T H E   S T O R Y   OF   C E R R I T O S
Back to Introduction and Table of Contents | To Chapter 3: Ranches Under Spanish, Mexican and American Rule
Spanish Exploration
The era of European exploration began in the late 1400's. Soon Vasco da Gama had sailed east, Columbus west, and Pope Alexander VI had divided the world's newly discovered lands between Spain and Portugal. The French and English led the rest of Europe in grumbling about whether the Pope or anyone had the right to make such a judgement and began looking for ways to contest the decision.

The Spanish lost no time. By 1520, Hernan Cortes had conquered Mexico and Francisco Pizarro controlled Peru. A House of Trade in Seville was founded to take charge of commerce and the Council of the Indies was established to govern the new colonies. Untold wealth was to pour into Spain from across the ocean. It was quickly spent to keep the Spanish court in style, and King Carlos, who was also Holy Roman Emperor, in power.

The concept of Spanish settlement was to establish colonies that would become self-sufficient. They would supply raw materials for Spanish industries and then be a market for finished goods. The natives were to be Christianized and turned into good citizens for the new cities and towns. This job was turned over to missionaries from many parts of Europe who belonged to several Catholic religious orders.

Adventurers from all over Spain hurried to get to America, where they hoped to find excitement and wealth enough to return to Spain as rich gentlemen.

As Mexico was settled, Cortes came eventually to the west coast. In 1535 he tried to establish a colony at La Paz on Baja California that would be the center of a pearl-fishing industry, but soon abandoned the project because the land was so dry and inhospitable. Several expeditions were sent to explore the Gulf of California and the new land which early maps showed as an island off the coast of Mexico. In 1541, Francisco de Bolanos was the first to call it “California,” after a fictitious island home of Amazons ruled by a Queen Califia that he had read about in a popular novel.

Meanwhile, things looked more promising north of Mexico. Friar Marco de Niza, a Frenchman from Nice, and Estebanico, a black, had explored through Arizona and New Mexico. Marco returned with an imaginative report of wealth and treasure, and in 1540, Francisco Coronado wearing gilded armor at the head of an enormous company, marched northward in search of the golden Cities of Cibola. He crossed the plains of Kansas before he ended the expedition and returned to Mexico. The golden cities were only a dream.

In 1542, the year Coronado returned, Joao Rodriguez Cabrillo began a voyage of discovery up the western coast of California. He died of an infection caused by a broken arm and was buried on one of the islands in the Santa Barbara Channel, but his second-in-command, Bartoleme Ferrelo, took charge and sailed north to the Oregon border. His report of the one good bay at San Miguel (we call it San Diego) and hundreds of miles of rocky coasts did not encourage the government to invest in further exploration and settlement.

Back to Top

Manila Trade
Ferdinand Magellan had discovered the Philippine Islands in 1521 and after the route was re-discovered, settlements were established at Cebu and Manila. These became the gathering place for trade goods from many parts of Asia. From 1565 to 1815, the “Manila trade” flourished on the longest and most dangerous commercial route in the world. Ships laden with silver from mines in Peru and Mexico would sail west from the port of Acapulco and land at Manila to exchange the silver for Chinese silk and porcelain, and perfumes, gems, and spices from Indochina and India that would be transported back to Acapulco.

Because Spanish manufacturers complained that the imported goods were harming the sales of their products, the ships were regulated to only one a year. This vessel, stuffed as full as it could be, followed a route south between the islands and then north and east to catch the prevailing westerly winds and the Japanese current. Landfall was usually about Point Mendocino on the northern California coast. The ship would then follow the California current south, eventually round the tip of Baja California and come to port in Acapulco.

Four months to make the eastern crossing was record time. Usually it might take six months or longer - one ship took a year, and all too often the ships were lost at sea.

Investors in Manila depended entirely on the sale of the galleon's cargo. In order to stuff in more chests of silks, supplies of food and fresh water were denied space. After months at sea the entire crew and passengers were perishing with scurvy and other diseases caused by poor, rotten food and the lack of fresh produce. Eventually a hospital was established at the tip of Baja California where the sickest could be turned over to priests and a supply of fresh fruit could be loaded.

The little ship was also in danger of being taken by pirates. Francis Drake hoped to sight and take one of the treasure ships as he explored the coast in 1579. He was searching for the “Straights of Anian” that he hoped would lead to a sea route north of the American continent - another explorer's fable. He landed somewhere on the coast north of San Francisco, repaired and resupplied his ship The Golden Hind and continued across the Pacific and around the world. He made an English claim for the land and called it “New Albion,” but left no settlement. A luckier pirate was Thomas Cavendish, who captured the 700 ton Santa Ana and took a cargo of 122,000 pesos in gold, and silks and other items worth two million pesos.

