History Pages: 3 - The Missionaries

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One of the marvels of traveling to Europe and the Mediterranean is the extreme antiquity of some of the man-made places you can visit. From 1000-year old castles in England to 2000-year old ruins in Rome to 3000-year-old pyramids in Egypt, then back to England for 5000-year-old Stonehenge. I get feelings of historical inferiority when I compare those to the oldest structures in California – the adobe buildings of the Spanish missions, which were built between 1769 and 1823. Even so, missions in other California towns are a big deal. Mission Santa Barbara gets busload after busload of tourists, who disembark and start taking photos of each other. Not so at Mission Santa Cruz. Why? Well, mostly because there’s not much left to see, but there once was a lot more.

Mission SC painting.jpeg

Mission Santa Cruz (1791) was not the first or the last of the California missions – it was number 12 of 21. The fact that it was established so long after the mission at Monterey reflects a reality of geography all Hwy 17 commuters understand: it’s not easy to get here and, once you are here, to continue to anywhere else. Even our founding explorer Portolà only ended up here because he got lost in the fog (turning north instead of south near today's Fort Ord) while looking for Monterey. Once you finally do get here, of course, you don’t want to go anywhere else.

The Spanish Franciscan missionaries who came north from Carmel were led by Fermín Lasuén, successor to Junípero Serra. They followed in the footsteps of the Portolà expedition more than 20 years after Serra established the third California mission in Monterey (which a year later was moved to Carmel to escape the corrupting influence of the nearby Presidio). Lasuén was encouraged by the writing of Portolà’s chaplain, Juan Crespi, who had reported that our end of Vizcaíno’s Bahia de Monterrey had plenty of fresh water in the Rio de San Lorenzo and Arroyo de Santissima Cruz. He had also found fertile, open land for farming and pasturage, a mild climate, friendly natives and all the seafood you could eat. Lasuén transferred the creek name to the mission (shortened to Santa Cruz), conducted the founding ceremony, and went back to Carmel. The new mission was left in the hands of its pair of missionary priests. At first, the mission was located on flat land near the San Lorenzo River. One rainy winter, however, convinced the friars to move to higher ground, and the mission was rebuilt in its current location up on the bluff. The lowlands became the mission farms and orchards, and a water-powered grist mill was built on the Arroyo.

Mission adobe.jpg

At its peak, the mission complex included some 32 buildings, but only one survives today. For a variety of reasons, Mission Santa Cruz never really prospered. By the time the mission was secularized in 1834, only a few native converts still lived there, and even fewer were local Ohlone. The Mexican government took away most of the mission’s extensive lands, which originally included all of the coastal area from Point Año Nuevo to Aptos, except for that assigned to the Villa de Branciforte, and divided the vast holdings up into large land grants we call ranchos. The former mission was reduced to a parish church. The chapel was apparently not very well constructed and/or maintained, and most of the front and roof of the adobe structure collapsed following a series of earthquakes in 1857. The chapel's bell tower had already collapsed in 1845. The current Holy Cross (English for Santa Cruz) church was constructed in 1889 on the original chapel site. Today’s half-size replica of the original chapel, based entirely on a painting created from oral descriptions, was built in 1931. The only surviving adobe building, originally a residential dormitory for neophytes (native converts), is now part of the Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park on School Street.

Did the missionaries give us any names for our signs? There’s Mission Street, of course, and many other uses of the name Mission. The names of the missionaries themselves have been oddly neglected here. When I was a kid, every fourth-grader learned about the saintly Father Serra (his reputation has been tarnished somewhat by later studies). Serra never made it to Santa Cruz, however, so there’s no big statue like the one on Hwy 280. Lasuén, the successor, founded as many missions as Serra, but is not as well known.

Still, other mission towns have streets and schools named for Lasuén, but not Santa Cruz. The Santa Barbara and Carmel missions have prominently-displayed statues of their founder, but when I finally discovered that Santa Cruz also has a statue, it was hidden in the enclosed garden behind the mission museum. As I approached, I could see that it’s the same bronze statue as the one at Santa Barbara. Makes sense, I thought - both missions were founded by Lasuén, so save a little money by using the same casting. But wait – the name plate on our statue says it’s Junípero Serra, “founder of the California missions”!

Lasuén’s successors at Mission Santa Cruz are even more thoroughly forgotten. One of them, Andres Quintana, achieved some notoriety in 1812 by becoming the first California missionary to be murdered by neophytes, and the subject of the first autopsy performed in California. Allegedly, Quintana was killed because he used torture to discipline the native laborers. That’s not a good way to get a statue in the park, but we did once have a two-block-long Quintana Street in the flats below the bluff, in the area of the original mission orchards where he was killed. Quintana Street has now been merged with Amat Street (named for a 19th-century Catholic church prelate.

Following the 1834 secularization of all twenty-one California missions, most of the former Mission Santa Cruz land became private property, placed under the authority of Jose Bolcoff, the first appointed mayor domo (administrator). The secular community that had grown up around the mission became the kernel of the future town of Santa Cruz. Governor Figueroa tried to name the new defacto pueblo after himself, but the mission name has far outlasted the governor's name. Although Monterey, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara have prominent streets named Figueroa, there are none in Santa Cruz County.

Another possible reason for the neglect of the Santa Cruz missionaries was the perceived failure of the mission, relative to others around the state. Some of the missions managed to hold on to quite a bit of their land after secularization, and again when California statehood nullified many of the Mexican land grants after 1850. The Santa Cruz parish only retained a slice of hill north of High Street, the bluff and the flats below. Another contributing factor to the mission’s failure may have been the arrival of a new and different group of colonists in Santa Cruz. They formed another unique part of our history - the pueblo named Villa de Branciforte.


San Francisco, Calif: P. Elder and Co.

Next: History Pages: 4 - Branciforte