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The Destruction of the California Missions Begins: January 6, 1831

This text comes from our book, Lands of Hope and Promise: A History of North America.


When Governor Echeandía ignored Monterey and set up his government at San Diego, he created a good deal of ill will in the north of California and awakened latent rivalries between the south and the north. But the governor proved he could unite the interests of the leaders of both parts of Alta California when, in July 1830, he lay before the diputación [legislature] a plan to secularize the missions. 


California and Mexico in 1827

Echeandía proposed that, beginning with the missions nearest the presidios, the government should take control of the temporalities (lands and anything having to do with economic production) from the missionaries and deliver them to salaried officials. The friars would function essentially as parish priests, or they could depart to establish new missions in the interior. The neophytes would be granted a share in the mission lands. The plan, which would basically hand control of the neophytes and their lands over to a small group of Californios who had long wanted to seize the missions to exploit them, was approved by the diputación and then sent to Mexico City for approval.

Anastasio Bustamante

One flaw in Echeandía’s plan was that, earlier the same year, March 8, 1830, President Anastasio Bustamante had appointed Colonel Manuel Victoria the new governor of Alta California. Victoria, however, did not arrive in San Diego until late November or early December — and when he did, he discovered, to his chagrin, that Echeandía was not there to hand over the office to him. Traveling north, Victoria entered Santa Barbara — but still no Echeandía. What Victoria did discover — and provoked his wrath — was a decree Echeandía issued from Monterey on January 6, 1831 (a month after he knew Victoria had arrived), ordering the secularization of the missions.


Victoria proceeded north again and came to Monterey, where on January 31 he took the oath of office as governor. The next day, he suspended Echeandía’s secularization decree as opposed to the will of President Bustamante and the supreme government. Victoria then worked to establish California’s government on a sound basis — at least in the opinion of Bustamante’s conservative government. He suspended the diputación, saying its members had not been elected legally, and ordered several executions of persons convicted of serious crimes. For these measures — but primarily for countermanding the decree of secularization —Victoria earned the ill-will of such prominent and Liberal Californios as the northerners Mariano Vallejo, José Sanchez, Juan Bautista Alvarado, and José Castro; and the southerners, Pío Pico of Los Angeles, his brother-in-law, Juan Antonio Carrillo, and Juan Bandini of San Diego. Victoria hadn’t been in office a year when the southerners, including Echeandía, rose in rebellion against him. Though the governor’s forces routed the rebels, Victoria himself was wounded. Before returning to Mexico, Victoria made over the governorship to Echeandía.


Pío Pico in 1857

With Victoria’s departure, Pío Pico of Los Angeles, as senior member of the diputación, claimed the governorship. But northerners did not not want a southerner to rule them; they named as governor Agustín Vicente Zamorano, who established himself at Monterey. Further south, Echeandía also refused to recognize Pico and continued to rule in San Diego. So, until 1833, with the arrival from Mexico of Brevet Brig. General José Figueroa, California had three governors — one at San Diego, another at Los Angeles, and the third at Monterey.


Figueroa came to California with several Franciscan friars belonging to the missionary College of Zacatecas; it would be their task to take over the government of the northern missions, while the southern mission remained under direction of the aging Fernandinos. The new governor was also given the task, by order of Gómez Fariás’ government, to secularize the missions; but when he presented the law to the California diputación, that body ruled that the governor had no authority to execute the law.


The problem with this law for the diputación, it seems, was that it would not allow prominent Californios to benefit from the breaking up of the missions, for it would merely turn them into pueblos and divide the lands among the neophytes. A plan proffered by Figueroa on August 2, 1833 was more to the diputación's liking. This plan, which would divide mission lands among the neophytes, did not entrust control of the lands to them but handed it over to mayordomo administrators. That these administrators were either members of the diputación or their close associates and kindred was not surprising. The control of the temporalities of ten out of the 19 missions thus passed from the hands of the friars to the likes of Pío Pico, Carlos Carrillo, Juan Bandini, and Mariano Vallejo.

Fray Francisco García Diego y Moreno, one of the Zacatecan missionaries who came to California with Governor Figueroa and later the first bishop of Alta California

It has often been said that the Mexican government was at fault for the destruction of California’s missions — yet, in November 1835, the new Mexican governor of California, Mariano Chico, informed the California legislature that the Mexican congress, in response to the threat of the loss of divine worship in California, suspended the earlier federal secularization decree and thus basically nullified Figueroa’s 1834 secularization, handing the mission temporalities back to the friars. This decree the legislature ignored, as it did a letter to García Diego, one of the Zacatecan missionaries whom the Mexican government named the first bishop of Baja and Alta California in September 1836. In this letter, the Mexican secretary of the interior reiterated that the government had suspended secularization and returned the missions to the friars.

In a letter dated September 25, 1837, Fray Narciso Durán of Mission Santa Barbara, expressed his opinion that Figueroa had acted “contrary to his own judgment” in putting forward his secularization plan; but, said Fray Narciso, the diputación threatened to rebel if the “pusillanimous” governor went against their wishes. Then the friar, who had worked in the missions for 31 years, made a dire prediction for Mexican California. He wrote:


Mission Santa Barbara in 1898

“How must not such enormous wrongs cry to Heaven for vengeance? And how can this land escape being, in time, the battlefield on which the chastisements of God may camp, who cannot remain deaf to the cries of the poor? Of God, in fine, who tells us through the royal prophet that faciet judicium inopis et vindictam pauperum?” [“He shall make judgment for the needy and vindicate the poor” — Psalm 139:13 (Vulgate).]


Lamentation for a Fallen City


In the centuries following the conquest of Tenochtitlán (Mexico City) by Hernán Cortés, Mexico’s musical compositions rivaled those of Europe. One of the great native Mexican composers was Manuel de Zumaya (ca. 1678-1755), chapel master of the cathedral in Mexico City and, later, in Oaxaca. Music of the caliber of Zumaya’s was performed by neophyte musicians and singers in the California missions. Here is a performance by Chanticleer of Zumaya’s 1717 work, Hieremiae Prophetae Lamentationes (“The Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah”).