Explore San Diego de Alcala, California’s First Mission

3 minutes read

Along the Pacific Coast, from San Diego to Sonoma, 21 Franciscans missions connected by El Camino Real (The King’s Highway/ The Royal Road) were established between 1769 and 1823. Let’s walk on the footsteps of the Spanish pioneers with the founding, development, and fate of the “Mother of the Missions”: Mission San Diego de Alcala.

A pinch of History

  • Padre Junipero Serra founded Mission San Diego de Alcala on July, 16th
  • Explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno renamed the area after a 15th-century saint, Didacus of Alcalá, known as San Diego.
  • “Mother of the Missions,” it was the 1st of the 21 Spanish missions. (nine of them were established by Padre Serra)
  • The Spanish King supplies the crown-topped bells of the missions.
  • In 2015, Pope Francis elevated Father Serra to Sainthood.

  1. Founding

The development of the missions in California started when King Carlos III ordered the conquest and expansion of the Spanish Crown. By 1768, Captain Gaspar de Portola led the sea and land expeditions referred to as “Sacred Expedition”. From New Spain (now Mexico), three ships sailed up the coast. Only San Carlos and San Antonio ships survived storm and scurvy. They dropped anchor in San Diego respectively in April and May 1769.


On July 15th, Portola continued his expedition north leaving behind half of the crew, ill and decimated. Soldiers, priests, sailors, and civilians remaining in San Diego established a presidio, a mission, and a hospital. On July 16th, on Presidio Hill, the 1st mission bell rang out in California. 


  1. Kumeyaay Indians

The principal objective was not only to settle and control land but also to convert to Christianity native people. At the time, Kumeyaay Indians lived in San Diego. The “missions Indians” were called “Dieguenos” (in reference to San Diego) by the Padres of the mission.


Relations between the Kumeyaay and the Franciscans were obviously tense at the beginning.   In 1773, Father Palou relocated the mission six miles inland in order to be closer to a Kumeyaay village and to prosper the mission thanks to fertile land and reliable source of water. However, on November 5th, 1775, the mission was attacked and destroyed. Father Jayme was killed and became the 1st Californian Christian martyr.

Ewaa, a typical hut used by the Kumeyaay


  1. Development

In 1776, a temporary church was rebuilt, replaced a few years later by a larger adobe church. The mission prospered with a growing population composed of civilians’ settlers and Native Americans. At its heyday, the mission possessed 50,000 acres of cultivated land, 20,000 sheep, 10,000 cattle and 1,000 horses.


The Padres attracted Native Americans offering food and clothing. They transformed their way of life instructing agriculture, carpentry, and blacksmithing. They also encouraged Catholic education and baptism. The conversion is estimated to be more than 6,600 Kumeyaay people. 


  1. Fate

After the 19th century, the mission felt into despair. Damaged by an earthquake in 1803, the mission lost his spiritual functions when the secularization law of 1830 expropriated the Church.  After years of abandon, the mission served as a US Calvary post from 1846-1862 until the Congress returned 22 acres to the Church. Restored and rebuilt in duplication of the original, the mission welcomes today pilgrims and visitors.



Which California mission is your favorite? Share in comments to join the discussion.


  • Location: 10818 San Diego Mission Road San Diego, CA 92108.
  • Hours: 9:00 am to 4:30 pm.
  • Cost: $5 for a guided tour
  • Duration: I spent 1 hour to discover it.
  • Parking on-site
  • More information available at https://www.missionsandiego.org/

If you enjoyed this post, please leave a comment and share with a traveler visiting San Diego.

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