By David Kier
Like so many of the twenty-seven missions of Baja California, the history is not as simple as one may think. Santa Gertrudis was the fifteenth mission founded on the peninsula, but that was not the original name, and the Jesuit who did so much to make it a reality was not the one who founded it.
Padre Fernando Consag was stationed at Mission San Ignacio from 1733 to 1759. In addition to the typical mission activities, Padre Consag was an explorer seeking future mission sites. The Jesuits were enthusiastically promoting their California activities and named three new missions in their 1745 documents. Baptized Indigenous people were assigned to these missions, missions that only existed on paper. San Juan Bautista, Santa María Magdalena, and Dolores del Norte were the three missions. All three were planned to be out from San Ignacio to the west and to the north.
In June of 1746, Consag used four small boats to explore the coast north to the Colorado River. Besides meeting the Native tribes along the way and documenting water sources, this voyage again proved that California was not an island and opened the idea to connect the thirteen California missions of 1746 with the mainland missions. The second expedition by Padre Consag was by land, in May of 1751. Consag began at a place with a small stream north of San Ignacio that he named ‘La Piedad.’ From there, Consag traveled north and west going two hundred miles before heading back. He had found no better place to establish the next mission than at La Piedad. On the Jesuit’s map, La Piedad was the location of their proposed mission of Dolores del Norte.
In 1751, Consag began preparing La Piedad (or Dolores del Norte) using the highly skilled but blind Cochimí Indian named Andrés Comanají-Sistiaga. Comanají was from Mulegé, and out of affection he adopted the name of the padre there, Sebastián de Sistiaga. Some modern writers assumed Padre Sistiaga was the one who was building at La Piedad. A little digging in the old archives is quite revealing with the facts of the past!
The Jesuits were constantly seeking funding for their missions and needing new missionaries to operate them. Their exclusivity of California’s conversion came from a deal made with the King of Spain over fifty years earlier. In order to protect the Native Californians from brutality by soldiers, the Jesuits needed to be in control of the soldiers. The King granted them that power but only if they financed the California mission program without using Royal funds. Often, several years would pass before there was financing, or available priests to open a new mission. The most recent mission opened in California was San Luis Gonzaga, back in 1737.
In 1748, the Jesuits closed Mission San José del Cabo and by doing so, freed-up its funding to use elsewhere. The benefactor, Don José de la Puente (also known as the Marqués de Villapuente), had left instructions that if this mission was to be abandoned its funds were to be applied in the lands of the Cochimí. To honor this request, the new mission would take the name of Don José’s wife, Gertrudis de la Peña.
On July 15, 1752, after training at San Ignacio and learning the Cochimí language, Padre Georg Retz officially founded Mission Santa Gertrudis. Now, you have the rest of the story!
Visit the missions, learn their stories, and take photos to preserve them. Many mission buildings made from adobe are vanishing in our lifetimes. Others have been washed away by flash floods or covered with modern construction.
To reach Mission Santa Gertrudis from Highway One, use the graded dirt road to El Arco at Km. 189, south of Guerrero Negro. Go twenty-five miles, and in El Arco take the signed right fork, passing the small church there. Go twenty-two more miles to the tiny oasis village of Santa Gertrudis. The road is best driven with a pickup, van, or SUV. Four wheel drive is not necessary in dry weather.
David Kier is a veteran Baja traveler, author of 'Baja California - Land Of Missions' and co-author of 'Old Missions of the Californias'. Visit the Old Missions website.
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