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California's Padre President

San Diego, the first European settlement in Southern California, was founded by Father Junípero Serra in July 1769. A member of the Franciscan order, Father Serra was part of a larger expedition chartered by King Charles III of Spain to travel north from Baja California and occupy the territory known as Alta California.

When they arrived in San Diego, the Spaniards found about 20,000 Kumeyaay Indians living in a hundred or so villages. The missionaries attempted to convert them to Christianity, and taught them agricultural and other skills so they could work what would become the missions' vast holdings.

Mission San Diego de Alcalá, established on a hillside above what is now Mission Valley, was the first of the 21 missions that the Franciscans built along the coast of California. After establishing the mission and presidio in San Diego, Serra and Portola moved on, founding the Mission San Carlos Borromeo and presidio at Monterey.

Father Serra, the padre president of California, established nine missions. Besides those at San Diego and Monterey, there were: San Antonio de Padua, 1771; San Gabriel, 1771; San Luis Obispo, 1772; Dolores, 1776; San Juan Capistrano, 1776; Santa Clara, 1777; and San Buenaventura, 1782. He personally oversaw the planning, construction, and staffing of each of these, and conferred the sacraments. His work took him from Carmel to locations up and down the length of California. It's estimated that during this period he walked more than 24,000 miles in visiting missions.

The missions comprised millions of acres and were in fact small self-sufficient cities with the church as the centerpiece. In addition to converting the Indians to Christianity and teaching them European ways, the padres managed farming, education, and industries such as candle making and tanning. San Diego is the southernmost mission, while the mission at Sonoma, San Francisco Solano, the last to be founded, in 1823, is the northernmost; each was established a day's walk—about 30 miles—from the previous one and was linked to El Camino Highway. The missions were the earliest form of lodging in the Golden State, known far and wide for their hospitality. You can trace the steps of Father Serra along El Camino Real by driving U.S. 101, the historic route that traverses coastal California.

Father Serra spent barely a year in San Diego before embarking on his journey to establish missions across California, but his presence left a lasting imprint. You can see some of the history at the Junípero Serra Museum and at Mission San Diego Alcalá.

Updated: 03-2013

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