Obviously, some port of call in northern California was needed. Two galleons landed and their captains did some exploring, but one was attacked by Indians and driven away and the other was wrecked and its valuable cargo lost.

Sebastian Vizcaino was sent north from Mexico in 1602 to find a suitable port. He mapped the coastline as far as Oregon and gave many locations the names by which we know them today. When he found what seemed to be a promising harbor, he named it Monterey, after the viceroy.

The next viceroy was more interested in finding two legendary islands in the Pacific called La Plata and Del Oro (the Islands of Silver and Gold). He hoped to find a port of call for the Manila galleon and to become instantly rich. After years of searching, it was decided that the islands were only legends, but still no plans were made for settling California. The fog shrouded and rocky coasts of California were not enticing.

Back to Top

Spain's Frontier Settlement

In the meantime, interesting things were happening in Mexico. Indians from the north would attack the rich silver mining communities in central Mexico. The economy depended on the silver mines and scattered military garrisons were not effective, so it was decided to build a community that would draw off the Indians and be a buffer. In 1595, the king authorized the settlement of a colony to be known as the Kingdom of New Mexico. Juan de Onate, a rich silver miner, started north with a company of four hundred soldiers and a hundred families and their servants and 7,000 head of livestock. They founded new homes and established a capital at Santa Fe, isolated by hundreds of miles from Mexico and civilization.

This idea of “buffer colonies” seemed successful, and several were established in eastern and southern Texas to remind the French of Louisiana that they should not encroach on Spanish lands.

Communication with these outposts was difficult. Caravans from Zacatecas had to travel a thousand miles to reach Santa Fe. It was so expensive to outfit and provision a caravan for the trip which took a year and a half to make, that one was dispatched only every two years. There was little profit to be made as the New Mexico community produced only a little wool and a few minerals, yet manufactured goods and supplies from Europe and Manila could be resold for prices three and four times their cost in Mexico. The settlers on the frontiers were forced to provide for themselves.

California seemed to be forgotten. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Spain was ruled by a remarkably inept succession of kings. The colonies in the Americas were exploited to support the failing treasury, while the kings waged war against the English, the French, and the Netherlands. Rather than developing industry in Spain, the Spanish imported products from everywhere so that none of their wealth stayed in the country and the economy was a disaster. Industrialists and people in commerce were looked down upon. A “gentleman” traditionally did not work.

Mexico was economically self sufficient. Men were becoming rich from the silver mines and many developed the lands that had been given them by the Crown. They lived in great houses, ruling the area around them and its inhabitants like feudal lords. Slavery had been forbidden by the “New Laws of the Indies” in 1542, but Indians did most of the labor on the great ranches and plantations in exchange for food, clothing, and shelter. Trade with any country but Spain was prohibited, but thousands of cattle hides for leather and products of the plantations were shipped out of Mexico.

The northern deserts were still frontier. Eventually several dedicated Jesuit priests set out to establish missions among the savage northern Indian tribes. The best known was an Italian priest named Eusebio Francisco Kino. In 1697, his associate, Father Salvatierra, finally established a mission at Loreto, in Baja California. This was the first of a string of Jesuit missions up the rugged desert peninsula.

Back to Top

A Russian Threat
Again, far-away events caused California to finally get some attention. Russians had begun to explore the northern Pacific and had found a market for the luxurious furs of the seals and sea otters. Natives from the Aleutian Islands off Alaska did the hunting and sold the pelts they collected to Russian traders who resold them in China for fabulous sums. Fur trapping operations were established at Kodiak by 1745, and the Russians were moving down the coast.

Back to Top

Spain's California Mission
In 1765, King Carlos III sent one of his best advisors, Jose de Galvez, to Mexico with the title of Visitador-General. His jobs were to increase Spain's tax revenues, shake up the government, and to expel the Jesuits.

Although the Jesuit priests had been extremely successful in converting the Indians on the frontiers and many of the upper class Mexicans preferred the Jesuit churches in the cities, the religious order had become unpopular with European rulers for political reasons. The Jesuit priests were arrested, their property confiscated, and they were shipped home to Spain. Priests of other orders, mostly Dominicans and Franciscans, took over the Jesuit missions.

Galvez was enthusiastic about extending settlements in the northern and western frontiers. He got the viceroy's approval for starting new towns with donated funds and volunteer troops, and to people them with criminals and poor people. When he heard about the Russians in the north Pacific, he became excited about starting a settlement at Monterey in Alta or “Upper” California. It was important to keep the Pacific shores under Spanish control.

