Adventurers today discover a Baja California that is in many ways the same jewel that it was nearly five hundred years ago when first sighted by Fortún Jiménez de Bertadoña (1534) and then officially claimed for Spain by Hernán Cortés (1535). Travelers still enjoy pristine beaches, endless stretches of rugged desert, wonderful fishing and incredible sunsets.
However, it is now infinitely easier for travelers to access and appreciate these treasures thanks to advancements in technology and transportation ~ many of which were first introduced to the territory under Spanish rule. The settlement and development of Baja California by Spanish missionaries and soldiers remind us today of both the glory and shame of Spanish conquest.
Three main groups of Spanish Catholics made a lasting impact upon Baja California. The Jesuits, Franciscans and Dominicans each took their turn establishing regional outposts in Baja California over the course of 200 years. They came to extend the borders of New Spain and spread the doctrine of Christianity among Baja natives such as the Kumeyaay, Cochimí, Guaycura and Pericú. In addition, their presence gave Spain an important position in the territory and introduced the benefits of European livestock, fruits, vegetables and industry into the region.
Settlement began in 1683, when Governor of Sinaloa - Isidoro de Atondo y Antillón - joined Jesuit priest Eusebio Francisco Kino on a journey to the southern tip of Baja. Three ships filled with 200 men landed at La Paz. Thanks to a very unfriendly reception by the locals, however, their efforts to colonize were initially unsuccessful. It was not until 1695 that the first permanent settlement was established, this time by Jesuit priest Juan María Salvatierra. Its site would be modern-day Loreto, and Misión Nuestra Señora de Loreto would remain the region’s religious and administrative capital until the fall of the Misión system in the mid-1800s.
In order to sustain their regional outposts, called Misións, the Jesuit padres needed a great deal of help from both colonists and converted Baja natives (called neophytes). There were many difficult jobs to be done, including the cultivation of crops in an arid climate, tending livestock, building, cooking and cleaning. Unfortunately, materials were scarce and skilled labor was nearly impossible to find. This meant that the Misións themselves were constructed out of simple materials, using simple designs. Very few original Misións survive intact today.
Disease posed another major problem. The Jesuit missionaries unknowingly brought European diseases including smallpox, typhus, measles, plague and venereal disease with them to the Baja peninsula. Within 70 years of Jesuit arrival, the native population of Baja California had been decimated by 90%. This made it very difficult for the Jesuits to find enough neophytes necessary to help them create and run the Misións.
Establishing a Misión was a ritualized process that followed complex rules of procedure. The required paperwork alone required months or years of intensive correspondence between all levels of Spanish bureaucracy. Once approved, it was necessary for the padres to locate a site with an excellent water supply, plenty of wood for fires, building materials and fields where they could grow crops and graze their animals.
When a site was selected, it was blessed by the padres who then threw together temporary residences. The most important structure in the Misión was its iglesia (church), which had to be located and constructed in a very specific way. Most sanctuaries were oriented on an East-West axis to take advantage of the best sunlight for interior illumination. Misións also required the construction of living quarters, storerooms, kitchens, workshops, ancillary chambers and a cuadrángulo where most religious celebrations and festivities took place.
Over 70 years, the Jesuits established 23 Misións. However, it was widely whispered that the Jesuit priests had accumulated enormous wealth and excessive power on the peninsula. The Spanish crown caught wind of these rumors and acted quickly, expelling the Jesuits from New Spain at gunpoint.
The Franciscans were sent to fill their place, led by Fray Junípero Serra. The Franciscans immediately took charge of existing Misións and closed or merged a few. Their own stay in Baja California was short-lived, however, producing only one new Misión (Misión San Fernando Rey de España de Velicatá). Five years after arrival, they received orders to head north and lead the conversion of natives in Alta California (modern day California).
Baja California remained a priority for Spain. In 1772, the Dominicans arrived on site and by 1800 they had established nine additional Misións in northern Baja, while continuing to run the former Jesuit Misións and Visitas. The Dominican Misións were well constructed and many of them survive today.
Modernization and permanent change were inevitable, however. In 1804, the Baja peninsula was divided into two different entities, with the southern government based out of the Port of Loreto. Just six years later in 1810, residents of New Spain began to rise up against colonial Spanish rule and by 1821, they had won permanent independence from Spain. They called their new country Mexico. Newly elected Mexican President Guadalupe Victoria named Lieutenant Colonel José María Echeandía as the governor of Baja Califoria, and he promptly divided it into four separate municipalities. The Misión system languished under these new policies and formally ended in 1832 when the governor converted all Misións into parish churches.
Although some of the original Misións have since fallen into disrepair or disappeared altogether, many have been carefully preserved by the members of their communities and remain active as sites for worship, historical landmarks, or tourist destinations beloved by their visitors. For more detailed information about several of the best preserved Misións, please click on the following links: