Loreto: The Mission That Almost Was Not
By David Kier
Padre Juan María Salvatierra
The first successful California mission almost did not survive its first year or even
get started on the then hostile peninsula.
Padre Juan María Salvatierra was a human dynamo in all that he overcame to
establish a new mission colony in California. Upon being granted the authority to
begin the program by King Charles II, but without a peso of financial assistance
from him, the Jesuit and his brothers solicited donations from wealthy Europeans
to finance the conquest and created the Pious Fund.
With supplies and a pair of ships secured at the Port of Yaqui (just south of
today’s Guaymas), Salvatierra awaited the arrival his fellow Jesuit and the first
advocate of missions in California, Padre Eusebio Kino. Fourteen years earlier,
Kino with two other Jesuits, attempted to build the first Jesuit colony in California
at La Paz then again at San Bruno (15 miles north of Loreto). The colony attempt
failed after two years but Kino had learned what would be needed for a mission in
California to succeed: The Jesuits must have authority over the Spanish military to
prevent unprovoked harm to come to the natives, and because California was so
sterile it would need to be supported for a time by the successful missions on the
Sadly, Kino never returned to California. An Indian uprising at the northern
Mexican missions required Kino’s attention. His superiors believed the trouble
could only be dealt with by Kino. Salvatierra and crew set sail without him on
October 11, 1697.
A sketch of the Loreto mission circa 1800 made by Rivera Cambas.
Just a mile from port the expedition’s primary ship, the Santa Elvira ran upon a
sand bar. The ship was heavily laden with cargo and the fear was all would be lost.
Thirty times did the ship become free only to be beached again. Help from the
shore came by multitudes of canoes and the ship was finally free of the sand bar
and with full sail bound for California. Sadly, the second ship El Rosario, with dried
meat and flour on-board, became separated during the crossing.
Winds were a menace when they reached San Bruno preventing a landing so they
headed north into the protection of Bahía Concepción, arriving there on October
15. There they found delicious pitahayas to eat but no Indians to convert. They
sailed back south to San Bruno where they knew friendly natives lived that were
connected to Kino’s colony of 1683-85. Indeed, some Indians were there and
provided some brackish water for the visitors, who had hiked the two miles to the
abandoned hilltop fort.
The mission at Loreto as it appeared in 1950. Photo by Howard Gulick.
The captain knew of another location not far south that had sweet water, at a bay
named San Dionisio. Salvatierra wished to begin the colony at San Bruno, but
having salt-free water was critical so they sailed south at 3 p.m. on October 17
reaching the new location on Friday morning, October 18. Many Indians came to
greet Salvatierra including women and children. Not far from the beach they
found water and a Mesquite tree-covered mesa. The native Indian name for the
site was Conchó.
On the morning of Saturday, October 19, 1697 Padre Salvatierra and Captain Juan
Antonio Romero officially took possession of the land. The next four days the
Jesuit and his small crew were busy unloading the clothing, corn, and flour. The
Indians also helped and they were rewarded with a bit of corn. The natives
enjoyed the corn so much it became necessary for the soldiers to protect it from
The Loreto mission as it appears today. Photo by Jack Swords.
The Indians attacked the Spanish impound on November 13 from all sides. The
battle lasted from noon until sundown. Several Indians were mortally wounded
but not one Spaniard nor Padre Salvatierra was harmed by either the barrage of
arrows or their own mortar exploding inside their compound. At sundown, the
Indian chief halted the hostilities and accepted the terms imposed. Corn and flour
were not free for the taking but would be distributed by the missionary in
exchange for deeds performed by the Indians. Two days later, a month since it
disappeared, the El Rosario arrived with its cargo of food.
And so ends the story of the beginnings at Loreto de Conchó, the first mission of
twenty-seven in Baja California and twenty-one more in Alta California.
To learn more about the missions and people in Baja California during the era of
conquest, missions, revolution and more, see the new book: Baja California - Land
David Kier is a veteran Baja traveler and co-author of The Old Missions of Baja and Alta California 1697-1834 and author of Baja California - Land of Missions. Visit The Old Missions website to learn more and purchase these books.Updated: Oct 26, 2017 02:05 PM