Thousands of miles and two oceans away from Rome, Baja California in the 1700s seemed an uncharted new world brimming with possibility for the Jesuit missionaries and settlers who chose to live in its rugged deserts and baking hot summer climate. They arrived to claim this territory for New Spain with many things: dreams, religious fervor, desire for wealth and power, the desire to bring “civilization” to the local population, and European diseases. Once settled they worked side by side with a vast (though quickly dwindling) population of natives to build their system of 23 Misións featuring complex irrigation systems, agriculture, and adobe buildings.
Within the span of seventy years, the Jesuits had made a staggering and permanent impact upon Baja California. Not only had Roman Catholicism become a fixture in tribal society, but they also introduced livestock and various forms of produce into the ecology of the territory, created an elaborate network of Misións throughout the region – and inadvertently extinguished the once thriving native human population of Baja.
Without their knowledge, however, the Jesuits themselves were about to face their own extinction… or rather, a lasting suppression. In Europe, the force of popular sentiment encouraged expulsion of all members of the Society of Jesus from Roman Catholic nations (such as Portugal, France, the two Sicilies and Parma) and from all of their colonial territories. Pope Clement XIV signed official documents sealing their fate in the early 1770s. This would become known as the first victory of the secular Enlightenment movement which led toward the French Revolution.
In 1768 on orders of the Spanish crown, all Jesuit missionaries were forced at gunpoint to leave New Spain, including Baja California. They were returned to Europe and swiftly replaced in the colonies by Franciscan missionaries, led by Padre Junípero Serra.
Only two years prior, a site had been selected by Jesuit missionary Wenceslaus Linck for a new Jesuit Misión in Baja. Building had not yet started, and the spot was still inhabited by natives. When the Franciscans arrived in Baja, their first act was to complete the Misión planned for this site. They called it Misión San Fernando Rey de España de Velícata, in honor of the King of Spain who had just cast out their Jesuit counterparts.
Just a few hundred yards away from their Misión site, the Franciscans discovered two large granite outcrops framing a narrow arroyo. Amazingly, these outcrops were covered with ancient petroglyphs created by the local tribe sometime between 1000 and 1500AD. The images, scratched just deeply enough beneath the surface of the granite rock to contrast with its natural color, were mostly geometric designs – although some represented humans or animals. (Four red colored pictographs have also been discovered.)
Tragically, the Franciscan missionaries failed to recognize the priceless nature of these images and destroyed many of the petroglyphs when they quarried stone from the site in the 1770s to build an irrigation viaduct for their fields.
Shortly after completion of Misión San Fernando Rey de España de Velícata, the Franciscan monks were charged with expanding the reach of Catholicism into Alta California (from the locations of modern San Diego to modern San Francisco). Junípero Serra and his followers departed from Baja, leaving Misión San Fernando Rey de España de Velícata to their Dominican successors. The Misión soon feel into decline, disrepair, and disuse following the death from disease of nearly all of the local population. It was permanently abandoned in 1818.
The ruins of Misión San Fernando Rey de España de Velícata make a worthy visit today, thanks in large part to the gorgeous petroglyphs and pictographs that remain intact on the granite outcops near the ruins of the old Misión’s adobe walls and stone foundation. Visitors who travel the 35 miles from El Rosario to share in the history of this sacred site will appreciate refreshment in the form of food and drinks sold at nearby roadstop Rancho El Progreso.
Wikipedia.Org, Misión San Fernando Rey de Espaúa de Velicatá, Author Unknown, Cited on March 20, 2007.