He decided that the colonies that would be cheapest yet most successful should be established first as missions so that the Indians could be pacified, converted to Christianity, and civilized to become good Spanish citizens. A small military force would be sent along and based at forts called presidios, to offer protection to the missions if the Indians gave problems, and to guard against the encroachment of foreigners.

After some ten years, when the priests had finished their task, the missions would become the centers of pueblos (towns). Galvez envisioned the entire coast as a self-sufficient community. It was hoped that communication would be possible both by sea and by a land route suggested much earlier by Father Kino.

Back to Top

A Sacred Expedition

In 1769, the “Sacred Expedition” set out to found the missions of Alta California. The military leader was Captain Gaspar de Portola; the religious leader was Father Junipero Serra, a Franciscan priest. Two small parties of soldiers and herdsmen accompanied herds of livestock on the rugged desert trail up the Baja peninsula from La Paz. At about the same time, three ships laden with soldiers and personnel and agricultural and church supplies set sail. The San Carlos and San Antonio fought the winds and current all the way north and arrived weeks later at the meeting place at San Diego with most of the men sick with scurvy. The San Jose was lost at sea.

By June, all four parts of the expedition had arrived, but only 126 had survived of the 300 who started out, and many were too sick to do any work. Eventually they recovered, and July 16, 1769, Mission San Diego de Alcala was officially founded, the first of a chain of twenty-one missions to be established along the California coast.

Back to Top

The Portola Adventure
Visitador-General Galvez' instructions required that the major settlement should be on the bay that Vizcaino had discovered and named Monterey, so after a few weeks rest, Captain Portola set out with a small party to blaze a trail north. Father Juan Crespi accompanied them as chaplain and kept a remarkable diary of the trip.

They made friends with the Indians they met and watched for locations for future settlements. On August 2, they came upon what Father Crespi described as “a very spacious valley, well grown with cottonwoods and sycamores, among which ran a beautiful river from the north-northwest...It has good land for planting all kinds of grain and such. It has all the requisites for a large settlement.” He was writing about the Los Angeles Basin.

They named the first river they crossed Rio Jesus de los Temblores, because they experienced some earthquakes there. They named the next river they found the Porciuncula, because the first of August was the feast day of Our Lady of the Angels of Porciuncula who inspired St. Francis of Assisi to found the Franciscan order in 1208. Indians from the nearby village of Yangna were very friendly. The next day's journey led them past pits of bubbling tar that they decided were responsible for the earthquakes they had felt, and eventually they left the basin by way of Sepulveda Pass, where the San Diego freeway passes now.

After many weeks, they reached a large body of water that extended far inland, the San Francisco Bay. This great harbor had remained undiscovered because its entrance is hidden behind rocky islands and is usually shrouded with fog.

Nothing on the way had looked like the sheltered harbor that Vizcaino had visited in 1602. Supplies were running out, and the explorers turned back south. Finally they located Monterey Bay and continued south to join their friends at San Diego.

The supply ship San Antonio had left for San Blas in Mexico at the same time Portola had started north. He returned to San Diego in January of 1770 to find that fifty more of his comrades had died and many were near death because the San Antonio had not returned with food and other necessities. Portola decided that if the ship did not appear soon, everyone would die. He ordered that the expedition would return to La Paz. All agreed except for Fathers Serra and Crespi, who were determined to go ahead with the missions. The day before the retreat to Baja California was to begin, the San Antonio sailed into the harbor. This encouraged Portola to stay in Alta California, and he sent most of the company ahead by sea while he and sixteen soldiers returned to Monterey Bay by land.

On June 3, 1770, Father Serra celebrated Mass and Monterey was formally founded. Mission Carmelo de Monterey was begun, and a presidio of earth and poles was built to house a small cannon and twenty soldiers.

Don Gaspar de Portola's mission was fulfilled. He turned over command to the next governor, Don Pedro Fages, and in July returned to Mexico by sea.

Back to Top

Precarious Years
The next several years were precarious ones. Missions were founded and conversion of the Indians begun, but it was a slow process. There was shelter to be built and years would pass before there would be enough crops grown and cattle to make the settlements self-sufficient.

For the handful of Spanish priests and the sixty soldiers in the new colony it was a lonely and harrowing existence. Supplies came once a year by ship from Mexico, and if the ship was late they practically starved.

In July 1771, Mission San Antonio de Padua was founded in the mountains south of Monterey, and on September 8, 1771, the fourth mission and the one that would most affect the development of the Los Angeles area was founded and named San Gabriel Arcangel.

Originally, the mission was located near the San Gabriel River, which was named for it, but because of the river's tendency to flood, a few years later the mission was relocated to higher ground where it can be seen today.

