San Diego is where the California missions began! In March of 1769, the "Sacred Expedition" moved out of Baja California. One by land and another by sea. The "Sacred Expedition" forces reunited by the San Diego Bay in July. The journey was a hard one; one ship was lost at sea, and of the one hundred and fifty-nine people who made the journey, sixty had died of medical problems. Others were very ill and their deaths were to follow in the coming weeks.
On the morning of July 16, 1769, Father Junipero Serra offered High Mass before a rough wooden cross at the site chosen for the first mission. It was at the base of a hill and beside the mouth of a river. Overlooking a beautiful bay to the west and a river valley to the east. A tribe of fishing California Natives (the Kumeyaay) squatted upon the hilltop with their village, called Cosoy.
Although times were very hard, it seemed the perfect location. The soldiers of the presidio had a commanding view of the bay where they could see any new arrivals from a safe, defendable position. The padres had the protection of the soldiers and the Kumeyaay village full of potential converts. The wide grassy plains would make good pasturelands. The San Diego River offered a rich supply of fresh water. Along the river grew willow, poplar, and sycamore trees. These would provide fuel for cooking and timber for construction.
All was not as it seemed. The Kumeyaay were more warlike than their relatives to the North. They had heard how many of the intruders had died of a strange and awful disease. These intruders also had weapons that made strange sounds and had smoke but no fire. The Kumeyaay backed away from the missionaries and resisted attempts at conversion. On the morning of August 15, 1969 twenty or more Kumeyaay armed with bows and arrows charged the mission. Several Kumeyaay died and three in Father Serra's care were wounded.
In the days that followed, a few of the Kumeyaay came to the mission. They came seeking help for their wounded. The Spanish muskets had perhaps given these people special powers. Perhaps they could also heal the wounded.
The mission was never able to produce enough to feed the few converts, missionaries, and the heavy demands of the presidio. For five years they struggled with little water or too much water, depending on the seasons, the soil on the hillside was poor and the mission gardens reflected this. It would seem that the San Diego Mission's only claim to fame would be the fact that it was the first.
Father Luis Jayme and Father Vincent Fuster, the padres who succeeded to the mission, set to work to find a new site. After much scouting about they decided on a site six miles up the river valley to the East. They called this new site Nuestra Señora del Pilar, it was located near a large village called Nipaguay. The new mission land had fertile soil and fresh water. After receiving approval, the missionaries and Christians converts built a new mission of mud, sticks, and reeds from the river. The mission was erected on a knoll overlooking the stream in December 1774.
Almost at once the Kumeyaay began coming to the new site. There were only four hand picked guards, who were under the direct supervision of Father Jayme, no other soldiers to frighten or annoy them. Before the first year ended there were more than a hundred converts; the small mission grounds housed only a few so the remainder returned to their own villages each night. Some say this angered the village leaders, they could see their old traditions disappearing.
Two converts named Francisco and Carlos ran away from the mission and went from village to village, urging the villagers to revolt. They told of the food, cloth, trinkets and livestock that were there for the taking. The already angry leaders joined forces.
Some time after midnight on November 5, 1775, hundreds of Kumeyaay attacked the mission (the numbers vary, anywhere between 40 and 1000). Father Jayme left the mission and approached the attackers with open arms and his usual greeting, "Love God, my children", there the Kumeyaay stripped him of his clothing, beat him and riddled his body with arrows (Father Jayme was the only Padre to die in an attack in all twenty-one missions). Two others were killed in this uprising and all mission buildings were burned.
The survivors fled to the Presidio where the night guards admitted noticing something unusual but nothing was reported at the time of the uprising. Later in the day Father Fuster, along with soldiers, went to look over the ruins. A few Kumeyaay, who had been hiding, told Father Fuster of the plans to destroy the mission as well as the Presidio. The Presidio was spared because the attack on the mission was earlier than planned and the Kumeyaay who were to attack the Presidio were afraid that the soldiers would be ready for them.
The mission and missionary activities were returned to the Presidio for the next few months while the governor, Captain Don Fernando de Rivera, attempted to bring peace and justice to the area. It wasn't until July 11, 1776, with the arrival of Father Serra, did plans for rebuilding the mission actually take place. A guard of twelve men from the Presidio and sailors from the San Antonio were sent to protect and help with the rebuilding. A group of California Natives greeted their return and helped with the construction. During construction, Padre Serra rewrote all the Mission records in his own hand.
