The Disappearing Missions at Santo Tomás

By David Kier

Santo Tomás Mission Baja
The 1791 (first) mission site as seen in a 1967 photo by Dr. Michael Mathes.
Santo Tomás Mission Baja

Mission Santo Tomás was established to reduce the large gap along El Camino Real between the missions San Vicente and San Miguel. This was the twenty-third Baja California mission, founded on April 24, 1791, and named Santo Tomás de Aquino. The Dominican missionary in charge was Padre José Loriente. This was the final Spanish mission built along El Camino Real to provide for the safe passage of travelers between Loreto and San Diego.

The location chosen was in a field next to a running stream lined with oak and sycamore trees. Governor Pedro Fages had questioned the wisdom of this location for fear of flash floods and the high ridge that blocked sunlight for much of the day. None of the local Indians lived at that spot and that should have been an indicator this was a poor choice to locate at. The first adobe church constructed was small at 14 feet by 34 feet. Mosquitos eventually drove the missionaries to move the mission a mile east and higher up from the creek.

Santo Tomás Mission Baja
The first mission site in 2005. Notice the same sycamore tree as in the 1967 photo.
Santo Tomás Mission Baja

On May 31, 1794, the mission was relocated. The mosquitos were no longer an issue but in 1798, Padre Miguel López wrote to the governor asking that the mission be moved one more time where there was more land to put under cultivation and several springs provided fresh water.

In 1799, Mission Santo Tomás moved a final time, about three miles more to the east. There, several buildings were erected in the first two years. Included in the construction was a church measuring 18 feet by 85 feet. The mission would remain at this location for fifty years and was the last California mission to remain in service to the Indians.

Two priests were murdered at Santo Tomás in 1803. Padre Miguel López was killed on January 13th and Padre Eduardo Surroca on May 17th. Both murders were instigated by a woman named Barbara Gandiaga, an Indian domestic at Santo Tomás.

Not one of the three mission sites have received any type of preservation from either INAH (Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History) or local citizens. The first site was in a camping and picnic area 3.9 miles west of Highway 1. In 2011, just a few feet of adobe wall base remained. In 2017, the area was fenced off and closed to any visitors. The second site was in a pepper field 2.8 mile west from Highway 1. In 2009, some adobe mounds and rocks marked the location. Within a few years, it was completely plowed over and is now gone. The third site is just north of the El Palomar Campground, to the east of Highway 1, in Santo Tomás. In 2017, just a small portion of adobe wall remained. Drive to the center of the campground and exit using the side road going north. The ruins are 150 feet from the campground.

GPS Data:

  • 1791 site: N31° 34.18’, W116° 28.83’
  • 1794 site: N31° 34.40’, W116° 27.98’ (see on satellite photos taken before 2012)
  • 1799 site: N31° 33.49’, W116° 24.82’
The 2016 book Baja California Land of Missions provides even more details on this and the other twenty-seven missions in Baja California.

Santo Tomás Mission Baja
The 1799 (third) mission site in a 1926 photo by George Hendry.
Santo Tomás Mission Baja
Santo Tomás Mission Baja
The third mission site in 2017.
Santo Tomás Mission Baja Santo Tomás Mission Baja Santo Tomás Mission Baja
Map showing the three mission sites. Click to enlarge.

About David

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: Aug 15, 2018 11:46 AM

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