The Lost Missions Of Baja California
By David Kier
The ruins at San Juan Londo. Photo: Jack Swords
The peninsula of California, that we call “Baja” today, is a place so infused with
history that it is easy to see many ancient sites when traveling both the backroads
and the highways. They come in all forms from prehistoric fossil beds and cave art
to the old Spanish missions that are spread all over the peninsula.
Most Baja enthusiasts are aware of, or have visited, the several stone mission
churches that survived from over two hundred years ago and are in use today.
They include Loreto, San Javier, Mulegé, San José de Comondú, San Ignacio, San
Luis Gonzaga, Santa Gertrudis, and San Borja. Mission Loreto did get a new roof
and bell tower in the 1950s, but the others are mostly original construction from
What many may not be aware of are the additional missions that have crumbled
into ruins or were only made of adobe and have mostly melted back to the earth,
along with the alternate locations for nearly half of the missions founded in Baja
California. Missions often moved when the water supply became inadequate.
Some missions moved more than twice and some moved as far as fifty miles
The grave of former Governor Fernando de la Toba. Photo: Jack Swords
These alternate locations were not understood as being such for many years and
many times locals or traveling writers would think they were unique missions
rather than just a moved mission. Some of the visita churches were also fairly
elaborate and would be confused as being mission churches rather than the
satellite visiting stations of a central mission.
Finally, we have the many maps and books that list missions that never existed,
or have been called “lost missions.” I will list these non-missions along with a little
detail about them. This was such an important issue to bring up that I made a
chapter about them in my 2016 book, Baja California Land of Missions.
The California mission program got a firm start in 1697 at Loreto and spread out
in all directions possible from there. Missions did not enter northern Baja
California for fifty-five more years, during which time fourteen missions were used
to occupy the southern half of the peninsula, a place that many still considered to
be an island. In addition to the fourteen true missions and their multiple sites are
the following “non-mission” locations that are shown as missions in some maps and books.
The ruins at el Novillo in 2001. Photo: Jack Swords
“Mission El Novillo” as shown on some maps is eighteen miles south of La Paz
and three miles east of San Pedro. The chapel ruins here were part of an
extensive mission cattle ranch from about 1770, but not a true mission.
“Mission Ensenada de las Palmas” located on the shore of Bahía de las Palmas
near Los Barriles, but was never anything more than a Jesuit camp during the
expedition to establish the Santiago mission in 1721. No ruins of any kind have
ever been reported here.
“Mission La Pasión” was indeed a mission, but it was the final location for Mission
Dolores. Dolores was moved from near the gulf coast in 1741 some fifteen miles
southwest to what was a visita station called La Pasión by the Jesuits and called
Chillá or Tañuetía by the Indians. Ruins have vanished into piles of rubble and are
located just over two miles east of Rancho La Presa (now a guest ranch) which is
marketing itself as the Dolores mission site. There are interesting aqueduct ruins
and the grave of one of Baja’s first governors at La Presa, the ranch he founded.
Fernando de la Toba was acting governor of Baja California in 1821 and he declared
Baja California independent of Spain.
Mysterious walls discovered in 1966. Was this the true Magdalena mission?
“Mission La Presentación” located eleven miles south of Mission San Javier, was a
visita chapel attributed to the Franciscan’s brief time on the peninsula, built
probably in 1769. Arthur North in 1906 believed the ruins were the first site for
San Javier (which were actually five miles north of the final San Javier location).
“Mission San Miguel” (de Comondú) was in reality a very important visita of
Mission San Javier until 1737 and after that of Mission San José de Comondú, which
moved that year to just two miles from San Miguel. Several Jesuits trained at San
Miguel and did perform baptisms, but a separate mission it was not.
“Mission San Juan Londó” is shown twenty miles north of Loreto on some maps.
Londó was indeed an important visita of Loreto and even called a mission by
some Jesuits in their reports. A wall still stands of the ruined chapel just a short
distance from Highway One.
“Mission San Juan Bautista” as shown on the 1757 map is west of San Ignacio and
not the Ligüí mission with the same name located south of Loreto. This proposed mission
is the source of one of Baja’s famous lost mission myths, the Lost Santa Clara
Mission. Located just north of Punta Abreojos are the strange-looking Santa Clara
mountains. Thanks to the Jesuit map makers, treasure hunters have searched in
vain to find the hidden gold and pearls the missionaries supposedly hid
when they got advance word of their impending forced removal from California.
La Magdalena ruins near Mulegé in 2009
“Mission Santa María Magdalena” is shown a few miles northwest of Mulegé on
some maps dating back to Arthur North’s expedition of 1905-1906 when he
camped by the ruins (he was told by locals) were called La Magdalena. North read
the Jesuit documents available to him and learned of a proposed mission to be
called Santa María Magdalena in the north. Not thinking there could be more
than one Magdalena, he applied that mission name to the ruins near Mulegé and
many books and maps continued that error.
In 1966, the Erle Stanley Gardner expedition opened a route south from Bahía de
los Angeles and discovered strange walls on a hillside overlooking a bay and a palm
tree indicating fresh water was close to the surface. Historian-author Choral
Pepper believed they had found the true Santa María Magdalena site as the
location was much closer to where the Jesuits showed it on their 1757 map. However, it was a
mission project that was started and never completed.
1757 Jesuit Map with Mission Dolores del Norte and Mission S. M. Magdalena shown as started
“Mission Dolores del Norte” actually did get built but not where any of the
modern maps or books have shown it: northwest of San Ignacio. The Jesuits had
proposed a future mission to be called Dolores del Norte beginning in reports of
the 1740s. San Ignacio’s Padre Fernando Consag was even baptizing natives he
met on expeditions to the north and assigning them to the future mission of
Dolores. However, once the funding was obtained, a location found, and a priest
was available, the mission name was changed to Santa Gertrudis. This was to
honor the benefactor, the Marqués de Villapuente, whose wife was Gertrudis de
Dolores del Norte, as a mission, only existed on paper. The extensive adobe ruins
in San Pablo canyon have been called Dolores del Norte, but this was a visita site.
The inhabitants of San Francisco de la Sierra also believed the walls in their
mountain-top village were part of a Dolores mission, This was told Choral Pepper
in the early 1960s upon her arrival there by helicopter with the Erle Stanley
“Lost Mission of Santa Isabel” is undoubtable the most famous “lost” Baja
mission. Unlike the others, no map shows it (otherwise it would not be lost). The
legend is born from the expulsion of the Jesuits who in California had nearly an
autonomous territory under their control. Their detractors in Spain spread rumors
that angered the king so much that he had them all returned to Spain as
prisoners. The legend says that the Jesuits were alerted to their pending expulsion
and they had time to establish one last mission in a hidden canyon in which to
store their collected treasures until such time as they could return to California.
Most who have searched for this mission have done so between the final Jesuit
mission of Santa María and the lone desert peak of Cerro Matomí (west of
Puertecitos). To read more on one of the recent Santa Isabel search parties, visit the:
Lost Mission of Santa Isabel page.
David Kier is a veteran Baja traveler, author of 'Baja California - Land Of Missions' and co-author of 'The Old Missions of Baja and Alta California 1697-1834'. Visit the Old Missions website.Updated: Oct 26, 2017 02:06 PM