Guest Post – Missions in CA


The Educational Tourist welcomes a guest post

Marguerite Flanagan from

MilKid Education  Consulting


Scattered along the California coast, from San Diego to San Francisco, are relics of the Spanish colonial system: Missions. As the British colonies on the East Coast of what would become the United State were contemplating independence, Spanish colonialism was just getting started in California.



Spain already had an established colony in what it today Mexico. It was natural to extend their reach up the California coast. They began exploring the coast in the late 1500s, but didn’t establish themselves as a permanent force until 1768, when the Naval Base at San Blas was established. The first Mission was established in San Diego the following year.

The Missions served two purposes: to Christianize the native population and teach them enough Spanish to allow communication. This is controversial, as Spanish and Catholic cultures are vastly different from the life enjoyed by the California native population. Native Americans who did convert or align themselves with the Church were expected to provide labor to support the Mission. They were provided with an education organized and run by Spanish Catholic monks, and were offered some protection. In exchange they farmed the land, cooked the food, cleaned the buildings, built the buildings, maintained the buildings, and helped convert more natives. Many see this as slavery in every way except name.

Missions in California were originally organized and run by the Franciscans. Today, many are still active Catholic churches and hold regular worship services.


Any trip to see these beautiful, historic, and controversial places will include a stunning scenery along the coast.

Bonus: for parents of fourth graders in California, Missions are a central focus of the study of California history. Go to an actual mission, and base your child’s project on their real life experiences! For homeschoolers, this is a cool extended road trip to explore pre-US history and discuss human ethics.

My first stop would be Mission San Diego de Alacá. This is the original mission, although it is not at the original location. In the late 1700s, the mission was moved several miles inland, and was first located closer to the ocean. The stark white church and outbuildings surround a beautiful courtyard that features an archeological dig, and a small area that shows how Native Americans lived at the time the Mission was active.

Just up the coast in Oceanside is Mission San Luis Rey. Located near the ocean, and off of a highway, this is an easy location to visit. At my last visit, some portions of the Mission were being renovated due to earthquake damage. They have a beautiful garden that allows visitors to see what might have been grown during Spanish colonial rule.

unnamed-1In 1776, while other Americans were fighting the Revolutionary War, the seventh California Mission was founded in San Juan Capistrano. This Mission was also moved to its present location several years after the founding.

As you continue up the coast, Missions are located at fairly regular intervals that mirror almost exactly history routes 1 and 101. The Missions hug the coastline, providing easy access for resupply, communication with Spain or colonial authorities, and access to fresh water. There are no Missions located very far inland, as California transitions from rolling coastal hills to mountains and then deserts very quickly, especially in Southern California.


Missions continued to be founded up until 1823, and were then slowly taken under the control of the newly independent Mexican government. In all, 21 Missions were founded by the Franciscans between 1769 and 1823.  As California became part of the United States in the mid-1800s, Missions were returned to the Catholic Church.

Today, a trip to see any Mission, or some of the Missions, or all of the Missions are a trip back into time and a chance to see the intersection between religion, politics, and native populations. A chance to examine how Europeans influenced the growth of our country, and how those influences are still felt today. And an opportunity examine what might have been differently without the Missions.

Note: These are heavy on religion and religious history, but do not aim to convert visitors to Catholicism or Christianity. The Missions mainly aim to inform, educate, and illuminate early California history.

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Marguerite Flanagan has a background in education with degrees in special education, elementary education and history. Her love of learning along with experience in the classroom makes her passion about education shine! She is a military spouse and moves a lot which gives her lots of opportunities to meet new people and explore the world. Find out more about her educational consulting services at MilKids Education Consulting.

Happy Educational Travels,

Natalie, The Educational Tourist




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2 Responses

  1. samantha says:

    I love visiting the missions, they are so beautiful! We used to visit them when I was a little girl. I can’t wait until my kids are working on their mission projects for school so I can take them too.

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