Mission Improbable

Having been thoroughly humiliated by repeated failures to colonize Baja, the Spanish crown felt it was time to bring in the army - of God, that is. The first Jesuit foray into the peninsula came in 1683 when Isidro de Atondo y Antillon crossed the Sea of Cortez with Jesuit priest Eusebio Kino. Together they established a settlement at La Paz, which was soon abandoned because of hostile native inhabitants.

It would take another 14 years before a Jesuit priest named Juan Maria Salvatierra and six soldiers finally managed to do what had eluded countless explorers for a century and a half: establish the first permanent Spanish settlement in Baja California. Loreto, where they set up the first mission (p177), soon became the peninsula's religious and administrative capital. From here, other Jesuits swarmed out to establish a total of 23 missions over the next 70 years.

The Jesuits may have meant well in converting the peninsula's indigenous inhabitants to Christianity and in instructing them in farming techniques and various crafts, but their altruistic intentions backfired. Along with God, grapes and greener pastures, the missionaries also brought an invisible evil -European microbes to which native peoples had no natural defenses. Epi-Loreto, in Baja California demics decimated the indigenous population and several revolts against Sur, was the first capital missionization caused further loss of life. By the end of the Jesuit period of the Californias. (1767), the indigenous population had dwindled to only about 8000.

Then a decision was made halfway around the world that doomed the Jesuits for good. As word spread that the Jesuit Order had accumulated inordinate power and wealth, King Carlos III of Spain had all Jesuits arrested and expelled from their missionary postings around the world, and the Baja Jesuits were subsequently deported back to Spain.

Harry Crosby's robust Antigua California is a well-written, engaging and comprehensive history of early colonial times (1697-1768), with considerable focus on the Jesuits.

1767_

King Carlos III of Spain expels all Jesuits from their missionary postings around the world; Baja's Jesuits forced to leave

1821_

Mexico wins independence from Spain

In their stead came another order - the Franciscans - under the authority of Padre Junípero Serra, who closed or consolidated several of the Jesuit missions before turning his energies toward mainland California.

In 1773 another order, the Dominicans, got into the mission game, setting up nine new missions north of El Rosario (p121). They also continued to operate the former Jesuit missions until after Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821. Three years later, Baja California became a federal territory, headed by a governor. In 1832 a newly appointed governor put an end to the mission system by converting nearly all of them into parish churches.

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