The California Missions were the result of a collaboration between the King of Spain and the Catholic Church. Spain wanted to secure its grasp on Alta California as they suspected that Russia was interested in the region as well. Along with the Franciscan Friars, King Charles III sent soldiers to protect and help the priests. Presidios and townships were constructed and the major coastal cities of San Diego, Los Angeles, Monterey and San Francisco are the result of this collaborative effort.
There are 21 missions in upper California, and I have visited two of the first three already. The first mission was Misión San Diego de Alcalá, founded in 1769 (this will be the last one I see on this part of my pilgrimage.) The second to be founded was San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo (the Carmel Mission), founded on June 3, 1770, and the third was Misión San Antonio de Padua on July 14, 1771. All three were founded by Junipero Serra who would become the President of all the missions.
Mission San Miguel was the sixteenth mission constructed, and was founded by Fr. Fermín Francisco de Lasuén on July 25, 1797. The site was recommended by the Friar in charge of Mission San Antonio, Fr. Buenaventura Sitjar. A reliable source of water was always a first requirement for any mission, as water is essential to the growing of crops and maintaining livestock, and people. The Salinas River flows just in front of Mission San Miguel which must have flowed above ground year round at that time. (It’s now known as the “Upside Down River” because it flows from south to north and because it flows mainly underground.)
At it’s peak, Mission San Miguel’s population was 1,076 in 1814. By 1832 that number was down to 658, the last year records were kept. In 1834 the missions were “secularized,” meaning that they were taken over by the (then) Mexican government.
The majority of the native people that lived here are known as the Salinan Tribe. Large numbers of them died during the Mission period from disease and other causes and subsequent periods were equally if not more challenging to their survival. However, they have persevered and are becoming more and more active as a community. There is an excellent museum at Mission San Miguel that gives a good history of the mission and its people, showing many relics and giving specific information about the mission period.
The church at San Miguel is unique in that it still has the original decorations on the interior walls that it had when constructed between 1816 and 1818. (A prior church was destroyed by a fire.) These paintings were done by the native people under the guidance of a Spanish artist and include depictions of shells, a sacred object for the local people. They made paint from pigment made from parts of plants and other natural sources and the colors remain intact today. (Unfortunately I did not get a photo of the interior of the church.)
I was greeted at Mission San Miguel by a very nice lady named Teresa. She was expecting me, as I had called ahead to get permission to stay here. She very kindly showed me my room and had me bring my bicycle through the gift shop, into the courtyard, through a bathroom and into the hall by my room. It was so nice and cool inside those thick, adobe walls! She told me about other walking pilgrims she has met and with whom she has been so impressed, including Butch Briery (who has been instrumental in the popularization of walking the Camino Real) and Edie Littlefield Sundby, who began her 800 mile walk after being declared free from cancer after a six year challenge with the disease. I am grateful to Teresa for her warm welcome and her obvious recognition and support for pilgrims. That feels good after two days journey alone.
Lynn, who is a singer at the church, told me a lot about the history of the site and about her family’s involvement in the restoration of the mission. I was grateful for her knowledge and impressed by her life-long love and commitment to this place. It is a very beautiful mission, with a large courtyard (as is typical) that has tall trees, green lawns, flowers and a fountain. It is a haven for many birds and weary, hot pilgrims like me.