California, where he worked as a commission and commercial agent until returning to Germany in 1836.

During this period in which California was part of independent Mexico Deppe visited the San Gabriel mission, making a drawing of it in 1828 followed by an oil painting on canvas in 1832. The oil painting depicts a glorious mountainous landscape silhouetted against which are the buildings of the mission complex, with their whitewashed adobe walls and wooden roofs with large ceramic tiled gables. It shows the church, where a large crowd has gathered to celebrate the Corpus Christi, and the other parts of the complex. Notable in the foreground are an indigenous dwelling and many human figures, both Europeans and Indians, some on horseback and all clad in their characteristic clothing. The painting, steeped in Romanticism, is an outstanding testament to the atmosphere of these missions before they were secularised and abandoned.

Figure 1. Ferdinand Deppe, The Mission of San Gabriel, circa 1832. Laguna Beach (California), Laguna Art Museum.

Deppe’s is by far the oldest surviving picture. The rest date chiefly from the last 17 quarter of the nineteenth century and include a few works by the English artist Juan Buckingham Wandesforde (1817-1901), the Frenchman Jules Tavernier (1844-1889) and the Norwegian Christian  August Jorgensen (1860-1935), all of whom, like many other artists, took up residence in California in the second half of the nineteenth century.

A well-known landscapist, Juan Buckingham Wandesforde was born into an aristocratic English family and trained with the prominent English watercolourists John Varley (1778-1842) and John Le Capelain (1814-1848). Wandesforde started out as a portraitist and teacher. In 1850 he emigrated to the United States and established himself in New York city, later moving to San Francisco in 1862, where he continued to paint portraits on commission. He also began to produce landscape paintings which, like this one of the San Carlos Borromeo mission, are a faithful reminder of the quality of his work, which was highly appreciated in California.

Figure 2. Juan Buckingham Wandesforde, The Mission of San Carlos Borromeo del Carmelo, 1875. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

The French painter and adventurer Jules Tavernier (13) arrived in San Francisco in 1874 and immediately moved to Monterrey, where his studio soon became one of the focal points of the colony of painters established there. While in California, where he stayed until leaving for Hawaii in 1884, Tavernier was strongly attracted by the grandeur of the coast of Monterrey and produced some of the boldest works of his career there. They cover a great variety of themes and show a certain preference for mysterious images such as this one of the San Carlos Borromeo mission.

Figure 3. Jules Tavernier, The Mission of Carmel, 1875. Private collection.

But the Norwegian Christian Jorgensen was the most prolific painter of mission subjects. He arrived in California around 1870 and his pictures of the missions span a vast geographical area stretching from San Francisco to the Mexican border and are architecturally very interesting. (14)

Figure 4. Christian Jorgensen, Assistance of San Antonio de Pala, circa 1910. Berkeley, University of California.

Mention should also be made of the many drawings, watercolours and etchings of the missions made by Henry Chapman Ford (1828-1894). Trained in France and Italy, Ford became one of the great landscapists after the Civil War. He opened a studio in Chicago, but took up residence in California in 1875, apparently because of health problems. In the 1880s he produced a large number of drawings and prints of the Franciscan mission complexes, which were shown in the Chicago World’s Fair – also known as the Colombian Exposition – held in 1893.

The list of nineteenth-century photographs that enable us to study the Franciscan missions of Alta California is considerably longer and includes extraordinary examples such as the albumen prints made by William Henry Jackson (1843-1942); there are many surviving examples dating from the 1880s, probably after 1885, showing the missions of San Diego, San Luis Rey, San Juan Capistrano, San Gabriel, San Fernando, Santa Inés, San Miguel, San  Antonio, San Carlos Borromeo, San Juan and San Francisco. (15)

There are also interesting stereoscopic photographs by Charles Wallace Jacob Johnson (1833-1903) in the Views of California Scenery collection. Born in Maryland, Johnson established himself in San Francisco around 1870 and in 1880 moved to Monterrey, where he worked for the newly opened Hotel Del Monte, then one of the leading luxury hotels of America. The photographic records provided by Johnson, who was particularly active during the last two decades of the nineteenth century, provide a vivid testament to life in Monterrey Bay during this period.