On October 17, 1776, the new church was dedicated. It was not quite finished, but many of the building with deep stone foundations along with high adobe walls enclosing three sides were completed in time for Padre Serra to make the dedication prior to his departure. Father Fuster was able to report on March 20,1777, that all work had been done. The Mission was complete.
The Mission was never attacked again by the Kumeyaay, the converts were increasing daily. The orchards of young olive and fruit tress were doing well as were the mission gardens. The live stock had increased to a sizable amount.
The Mission was growing so rapidly that in 1780 the Mission church was enlarged and a period of reconstruction begin that lasted for five years. This period ended in 1785, the Mission had developed into the customary quadrangle. For the next eighteen years it served the Padres' well. The only addition was that of a tile roof in 1792, adding greater protection from fire and in 1795 the construction of a partial aqueduct system to provide a plentiful source of water.
These were the golden years for San Diego De Alcalá. In 1797 five hundred and sixty-five (565) Kumeyaay were baptized (the largest in any twelve month period) which brought the number of converts to 1405. The area grew to 50,000 acres of wheat, barley, corn, and beans. The vineyards and orchards were well established and providing wine and olive oil. It is recorded that the Mission owned 20,000 sheep, 10,000 cattle and 1,250 horses. It was never among the wealthiest of missions but it stood among the first five in the number of converts.
Twenty years after the founding of San Diego De Alcalá, the Mission San Luis Rey was built and dedicated in 1798. Later, the Mission Santa Ysabel was built as an asistencia of Mission San Diego de Alcala. Work far from their own mission was finally taken off the shoulders of the San Diegan padres. The Padres could now concentrate on local matters.
The Earthquake of 1803 severely damaged the Mission and although measures were taken to repair the Mission, another earthquake destroyed that. In 1808 the missionaries began construction of the third church built at the Mission site, one that would withstand future earthquakes. The Mission would be completely rebuilt along with the irrigating system.
A dam was built three miles above the mission, a stone wall 250 feet long, 16 feet high and 10 feet thick was covered in cement. A tiled aqueduct, based on stones buried in cement, carried a stream of water a foot deep and two feet wide. This was the first irrigation system in the Western region.
November 12, 1813 the newly completed Mission was dedicated (This is the same mission that we see today after extensive restoration). In 1816 the irrigating system was completed, promising sufficient provisions even in dry seasons. No one could have known that in six short years the Spanish rule would end and the Missions would never be the same.
In October of 1821, Mexico freed herself from Spain. Months would pass before the news traveled to San Diego. The secularization (transfer of Missions from the Franciscans to the government of Mexico) ruling had provisions for the land held by the Missions for the California Natives. This land transfer depended upon the length of service and the type of work done. Mission San Diego De Alcalá had fifty-nine Kumeyaay with their families who were eligible under this ruling, but only two went forth to battle life for themselves.
In 1834, another secularization law was passed and many dishonest men at the head of the government cheated many Native Californians out of their mission lands. The Mission, San Diego de Alcalá, was handed over to Jose Rocha. It now stood empty. In 1841, when Pope Gregory XVI arrived in San Diego he found only a hundred and fifty persons in the entire town. A few remained in the partially ruined presidio, but the mission was completely empty.
Mission land transferred back and forth between the Church and Mexico's government until July 29, 1846 when the American sloop-of-war "Cayane" anchored in the harbor. Captain John Frémont used the mission as headquarters for his men for fifteen years. The troops cut down much of the orchards for firewood but kept the mission in repair.
Then, in 1862 the American government restored mission buildings and 20 acres of land to the Catholic Church. By this time; the tile roof and heavy doors had been stolen, rains weakened the adobe and the roof fell in. The bell tower had crumbled and the bells had disappeared. Year after year the mission kept falling to pieces.
In 1891, Father Antonio Ubach, started raising money to restore the mission. He started a school for Native Californians at the mission. The school remained there for twenty years. When Father Ubach died in 1907, restoration efforts died with him and the school was moved.
Sometimes visitors would come and picnic at this mission ruins. But not until San Diego was to be home to the World's Fair in 1915 that citizens began to donate money, under Mayor Albert Mayrohofer's direction, for restoration. The Mayor raised one hundred thousand dollars and restoration work started.
On September 13, 1931, Mission San Diego de Alcalá was rededicated. The 1813 mission was now restored to its former beauty. This is the mission that we see today. Please join us for our field trip to this beautiful mission!