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California Missions - San Juan Capistrano

( Originally Published Early 1922 )

On the tragic events at San Diego that led to the delay in the founding of San Juan Capistrano I have already fully dwelt. The Mission was founded by Serra, November 1, 1776, and the adobe church recently restored by the Landmarks Club is said to be the original church built at that time.

Troubles began here early, as at San Gabriel, owing to the immorality of the guards with the Indian women, and in one disturbance three Indians were killed and several wounded. In 1781 the padre feared another uprising, owing to incitements of the Colorado River Indians, who came here across the desert and sought to arouse the local Indians to revolt.

In 1787 Governor Fages reported that San Juan was in a thoroughly prosperous condition ; lands were fertile, ministers faithful and zealous, and natives well disposed. In 1800 the number of neophytes was 1046, horses and cattle 8500, while it had the vast number of 17000 sheep. Crops were 6300 bushels, and in 1797 the presidios of Santa Barbara and San Diego owed San Juan Mission over $6000 for supplies furnished. In 1794 two large adobe granaries with tile roofs, and forty houses for neophytes were built. In February, 1797, work was begun on the church, the remains of which are now to be seen. It is in the form of a Roman cross, ninety feet wide and a hundred and eighty feet long, and was planned by Fray Gorgonio. It was probably the finest of all the California Mission structures. Built of quarried stone, with arched roof of the same material and a lofty tower adorning its fachada, it justifies the remark that " it could not be duplicated to-day under $100,000."

The stone-work facings at San Juan Capistrano are more elaborate than at any other Mission. The few specimens illustrated show that the mason was a master crafts-man, and he was given every opportunity to display his skill. In the ruins of the altar are many pieces of exquisite work, especially in the two arched doorways leading into the sacristy. The stone-work is well carved. Both door-ways are now walled up. The window-frames are of stone, resting upon a three-membered sill. Above the frame is a similar three-membered detached cornice of stone. The master mason who did all this work was brought specially for the purpose from Culiacan, and under his direction the work slowly but steadily progressed for nine years.

The baptismal font and holy water receptacle were doubtless made here, and by the same artist that cut the stone for the building. It is scarcely to be assumed that such heavy objects as these stone baptismal fonts would be imported, when they could be manufactured on the ground much more easily.

A weaver, Mariano Mendoza, was sent down from Monterey to teach the Indians his art. This was in 1796. He was under contract to the government at thirty dollars a month, and the San Juan padre was instructed that if he neglected his work he was to be chained up at night. Soon the rattle and clatter of his rude loom was heard, and it was not long before many of the natives were making rude but serviceable cloth and blankets. In 1797, as a call was made for pay for his services, Mendoza was dismissed. The fact was his pupils had learned all he could teach.

The country was much agitated by fear of an English invasion in 1797, and, remembering that Vancouver had been there four years previously and had made careful observations, a sentinel was placed on the lookout at the beach to watch for suspicious vessels. Nothing alarming, however, appears to have been reported.

It must be remembered that little or no communication was permitted between the Californians and any foreign vessel which might appear on the coast. Spain was very jealous of her Pacific possessions. Trade was either forbidden or very much restricted. Yet, being between the sea-coast presidios of San Diego and Santa Barbara, it seemed impossible to prevent vessels from stopping at San Juan Capistrano. And if a padre needed something that the captain had, and the captain needed something that the padre had, what more natural than that the exchange should take place? purely as a friendly act, not as a matter of trade between people of different nationalities.

The carelessness of servants had an illustration here in March, 1801, when the storeroom was set on fire, and 2400 bushels of grain and six tons of tallow were lost, as well as considerable damage suffered by the other buildings.

The consecration of the beautiful new church took place, September 7, 1806. President Tapis was aided by padres from many Missions, and the scene was made gorgeous and brilliant by the presence of Governor Arrillaga and his staff, with many soldiers from San Diego and Santa Barbara. Large numbers of neophytes from other Missions were also permitted to be present at the rites, and it was one of the most elaborate and pretentious events in early Californian history. What congratulations and feastings indoors and out there must have been ; the visiting padres and the Governor and other officials being regaled with the best the Mission afforded, and the hordes of Indians crowding the rancherias outside, and, likewise, feasting on the abundance provided for them on so auspicious an occasion.

The following day another mass was said and sermon preached, and on the 9th the bones of Padre Vicente Fuster were transferred to their final resting-place within the altar of the new church. A solemn requiem mass was chanted, thus adding to the solemnity of the occasion.

This altar had nine niches for statuary, all well executed. The ceiling was groined, and the apse being six-sided, it allowed the erection of five beautiful connecting arches above. Three steps led up from the church to the altar.

