Junipero Serra’s Role in the Founding of San Fransisco and Los Angeles

What do you see when you think about Los Angeles or San Fransisco? The Golden Gate bridge standing guard over the Bay? Lush orange groves stretching to the distant hills? Perhaps a Harley Davidson parked in chocks?

All of these are certainly modern symbols of the region, but few people realize that things might have been very different – no Mexican-American war, no gold rush, no Hollywood, no Silicon Valley – if it weren’t for the actions of one man who pushed north from Mexico for the glory of God and the power of the Spanish crown. His name was Junipero Serra, and his statue can be seen today in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

The Priest and the Politician

Junipero Serra Golden Gate Park

The missions founded by Serra served political and military as well as religious purposes, specifically in terms of expanding the borders of the Spanish colonies northwards by what amounted to conquest, and by serving as a deterrent to any possible moves towards trans-Pacific colonization by Russia. By the time the Alta California colony was established, these missions produced nearly all the food the colony required, while the converted Native Americans living in the missions continued to outnumber the Spanish colonists.

For all of these reasons, and his enormous personal stature in the North American colonies owned by Spain, Serra wielded a huge amount of influence. In particular, he frequently clashed with the Spanish army in the region, who he argued should be under the authority of the Franciscan order (meaning himself). In particular, he disliked their practice of sending out “punitive” military expeditions against the Native American tribes, which he saw as immoral and also as hampering his own conversion efforts.

By lobbying the government in Mexico City, he managed to achieve this in 1773, as well as convincing them about the necessity of a secure overland route to his missions. This is the proximate cause for the founding of San Fransisco and Los Angeles, with the religious aspect of the motive reflected in the names they carry to this day. Yes, the Los Angeles Angels literally means “the the angels angels”.

The Decimation of Native American Culture

When thinking of Serra’s morality and treatment of the indigenous population, we have to remember that he was a man of his time, not ours. During the middle and late 18th century, the Inquisition was still going strong, the United States was only just coming into being and violent colonialism was the norm all over the world. It should be remembered that Serra’s own life was, by choice, no picnic: he regularly exposed himself to danger and starvation on long journeys and mortified his flesh by whipping and burning himself with a candle.

Even so, his treatment of Native Americans remains controversial. “Converts” were recruited by force as often as faith, and after this were effectively given the status of slaves. They were subject to hard forced labor, corporal punishment and imprisonment. Their average lifespan after joining the mission was only 10 years, and any who attempted to leave would be chased down and punished.

The Effect on Modern California

It can’t be denied that the nine missions founded by St. Juniper Serra, whatever his personal motivation, were seen in strategic as much as religious terms by his political superiors. In their eyes, the only acceptable course of action for the existing inhabitants was total submission and any means could be used to achieve this. As a result, the Native American population in the region was slashed by an estimated third in the time between Serra founding his first mission in 1769 and Mexican independence in 1821. As elsewhere in the Americas, a major contributory factor was diseases that arrived with the colonists.