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The Spanish

In 1542 Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo left Navidad on the western coast of Mexico (New Spain) with a fleet of thirteen ships on the voyage that would claim the ports of San Diego, Los Angeles and Monterey, among others. Although Cabrillo himself died of gangrene on San Miguel Island off Point Conception, his crew pushed northward all the way to Oregon.

For fifty years his accomplishments were ignored. Then, in 1566 the first successful trading expedition was accomplished between Acapulco and the Philippines, thus necessitating a California re-supply port along the seven-month route.

The Spanish ships, laden with silver and gold, attracted the attention of pirates off the California coast, including Sir Francis Drake, who made tremendous hauls hijacking the rich Spanish ships.

Furthermore, Drake had landed and claimed all of the Pacific Coast in the name of Queen Elizabeth. If Spain hoped to extend her territory north of Mexico, she had to act quickly.

In 1602, Sebastian Vizcaino was sent on a surveying expedition. He eventually reached San Diego, Los Angeles and Monterey--which he named for the Viceroy of Mexico, the Conde of Monte Rey.

At this time Spain was engaged in several long and costly wars that diminished her dreams of world empire, so for 150 years, nothing more was attempted.

But in 1767, alarmed by rumors that the Russians, English and Dutch all had designs on Alta California, Spain finally launched a serious effort to colonize the territory. Gaspar de Portola and Father Junipero Serra set off in 1768 with a combined sea and land expedition.

Father Junipero Serra was the father-president of the fourteen missions already established by the Jesuits in Baja California. The Jesuits, always under suspicion, were replaced by the Franciscans, headed by Serra.

The voyage along the coast was an incredibly grueling one through difficult terrain, with many lives lost due to failed plans and missed rendezvous. Only later did they discover that an inland route along the Salinas Valley would have saved months of travail.

The coastal Indians the Portola expedition encountered were welcoming and generous, greeting the exhausted men with gifts of food.

In 1770, Serra and Portola founded the first Spanish outposts in Alta California--the missions at Carmel and Jolon.

Father Serra demanded complete conversion from the Indians he encountered, but his own example of hard work and stoicism, combined with his theatrical reenactments of Biblical stories, resulted in a large number of Indians around the missions being absorbed into Spanish control.

More intimate interactions between soldiers and natives had the tragic effect of spreading diseases for which the Indians had no resistance. After a very short number of years, most of the original Big Sur inhabitants had either disappeared or lay in the mission graveyards.

Many of the surviving converts, called neophytes, eventually escaped to the inland valleys, mingling with native groups there. The Spanish culture influenced their music, agriculture and language. Later, after the secularization of the missions, the huge ranchos were plagued by horse raiders from these inland areas, causing significant depredations that took a serious economic toll. Horses were essential for working the cattle that fueled the hide and tallow industry. The prized Spanish horses stolen by displaced Indians were either eaten or bartered to horse traders from Arizona and New Mexico.

The Spanish occupation of California closed in 1822 with Mexico's declaration of independence from Spain.

The twenty-one missions eventually established by the Spanish in California, from San Diego in the south to Mission Solano at Sonoma in the north, were active for a brief sixty-five years.

The promised secularization of the missions and their holdings of livestock and land, wherein the Indians were to receive half of all properties, never materialized.


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