Spanish Indian Missions of California

Contributor: Suzanne Riordan. Lesson ID: 13156

The Spanish missions of California form a historic trail along the coast from San Diego to Sonoma. Let's take a trip along the mission trail! There are many beautiful sights to see, and much to learn.


United States, United States

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Lion, Otter
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

Audio: Image - Button Play
Image - Lession Started Image - Button Start

Something special happens every year on March 19th at Mission San Juan Capistrano in California.

  • Do you know what it is?

Here's a hint:

American Cliff Swallow

The Spanish built a total of 21 missions in California, with the goal of claiming this territory and its trade routes across the Pacific for Spain, and with the intention of converting and making Europeans out of the natives while teaching them farming and other skills.

The mission system had some notable successes and some disastrous failures in Florida and Georgia. California proved to be the same.


California's mission era lasted from 1769 to 1833. The missionaries counted the baptisms of 80,000 Indians in those years as a success. These natives were also taught useful skills and learned to speak Spanish.

Yet, they also recorded 60,000 native deaths, mainly due to diseases brought by the Europeans. There were also native uprisings, where the Indians tried to destroy the missions and throw the Spanish out of their territories.

Watch a video clip (below) to learn how the missions started. As you watch, write down your answers to the following questions:

  • Who ordered the founding of the missions?
  • Who was Captain Gaspar de Portola? What were his qualifications for his job?
  • Who was Fr. Junipero Serra? What was his goal?
  • What is El Camino Real?
  • How far were the missions to be located from each other?
  • What did Fr. Serra tell future missionaries?
  • How did the Native Americans feel about Fr. Serra and his mission?

Junipero Serra and the California Missions edited from A&E's 1998 Saints and Sinners of California's Missions by lawtonroom132:

Image - Video

As you saw in the video, many natives were not happy at first with Fr. Serra's first mission.

But, in time, many came to appreciate the new opportunities the missions gave them.

  • What could they do and learn in the missions?

Life in the Missions

Indians who agreed to live in the mission were taught the basics of Christianity, farming, and other skills. Once they were baptized, the men were expected to work in the fields of the mission growing corn, barley, and wheat. Some missions had vineyards and made wine; others raised cattle and sheep.

Native women did the cooking, sewing, weaving, and other chores inside the mission building. They may have also learned to make soap or candles and other products to sell.

Some historians call this forced labor or slavery, but the Spanish thought of it as repayment for the cost of building the mission and feeding, clothing, and teaching the Indians.

  • What do you think?

Fr. Serra tried to promote good relations with the Indians and protect them from harm. Unfortunately, when Gaspar de Portola left California to return to life in Mexico, his replacement was not kind or merciful to the Native Americans.

Watch this next video segment to see what happened.

Junipero Serra and the California Missions edited from A&E's 1998 Saints and Sinners of California's Missions by lawtonroom132:

Image - Video

End of the Mission Period

In 1821, Mexico won its independence from Spain. Without Spanish support, Mexico was not able to keep funding the missions. The Mexican government decided to sell off the missions. Some were bought and maintained, while others sat neglected for many years until people began to realize their historic importance!

The Missions Today

Unlike the missions in other states, all of the California mission sites are still preserved and can be visited and explored! They form a 600-mile trail, from San Diego in the south to Sonoma in the north.

map of Spanish missions in California

Image by Shruti Mukhtyar, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

Let's take a look at a few of the missions.

#2: Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Carmelo

Mission Carmel

San Carlos (also called Mission Carmel) was Fr. Serra's favorite of the nine missions he founded. He made this his center of operations, and he died and was buried here.

The mission fell into disrepair and was abandoned for 30 years. It has now been rebuilt, and it serves as a church and a place where people can visit to learn about the missions and the life of Fr. Serra.

#7: Mission San Juan Capistrano

San Juan Capistrano

  • Did you guess what happens at Mission San Juan Capistrano every year on March 19th?

It's a celebration of the return of some little birds whom the priests welcomed to the mission.

Watch the following video to find out about the tradition and how it's celebrated!

Sentimental Reflections Swallows Day at Mission San Juan Capistrano from Sentimental Productions:

Image - Video

#18: San Luis Rey de Francia

San Luis Rey de Francia

Mission San Luis is known as the King of the Missions. It was the biggest and most prosperous mission, having over 900,000 acres of land and a herd of about 26,000 cattle. It has been restored as it was originally planned and is used as a church.

Here's a fun fact: its garden contains the first pepper tree ever planted in America. Look through the arch to see it in the back of the garden:

San Louis pepper tree

  • Did you enjoy our quick trip through the Spanish missions?


Now move on to the Got It? section, where you'll create a map of the mission trail and plan a real-life trip up El Camino Real!

Image - Button Next