The Indians were relatively friendly but could see no reason to leave their pleasant lives and convert to a strange and incomprehensible faith. There were a few Indian uprisings, usually brought on by rough treatment by the Spanish soldiers. Father Serra and Governor Fages argued over the soldiers' behavior, and eventually Father Serra returned to Mexico to plead with higher authorities that the soldiers be kept under control.

Because it seemed that the new California settlements were a drain on the Spanish economy and too fragile to survive there was some thought of abandoning the whole project. Fortunately, the new Viceroy, Antonio Maria de Bucareli, was sympathetic, as he realized that other European countries, especially Britain, were interested in getting a foothold on the western coast. He replaced Governor Fages with Fernando de Rivera y Moncado and issued a plan of government called the Reglamento that continued to be followed as long as the Spanish were in California.

New settlers were recruited and new personnel found to help the missionaries. Fathers Lasuen and Palau joined Father Serra.

Back to Top

A Route Across the Desert
It was important that a land route be found to California. In 1771, Father Francisco Garces located a route from Yuma, on the Colorado River, across the desert to the San Jacinto mountains. He called it El Camino del Diablo (the Devil's Road) because there was so little water to be found on the way.

In 1774, Father Garces accompanied Captain Juan Bautista de Anza and a party of thirty-two across the route he had discovered earlier. They reached Mission San Gabriel in March, after wandering for two months. At last a land route was feasible.

Captain de Anza organized an exhibition of 240 colonists and set out from Tubac, Mexico in October 1775. They reached Monterey March 10, 1776. One person died, but two babies were born, so Anza arrived with more colonists than he started out with. Eventually they were settled near San Francisco Bay where a small presidio and a mission were built.

Unfortunately, the overland route was not to remain open long. Two missions were established among the Yuma Indians on the Colorado River that were supposed to insure the safety of the crossing, but a new administrator in Mexico failed to support the missions and when the new governor Rivera attempted to cross the Colorado with Father Garces and an emigrant party in 1781, the Yumas attacked. All the men were killed, the women and children carried off as slaves, and the missions were burned. The overland route remained closed for years, slowing the settlement and development of the colony.

Back to Top

Pueblos
Because the missions were developing so slowly, it became obvious that the time was ripe to bring craftsmen from Mexico to train the Indians to build the necessary church buildings, and experienced farmers to supply the food that was needed so desperately. Three pueblos (towns) were founded; San Jose, in 1777; El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora de los Angeles de Porciuncula, soon shortened to Los Angeles, near San Gabriel Mission in 1781; and Villa de Branciforte, near Santa Cruz, in 1797. Branciforte was eventually abandoned, but the other two settlements flourished.

It was hoped that a high caliber of citizenry would come to California and be an example to the Indians, but not enough people cared to risk their lives in the frontier. Impoverished settlers were found who came for the promise of a little land and supplies provided by the government. Eventually, California even became a penal colony, and the people of the pueblos and presidios came to be seen by the Franciscans as the worst sort of influence for the Indians.

Back to Top

Junipero Serra
During the next few years, five more missions were founded by Father Serra. He was physically a tiny man, only five foot two inches tall, and wracked with pain from an unhealing abscess on his leg. He was loved by his Indians and fellow priests and known for his humility, but he was willing to take on governors and higher officials if it was for the good of his missions.

He was born on the island of Mallorca in the Mediterranean in 1713. After a brilliant student career, he entered the Franciscan order at age sixteen. He came to America in 1749 and served for ten years in the mission field in northeastern Mexico. For the next eight years, he taught in the college of San Fernando in Mexico city. When he was called to be the Father-President of the California mission system, he was already fifty-six, in a time when that was considered a ripe old age. He worked with the Indians of California until his death in 1784 at the Mission San Carlos de Borromeo near Monterey.

His successor, Father Fermin Francisco de Lasuen had served in the Baja California missions before coming to Alta California. He served as Father-President from 1785 to 1803, and saw nine more missions added to the chain.

Back to Top

The Missions Prosper
Finally the missions began to prosper. The number of converts grew, herds of cattle and sheep grew to vast numbers, and fields, orchards, and vineyards finally began to flourish.

The land began to show the effect of the European invasion. The missionaries had brought many new varieties of plants with them. Seeds of barley and oats escaped to begin replacing the native grasses that were being browsed by cattle and sheep. These hitch-hikers are responsible for our “golden California.” Mustard was probably introduced as a culinary herb and soon began to self sow and spread across the countryside. There is a sweet story that the padres scattered the mustard seed along the trails between the missions, remembering the parable that associates it with faith, and soon the rough path known as the Camino de Real or Royal Highway became outlined with yellow mustard flowers. Later settlers found the Los Angeles Basin filled with forests of mustard several feet tall.

Back to Top

Cerritos Library Home Page