But the most interesting photographs are undoubtedly those of Carleton Watkins (1829-1916), who arrived in San Francisco in 1851 during the so-called Gold Rush. Watkins, who trained as a photographer with Robert H. Vance (1825-1876), a daguerreotypist of Maine who established himself in California around 1850, began exercising the profession in 1861.

Although Watkins has gone down in the history of photography for his outstanding reportages on the Yosemite Valley, which decisively influenced Abraham Lincoln’s decision to designate it a national park in 1864, his photos of the missions are among the visual testimonies that have contributed the most to granting this legacy its heritage status.

Figure 5. Carleton Watkins, The Mission of San Carlos del Carmelo, circa 1880.

Figure 6. Carleton Watkins, The Mission of San Fernando Rey, circa 1880.

(1) Charles F. Lummis, The Spanish Pioneers, Chicago, McClurg, 1893, quoted from the e-book https://www.gutenberg. org/files/33095/33095-h/33095-h.htm.

(2) The author of Viage del nuevo descubrimiento que se hizo en la nueva España por el mar del Sur, desde el puerto de  Acapulco asta el Cabo mendozino por mandado de su Magestad el Rey Phelipe tercero siendo Virrey el Conde de Monterrey en el año 1602. Siendo General de la  Armada Sebastian Vyzcaino. Compuesto por el P. Fr.  Antonio de la  Ascensión Religioso Descalzo de Nuestra Señora del Carmen, housed in the Real  Academia de la Historia, in Madrid.

(3) See Falia González Díaz, The Threads of Memory. Spain and the United States / El hilo de la memoria. España y los Estados Unidos, 2011, catalogue of the exhibition with the same title.

(4) Archivo General de Indias, MP-MEXICO,161.

(5) See  Alfredo Jiménez, El Gran Norte de México. Una frontera imperial en la Nueva España (1540-1820), Madrid, Tébar, 2006, p. 447.

(6) See W. Michael Mathes, ‘Datos biográficos sobre el almirante de las Californias, Isidro de  Atondo y  Antillón’, Estudios de Historia Novohispana IV (1971), pp. 105-11. 7 González Díaz 2011, op. cit. (note 3), p. 88.

(7) Gonzalez Díaz 2011, op. cit. (note 3), p. 88

(8) See Ricardo Majó Framis, Vida y hechos de Fray Junípero Serra. Fundador de la Nueva California, Madrid, Espasa-Calpe, 1956.

(9) On the process of exploration and colonisation of California, see Jaume Sobrequés i Callicó, Orígenes hispanos de California. De la expedición de Pórtola a la independencia de México, Barcelona, Base, 2010.

(10) See Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Nuestra  América. Una historia hispana de Estados Unidos, Barcelona, Galaxia Gutemberg, 2014, p. 171, which refers to D.J. Weber’s book The Spanish Frontier in North  América, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1992.

(11) On the Spanish background of the history of the United States, see Fernández-Armesto 2014, op. cit. (note 10).

María del Carmen Sotos Serrano, Los pintores de la expedición de  Alejandro Malaspina, Madrid, Real  Academia de la Historia, 1982, vol. 2, p. 133.

(13) On Tavernier’s work, see Scott  A. Shields,  Alfred C. Harrison and Claudine Chalmers, Jules Tavernier,  Artist and  Adventurer, Portland, Pomegranate Communications, 2014.

(14) On Jorgensen see the catalogue by Katherine M. Littel, Chris Jorgensen. California Pioneer  Artist, Sonora, Fine  Arts Research Publishing Co., 1988.

(15) See Special Collections &  Archives at the Library UC San Diego, which houses William Henry Jackson’s original photographs from the collection of Kenneth E. y Dorothy V. Hill. They can be consulted online at http://library.ucsd. edu/speccoll/missionsites/index.html.

Read more