In late March 1769, the Franciscan friar Junípero Serra left the Royal Presidio at Loreto, Baja (Lower) California, in what was then Spanish Mexico. At the start of a three-month overland journey to what is now San Diego, Serra felt a sense of excitement as he prepared to heed what he felt was his true calling—to bring the word of God to unbaptized Native Americans.
Serra, a 55-year-old priest from the Spanish island of Majorca, had come to Mexico 20 years earlier. He had directed the Roman Catholic missions in Baja California since 1767. But Serra found his two decades in Mexico to be somewhat of a disappointment. He had hoped to preach among Indian groups with no knowledge of Christianity, but the people he encountered had already received the sacrament of baptism. Serra longed to bring about Christian conversion firsthand to the Indians, whom he sometimes referred to as “infidels” or “gentiles.”
The Spanish had colonized Baja California in the 1530’s. Their explorers first sailed into San Diego Bay in 1602. Now, with the British and Russians increasing their trading activities along the Pacific Coast, Spanish authorities sought to establish settlements in Alta (Upper) California. Their policy toward the region’s Indians was one of “pacification”—that is, to rule by peaceful persuasion rather than outright conquest.
The Spanish explorer and provincial governor Gaspar de Portolá led Serra’s expedition. Two groups, including soldiers, missionaries, mission Indians, and pack animals laden with supplies, set off for San Diego in March. The first party, led by military officer Fernando Rivera y Moncada and missionary Juan Crespí, departed ahead of the group that included Serra and Portolá. Two ships carrying personnel and supplies for the endeavor arrived at San Diego Bay in April.
During the first weeks of the journey, Serra’s group stopped at several established Baja California missions. In May, Serra and his companions crossed into lands where the Indian residents had not been exposed to Christianity. Serra’s journey was hampered by foot and leg inflammation brought on by an infected insect bite. His group encountered Indians who were curious and friendly, and others who were more suspicious. There existed an ever-present potential for miscommunication. On one occasion, soldiers accompanying the expedition fired warning shots to quiet boisterous and friendly Indians who had joined the party on a trek along a precarious mountain pass. “The Indians … became frightened and stopped,” Serra wrote in a diary. “That put an end to the racket. I feared, however, that this radical action would leave the Indians doubting the sincerity of our love for them.”
The first party of Spaniards had experienced considerable hostility from native peoples as it passed through the lands south of San Diego. But Serra’s party was treated with greater kindness—probably for diplomatic reasons, given the Spaniards’ advanced weaponry and the likelihood that more of the interlopers would follow. Serra, for his part, tended to view each kindness from the Indians as evidence of their eagerness for conversion.
The group helmed by Rivera y Moncada reached San Diego in May. Serra arrived on July 1. Spanish soldiers soon completed a presidio (fort) on a hill overlooking San Diego Bay. On July 16, Serra dedicated a mission there, naming it for Saint Didacus of Alcalá, Spain. Serra went on to found 8 more of California’s 21 missions before his death in 1784. Thousands of Indians would make their homes at the missions, some of which became thriving agricultural and manufacturing centers.