The church itself originally had seven domes. Only two now remain. In the earthquake of 1812, when the tower fell, one of the domes was crushed, but the others remained fairly solid and intact until the sixties of the last century, when, with a zeal that outran all discretion, and that the fool-killer should have been permitted to restrain, they were blown up with gunpowder by mistaken friends who expected to rebuild the church with the same material, but never did so.

This earthquake of 1812 was felt almost the whole length of the Mission chain, and it did much damage. It was on Sunday morning, December 8. At San Juan a number of neophytes were at morning mass ; the day had opened with intense sultriness and heaviness ; the air was hot and seemed charged with electricity. Suddenly a shock was felt. All were alarmed, but, devoted to his high office, the padre began again the solemn words, when, suddenly, the second shock came and sent the great tower crashing down upon one of the domes or vaults, and in a moment the whole mass of masonry came down upon the congregation. Thirty-nine were buried in the next two days, and four were taken out of the ruins later. The officiating priest escaped, as by a miracle, through the sacristy.

After he had made his pledges to leave California, Bouchard, the South American revolutionist, stopped two days at San Juan, but as all the valuables and the families had been removed to Trabuco rancho he found little. Nor could he have taken it without a fight, as Ensign Arguello, with thirty soldiers from San Diego, was there for the purpose of preventing any such effort.

It was in 1814 that Padre Boscana, who had been serving at San Luis Rey, came to reside at San Juan Capistrano, where he wrote the interesting account of the Indians that is so often quoted. In 1812 its population gained its greatest figure, 1361.

In November, 1833, Figueroa secularized the Mission by organizing a " provisional pueblo " of the Indians, and claiming that the padres voluntarily gave up the temporalities. There is no record of any inventory, and what became of the church property is not known. Lands were apportioned to the Indians by Captain Portilla. The following year, most probably, all this provisional work of Figueroa's was undone, and the Mission was secularized in the ordinary way, but in 1838 the Indians begged for the pueblo organization again, and freedom from overseers, whether lay or clerical. In 1840 Padre Zalvidea was instructed to emancipate them from Mission rule as speedily as possible. Janssens was appointed majordomo, and he reported that he zealously worked for the benefit of the Mission, repairing broken fences and ditches, bringing back runaway neophytes, clothing them and caring for the stock. But orders soon began to come in for the delivery of cattle and horses, applications rapidly came in for grants of the Mission ranches, and about the middle of June, 1841, the lands were divided among the ex-neophytes, about 100 in number, and some forty whites. At the end of July regulations were published for the foundation of the pueblo, and Don Juan Bandini soon thereafter went to supervise the work. He remained until March, 1842, in charge of the community property, and then left about half a dozen white families and twenty or more ex-neophytes duly organized as a pueblo.

In 1843 San Juan was one of the Missions the temporalities of which were to be restored to the padres, provided they paid one-eighth of all produce into the public treasury. In 1844 it was reported that San Juan had no minister, and all its neophytes were scattered. In 1845 Pico's decree was published, stating that it was to be considered a pueblo ; the church, curate's house, and courthouse should be reserved, and the rest of the property sold at auction for the payment of debts and the support of public worship. In December of that year the ex-Mission buildings and gardens were sold to Forster and McKinley for $710, the former of whom retained possession for many years. In 1846 the pueblo was reported as possessing a population of 113 souls.

Of the present appearance of San Juan I have written in the chapter on architecture, and especially of its preservation in the chapter on the work of the Landmarks Club.

Twenty years ago there used to be one of the best of the Mission libraries at San Juan. The books were all in old-style leather, sheepskin and parchment bindings, some of them tied with leathern thongs, and a few having heavy home-made metal clasps. They were all in Latin or Spanish, and were well known books of divinity. The first page of the record of marriages was written and signed by Junipero Serra.

There are still several interesting relics ; among others, two instruments, doubtless Indian-made, used during the Easter services. One is a board studded with handle-like irons, which, when moved rapidly from side to side, makes a hideous noise. Another is a three-cornered box, on which are similar irons, and in this a loose stone is rattled. In the service called " las tinieblas," the utter darkness, expressive of the darkness after the crucifixion, when the church is absolutely without light, the appalling effect of these noises, heightened by the clanking of chains, is indescribable.

In proof of the tireless industry of the priests and Indians of their charge, there are to be found at San Juan many ruins of the aqueducts, or flumes, some of brick, others of wood, supported across ravines, which conveyed the water needed to irrigate the eighty acres of orchard, vineyard, and garden that used to be surrounded by an adobe wall. Reservoirs, cisterns, and zanjas of brick, stone, and cement are seen here and there, and several remnants of the masonry aqueducts are still found in the village.