Baja California Missions, History of Baja Missions

Mission History

Catholicism and the establishment of a series of missions near the Pacific coast had a tremendous influence in shaping the Baja Peninsula history in Mexico, and Alta California, now abbreviated to just California, within the United States. The mission system was a major part of Spain’s colonization efforts, with military, religious, and civil goals. Converting the natives to Christianity and teaching them to pursue agriculture were two of the primary purposes.

The first Jesuits arrived with Padre Eusebio Francisco Kino in 1683. After abandoning a settlement in La Paz, the group relocated to San Bruno, 12 miles north of Loreto. Two years later this community failed due to a lack of supplies.

In 1697, Padre Juan María Salvatierra sailed to Loreto and founded Baja California’s first permanent settlement and mission, which became known as the Mother of Missions. Loreto, located on the shore of the Sea of Cortez, was established as the capital and remained so for the next 132 years.

The second mission to be constructed was in the San Javier Valley, 26 miles from Loreto. It is thought to be the finest and best preserved of all of Baja California’s missions.

The Jesuits brought agricultural crop plants from the old world to grow near their settlements. There are still olive trees and date palms standing today that were probably planted around 1730.

From 1742 through 1748 terrible epidemics of smallpox and other European diseases broke out throughout the peninsula. Many Indians perished, and La Paz and some other missions were abandoned.

In 1767, enemies in Europe accused the Jesuits of acquiring tremendous wealth and usurping power. By order of Carlos III, all Jesuits were expelled from the Americas and sent to prison in Spain. Franciscan friars immediately replaced the Jesuits, but for only a brief period. They decided to concentrate their efforts in Alta California, and in 1772 handed over all southern missions to the Dominicans.

Although Indian numbers had dropped significantly during the Jesuit times, more epidemics stuck in 1780, and the native population on the Baja Peninsula was reduced to about 10 percent of its pre-Hispanic level.

Mexico gained its independence in 1821, and over time more changes evolved in the mission system. The government converted missions into parish churches. Mission lands were distributed among the remaining Indians in 1843. Freedom of worship is guaranteed in today’s Mexico. Still, the people of Baja California continue to embrace the religion brought to this region so long ago by the Padres who established missions from southernmost Baja California to Sonoma, north of San Francisco, California.

Two of the remaining mission buildings are well worth a visit if on vacation in the vicinity of Loreto, serviced by a modern airport. Small cruise ships sometimes arrive here or at nearby Puerto Escondido. The Loreto mission tower collapsed in 1877, but the structure has been fully restored. The beautifully constructed San Javier Mission is within a picturesque village in the adjacent mountains.

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